Two teenagers are standing in front of the Daley Plaza government building in Chicago, whimpering and waiting. On this murky, muggy Saturday morning, Trish and Rhonda – all of 15 years old – clutch ripped, jagged-edged magazine pages in vice grips. “But do you really think we’ll get close enough to touch him?” Trish whispers, knowing full well that the odds are hovering around slim-to-none. Rhonda is shaking her head in mock angst. “Maybe we’ll get an autograph,” she laments, “but face it. We’ll never get to touch Johnny Depp.”
It’s 10:30 a.m. “Who do you want?” shouts local Fox-TV anchor Robin Brantley to some 7,000 high school and college females who have gathered in an otherwise deserted part of down-town Chicago.
They chant in unison. Welcome to the Windy City’s yearly “Be Good. Go to School. Say No to Drugs!” youth pep festival which today seems like some weird religious event. “Johnny who?” taunts Brantley, buying some time while the cast of Fox’s 21 Jump Street – Depp, Holly Robinson, Dustin Nguyen, Peter DeLuise and Steven Williams – waltz out of the Daley Center high rise and onto a makeshift stage flanked by police and two-ton security guards.
“Hello, I’m Johnny Depp,” he says, approaching the mike to a roar of applause. “My basic message is simple: Protect your mind. Protect your heart. And take care of yourself.” He runs a hand through longish ink-black hair and smiles.
Time out, please. Let the record show that anchor Robin Brantley had a valid question when she asked, “Johnny who?” In a nutshell, Depp is a failed musician who once upon a time sold ballpoint pens over the phone to pay the rent on his meager Los Angles digs. That was only five years ago, and since then he has appeared in one critically acclaimed film, Platoon, and a gaggle of low-budget features, including A Nightmare on Elm Street. But now Depp stars on 21 Jump Street, which is one of the Fox Network’s two hits (Married With Children is the other), but was ranked just 140th on A.C. Nielsen’s list of the 163 highest-rated shows of last season. So, put all the pieces together: No movie career; no hit television show; no singing career. Yet Johnny Depp is a star. His face is plastered on teen magazines from coast to coast. Us magazine voted him one of Hollywood’s hottest bachelors. And more and more Jump Street episodes are featuring heavy doses of Depp and less of the other up-and-comers.
Johnny Depp has arrived. Sort of. If you spend the entire day in Chicago on his tail, it’s easy to conclude that “arriving” – in the most basic sense of the word – is not on his top ten list of accomplishments.
Flashback to sometime in June when the creative minds at the Fox Network decided that hauling the cast members of Jump Street to select cities would be an exciting, hip way to boost ratings. From the start, Robinson, Nguyen, DeLuise and Williams wanted in. Depp wasn’t so sure.
After all, Depp has been pegged as television’s latest rebel, and was taking the role to heart. The rest of the cast arrived in Chicago on a bleak, dismal Wednesday night for advance promo interviews. Depp had made it known earlier in the week that he might not attend this fest. But, then again, he might. Just when Las Vegas wouldn’t touch these odds, he hopped a Red Eye on Friday night, causing several publicists to advance to the intermediate stages of text-book nervous breakdown. “Yeah, Chicago,” Depp said in his best James Dean-esque tone. “I decided it might be fun.” That was night one.
9:30 a.m. Saturday morning. In an un-air-conditioned, stuffy government planning room, flanked by dark wooden paneling and the necessary spread of donuts, cast members are schmoozing with Chicago Mayor Eugene Sawyer and other local luminaries. Everyone is there except Depp.
10:15 a.m. Grumblings are heard over the publicist’s walkie-talkie and members of the Fox Network start slapping each other high-fives. Johnny is finally here. In the flesh. Of course, he manages to vanish into thin air for another nervous five minutes, but all is instantly forgiven when he comes popping through the elevator doors to greet Mayor Sawyer with a surprise: Her name is Jennifer – as in Dirty Dancing’s Jennifer Grey. In an army green T-shirt and worn jeans with Depp’s baseball cap in the back pocket, Grey steps out of the elevator half smiling. Depp, in all his virgin-rebel wonder stares at his toes.
