What Makes Johnny Famous?
Icon, June 1998
by Dana Shapiro
Despite relentless attempts to abandon the image that launched his career, Johnny Depp can’t seem to escape his own face.
Once told a front desk clerk that his name was Mr. Donkey Penis…used to hang off the ledge of a parking structure with Nicolas Cage… was spotted in a gay bar with John Waters…had his “Winona Forever” tattoo surgically altered to read “Wino Forever”…got a speeding ticket…broke some furniture…slept in the bed where Oscar Wilde died…got in an argument with a photographer named Jonathan Walpole in a London pub; “He pulled both my ears,” Walpole said. “Very hard.” “I’ve just handed Johnny Depp a thick stack of press clippings downloaded from the data retrieval service, Lexis-Nexis. “You just type in ‘Johnny Depp’ with a headline restriction, and this is the type of stuff that comes out,” I explain.
He flips through the pages with a mix of intrigue, amusement, and disgust, reading the occasional quote that catches his attention. “Jesus,” he says, “this is bizarre.” Depp charged with assaulting a security guard in Vancouver in 1989, described Canadians as ‘Moosehead-drinking hockey players,'” he laughs. “Good lord,” he says. “Wow, this is weird: ‘Emir Kusturica] and Johnny carried around
Dostoevsky books and Kerouac books and they wore black. They had never worn black in their lives. They kept everybody in the cast and crew awake all night because they were blasting music and getting drunk.’ I think Vincent Gallo said that.” He continues flipping. This is amazing,” he says. “What’s it called–Lexis-Nexis?”
It’s two o’clock on a Tuesday afternoon and Depp is eating chicken chow mein at the Formosa Cafe, the star-clogged Hollywood restaurant that open in 1946 across the street from the Goldwyn Studios (now the Warner Hollywood Studios). Outside in the parking lot are mock reserved spots for Frank Sinatra, Clark Gable, Bette Davis, Lee Marvin, Grace Kelly, Larry, Moe, Curly, and Elvis–“Nothing But a Hound Dog” on the sound system.
I bet she used to be a real dish,” Depp says quietly of the waitress, a skinny, motherly woman with extra makeup and a wink for the movie star. She doesn’t say anything fan-like, but it’s clear she knows who Depp is–after the meal, he’s allowed to smoke in the nonsmoking section. “You wouldn’t happen to have a toothpick, would you?” Depp asks her.
On the walls above the table, and all over the restaurant, hang the autographed faces of everyone from Tony Curtis to Michael Douglas to Liza Minelli to John Ritter. “Meet me at the Formosa” reads the sign above the bar. “Where the stars dine.”
Whether or not you consider Johnny Depp a “star” depends on whether you chalk the concept of fame up to public recognition, acclaim, hatred, or talent. JonBenet Ramsey is famous for dying. Dennis Rodman is famous for making himself famous. Thomas Pynchon is famous for not being famous. And then there are those who become famous by dating famous people–Gwyneth Paltrow, Rande Gerber, Donovan Leitch, Nicole Kidman–an unfortunate factor that has kept Depp’s name in print and made his personal life more marketable than his films.
“There’s an episode, a little moment on Beavis and Butt-head that I really like,” says filmmaker Jim Jarmusch, Depp’s good friend who directed him in the 1996 film Dead Man. “They’re watching a Tom Petty video and Beavis is saying, ‘Why is this guy so famous?’ And Butt-head says, ‘Because he’s always on TV.’ Beavis says, ‘Yeah, but why is he always on TV?’ Butt-head says, ‘Because he’s famous.’ And Beavis is getting really upset, y’know, because he can’t follow that concept–why are people famous?”
