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Johnny Depp: As Unpredictable as His Roles

by Marjorie Rosen
May 1998

Here are a few things you should know about Johnny Depp. He may be a gossip columnist’s dream—what with his parade of fiancées, series of hotel-room trashings, and scads of tattoos—but he is a good son and a loyal brother. Depp loved his mother enough to buy her a $300,000 house not far from his own in Los Angeles. He loved his brother enough to hand him a ready-made career by hiring him to co-write a screenplay. And he loved his sister, Christie Dembowski, enough to sign her on as his manager. [Editor’s Note: Johnny sister spells her name Christi Dembrowski, and she is now the president of Infinitum Nihil, Johnny’s production company.]

Good boy.

Still, if you called him a provocateur, you’d be on the mark. The truth is, Johnny Depp, former teen idol turned cinema artiste, loves to go against the grain. Take the subject of smoking. During one recent interview, he inhaled a pack of Marlboros in two hours, but far from expressing a desire to kick the habit of apologizing for his second-hand smoke, he told the surprised reporter, “I want to have another mouth grafted on so I can smoke more. Instead of three packs a day, I want to smoke six.”

Or take another well-known part of the Depp mystique: His eight tattoos and the series of cuts he has inflicted on his arm to mark momentous occasions. (“My body is my journal. It’s a journal of skin,” he has repeatedly claimed.) Then there’s his great friendship with another famous provocateur, Marlon Brando; his bug collection; and his paintings of scary clowns (he used to own one by mass murderer John Wayne Gacy).

Naughty boy.

In the end, though, Depp rebels with such wicked good humor that you’ve got to like the guy. When asked recently what real-life characters he longs to play, Depp cited Le Petomane, a turn-of-the-century Parisian cabaret performer who boasted a unique talent—he tooted grand opera from his anus. “You have to admire anyone with such control of his . . . instrument,” Depp explained to Playboy. “What a hysterical scene when he discovers his gift. That’s a role I’d do in a minute.”

By comparison, Depp’s latest movie, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, which opens this month, seems positively mainstream. He stars as one of the great rebels of modern journalism—the booze-guzzling, acid-dropping antiestablishment Rolling Stone chronicler, Dr. Hunter S. Thompson. For Depp, Thompson’s in-your-face character is a real departure from the gallery of ephemeral oddballs and sweet misfits he has already claimed as his own. Among the most dazzling of these are a schizophrenic who believes he’s the famed Latin lover in Don Juan DeMarco; a B-movie director and cross-dresser with a special feel for angora in Ed Wood; and an abandoned creature with cutlery fingers and a desperate need to fit into suburbia in Edward Scissorhands. Even Donnie Brasco, last year’s more conventional star turn, showcased Depp as Joe Pistone, an FBI agent who spent years undercover to infiltrate the mob, only to end up fitting in nowhere.

Clearly, Depp’s attraction to outsiders stems from his own sense of exclusion from the mainstream. “I don’t feel part of anything. I don’t feel I can fit in with the whole shebang,” he once admitted to Cosmopolitan. The way Depp tells it, “the Tom Cruise thing,” or megastardom, holds no appeal for him. He passed up offers to earn big bucks as Lestat in Interview with the Vampire (a part that eventually went to Cruise) and as the male lead in Speed, in favor of mincing around in high heels and sweater sets as Ed Wood. “I’m not Blockbuster Boy,” he told Vanity Fair last year. “I never wanted to be.” He insists he would never do commercial projects to bankroll riskier ones. “I would feel untrue to myself, untrue to the people who appreciate the choices I’ve made,” he explained. “For me, the career thing has to be a little purer, more organic.”

All this from a guy who became an actor by accident. John Christopher Depp II was born in Owensboro, Kentucky, on June 9, 1963, the youngest of four children of Betty Sue, a waitress, and John, a city engineer. During his early years his family moved so often that he has said, “I don’t even have a mental picture of the house we lived in, because there were so many. We were like gypsies.” When he was six, the family moved to Miramar, Florida, where Johnny, his two sisters, brother D. P., and both parents lived in a motel for a year until John Sr. could secure a job. Unfortunately, Johnny’s parents’ relationship grew ever more cantankerous, and when he was ten they split up. From then on, Johnny was forced to pick up child-support payments from his father every week. [Editor’s Note: This information does not match other sources; Johnny has told many interviewers that his parents split up when he was 15.]