“It’s absolutely true,” he says in a throaty voice, about his clothing which is strictly L.A. chic (a white cut-off T-shirt with a strange arrangement of black skulls, a tattered red plaid shirt wrapped around his waist and a handsome black leather jacket). “I always dress like this,” he says proudly. “This is Johnny Depp.” In the flesh.
Why should someone who walks and breathes the mystery-rebel image want to associate himself with an event – heck, forget the event; how about a show – that spreads such grounded sentiments? Don’t drink. Don’t do drugs. Don’t cut class. For God’s sake, practice safe sex.
For those who eat out on Sundays, here’s Jump Street’s story line: A group of young cops infiltrate circles of nasty teenage criminals by posing as students themselves. Depp’s Tom Hanson really feels for these kids on the rocks. His character is fond of such phrases as, “Man, do we really have to bust the kids” “Is busting them necessary?” “I guess it’s really for the best.”
Depp also feels for his audience. “I really do appreciate the audience,” he says with conviction. “Our show deals with important themes like drugs, suicide, life and death. The most important thing is telling the kids to stay away from drugs,” he says. “Drugs are the worst. I just tell people to stay far away from them. I would also like to tell people to stay in school. That’s equally important.”
It might seem strange for Depp to be handing out all this free, solid advice. Some might say that at age 25, he isn’t old enough to know about life. But those critics couldn’t be more wrong. Depp’s childhood wasn’t exactly an episode of Leave It to Beaver. Born in Owensboro, Kentucky, Depp’ s family relocated to Miramar, Florida when he was six. Depp’s own teenage years could be the model for a rip-roaring Jump Street episode, with Depp firmly on the other side of the law.
“I experimented with drugs and I experimented with everything that little boys do,” Depp has told the press. “Vandalism, throwing eggs at cars, breaking and entering schools and destroying a room. But I finally got to a point where I looked around and said, ‘This is not getting me anywhere. I’m stagnating with these guys.’ They were getting drunk and high every weekend. I got out.”
Depp was also once fond of telling the press that he lost his virginity at 13 and dropped out of high school at 16. Today he’s more of the guarded young star. He simply shrugs off the bad times by noting how art does not imitate real life: “I was always getting into mischief as a high schooler, and now I’m on the other side of the fence, enforcing the law.”
High noon. Marshall Field’s department store, located on busy State Street in the heart of downtown. One advantage of shopping at Field’s is a direct connection to the subway system through a lone door that leads into the store’s basement. Steam usually rises from that subway station, but not today, since 5,000 people of all ages are packed into the underground terminal waiting for the 21 Jump Street cast to sign autographs at 2 p.m.
No one expected the turnout. No one expected that every nearby street entrance to the subways would be blocked by Johnny Depp fans. No one expected Chicago’s mass transit system to be crippled by crowds of young women like Debbie and Diana, two suburban high schoolers who gave excuses at their fast food jobs and endured a 50-minute train ride into the city to gaze at Depp. “He’s just worth it,” they gush, adjusting black minis and tank tops. “He’s soooo cool.”
The girls melt into the crowd. Meanwhile Depp is busy lunching with Jennifer Grey in another part of the city. He will miss the first 45 minutes of autographs in Field’s basement. He will ditch a Jump Street lunch with contest winning fans. He will chuck the press conference with both local and national print and television media.
Perhaps the service at lunch was slow. Or perhaps it’s Depp’s rock-star mentality. Guide Depp back to his past, and he will talk with glee about his pre-actor, post-dropout days, which pretty much took the usual path of construction jobs. Like a million other rebel types floating around Southern California, Depp had a plan. A Big Plan.
More than anything, he wanted to be a rock star. At age12, he paid $25 for an electric guitar, holed up in his bedroom and taught himself how to play. A few months later, Depp set out to form one of the 15 rock groups he’s been with over the years. In 1983 he was 19. Depp figured that his band-of-the hour called The Kids could be his ticket. Despite his lead guitar work, the kids behind The Kids found life in the fast lane of Los Angeles very tough.