Four years ago, Tim Burton called Depp and said, “What are you doing?” and Depp said, “Hanging out,” and Burton said, “Can you meet me at the Formosa Cafe in about 20 minutes?” Depp said, “Yeah, yeah I’ll be there.” When he arrived, Burton was sitting at the far end of the bar, having a beer. “So I sat down, we had a beer, and he says, ‘I got this story,'” Depp recalls. “And he started talking about the film, and within five minutes I was like, “Okay, let’s do it, I’m there. Just say when.'” Burton had the idea of making a black and white biopic of the transvestite filmmaker Ed Wood and wanted Depp to play the lead. (It was Burton who, four years earlier, legitimized Depp’s acting career when he chose him–over Tom Cruise, Tom Hanks, and Michael Jackson, among many others–to play the role of an innocent experiment whose scissorhands keep him in fear of cutting what he truly loves.)
While Edward Scissorhands certainly called attention to Depp’s potential, it was his role as Ed Wood that solidified his status as an actor, proving he had a range beyond the passive handsomeness of his previous roles in Arizona Dream, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?, and Benny and Joon. Unlike, say, Tom Cruise, whose looks are obscured by a gung-ho enthusiasm that makes even his dramatic roles seem like action-adventure, Depp’s brooding face and mannered coolness can be distracting. The most obvious exceptions are Edward Scissorhands and Ed Wood, because in the former Depp’s face is disguised with makeup and scars, and in the latter he turns the passivity into a put-on–Ed Wood is more of a caricature than a character, and for that reason, Depp is all the more effective.
When Depp was shooting Ed Wood, Jarmusch was staying at his house in L.A. and recalls how the role of the grinning, panty-wearing “worst director of all time” was making his friend a little weird. “At the end of the day, I’d hang out with him or whatever and he was Ed Wood for at least three or four hours after he’d leave the set,” recalls Jarmusch. “He had this stupid smile on his face, and I’d ask him, ‘Johnny, what do you want to eat–Thai, Chinese, Italian?’ And he’d say, ‘They all sound great! Everything’s terrific! What would you like? And it was so not Johnny. I just wanted to slap him–come one, cut it out, you’re scaring me. But he couldn’t. I really gave me the creeps.”
Though Depp says his role as the withdrawn, unfinished monster in Edward Scissorhands is closest to his own personality, his role as William Blake in Jarmusch’s Dead Man may be a closer parallel to the boy from Kentucky who moved to L.A. to get a record deal but wound up with his face spread across the covers of every teen magazine in America, unintentionally becoming known as a heartthrob. In the film, Depp plays a soft-spoken accountant from Cleveland who goes west to the industrialized town of Machine with a letter promising him a job, but when he gets there, nobody seems to know who he is. He goes to the local bar, where an act of chivalry leads to a self-defense murder, and his face winds up spread across the covers of Wanted posters, unintentionally becoming known as a killer. The rest of the film is spent running away from, and ultimately confronting, the image on the poster.
“Johnny’s character is sort of like a blank slate, and everyone projects an identity onto him that he doesn’t even understand necessarily,” Jarmusch explains. “He’s not an outlaw, violent-type guy, but he gets made into a wanted, hunted criminal. And Johnny has that too, in that he has the ability to let others project things onto him. And it happens to him in his real life as well–movie star, bad boy–whatever they project onto Johnny seems, to me, so far off from who he really is.”
“When I first met him I thought he was just that dork from 21 Jump Street,” says Vincent Gallo, who stars with Depp in Arizona Dream. “What’s interesting about Johnny is that he’s been able to permeate the mainstream without pandering to it.” Juliette Lewis, who played Depp’s love interest in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?, says, “We were linked together in the first three weeks of filming, but we never even talked to each other really. I worked with him, but I don’t have a clue who he is as a person. I mean, that’s something to say.” “If you don’t mention how shy he is, you’ll be missing the boat on a lot of stuff,” says Peter DeLuise, who played big Doug next to Depp’s small Tom on 21 Jump Street. “The reality is that he’s a tiny, little, sensitive guy, and more times than not, he’s overwhelmed with people coming up to him.”
How do you like your potatoes?
“My favorite way to eat anything is fried,” Depp says. “Gotta be fried.”
Chicken fried steak?
“Oh, f**k. Live for it. Love it.
So you like McDonald’s better than Burger King.
