Johnny Depp, so often described as androgynously beautiful, is really more like a male cat, a creature so sure of himself that his more masculine traits aren’t the first things you notice about him. You can see it in the way he underplays every role. Sometimes you look at him and you think he’s not doing much at all; then you realize that what he’s doing is so economical and so understated that you can’t afford to take your eyes off him for an instant. He wastes no line, expression or arc of movement. Like those ancient inky creatures painted on Japanese scrolls with just two or three strokes, he’s both the suggestion and the essence of feline masculinity, all implied muscle and Zen intelligence.
It takes that kind of muted confidence to forge a career the way Depp has. In the late '80s, after a few tiny film roles, he emerged seemingly out of nowhere to become a teenage heartthrob on the TV series 21 Jump Street, the kind of taint that some actors, no matter how talented they are, never recover from. Forget the fact that TV actors are so often viewed (wrongly) as movie actors' less significant second-cousins; when you're as good-looking as Depp, it's a given that you're going to be written off as nothing more than a pretty face. It's the most unoriginal charge that critics and audiences can level at an actor, and yet particularly in Depp's case, it was intoned in the press as if it were an unassailable fact determined by a team of brilliant research scientists. No one had much faith that Depp could develop into anything special. While the press busied itself with preconceived notions of the type of actor Depp was and always would be, no one saw that he was ready to pounce.
As it's turned out, Depp has been an amazingly prolific actor (he's appeared in nearly two dozen movies since his two 1990 starring roles, in Tim Burton's Edward Scissorhands and in John Waters' Cry-Baby). Even more so than many of his peers, Depp has gone out of his way to work with bright, often idiosyncratic, directors, among them Burton, Roman Polanski, Jim Jarmusch and Terry Gilliam. But more to the point, there's no stock Johnny Depp role. His most recent performance, as a kingpin cocaine runner in Ted Demme's Blow, is unlike any other he's played: His character wins us over early on, making us a party to his voracious, youthful enjoyment of the glamour and excess that come with his profession. But without turning the performance into a dumb cautionary lesson, Depp also shows us a vision of that character years later, at a time when regret, as if denied entrance to his fun-loving soul, has instead settled around his midriff in a lazy, middle-aged paunch. The prosthetic puffiness is just an effect; Depp carries all his weight in his eyes.
That performance is a world apart from another starring role, Depp's portrayal of Hunter S. Thompson in Terry Gilliam’s outlandishly enjoyable 1998 Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Depp seemed an unlikely choice to play Thompson: He's too beautiful, too urbane, too sane. But it's a remarkable characterization, a pure and perfect example of how a stylized performance can cut to the heart of a character without coming off as merely twitchy or gimmicky. Depp plays Thompson as a hipster special-needs child, as entranced by drugs as a kid might be with his first set of finger paints. His hands and arms move strangely, gracefully, exotically, as if they don't belong in any real-life setting, or to any real-life human being—they're like the multiple golden arms of an ancient Shiva statue brought to life in a Ray Harryhausen movie. Depp's bowlegged waddle seems borrowed half from Chaplin and half from Burgess Meredith's Penguin; his undulating line delivery recalls the old black-and-white Popeye cartoons (you could make out only parts of the sailor man's patter, and the legend is that the parts you couldn't make out were filthy). Depp's Thompson is perfectly magnified through a cartoon filter. When you think about it, it's probably the only way to make a larger-than-life figure like Thompson feel real.
Just who is this Depp creature? The press has found his personal life endlessly fascinating, but he's not the sort of figure to whom Hollywood dirt sticks very well. His girlfriends, most notably Winona Ryder and Kate Moss, have been fairly long-term; he's currently settled down with French pop singer and actress Vanessa Paradis, with whom he has one child and another on the way. Aside from an occasional youthful temper tantrum, and his affiliation with the infamous Viper Room club in Los Angeles, Depp hasn't given the gossips much fodder, which may explain why even people who don't care much for Hollywood blather are usually at least a little bit intrigued by his personal life. He's just so lovely to look at: I enjoy coming across the occasional magazine picture of Depp and Paradis, the two of them willowy and radiant, sufficiently star-like but without a drop of haughtiness or pretension.
It's just a guess, but I'd hazard that Depp works too much, and too hard, to have time to be full of himself. (When I compare his attitude and work ethic to that of another extraordinarily talented young actor, Leonardo DiCaprio, I have to wonder if it's mostly DiCaprio's arrogance that's held him back from giving a truly great performance in years; I desperately hope he comes back.) Depp is one of those actors who tends to work just below the popular radar: In his recent review of Blow, New Yorker critic David Denby lauded Depp, even as he lamented that he's never quite broken through. But I'd argue that Depp has broken through again and again, so many times that it's hard to pinpoint one definable pinnacle of glory. His subtlety is his strong suit. His star power isn't the same brand that Julia Roberts has; there's no false flashiness to him. He'll never be the flavor of the month, because there's no month big enough to hold him.
