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Heady times for Sleepy star Depp

By Cindy Pearlman
Chicago Sun-Times
November 14, 1999

NEW YORK—He has a good head on his shoulders.

Forget the tattoos and the trashed hotel room. Never mind the years of partying at the Viper Room.

Johnny Depp, at age 36, has only one no-brainer in his life: the headless horseman in Sleepy Hollow (opening Friday).

Depp has weathered his internal battles and wild child ways to land at a place where the only thing icky for the new Ichabod Crane is the goop his daughter, Lily-Rose Melody Depp, spews on him during midnight feedings.

A hunk with gunk on him? Depp wouldn't have it any other way. “My daughter is the only reason to take a breath. I can't understand what I was doing here before she was born,” says Depp, whose girlfriend, French singer Vanessa Paradis, gave birth last spring.

And now the actor who once made headlines for engagements to Jennifer Grey, Sherilyn Fenn, Winona Ryder and Kate Moss has found that the babes pale in comparison to just one babe. His life has been transformed. These days, when the owner of the famed Viper Room talks about mixing up a drink, he means formula. He changes diapers. His tears are not the painful byproduct of a new tattoo. (He still has several, including one that used to read “Winona forever,” for Ryder. Now it says, “Wino Forever.”)

Mention Lily-Rose and it's clear that Depp is in deep—infatuation, that is. His huge brown eyes well up into two puddles of tears.

Sheepishly he says, “Here is where I become every clichéd father in the universe, but I have never in my life thought it was possible to feel such a deep profound love and have such an incredible connection to this amazing little angel.”

Does this mean he has grown up? “Hey, I'm still not sure I'm an adult yet,” he cautions. But his good friend and Sleepy Hollow director Tim Burton says it's a done deal. “I've never seen Johnny so peaceful,” Burton says. “He is at a place where everything is really good in his life. It's like this calm has washed over him.”

So gone are the days of reckless mayhem, which Depp writes off as “a scientific experiment into human behavior.” Gone is the time he supposedly trashed a room at the swanky Mark Hotel here. Gone are shenanigans such as threatening London photographers with a piece of wood. Even the nightmare of River Phoenix overdosing outside his club is fading.

“My life is about clean living, a chateau in France where we live, and my baby,” he says.

And Hollywood? The man who played Ed Wood and Edward Scissorhands, among other oddballs, says, “I've built a career at being a failure. I'm always shocked when I get a job. It's not like my films are ever big at the box office.

“I'm a bit shocked when I get a job at a major studio,” Depp says. “You know there's a certain Top 10 list of young males in Hollywood. And I don't think anyone has fluctuated more than I have in terms of being on the list.

“My entire life has been, ‘Ooops! He's gone from the list. Wait! Oh my God, he's back on the list. Whoa! He's on the holding list. Stop! Should we knock off someone to put him back on? Nah. Let's see how the movie does this weekend.’”

In his new film, he has a right to feel a little antsy. Set in 1799, Depp steps into the Washington Irving classic to play Ichabod as a paranoid loner looking for an ax-wielding, headless monster. Depp scared studio execs with his original plans for old Ichabod.

 “I called everyone and said, `Listen, we should get a prosthetic and makeup team together. I'll wear the long nose and huge ears. We can do something with my hands to extend the fingers.

“And there was this long silence on the other end of the line. The upper echelon of Paramount wasn't very enthusiastic. I think they thought it was bad enough that they cast Johnny Depp, and now he isn't even going to look good.”

Depp says he almost didn't make it through the grueling shoot that took place in England. It wasn't the horseman but the horses that gave him a pain.

“I had an incident every single day on my horse Gunpowder, who was this vicious, horrible creature,” he remembers. “He had absolutely no respect for the acting process. For instance, he would purposely try to break wind during all the dramatic scenes. He tried to bite me. He tried to throw me. But I have keen survival instincts.”

Those came in handy during the filming of his upcoming supernatural thriller The Ninth Gate, directed by the legendary Roman Polanski.

“It was interesting working with Roman. He's out there,” says Depp, who plays a rare book dealer trying to search out demonic texts.

Depp hems and haws, leaving one to wonder if he has some reservations about the project. “You picked up on that, huh?” he says. “Damn it! No, listen, it was not an easy film to make just because Roman is pretty set in his ways. I mean, I love the guy. He's a really fascinating guy and highly intelligent. He's funny and cultured. He's just very set in his ways, and they're kind of rigid.”

After his experience with Polanski, Depp was ready to work with his friend Burton. He says the experience was “like an exorcism. It was like a cleansing. Listen, don't get me wrong, I do still like Roman very much.”

Burton's Sleepy Hollow fit in with Depp's plan to do more serious work.

His dream work? “They're not very commercial ideas. I'd love to do Rasputin.” He'd also like to star in a Howard Hughes or Liberace biopic—neither destined to be big weekend grossers. “I don't want to be Mr. Blockbuster,” he says. “It's the acting that interests me.”

Depp always has been interested in acting. The Kentucky native grew up in a blue-collar home to an engineer father and homemaker mother. His parents divorced when he was 15, and he moved to Florida with his mother. Eventually, Depp dropped out of high school to pursue his dream of becoming a rock star.

But after earning only $25 a gig with his band called Kids, he left Florida and moved to Los Angeles. He wound up selling pens over the phone.

His break happened when he met actor Nicolas Cage, who helped Depp get a role as a guy offed by a killer bed in A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), which led to a small part in Platoon. Next stop was teen hunkdom in the series 21 Jump Street, which he ditched because he hated being a boy toy.

That's why Depp later said “no thanks” to the Keanu Reeves role in Speed. He also passed on playing Lestat in Interview With the Vampire, letting the role go to Tom Cruise. He even junked the Brad Pitt role in Legends of the Fall. Instead Depp opted for John Waters' Cry-Baby and smaller films such as What's Eating Gilbert Grape, Edward Scissorhands and Ed Wood. Critics gushed about a stellar performance in 1997's Donnie Brasco; he was branded one of the most gifted actors of his generation.

That title was enough to make Depp skip town. He moved to France two years ago to get away from the hoopla of show biz. “It's an amazing life there,” he says. “Even the news is better. I mean, I turned on the TV this morning in New York and it's all about murders and killings. I turn on prime-time TV here and I saw this show called something like ‘The Most Frightening Car Chases With Human Carnage Ever.’ Give me a break.”

There are other perks to living abroad. “Vanessa and I don't have to deal with many things concerning celebrity, although the paparazzi always want to take a picture of us with our baby.”

Now Depp is upset. “I mean, do what you want with me, do what you want with Vanessa, but leave the kid alone.”

Recently, he says, “A hideous magazine over there put my daughter's face in the publication. I went to the moon. I sued them for other things. But when something like that happens, you go beyond the court system and you threaten them.”

Can Johnny be good and leave it alone? “I'm working on it, but it's rough,” he says. That means that, as in his new movie, heads could roll.

-- donated by Theresa

-- photos added by Zone editors