Book December 1987 – Before They Were Famous
In 1987, Johnny Depp was already a teen idol through his starring role on the television series 21 Jump Street. He was living in a modest one-bedroom apartment in an art-deco building on Whitley Avenue in Hollywood. I would run into him several times late at night when he’d be hanging out with Nicolas Cage and other friends at Canter’s, a popular after-club eatery.I recently photographed Johnny again. His hair had grown but his angelic face remained much the same. Stardom had not inherently changed him; he was still soft-spoken and sweet. I did notice, though, a newfound inner strength and self-assurance.Johnny wanted to go beyond doing traditional leading-man roles and he has.
I grew up in many different houses. One in Miramar, Florida, sticks out in particular. We lived at 68th Avenue and Court, on the corner of a busy street. The house was a three-bedroom built in the sixties. It constantly smelled of my mom’s cooking: soup, beans and ham. I remember my brother and sister fighting. I had a poodle named Pepi. I shared a bedroom with my brother, who is 10 years older than me. He listened to a lot of Van Morrison and Bob Dylan.
We moved constantly. My mom just liked to move for some reason. By the time I was 15, we had lived in about 20 houses. It was hard. Depending on how far we’d move, you’d have to make new friends. Fortunately, I didn’t have to change schools often. But we never stayed in one neighborhood for long. At the drop of a hat, we’d go.
My mom was a waitress; she’d been a waitress since she was 14. My father was the Director of Public Works in Miramar. They divorced when I was about 16.
To this day, I hate it when I have to move from location to location. I get very angry, as a result of having to move so much as a kid. I live in Hollywood now, but I’m in Vancouver shooting 21 Jump Street about nine months of the year.
I was very mischievous as a boy. I loved tape recording people when they didn’t know. One time a friend and I dug a really deep tunnel in my backyard. We covered it with boards and leaves. I was attempting to dig a tunnel into my room. I liked to push it and see how far I could go. If you knew me during high school, I think you’d describe me as “the kid with long hair who was always playing guitar.” I wasn’t big on participating in school activities. I used to bring my guitar to school and I’d skip most classes to sneak into guitar class.The teacher would give me a practice room to play in. That’s pretty much what I spent my high school years doing.
You know, I never made the decision to become an actor. At least not in the beginning. I got into it off-the-cuff. I moved from Florida to Los Angeles with a band I was playing with called The Kids. A friend of mine introduced me to Nicolas Cage and we started hanging out. Nick thought that I should try acting and see what would happen. At the time, I wasn’t making much money. I played a few clubs with the band here and there, but I still had a lot of time. So, I decided to give it a shot. Nick set up a meeting for me with his agent and she sent me to read for a movie. They gave me a script to study. Two days later, I read for it and they gave me the role. That was Nightmare on Elm Street.
Doing Nightmare on Elm Street was a trial-by-fire sort of thing. I’d never acted before. I’d never done school plays; nothing. The fact that it was totally new to me was a tremendous challenge. I’d never done anything like this, hitting marks and saying lines and thinking about why my character was doing what he was doing. It was totally the opposite of being in a rock ‘n’ roll band. In a band, you are four people, all working together to write great songs or to get a record deal. In acting, I found it was just me. It all depended on me and my own choices. I didn’t have to answer to anyone about what I wanted to do. The band wasn’t doing well, so I turned my energies toward acting.
As you become more well known as an actor, more people get involved in you, directly and indirectly. You’ve got the “Suits” or “Bigwigs,” as I call them, the “yeses” and the “nos.” Sometimes, they want you to do things that maybe you don’t believe in or feel like doing, like promos. I tend to follow my instincts and say, “No, I’m not going to do that.” It causes trouble, here and there. But I think the main thing is to be honest, rely on your instincts and do what you feel is right and not necessarily rely on what other people think.
Television is a little frustrating for me. There’s no time for preparation. In features, you have loads of time to do the work. And the work is the most important thing of all. I think that in the beginning of an acting career, everybody wants to achieve notoriety or stardom. In the beginning, that was very glamorous to me.
You want to be famous because you want to be good at what you do and you want to be recognized for it, right? Now, being famous isn’t as important to me. My goal is to keep learning because I’m nowhere near where I want to be. Like I said about the fame thing: if that becomes the motivation behind everything, even if you achieve it, you’re going to get stuck there and you’re not going to go any further.
I don’t believe in the whole “leading-man thing and that’s all he’s ever going to do.” I mean I’d like to shave my eyebrow or my hair off, or do anything. I want to hopefully, with some of the roles that I do later on, make people see things in a different light, so that they won’t just go with the flow and feel they have to be or act a certain way, just because the President says, “That’s the way it is.” I’d like to do as many different roles as I can.
I try to read as much as I can. On The Road by Jack Kerouac is one of my favorite books. There are a lot of books I’ve read that I’d like to film. I love the concept of The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka. I’d like to become a giant cockroach. I love Van Gogh. I’ve always been interested in people who had mental torment, weirdos. I think everybody is pretty whacked out in their own way. I deal with my anxiety by smoking a lot of cigarettes and listening to very loud music. I like Bach, the Georgia Satellites, Led Zeppelin and Tom Waits. I like Tom Waits a lot.
When I was a kid, I did drugs when I freaked out. I mean, I was in a rock ‘n’ roll band in Florida, the cocaine capital of the world. Drugs are really prominent in the club scene, especially there. They were hurting me physically and mentally. Drugs were dragging me down. They were killing me. I quit. Now, I just smoke like a fiend.
I would never do a role that glamorized self-abuse or racism. Racism freaks me out. The black and white thing. The term “nigger” is still used constantly. Why is somebody who’s black a “nigger”? It doesn’t register. Living in Florida, there’s tons of rednecks out there. I mean, these guys want to hear “Sweet Home Alabama” 24 hours a day. Racism freaks me out a lot.
The homeless are pretty important to me. There are a lot of people out there who have no food, no home and no money. A lot of them are there by choice but some can’t help it. I wish some of the people with the big bucks, instead of buying a Rolls-Royce or another Mercedes, would give a little scratch to the people who are hurting. I don’t know about sacrifices. I think once you make a choice to be an actor, there’s always a balance between good and bad. You’ve got to go through hell to get to heaven. In every good there is evil; in every evil there is good. Through everything bad that’s happened to me, I’ve learned from it, which is OK.
People usually think that if you’re an actor and you’re 24 and you look a certain way that you’re an asshole. So they treat you like an asshole at first. Then they realize that you’re a human being and a nice guy.
As far as actors go, I like Marlon Brando, Jack Nicholson and Walter Matthau. I respect Nick (Cage) a lot. He’s trying to go for something really different and he’s in a great position to do that. He’s very intense and he’s got really innovative ideas. I think he’s going to do a lot.
Why would a director choose me? I can only say that hopefully, there’s something underneath my look or image that maybe hasn’t come out yet, that he thinks he could bring out. I want to try to do things differently. I want to experiment. I want to express different things at some point. It’s just the beginning. I’m not even born yet. I’m still trying. I’m still pushing. I hope I never stop pushing. I don’t ever want to get to a place where I feel satisfied. I think if I do that, it will all be over.