For that reason, it's impossible to trace a logical thread from his earliest performances to his most recent, other than the fact that he's chosen his projects carefully, making very few bad movies. You can say he's grown and matured as an actor (no serious actor can age without changing), but from his earliest performances, he showed a depth beyond his years. In Edward Scissorhands, as a sensitive, fragile Frankenboy with scissors for hands, his stark white makeup and perpetually startled-looking eyes gave him the look of a silent-screen matinee idol; the image was like a gentle, sideways poke at his recently shed reputation as a teenage heartthrob. His Edward was childlike and vulnerable, but also gothically handsome, just a step away from manhood. The role leaves a mournful aura behind it; it's hard to shake memories of Depp's innocently sensuous face counterbalanced with the lethal sharpness of his hands.
Throughout the '90s, Depp proved himself to be something of a Teflon actor, turning in terrific performances in both good movies (like Lasse Hallström's 1993 What’s Eating Gilbert Grape,which co-starred Leonardo DiCaprio) and lousy ones (like Jeremiah Chechik's Benny & Joon, released in the same year, which gave Depp the chance to show off his gift for graceful, physical humor).
In 1997 Depp took a turn at directing with The Brave, featuring a cameo by Marlon Brando, which has never been released in the United States. (Chicago Reader critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, who saw the movie at Cannes in 1999, called it "muddled and naive but touching.") Also in that year, Depp starred as an undercover FBI agent opposite Al Pacino's low-level mobster in Mike Newell's Donnie Brasco, a performance that put Depp's particular brand of understatement through some new paces. His character becomes more and more at home in his work life, settling into his role as a fake Mafioso and almost surrogate son to Pacino; meanwhile, back at home in his real life, his marriage is unraveling. Depp negotiates the character's angles beautifully, without softening or sentimentalizing him. The performance has a grown-up richness to it, marked by a certain type of maturity that's anything but staid or boring.
Depp only rarely strikes a sour note. Despite the fact that he and director Tim Burton normally have an exceptional rapport, Depp's portrayal of the title character in Tim Burton's 1994 Ed Wood is probably my least favorite of his performances; its manic vibrations feel gimmicky and out of step with Depp's instinctively laid-back energy. But time and again, I've marveled at what he's done with small roles and big ones: In 1999, he gave us a schoolboy-nervous Ichabod Crane in Burton's lush, moody Sleepy Hollow—the sound of Ichabod quaking in his boots never drowned out the poetry in his soul. The same year, he played a rare-book dealer in Roman Polanski's wickedly cloven-hoofed thriller The Ninth Gate; he shaped his character into a sexy, bookish scoundrel who wasn't above being seduced by devil girls.
Even Depp's smaller, perhaps less-significant, roles resonate: In 2000 he played Juliette Binoche's Irish-gypsy lover in Chocolat. And in Julian Schnabel's astonishing Before Night Falls, he stood out in small dual roles, one as a Cuban prison official with the hots for Castro, the other as a haughtily gorgeous cross-dressing seductress.
But my favorite Depp performance is also, I think, his oddest one. I've seen Jim Jarmusch's 1995 Dead Man twice, and I still can't unravel the mystery of Depp's portrayal of an unintentional Wild West outlaw named William (Bill) Blake. But then, some mysteries are meant to last for a lifetime of viewing.
Jarmusch's use of black-and-white suits not only the story's late 19th century setting but also the very contours of Depp's face. It enhances the refined elegance of his cheekbones, but those blacks, whites and grays also seem to deepen and intensify as Depp reveals more and more layers to Blake's character. At the beginning, as a mild-mannered fellow who's blown into a lawless town to take an accountant's job that's been promised to him, he's like a faded daguerreotype in motion, a figure you can't quite get a grip on.
But before long, he's managed to kill a man. On the run, with a bullet lodged in his chest, Blake hooks up with an eloquent, hyper-educated Native American (Gary Farmer), who mistakes him for the great poet. Having decided his new friend is William Blake, he couldn't be less interested in the truth: It's inconsequential to him, a mere footnote. But he does foresee Blake's troubled fate. Blake begins dying in the first 20 minutes of the movie, but instead of sapping the life out of him, those first steps toward death electrify him. His character, formerly a watery version of a self, becomes intense, magnified, vibrant. The closer he moves toward death, the more fearless and pure of spirit he becomes. He dons a dead man's bearskin coat; he paints a mournful warrior stripe on his forehead with a murdered fawn's blood. His transformation is hardly peaceful: It's a metaphor for the roots of our wild America, a place that, for all its alleged refinement, has spilled more than its share of literal and figurative blood.
But Depp's Blake himself isn't a metaphor: He's a person. Depp plays Blake with the ferociousness of a wildflower. Even in the character's early, recessive gentleness, there's an undercurrent of fierce vitality waiting to rush out, and before long it's running like a silent geyser. When two marshals confront him, recognizing his face from a wanted poster, one of them demands to know, "Are you William Blake?" Blake counters with his own demand in the form of a calm question, before shooting first one lawman, then the other.
"Yes, I am. Do you know my poetry?" The shots that follow, one after the other, read like a shout. But the rough apology that almost imperceptibly darkens Depp's face is a fragile couplet. It's poetry with the words rubbed out, because sometimes, words just won't do—unless, like Depp, you're able to write them in invisible ink.