“I love ’em both. But I think I love Burger King maybe a little better. I know it’s char-broiled, I knot, but…I’m a big advocate of fast food. I’m from the South. I’m complete and total and utter white trash, and that’s okay, y’know. I love pork, I live for pork. I just think pork is the best thing in the world.”
Did Winona Ryder eat pork?
“Yeah, Winona ate pork.”
How about Kate Moss?
“Kate eats pork, hell yeah. She’s English.”
But you’re single now, right?
“I’m single now, yeah.”
Is it strange looking up at a billboard and seeing your ex-girlfriend?
“No, it’s nice, you know? It’s nice to be able to sort of drive by and wave, say hi. It’s sweet. I like seeing her face.”
Do you date vegetarians?
I”I did date a vegetarian actually. And she’d sit there and watch me feast on some pig snout, hog snout. Yeah, I’ve dated a couple vegetarians.”
Do you trust vegetarians?
“I don’t really trust anybody who doesn’t eat pork. I mean, it’s fine if you’re a vegetarian, but fuckin’ A, man, how can you not eat pork?”
What’s interesting about Depp is not that his parents got divorced, not that he dates mostly white women, not that he pulled some guy’s ears for repeatedly asking Kate Moss’s friend for a cigarette and then taking a sip of her drink (actually, that is kind of interesting), not that he smoked some pot or swallowed some acid. What’s most interesting about Depp is his career. Not because it was launched by playing an androgynous sex symbol on the Fox Network’s first hit show, 21 Jump Street, not because he showed his ass in the embarrassing Private Resort, but because the films that he’s chosen to be in, and the fact that he’s chosen to be in them, is, for lack of a better word, interesting.
“I think Hollywood would have preferred to have made him into a different kind of product,” Jarmusch says. “Johnny’s not your typical player–you can see by the choices he makes. He hasn’t done the Nick Cage-type of moves, to be in big action movies.”
It’s an observation worth exploring because Depp’s films are atypical (past costars include Joe Dallesandro, Patty Hearst, Traci Lords, Vincent Price, George “The Animal” Steele, Jerry Lewis, and Robert Mitchum), and Nicholas Cage (besides introducing Depp to acting) is a relevant person to bring up, if only for the sake of contrast. Cage launched a career with the same type of “oddball” roles that Depp has become know for taking–Valley Girl, Birdy, Vampire’s Kiss, Wild at Heart–but now he’s making summer blockbusters. Conversely, Depp began his film career by playing preppy roles in mall-targeted films like A Nightmare on Elm Street and Private Resort, and went on to make films like Arizona Dream, Ed Wood, and Dead Man–good work that few people saw.
What’s also interesting is how this self-proclaimed white trash, high school drop-out wound up living in Bela Lugosi’s old mansion in the Hollywood Hills and getting A-list acting offers when not one of his 14 starring roles has ever been nominated for an Oscar, and the highest grossing movie that he ever starred in (Edward Scissorhands: $56 million) came out eight years ago.
Of Depp’s last three major releases since Ed Wood–all more “typical” than his usual work–Nick of Time seemed to be the most conspicuous peek over the “mainstream” fence, but Christopher Walken, John Badham (the director of Saturday Night Fever), and the film’s Hitchcockian roots made a good defense for Depp’s bad decision. Before that, Don Juan DeMarco was almost legitimized by Marlon Brando’s surprising participating and Depp’s authentic accent, and Donnie Brasco had ex-Godfather Al Pacino and an identity-questioning script to separate it from a genre that should have ended with Goodfellas in 1991. Still, none of these films approached the original craftiness of Ed Wood.
Of Nick of Time–released three years before this month’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (directed by Terry Gilliam and starring Depp as Hunter S. Thompson’s alter-ego, Raoul Duke)–Waters says: “Of all Johnny’s movies, I wouldn’t pick it as my favorite.” Jarmusch: “Nick of Time wasn’t a movie that interested me very much, nor did the character that he played.” DeLuise: “I thought Nick of Time was a valiant attempt, although I don’t think it really worked as they thought it might.” While it seems unanimous that Nick of Time was the low point, Depp’s recent decisions–to star in Roman Polanski’s next project, The Ninth Gate, and as the lead in the Hughes Brothers’ biopic of, curiously, Howard Hughes–once again show he is more attracted to working with certain actors and directors than increasing his visibility at the multiplex. “His motivations are based on what makes his life interesting,” Jarmusch says, “rather than what skyrockets his quote for a film or whatever.”