The Kids weren’t happening. “We didn’t make it, although we loved music. And I still do,” says Depp. “I guess it happens.” Meanwhile, he supported himself by living poor in Hollywood. He got married. He got divorced. Most people would get depressed.
Depp didn’t. Instead, he met fate which went by the name of actor Nicolas Cage, co-star of Moonstruck. “I was broke and Nick asked me if I needed a job. I did and he told me I should try acting. I met with an agent Nick knew and she has this part to cast,” Depp recalls.
The part up for grabs was in one of the most successful films in movie history. “The agent sent me to audition for A Nightmare on Elm Street,” Depp says. “Two days later I had the part of Glenn and my acting career was launched.”
One part in an Elm Street does not a career make, and Depp has seen the acting pits. He had a role in the critical and popular flop Private Resort. His resume also includes a bit in Platoon, a guest starring role in the cable movie Slow Burn and the obligatory episodic work in shows like Hotel. That’s just about when Fox called about Jump Street. At first, he wasn’t interested in TV, and Fox proceeded to cast actor Jeff Yagher (of V), but three weeks into production Yagher was gone, and Depp’s name popped up again. This time, Depp read the script and got the part.
One year down the road and he is hotter than the rest. Some say that his impact on the show goes beyond image. “Johnny had a lot to do with the suicide episode we ran last season,” says Jump Street producer Bill Nuss.
“I just wanted to make it very clear that I’m not out there saving someone’s life just because I’m Johnny Depp,” says Depp. “That’s not how it goes in real life. In real life, I won’t be sitting next to the world solving its problems. People forget that this is a show and I’m just an actor. So instead of me being the cure I wanted to show people how to handle their own problems.”
2 p.m. Marshall Field’s basement area is a mix of crying, laughing, smiling, out-of-their-minds fans who shake Johnny Depp’s hand, often walking right past the other Jump Street cast members.
“You have to understand what it’s like for 10,000 or 25,000 people to yell your name. Think about it for a minute. Then think of what it is like for Johnny Depp,” says Nuss. “I think it scares him sometimes. But I think he senses a responsibility to these people. He doesn’t want to appear irresponsible.”
“It’s hard for Johnny to be cool about all this, but he is one of the coolest people I know,” says co-star Holly Robinson who plays Officer Judy Hoffs. “On the set, he’s a different guy than what you see in public. He plays guitar. He’s the leader of the Jump Street garage band. We have water pistol fights. That’s Johnny Depp.”
“Life is wild,” Depp says. “There are so many people at an event like this one. This is both a good and bad thing. So many people see you and they just go crazy.”
3:30 p.m. The autograph session is winding down and the national anchor of Fox News attempts to corner Depp with a few questions. Since Jump Street is a Fox show, the anchor doesn’t figure a one-minute bit with the star will be a big problem. But, then again, this is Johnny Depp. The mike is shoved in his face: Depp’s punky hairstyle is slicked back once again.
He takes a bite out of the mike. “Is this thing working? Are you sure it’s working?” asks Depp, making a face and grabbing Jennifer Grey’s hand. He’s ready for the big escape. The anchor stands back – alone and baffled. Meanwhile, Depp hangs his sunglasses off one ear. He makes more strange faces. He requests his baseball cap from Grey.
3:45 p.m. Standing in the tunneled garage area waiting for his limo, Depp’s lips are sealed. Someone mentions that he really is far more relaxed at home in Vancouver, British Columbia, where the show is filmed.
A good day in Vancouver, he says, is taking his vintage Harley motorcycle out for a ride. Just imagine: One cool cycle. Two tattooed arms (Depp has his mom’s name, Betty Sue, on his left arm surrounded by a big red heart, and a large Indian chief is sunken in to his right). One leather jacket.
It’s a fitting image for a rebel. It’s a fitting image for a fledgling star who makes young girls whimper and wait.