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Heeere's Johnny!

by Stephen Rebello
Biography Magazine
Fall 2004

Now, let me talk about JOHNNY DEPP. When did he become so cool? Has he always been that way or has he just grown into the part? I’m a big fan. That’s why I wasn’t at all upset when my staff suggested a feature on Mr. Depp. I love to watch his movies—anything from Don Juan DeMarco to Sleepy Hollow to Chocolat. And, I admit it—I’ve watched Pirates of the Caribbean half a dozen times. In addition to being a great actor, he’s not bad to look at either. ~ Paulette McLeod, Editor-in-Chief

His career has spanned 20 years; now the jury’s in: The guy can act. (He’s cool too.)

Johnny Depp doesn't merely march to a different drummer. It’s more like he ambles along while an entire inner orchestra plays some hip, idiosyncratic private soundtrack. Consider his typically off-the-menu approach to making the 2003 comedy adventure Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl. A film inspired by a Disneyland theme park ride sounded more like a marketing gambit than an actual film, but once Depp signed on to play the centerpiece role of 17th century swashbuckler Jack Sparrow, virtually every move he made appeared to push things out of the realm of Hollywood cookie-cutter land and into the intriguingly weird. Depp found his primary role model in Rolling Stone guitar man Keith Richards, whom the actor has called, “the coolest rock ‘n’ roll star of all time . . . hands down.”

But Disney executives got mighty nervous once they took a look at early footage of Depp doing his woozy, campy swagger and slurring his words while decked out in Carnaby Street finery accessorized with mascara-ed eyes and ratty, beaded hair.

As Depp described the hubbub his performance provoked in the studio executive suites: “I sat down with them when I got wind of it and said, ‘Look, you hired me to do this and you know the stuff I’ve done before, so you knew to some degree where I was going to go and you have to trust me. If you can’t trust me, you’re better off replacing me.’”

Happily, Depp didn’t get replaced. What’s more, his performance—one of the most enjoyably screwball high-wire acts in recent film history—won him his first Oscar nomination and helped turn the movie into a $305-million box office treasure chest—more than the combined total earnings of his last 11 movies. After 20 years on the job, Johnny Depp, called the best actor of his generation by no less than Marlon Brando and Al Pacino, is finally sitting pretty. About to be seen in theaters as Scots playwright J.M. Barrie in the poignant Finding Neverland and as 17th century poet and womanizer John Wilmot in the upcoming The Libertine, Depp is currently filming director Tim Burton’s screen version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory—playing Willy Wonka, of course. Early next year, he’ll return to the high seas in another Pirates of the Caribbean, for which he will reportedly earn considerably more than the $10 million he was paid for the maiden voyage. His dance card is crowded with enough film offers to last him through the decade. As Harvey Weinstein, head of Miramax Films, for whom Depp made Finding Neverland and Chocolat, recently said: “I think he’s been frozen out for years. I think he was looked at as too risky for a lot of the top stuff. A lot of people are going to be kissing his butt now. But what they don’t understand about Johnny is that he can smell b.s. a mile away. The same guys who, a year ago, were saying, ‘Him? Are you kidding? He’s box-office poison,’ now think he’s the hottest thing in the universe.”

The fact that Depp became the hottest thing in the universe by doing what he has always done—tossing out the Hollywood playbook—makes his achievement all the sweeter. Having once commented that he had “made a career out of commercial failure,” he explained his penchant for avoiding slam dunk films by saying, “I think being a movie star would get in the way of being an actor, which is why I don’t go in for big roles. But boy, is it hard turning down that money.”

He has looked like his own man ever since he hit Hollywood from Florida by way of Owensboro, Kentucky, where he was born on June 9, 1963, the youngest of four children, to a civil engineer and a waitress-homemaker—a family he has proudly described as “white trash” and “hillbillies.” Rocked by his parents’ divorce when he was 15, having already experimented with drugs, the teenaged Depp found solace in teaching himself to play the guitar his mother bought him. In the early 80’s, he moved to Hollywood with rock music aspirations, but when the garage band he played in tanked, he scrounged a living doing odd jobs like selling ballpoint pens by phone. At night, he crashed on friends’ couches. His luck turned when he married makeup artist Lori Allison, who introduced him to Nicolas Cage, who suggested that Depp try his hand at acting, (Depp and Allison divorced in 1985.)