What certainly hasn’t skyrocketed Depp’s quote–and perhaps his riskiest career move yet–was his directorial debut, The Brave (based on the book by Gregory McDonald and co written with his brother Dan), a film about a Cherokee Indian who agrees to be in a snuff film to earn money for his family. It stars Depp, Brando, and Max Perlich, and features a score by Iggy Pop. The poster for The Brave (which Depp has hanging in his house) features an image of a painted creature that looks like a Basquiat scrawl–Depp saw it on a wall, and has no idea who did it. But perhaps the most striking aspect of the promotional image is that Depp neglected to put his own face on it. (For now, anyway.)
As a first-time director, Depp says he was “scared shitless” for the film’s premiere last year at the 50th Cannes Film Festival. “You walk up the red carpet, you know, the whole thing: go up there, wave, go in and sit down and watch the film with 2,500 people. Film goes through. No coughs, no moving shoes. You’re charged, you’re out of your mind, you’re everything. You’re dying, you’re ready to vomit, you’re shaking, you want nothing but to get horribly drunk. And at the same time you’re really proud, and you’re embarrassed, because you feel exposed, you know? You just feel like you’ve ripped your chest cavity open and just begged someone to s**t in it.”
Which is not far from what some critics did, and with a vengeful sort of glee. By most accounts, The Brave was booed at the 8:30 AM press screening, but found a much warmer reception later that evening at the official premiere. Lisa Schwarzbaum, a critic from Entertainment Weekly who was at the press screening, recalls, “It had a nice look to it, it was beautifully lit, had a very moody feeling to it, but was sort of astonishingly not ready to be seen. It was actually kind of embarrassing. He really needed somebody older who wouldn’t be afraid to say, ‘You know, Johnny, nice idea, but let’s sit on this for a while. Let’s get a little life behind you before you take on something like this.’ With any luck, it will never be released and nobody will ever have to see it, and I mean that for him as well as the audience.”
Says Waters, who was with Depp later that night for the premiere: “Well, it’s very serious, but it’s certainly arty. He didn’t make a commercial kind of movie, which I think is good. People loved it.”
But the film has yet to be picked up, and Depp seems frustrated by the negative press. “Hollywood Reporter, Variety, all these f**king things, they come out and they say, ‘The Brave was booed last night’. Well, they lied. And distributors were scared shitless. It was a film that was over two hours long, it got booed, you know–they thought it got booed–but it’s like, the people in this town play Follow-the-Leader, man. If Joe down the street has a really nice pair of sneakers but, you know, Bob doesn’t know if he likes them or not until he sees Sue’s boyfriend Lance wearing them. Then if two people like ’em, I’m there, y’know? That kind of mentality is like a fuckin’ disease.”
In 1986, Depp spent 10 weeks in the jungles of the Philippines filming Platoon, only to come home and find his part as Lerner the translator had been almost completely chopped out of the finished film, partly because Oliver Stone thought the Lerner character was diluting the good-guy power of Charlie Sheen, and partly, Depp says, for his changing some lines (something he says he does often). Around this time, he began dating Sherilyn Fenn (Twin Peaks, Just One of the Guys), one of four girls he’s been engaged to in his life. (“Haven’t you seen the bumper sticker in L.A.?” asks Jennifer Grey, who was engaged to Depp for eight months in 1989: “Honk if you’ve been engaged to Johnny Depp.”)
Depp’s first fiancee, Lori Ann Allison (a makeup artist five years his senior), became his wife for two years in 1983. “I was engaged to Sherilyn, um. I was engaged to Winona. I was engaged to Jennifer Grey,” Depp says. “Out of respect to the girls I was with, I’ll just answer that I was engaged to those people. But a lot was written about that s**t, and it was taken to another level and it was turned into some kind of horrible joke, you know. I like the idea of marriage. I don’t know if I believe in it, but I like the idea, the concept. I don’t know if one person can be with one person until they die. I don’t know if that’s humanly possible.”