Music became his salvation during those unhappy years. Depp recalls spending much of his adolescence locked in his room, playing his guitar. He also managed to sneak out of the house long enough to take up smoking at age 12, lose his virginity a year later, and, as he once admitted, do “every kind of drug there was by 14.”

He was also prone to flout authority. Suspended at least once for “mooning” a teacher, Depp dropped out of high school at age 16 and pumped gas for a living. Still, he knew where he was going. “From the age of 12, all the arrows were pointing to music,” he told Newsday. Before leaving school, he put together a punk-rock band called kids, and in 1983 the group moved to Los Angeles, hoping to hit the big time.

By then, the 20-year-old Depp had married Lori Allison, a Florida makeup artist five years his senior, and she came along to L.A. with the band. Although the union lasted only two years, it was Allison who indirectly steered Depp toward acting. One of her friends happened to be Nicolas Cage, and when Depp needed cash, Cage suggested that the striking young musician meet his agent. The agent set up an audition for a small role in the original A Nightmare on Elm Street and Depp got the part.

Success reached out and anointed Johnny Depp almost before he could get his bearings as an actor. Just three years after Nightmare, Depp landed the role of Officer Tom Hanson in Fox’s hit series 21 Jump Street. The show, which ran until 1990, put Depp on the Hollywood map as a teen heartthrob. The fame, the hunk status, the legions of female fans sending him love letters and nude photos embarrassed him. “It’s demeaning when people talk about my looks. I think I usually look like shit, and most people would agree,” he complained.

Determined to shatter his heartthrob image, Depp made the first of many oddball career decisions. He accepted the lead role in Cry-Baby, an independent film by the witty, weird, and often-marginal director John Waters, known for such bizarre cult films as Hairspray and Pink Flamingos. “I told him if he did Cry-Baby, we’d kill that image,” Waters explained. “So he parodied himself by playing a teen idol, and it totally worked.”

Had Depp not been so utterly iconoclastic in his choice of roles, he might well have faded into obscurity along with a string of former TV and movie pretty boys, now fodder for Trivial Pursuit. However, Depp had the courage to choose well and—more important—the talent to pull off his choices brilliantly. Not only did he permanently destroy the public’s original perception of him, he earned respect in an industry where respect is hard to come by—and usually tied to money. Now when young actors take big risks in choosing roles, they say, “I’m doing a Johnny Depp.”

As for Depp’s method of acting, he claims it’s primarily intuitive. “I’ve read a lot of books, from Strasberg to Stanislavsky and, in my opinion, you just take what you need and you discard the rest.” Still, he does his homework. For Benny & Joon, where he played a circus performer [Editor’s Note: Not quite.], he watched Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton movies and studied with a mime. And for Edward Scissorhands, he wore his steel hands around the house, dialing his phone and picking up clothes with them. “I loved Edward,” he has said. “He was total honesty. Honesty is what matters, and I have an absurd fascination with it, whether it means being true to your girl, your work, or yourself.”

In fact, Depp’s love life has proven to be as unorthodox as his career. Since his youthful divorce, he has embraced serial monogamy, with one additional quirk—an apparent need to become engaged to each of his girlfriends, among them actresses Sherilyn Fenn, Jennifer Grey, and Winona Ryder. “There’s been nothing in my 27 years that’s comparable to the feeling I have with Winona,” he gushed to People around the time he got his famous “Winona Forever” tattoo. (After their breakup he had it changed to “Wino Forever.”) His most recent fiancée was superskinny supermodel Kate Moss, whom he met at New York City’s trendy Café Tabac. “I knew from the first moment we talked that we were going to be together,” Moss has said. True, but not forever. They broke up last summer and have been on and off ever since. [Editor’s Note: The month this article was published, May 1998, Johnny Depp re-met Vanessa Paradis in Paris while shooting The Ninth Gate.]

The actor’s romantic philosophy, like everything about him, is rife with contradictions. “I’m very true. Fidelity is important as long as it’s pure,” he said not long ago. “But the moment it goes against your insides—if you want to be somewhere else, if she wants to dabble—then you need to make a change. I’m not sure any human being is meant to be with one person forever and ever, amen.” Still, Depp himself suggested that his pattern of replicating “a classic fairy-tale love” with one paramour after another might be about trying to “solve the fear of abandonment we all have.”