Depp’s gravitas and androgynous good looks got him cast in A Nightmare on Elm Street, director Wes Craven’s 1984 slasher franchise industry-in–the-making. Then, at 24, he won the role of a teen narc on 21 Jump Street. Overnight, that hit TV series bought him three years as an adolescent magazine cover boy, an indignity that not only made him acutely uncomfortable but also, apparently, ornery. “He’s resisted packaging,” series creator Patrick Hasburgh has said. “In such a crowded field, who wants to be flavor of the month?”

Well aware of the short shelf life of teen idols, Depp fled 21 Jump Street as fast as he could but deliberately dodged movie projects that would have capitalized on his heartthrob status. He instead found salvation in working with iconoclastic directors. Shock maven John Waters helped him parody his latter-day Elvis and James Dean-style image in the 1990 movie Cry-Baby. But Depp truly put himself on the map that same year in Edward Scissorhands, Tim Burton’s Frankenstein-esque tale of a guy whose razor fingers brand him a freak. Landing that role over such contenders as Tom Cruise and Robert Downey Jr., he first sketched in the image of his screen persona as marginalized, misunderstood, mysterious, vulnerable. Director Burton, explaining it was a particular quality in Depp’s eyes that struck him, observed, “They look like he’s carried more years than he’s lived.”

Throughout the ‘90’s, while most of Hollywood’s young bucks went gunning for showboat roles in special-effects blockbusters, Depp pursued under-the-radar projects for which he won strong reviews—movies like Benny & Joon and What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. In 1997, he tried his hand at directing The Brave, in which he played an alcoholic downtrodden Native American (Depp himself is part Cherokee) so desperate to leave his family something of value, he sells himself to the makers of a snuff movie. Booed at the Cannes Film Festival, the film was largely relegated to video stores. Depp has called that filmmaking experience “the most difficult thing I’ve ever done and I was an idiot to attempt it.”

He found more creative satisfaction in reteaming with director Tim Burton, who cast him in Ed Wood, a twisted biopic about the eponymous fifties schlock director and cross-dresser (a Golden Globe-nominated performance), and again in the blood-spattered Sleepy Hollow as prissy detective Ichabod Crane. That film gave Depp one of his few financial successes to date. Had it not been for Burton, Depp said, he might have been “a loser, an outcast, just another piece of expendable Hollywood meat.”

He has also said that he’s “not a blockbuster boy. I never really think about my career as a whole. It’s not like it’s a big sculpture in progress and I know what shape it’s going to take. I just choose the roles I find interesting.”

Depp’s choices on screen in the ‘90’s marked him as a maverick in an industry full of me-too types. And then there was his off screen behavior. Calling himself “a romantic,” he proved it by getting engaged to Sherilyn Fenn, Jennifer Grey, Winona Ryder, then, later, having a volatile long-tern relationship with Kate Moss. But people paid more notice to the series of widely publicized events that branded him as a hell-raiser on a par with such classic Hollywood bad boys as Robert Mitchum. There were intriguing idiosyncrasies—his habit of registering at hotels under pseudonyms like “Mr. Stench,” his fondness for practical jokes having to do with bodily functions, his penchant for telling interviewers of his collection of dead insects preserved in Perspex, of returning from Peru with 24 piranhas (lacquered and stuffed) and a mummified bat.

There was also his love of vintage jazz and intense fascination with silent films, especially those of Buster Keaton, whose influence is seen in Depp’s performances in Edward Scissorhands and Benny & Joon. But darker tales abounded, too, typified by the 1993 drug overdose death of rising star River Phoenix on the sidewalk outside the Viper Room, the hip club adjacent to the Sunset Strip co-owned by Depp. In 1994, he famously trashed a New York City hotel suite after an argument with Kate Moss. “You have bad days. Some guys play golf, some guys smash hotel rooms,” he later told 20/20. In 1999, while in England for the production of Sleepy Hollow, he chased paparazzi outside a London restaurant brandishing a piece of wood and rapping one of them on the knuckles, earning four hours in a London jail. He later said for that incident, “the beauty, the poetry of the fear in their eyes, in these filthy little maggots’ faces was so worth it.”