What Makes Johnny Famous – part 2
Disappointed with the outcome of his part in Platoon, Depp accepted the job to play an undercover high school cop named Tom Hanson on 21 Jump Street, a decision he says was almost entirely wrong. He never wanted to be a TV actor, but the prospect of a steady paycheck and his hunch that the show wouldn’t last more than a season outweighed his artistic ambitions. “Actually, there were good people involved, and in terms of the camera, the lighting, marks, television is a great education” Depp says. “So that was like college for me. So that was like college for me. But I just didn’t want to be involved in that kind of assembly-line s**t, you know? I didn’t want to be a product. I didn’t want to be a product. I didn’t want to be that thing, that hunk s**t or whatever. It wasn’t me.
21 Jump Street became the flagship show for Fox, and consequently Depp became the poster child for the up-and-coming network, his face on every ad they took out. “He was the star,” says DeLuise. “There was no doubt in anybody’s mind, and I think he really resented that. On the show they would always randomly cut back to his face while he was listening to other people talk–he was forced to react and make faces, and that made him mad. So Jim [Whitmore, the director] came up with this great idea: he said “I’ll tell you what, you don’t have to make faces, I will give you the subtext of the scene. There is poop somewhere nearby, and at the beginning of the scene you sense there is poop, and then you actually smell the poop, and then you can’t seem to get away from the poop, and then you need to know where the poop is. Now just work on that.” And if you look at the expression on Johnny’s face, he is trying to find the poop.”
“I was bored to tears and I was dying,” Depp says of his days on the show. “I was chewing my own leg. Whitmore would do things like that to keep the scene interesting for me. If you had the subtext that somewhere in this room was s**t, it made a lot more go on during the scene.”
Around this time in Baltimore, John Waters (Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble) was looking through teen galleries/magazines for a boy to play the role of Cry Baby Walker, a leather clad “drape” with a tattoo of an electric chair on his chest. “With Cry Baby, I was trying to make a job, a satire of an Elvis movie,” Waters explains, “and to me, Johnny certainly looked right. He looked like the perfect juvenile delinquent. Then I watched 21 Jump Street and I met him and I knew he had a sense of humor–that was the main thing. And he told me he hated being a teen idol. I said, ‘Stick with us, we’ll kill that. Don’t worry.'”
“John saved me, he really did,” Depp says. “Because I was desperate to get out of that mold, y’know, and desperate to not be a product anymore. And by doing Cry Baby, and John giving me that gig, it was a major turning point. I always like to say that John Waters made me a millionaire. I used to always say that to him: “‘Do you realize you made me a millionaire?'”
But it was a symbiotic relationship. Without Depp, Waters wouldn’t have been able to get the money to make the type of campy musical he wanted to make, and without Waters, Depp wouldn’t have gotten the chance to spit at his own face. And it worked. “Cry Baby still plays constantly on cable and all over Europe, and that’s thanks to Johnny. Because even if it was not successful in some countries, it can play now because it’s a Johnny Depp movie, not a John Waters movie. And I think Johnny can thank me for ending him being a teen idol.”
Though barely any of Depp’s teen magazine-reading fans ever saw the movie, the right people obviously got the joke because that same year (1990) Depp was cast in the highly sought-after role of Edward Scissorhands. “I didn’t even want to meet Tim Burton [who was just coming off Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure and Beetlejuice],” Depp recalls. “I wanted to but I thought it was pointless. Tracy [Jacobs, Depp’s agent] forced me to. I just said, ‘No way, it’s embarrassing.’ You know, something you want so badly and he’s never gonna see me as that, never. He’s gonna think, ‘Aaw, fuckin’ TV actor s**t.’ Everybody wanted that fuckin’ role, so I just thought, ‘Hell, why would he give it to me?'”
