Johnny Depp is on his best behavior. When he shows up at his publicist's L.A. home on a cool Sunday evening, he looks like a kid who's dressed up to meet his girlfriend's parents. He's wearing a dark blue sport coat, a grayish polo shirt, tan pin-striped trousers and black lace-up shoes. His famously long, tangled hair has been shorn into a '50s-style buzz cut. He is all charm. Depp is an enormously talented actor, so when he does charm, he does charm. He addresses women as “doll” and “sweetheart.” He rushes to light cigarettes and, when outside, checks frequently to make sure his companion is not catching a chill in the February night. Depp smokes frequently, but he condemns the vice as virulently as any anti-smoker. “It's a wretched, wretched habit,” he says. “It controls a person. It's so bad.” You're thinking: could this possibly be the worst sin he's ever committed against his body?
This is a new role for Depp: grown-up. And he has a good reason to play it. He has a grown-up movie opening Friday, Donnie Brasco, the story of an FBI agent who goes undercover in the mob, befriends an aging toughie (Al Pacino) and unexpectedly finds himself torn between the home and family he's left behind and the semiglamorous world of violence he's joined. Donnie Brasco is a departure for Depp, a step away from the gentle misfits, camp rebels, deranged paramours and cross-dressing B-movie legends he's played in films like Edward Scissorhands, Cry-Baby, Don Juan DeMarco, and Ed Wood. And so Depp, 33, seems ready to collect a little respect. Thus the haircut: “I just got tired of doing this,” he explains, wrestling a pretend mop out of his eyes. And the clothes: “I was trying not to be what people expect—that grungy, sloppy thing people always accuse me of.” In fact, he seems to be taking this meeting as an opportunity to spruce up his image. “It's really odd,” he begins, somewhat tentatively. “People perceive me as some hotel-wrecking, drug-addled . . . fiend. I'm not remotely close to that. Not slightly.”
It's a brilliant performance—especially from someone who's admitted taking drugs (as a teenager) and who was arrested in 1994 for trashing a fancy New York hotel room (the charges were dropped when he agreed to pay damages). The fact is, Depp hasn't become one of the best actors of his generation—even one of the finest in Hollywood—by playing nice, normal, aw-shucks guys-next-door. Peers like Brad Pitt and Keanu Reeves may have better track records at the box office, but Depp has one up on them: he doesn't make crummy movies. He takes chances, and he's created a body of work that actually makes sense when taken as a whole. The fractured fairy tale boy in Edward Scissorhands, the beleaguered family caretaker in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, even the morally estranged FBI agent in Donnie Brasco share a common bond: they're good-hearted people who find themselves unable to connect with the ones they love. Depp's directorial debut, The Brave, currently in postproduction, tackles similar themes: it's about a Native American ex-convict who gets approached to act in a snuff film. “This guy and his family are society's outcasts,” Depp says. “He's given an opportunity to make a lot of money, only he'll have to sacrifice his life.” He laughs dryly. "”t's the feel-good movie of '98.”
Ultimately, Depp's complications and contradictions—both onscreen and off—are the source of his allure. “He's a very polite, very gentle person in all sorts of ways,” says Mike Newell, who directed Donnie Brasco. “I also think he has a devil in him. Underneath this wistfulness, you feel a sanction of violence. So there's this terrific mental energy going into keeping these two mutually antagonistic things in balance. That's what keeps you coming back.”
It's something of a relief, then, when Depp's grown-up act starts to falter. He sits down on his publicist's terrace, and relaxes a bit. A few pale stars show through the exposed winter frame of an overhead trellis. Airplanes fly low in the sky. Unexpected things start to happen. A pungent odor wafts toward the terrace. “Skunk!” he says. A bug falls into a glass of water just as the reporter is about to drink it. “Is he dead?” Depp says with genuine concern—for the bug. The water is dumped on a flagstone, and Depp detects squirming. “It's alive!” he exults with a Frankenstein-like flourish. Depp loves bugs. He collects them, mounted old style with pins in glass boxes. (His favorite bug store is in Paris, where he goes sometimes with model Kate Moss, whom he calls “my girl.”) As a kid, Depp dug bugs. When he was 7, his family (an older brother and two older sisters) moved from Kentucky to Florida, where he encountered bugs and lizards beyond his imagination. “Chameleons!” he says. “I used to catch them and train them. I'd put them on my finger, and if they tried to move I'd flick 'em! I was sure I was going to be Lizard-Snake Expert guy.” A few years later his parents split up. Depp went nuts for a while, trying drugs and trying to escape. “Then my mom got very ill,” he says. What did she have? He pauses. “She had a broken heart.” Years later it would be one of the things his characters did best.
He moved to Hollywood to become a rock star, but his looks derailed him. He landed on the series 21 Jump Street and fled after three seasons. “The company was pushing out this assembly-line image,” he says. “Boom, there's Johnny Depp! Boom, this is Johnny Depp! It scared me to death.” What Depp wanted most was not to be Johnny Depp. So he hooked up with directors like Tim Burton, Emir Kusturica and Jim Jarmusch, and turned himself into a bunch of people he could be proud of.
That's what drives him. “I just don't want to look back in 30 or 40 or 50 years,” he says, “and have my grandkids say, 'You did a lot of stupid shit, Granddad. What an idiot you were, smiling for the cameras and playing the game.’” That's the audience he plays to: a very sharp, imaginary one, always watching inside his head.