The actor has never been one to downplay his dances with personal demons. And if those gremlins are still tantalizing and beguiling him, they appear to have calmed down with age. Of the decade leading up to his fateful and lasting 1998 encounter with French pop singer, actress, and model Vanessa Paradis, he has compared himself to “one of those wind-up toys for so many years, just going around and bumping into walls over and over.” Several years ago, he left America to live in Plan-de-la-Tour, France, where he bought the $2-million villa nestled in the hills above St. Tropez that he and Paradis have called home ever since. (They’ve considered themselves husband and wife from the start, but haven’t legalized their union.) Less than a year after they met, the couple welcomed Lily-Rose Melody; in 2002, Jack John Christopher Depp III was born. “It feels like the day Lily-Rose was born was, in a way, the day I was born,” he has said. “I feel that she gave both Vanessa and me life, like a fog lifted and suddenly we had clarity. It’s a very profound moment when you meet your reason to live.”

Even extolling the joys of parenthood, however, the actor, who last year was named People magazine’s “Sexiest Man Alive,” manages to avoid sounding domesticated and dull. “The best training you can have for toddlers is having spent a number of years hanging out with drunks,” he once commented. “Helping them walk, cleaning up their vomit, putting ice on their head when they fall and smack it on the table, the uncontrollable rage and tears and joy all in like, ten seconds.”

Recently, Depp reportedly bought an island in the Bahamas not far from Nassau called Little Hall’s Pond Cay, where he and Paradis and the kids will presumably spend some down time. These days, he’s sounding slightly more contemplative and circumspect, but still refreshingly edgy. (After all, this is the man whose underwear is said to have been snapped up at a charity auction by soccer megastar David Beckham, who idolizes him.) Asked about his life goals, he said, “You know, it might be nice to sort of drop off at some point and just go and write a book or paint. Or just kind of sit there and drool.”

How the veteran actor views the world—and others view him.
Edited by Diane Baroni

Oral History

Personal Take: “Describe myself?” We’d be here for a long time because I’m still trying to figure that one out.”

Fatal Attraction: “I was always sort of attracted to things on the darker side, I suppose. Especially when I was young.”

Bad boys: “The most common thing they try to label you with is ‘rebel’ or ‘bad boy’ or something—one of those horrible, silly names. And it’s just such a joke, you know. I mean, every young actor who comes along, they say, ‘oh, he’s a bad boy.’ How can you do that? It’s impossible to know a person just by looking at them.”

Why he made Cry-Baby for campy director John Waters: “It was important to me to do something as far away from Jump Street as I could, to be able to make fun of that image.”

Field of Depp

Squeezed in Scissorhands: “[Wearing the skintight costume] was like being . . . I guess, how it must feel to be handicapped. Everyone would open doors for you, and get you something to drink, and ask, ‘are you okay?”

Been there, done that: “I got offstage and went out the door and the paramedics were working on this young man. I didn’t know at the time it was River [Phoenix]. Not only wouldn’t the media let River rest, but they wouldn’t let his family rest.”

Family matters: “I was very excited by the possibility of playing a father [in Nick of Time]. It’s a universal thing to say ‘I would do anything for my family; I would die for my family.’ But to see a person who’s actually been put in this position of having to make a choice to do that is pretty fascinating.”

Turning point: “I started making decisions based on building something I’d be able to leave so that my kids and my grandkids could watch.”

Pirate Papa: “My daughter is absolutely convinced that I’m a pirate. It doesn’t register that Daddy’s an actor. ‘My dad’s a pirate.’”

Child’s play: “All you want to do is just spend time with your kids, so if you end up playing Barbies for 12 hours, okay, that’s cool. Why not?

He did it his way: “If it all goes away tomorrow, at least I can say I had a few years where there was no compromise.”

How Others See Him

Keira Knightley, Depp’s costar in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl: “Johnny Depp is one of the only actors around at the moment who is willing to take huge risks.”

David Brown, producer of Chocolat: “What you see on the screen is Johnny Depp. He’s iconoclastic, meaning he doesn’t take garbage from anybody.”

Martin Landau, Depp’s Ed Wood costar: “The choices he makes are wonderful, but I’m sure he drives his agents crazy.”

Wes Craven, director of A Nightmare on Elm Street: “When Johnny first came in, I thought, ‘I don’t know about this kid.’ First of all, he didn’t have any experience. There was something about him that was, I don’t know just totally different. My 13-year-old daughter happened to be there at the time; she was watching the casting session. She says, ‘Dad, Johnny Depp.’ I said, ‘Doesn’t he look kind of sickly? He’s kind of pale.’ She goes, ‘He’s dreamy.’ And I just looked at her and said, ‘Okay, cast Depp.’”