Burton did give it to him, and subsequently added to the image-smearing process that Waters had started. After Depp had gone overboard proving what he wasn’t in Cry Baby, he found in Edward a character that he truly identified with. “I just knew the guy, I knew the character. I knew everything,” he says. “I remember it was the 89th day–right before I did my last shot on the movie which was doing the ice sculpture with Kim, Winona’s character. And I remember getting the makeup on, and everything, and looking in the mirror before I went to set, and I’m thinking, ‘f**k, this is the last time I’m gonna see this guy,’ you know, this is it, this is the last time. It was like saying goodbye. It fuckin’ made me cry, it was weird, it was bizarre. I really, really, really miss him.”
Did you know there’s a porno called Edward Penishands?
“Yeah, I’ve seen it,” Depp says. “It’s great, it’s really funny. It’s the same deal, y’know, Edward, the fuckin’ hair and everything, and the suit, the black thing, but instead of scissors for hands, he’s got these massive fuckin’ penises, just huge dicks on each hand–huge, though. He’s real timid and all that stuff, and girls come to him and really like him a lot, and, y’know, he can f**k three women–he’s got one here, one here, and then he’s got his own.”
What feature do you look for in a woman?
How do you feel about feet?
“Feet are very important. Feet are very, very important.”
Are they pretty high up on the priority list?
“Way up, yeah, about top two.”
What would be an example of bad feet?
“Bad feet, let’s see. Long toenails. Horrible, can’t even think about it. Long toenails is a bad move. It’s just an awful image, y’know.”
What if the second toe is longer than the first toe?
“That’s okay. It depends, y’know, the aesthetic of the…there should be a certain symmetry to feet. And I’m not a big symmetry fan. I like things a bit asymmetrical–in fact I need that–but feet, there’s gotta be a certain symmetry to the feet. Feet say a lot. If a girl doesn’t take care of her feet, there may be problems elsewhere.”
Do you think it’s important to be able to fart in front of each other in a relationship?
“I’m not so sure.”
“I’m not sure she should.”
“I’m not sure it’s the kind of thing that boys and girls should be doing together. Some things should be private, you know?”
“Johnny has a Porsche, right, and he had to pick Marlon Brando up from his house–they were going somewhere–and Brando was like, ‘John, I’m so disappointed, I can’t believe you have a Porsche, I don’t want to be seen with you in this car, how can you possibly…'” recalls Jarmusch. “This whole thing with Brando–‘I’m not riding in a Porsche with John’–he was really putting it down, it was really funny.”
Depp’s black Porsche Carrera 4 is parked near a sealed green gate in the Hollywood Hills. There is a security key pad next to the gate and a camera to see who’s pressing the buttons. The doors open, and I look around what was once Bela Lugosi’s backyard (Depp bought the house in 1995 for $2.3 million). It looks gothic and intricate, like a dirty Hollywood castle that was scrubbed clean. A big metal, yellow gorilla stands near the edge of the property with a large, semi-erect penis spewing forth a stream of water that, I’m told, is sometimes cranked up and pointed into the neighbor’s yard. The words “You Can Run But You Can’t Hide” are spray painted in black letters across his chest. “Something they did annoyed him so he rigged it up so it would piss on them,” Jarmusch says, “which is very Johnny. He has this adolescent kind of humor, and that prankster-style revenge.”
The security camera is connected to a four-part black-and-white monitor that sits in what could otherwise be a kitchen in a Better Homes and Gardens spread (aside from the few cans of Drum tobacco on the kitchen table. There is a basket of fruit, boxes of cereal, stacks of books, pots, pans, and candles. There is a bottle of Cuervo 1800 on the window sill, a black-and-white pit-bull mix names Moo (a gift from Moss, who Depp met in February 1994 and dated until recently), Palmolive by the sink and a man, Mr. Pink (who lives in the guest house), making a salad that Johnny apparently adores. This is the brightest room in the house.