Depp lives the same way he conducts his relationships—with intensity. He has abundantly chronicled his indulgences—too much liquor and coffee, too many cigarettes and parties. Then there’s the legendary Depp temper. Arguably, his most famous tantrum occurred in September 1994, when Depp allegedly trashed his suite at New York’s Mark Hotel in a dispute with Moss. He became enraged again when the Mark had him arrested on two counts of criminal mischief, which resulted in a $9.767.12 fine.

“The whole thing hasn’t hurt his career,” observed director John Waters, trying to make light of it. “Criminal movie star is a really good look for Johnny.”

Mr. Cool is another look he does well. Owning L. A.’s Viper Room, the “in” watering hole for Hollywood’s Gen Xers (and the club in front of which River Phoenix died of a drug overdose), gives Depp an aura of rebel leadership.

But the actor insists he is less interested in his social status in town than in the work itself. “It all starts with the screenplay, not the bottom line,” his longtime agent, Tracey Jacobs, explained to Time.

Ironically, Depp’s worst reviews were for The Brave, a cheapie about a desperate man forced to work in a snuff film, which he directed, starred in, and co-wrote with his brother D. P. Depp. After Variety dismissed the film as “turgid and unbelievable,” Depp quietly licked his wounds and told the press he only wanted to act for a while. “It’s a very privileged existence to shot for a few minutes and then go back to your trailer and make phone calls or whatever,” he said. After wrapping Fear and Loathing, he made those phone calls from his trailer on the set of the big-budget picture The Astronaut’s Wife and announced a deal to star in a movie directed by another controversial figure, Roman Polanski [Editor’s Note: The Ninth Gate].

Of course, in truth the man who repudiates Hollywood—its vapid parties, silly movies, and demeaning labels like “teen idol”—is ultimately one of the town’s most colorful characters. While Schwarzenegger, Hanks, and Gibson go home to their wives every night; while Slater and Downey Jr. are in lockup; while others dry out in the Betty Ford Center, Depp is embodying the fabulous rebel persona that we haven’t seen since the glory days of James Dean and Marlon Brando.

Like them, he makes good copy. And good movies.

The Best of Depp

The depth and breadth of Johnny Depp’s roles during his film career has been astonishing. The actor says that before he takes a part, he reads the script, thinks about the character he’s supposed to play, and asks himself which ingredients he could add to make it an irresistible dish. Here’s a list of films featuring his most savory creations:

Cry-Baby (1990): In this tongue-in-cheek parody of his own TV-heartthrob image, Depp plays Wade “Cry Baby” Walker, the toughest and coolest guy in high school. Depp took a chance with the outrageous comedy written and directed by John (Pink Flamingos) Waters and proved to audiences that he was more than a pretty face.

Edward Scissorhands (1990): Here, Depp portrays a bizarre and lonely man-made creature with metallic hands, longing for acceptance in his suburban neighborhood. The actor once observed that director Tim Burton chose him for the role because “[he] felt my looks were deceptive . . . I wasn’t what people thought.”

Benny & Joon (1993): To prepare for his role as an illiterate and virtually speechless circus performer with a fascination for Buster Keaton, Depp watched tapes of the brilliant silent comic and became a credible mime. The story revolves around Depp’s character’s touching romance with a young mentally ill woman played by Mary Stuart Masterson.

What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (1993): In this small but well-executed movie about a dysfunctional family, Depp plays the title character, a restless young man in a small town who is burdened by a 600-pound mother and a retarded brother (an impressive Leonardo DiCaprio).

Ed Wood (1994): Again, the former heartthrob scores, this time swathed in angora as the late B-movie director Edward D. Wood, Jr., who got a kick out of wearing women’s clothes and making schlock films like Plan 9 from Outer Space and Glen or Glenda.

Don Juan DeMarco (1995): In a surprisingly delicate performance, Depp plays a schizophrenic who relieves his angst by impersonating the world’s greatest lover. A tubby Marlon Brando costars as the wise psychiatrist who tries to help the young man and gets drawn into his obsession.

Donnie Brasco (1997): Depp is cool and tough as real-life FBI agent Joe Pistone, who went undercover for six years during the ‘70s to infiltrate a Mafia “family” and developed a deep filial bond with an aging, small-time Mafioso (Al Pacino).

-- donated by Part-Time Poet