Christopher Heard, author of Depp: “Dan [Depp’s older brother] introduced him to the beat poets and beat writers like Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. It attracted him in a way that built the character of an eccentric, cool guy.”

Stephen J. Cannell, executive producer of 21 Jump Street: “He would have much preferred to be on something darker and edgier. I never thought Johnny saw how good it was because he really disdained the show. He made it pretty well known that he didn’t want to be on it. I remember once he came to the set dressed like Elton John. He had a powdered wig on and platform shoes.”

Martin Landau: “He felt like a product. He felt like a piece of meat. And he saw himself in teen magazines and he said, ‘you know, I don’t think Laurence Olivier started this way.”

Denise Di Novi, producer of Edward Scissorhands (also Ed Wood): “We had heard about Johnny from John Waters. He walked in and he had kind of scruffy clothes on and he was very shy. And I saw these eyes looking around, these big, gentle kind of doe eyes. And Tim [Burton] and I just looked at each other like, “That’s him.’”

Christopher Heard: “They [Depp, his parents and three siblings] moved from place to place, looking for better opportunities and a better life for the family. But in retrospect, it just drove a wedge into the family and made it more awkward, made tensions grow and simmer.”

David Brown: “He’s completely unimpressed by the usual accoutrements of stardom. You won’t see him in the Four Seasons bar, carrying on with a whole bunch of people. He’ll be with his pals. If he can find a pub, he’ll be there.”

Heidi Parker, editor-in-chief, Movieline: “Johnny knew that he didn’t want to live with ‘Winona Forever’ on his arm, so he had the ‘n’ and the ‘a’ taken off, and now it reads ‘Wino Forever.’ He likes his wine, as he’s said many times.”

Denise Dinovi: He really went out on a limb [with Cry-Baby]. I mean here he was, this teen star who could have done any movie, and he played this ridiculous character who made fun of himself for this very fringe director, John Waters.

Christopher Heard: “[On What’s Eating Gilbert Grape], Depp would pay Leonardo DiCaprio five dollars to sniff an old rotten egg or just any kind of crazy thing just for fun.”

Sarah Jessica Parker, Depp’s Ed Wood costar: “It’s difficult enough to be on screen with him because he’s distractingly beautiful, and then you put him in the hose and everything, and he’s got great legs, and a beautiful figure, and he looks better in this stuff than you do, and he’s in drag.”

Heidi Parker: “A Hollywood lifestyle and being successful in Hollywood does not lend itself to a stable, happy personal life. For a while he was running around a lot; there wasn’t a lot of satisfaction. And he started acting out.”

Christopher Heard: “[After the Kate Moss/hotel trashing incident] All of a sudden it’s ‘Okay Mr. Movie Star, I’m in charge now.’ And the security guard did a number on him and threw in a call to the police and Johnny Depp had to spend a night in jail.”

Heidi Parker: “They [Depp and Vanessa Paradis] just clicked right away. They didn’t make a big, public spectacle of their relationship, and I think they very quietly fell in love in France, and formed this bond that made Johnny want to live in France.”

Wes Craven: “He’s gone through a period of difficult years where emotions ran high. Now he feels very solid. He feels like he’s found personal happiness.”

Faye Dunaway, Depp’s Don Juan DeMarco costar: “I said, ‘How’d you get the accent?” And he said he listened to [Ricardo] Montalban on Fantasy Island.”

Wes Craven: “[In Donnie Brasco] he was able to stand up to Pacino, who is really a powerful actor. It was peer to peer. At that point I said, ‘Wow. He can be on the screen with anybody, and he’s going to give ‘em a run for their money.”

David Brown: “He had a rather small role in Chocolat, and he didn’t care. Johnny Depp, like every fine actor, doesn’t count the role in terms of the length of time or footage, but what it will do for him as an artist. And he is an artist.”

Heidi Parker: “He told the director [Gore Verbinski of Pirates of the Caribbean] that he was going to have all gold teeth. And the director freaked out and said, ‘You can’t have all gold teeth, but we’ll let you have two’—which is what Johnny really wanted in the first place.”

Martin Landau: “He threw away all the rule books and just did what he wanted to do and liked doing. It’s like he’s created his perfect world.”

David Brown: “He’s a pure person. He goes back to the tradition of Humphrey Bogart . . . Spencer Tracy. I admire him as an actor and as a person because he is real.”

-- donated by DeepinDepp