The bar is off the kitchen. There are beers on draft, a stocked wall of booze, a sound system, and low-dipping leather chairs placed around an old table. In the corner are the steel painted scissorhands displayed in a glass case, as well as a prototype for an Edward Scissorhands doll that never got made, and the wispy wig for his part in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. On the walls hang paintings, the Wanted poster from Dead Man, a personalized record plaque from Oasis, pictures of Kerouac, Burroughs, Cocteau.
Sitting deep in a chair, Depp is rolling and smoking Drum after Drum and telling me how people have called him Johnny his whole like. “My grandfather would call me Big John, but my mom and dad and sisters and brother, they always called me Johnny. People always say it sounds fake–Johnny Depp. I remember when I was with my first agent and she said, ‘Um, what do you want your name to be?’ It was such an odd question, I said, ‘What do you mean?’ And she said, ‘You know, in the credits and stuff.’ And I said, “Johnny, I guess. Johnny Depp. Why?’ ‘Are you sure you don’t want to be John Depp or John Christopher Depp or John Depp II or John Christopher Depp II?'”
The youngest of four children (two sisters, one brother), Depp grew up in the working-class suburb of Owensboro, Kentucky. Their house and neighborhood, Depp says, were similar to the 1950s pastel land of Edward Scissorhands: tract housing, neat lawns, quiet streets. John Depp Sr. was a public servant working as a civil engineer, and his wife, Betty Sue (whose name Johnny had tattooed on his left bicep), was a waitress at a local restaurant–she gave birth to her most famous child on June 9, 1963. “My mom is one of my best friends in the world,” Depp says. “It’s interesting, my dad’s a big guy, a really fuckin’ tough-looking guy, but the advice [on how to fight] came from my mom. I’ll never forget it; she told me when I was little: ‘Lookit, you get in a fight with somebody, and they’re bigger than you, you pick up the biggest fuckin’ brick you can find and you lay ’em out, you just fuckin’ knock ’em out.'”
When Depp was seven, the family moved to Miramar, Florida, a small town near Miami. They lived in a motel for a year before his father found work as a public works official. It was in Miramar that Depp would meet Sal Jenco, his best friend since then who now runs Depp’s Hollywood club, the Viper Room (opened in August 1993)–and the inspiration for the name of Iggy Pop’s cross-dressing character in Dead Man.
Depp was always more interested in rock ‘n’ roll types than sports figures, but says that when he was a kid, he could tell you every player on the Miami Dolphins. “I can remember being a little kid in Florida and loving Jim Kick,” he says. “It was Kick and Csonka, they were the running backs. And I loved Jim Kick. Not because he was a brilliant player–he was a good back, he was solid–but I loved him because he was the first guy in the NFL to have long hair and a Fu Manchu, you know? I liked him because he was an outsider.”
Despite a face that one might assume would automatically put Depp in the popular clique of his high school, he maintains that, like Kick, he was an outsider. “High school can be fun I guess, hang out with girls, make friends and all that s**t, but that just wasn’t for me,” he says. “There were sort of different classes of people–I guess it still exists. There are the jocks, and the smart kids with good grades and stuff, and there was like rednecks or something, and then there are the burnouts. I was considered a burnout. I was just, you know, kid of a weed-head.”
He avoids specifics, but says that he went through a difficult period when he was 15 years old and his parents got divorced. “I had issues, major problems with that, how [my father] left and what-not. So we had a little bit of a rough spot, but we cleared it up and we’re good now, now we get along real well. Yeah, I love my pop. And I love–you know, I worship my mom.”
Though as a kid he liked to flip through the channels looking for old black-and white movies, especially Dracula and Frankenstein, Depp says he never even considered a career in film. He remembers his older brother Dan introducing him to A Clockwork Orange and Last Tango in Paris (his first glimpse at Brando) when he was 13, but it was the guitar his mother bought him that same year that would have the greatest impact on the youngest Depp. He learned to play sitting in his room, and when he was 17, he joined a local band called The Kids. They became well known in the South Florida punk rock scene–opening for Iggy Pop, Talking Heads, the Pretenders, The Ramones–and Depp truly thought that they were going to make it. He says the music was “kind of loud, aggressive power pop–at the time I would’ve compared it to early U2.”
When he was 20, Depp moved to L.A. with the band (renamed Six Gun Method because they weren’t kids anymore) in search of “the almighty record deal.” They did okay, but their presence was nothing compared to what it was in Florida. “It was real difficult out in L.A.–we’d play at these little clubs,” he says. “We were trying to build a following and stuff, but you make no money. You’d make literally, like, 25 bucks.” To supplement his income, Depp took to selling pens over the phone, “My first experience with acting,” he says.
Before long, “the band sort of stopped. We were all homesick and the majority of them split. I was sort of left hanging with no band,” Depp says, “and I was just going to make the movie.”
The movie was Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street. Depp’s ex-wife Lori had introduced him to Nicolas Cage, who convinced him to go on his first casting call in front of the director, whose young daughter happened to be there watching and seems to have been instrumental in getting Depp the job. He earned $1,200 a week–“shocking money,” he says–and made his screen debut as Glen Lantz, the main character’s preppy boyfriend who falls asleep and gets swallowed by a bed and then spit up with a stream of blood. The aspiring rock ‘n’ roller was now an actor.
“To me he’s more a rock ‘n’ roll-type guy than a Hollywood guy,” Jarmusch says, a perception that is only strengthened by Depp’s high-profile girlfriends, his association with bands like Oasis, the Butthole Surfers, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and the fact that he got caught tossing things around a hotel room. In September 1994, Depp made all the papers when he was arrested at New York’s Mark Hotel and charged with two counts of criminal mischief after allegedly trashing the hotel room where he was staying with Moss. It was perhaps his biggest–and most ironic–media moment: The boy who became a household face playing a copy on TV, then satirized the copy by getting arrested in Cry Baby, was now in the pages of People wearing a ski hat and sunglasses, being escorted to the 19th Precinct in handcuffs.
“People did a piece on me like I was some kind of hellion on the road to ruin,” Depp says. “And they went out and found the picture that made me look the most unhealthy and debauched and put it on the cover. Such disgusting pigs.”
Have you ever spent a fair amount of time with a writer, trusted them, and then they twisted the story around and wrote some slasher piece about you?
“Absolutely,” Depp says.
Want to yell at anyone?
“There was this cretin at Esquire magazine–and they were cunts, man–it was after the Mark incident, and this guy had a hard-on for me in the worst way, it was so apparent, he wore it all over his face and his clothing–it was all over him. And when I showed up for the photo shoot, they had built an entire hotel suite on stage. And this fuckin’ weak pathetic photographer–this glorified paparazzi–was going along with this idea. And I said, ‘What’s this for?’ and he said, ‘Well, we thought, or the magazine thought, you might enjoy taking the piss out of the incident and just beating the s**t out of this hotel room and just f**king destroying it.’ I said. ‘Wow, this must have cost you a lot of money, building this.’ ‘Yeah, it really did,’ he said. And I said, ‘I’m not f**king touching it.'”
Back at the table in the bar of Depp’s house, I pull out a copy of a cheezy unauthorized biography called Johnny Depp: A Modern Rebel. There is a picture of him as Cry Baby on the cover–leather jacket, Elvis hair, a tattooed tear dripping from his left eye–but the irony of Waters’ creation is completely lost in this context. It looks earnest.
Getting arrested in front of a camera may have been the most effective scene in Depp’s image-killing campaign, but the incident launched a whole new set of labels. “A modern rebel,” Depp says, laughing, holding the book. “Someone showed this to me, and at first I was like, ‘Oh f**k.’ But then–check this out…” He turns to the introduction and points to the first photo in the book. It’s a full-page shot: gelled hair, face half-buried in the crook of his arm, one eye peeking out at the reader. It isn’t him. Depp laughs and says the guy in the photo looks like he’s from New Jersey or something, that he has never tight-rolled his jeans like that, and most importantly, the guy in the picture can grow a beard–Depp can’t. He hands the book back to me with a smile that seems almost proud. “That’s what makes this book f**king genius.”