UK Sky 02 / 1991

Johnny Deeper

Michael Jackson was interested in the part. So was Tom Cruise. But the title role in Edward Scissorhands went to former teen-idol Johnny Depp. Described by one movie director as  “he best looking gas-station attendant who ever lived”, Depp looks set to finally shed his pretty boy image an emerge as a serious actor. Bill Zehme met him in LA….

Johnny Depp is his real name. As a boy he was ridiculed for it. In the schoolyard he was called Dipp. Or Deppity Dawg. Later he was called Johnny Deeper, this being based upon a popular adolescent joke he barely remembers:

“Something about some guy having sex with some girl who kept saying, ‘Johnny, deeper!'”

The day we meet he extends his hand to shake mine, except that his hand is more like a piece of weaponry. In place of fingers there are blades. We are on a Twentieth Century Fox sound stage where he is making Edward Scissorhands, his second major film, in which he portrays the man-made boy with scissors for fingers. He laughs quietly at his own comic gesture.

Later we meet one morning in a coffee shop, where Winona Ryder, his movie-star fiancee, has left him before driving off to do some errands. He is smoking too much and drinking too much coffee. He says he is enslaved by caffeine and nicotine and doesn’t sound proud of it. “I like to be pumped up and hacking phlegm at the same time,” he says wryly.

“Coupla tequila worms flying out here and there;’ Depp says, but he is joking about that. He hasn’t touched the hard stuff for a solid month, maybe longer. Depp is as dryas he’s ever been in all of his 27 years.

Nobody recognises Depp in public places, not while I am with him. He doesn’t stand out much. Yes, he continues to be a teen idol and a heart-throb (“a throbbing thing;’ he calls himself), but frankly he looks like someone else. Director John Waters, who cast Depp as a delinquent grease ball in the film Cry Baby, used to imagine him as “the best looking gas-station attendant who ever lived”. Or, as Waters later told me appreciatively “Johnny could play a wonderfully sexy mass murderer. I mean, it is a part made for him.” Which is to say, there is shadiness to Depp. He looks attractively unwashed. (“Nobody looks better in rags;’ said Waters of the basic Depp sartorial statement.)

If Depp is anything, he is interesting. He takes the big risks. Though Michael Jackson expressed an early interest, Tom Cruise, the rumour goes, wanted to play the role of tragic, disfigured Edward Scissorhands – but only if his face was cosmetically restored by the end of the film. Not Depp. He wore Edward’s scars like medals. And he wore the unwieldy, imposing hand shears with brio, recognising the lyric poetry in Edward’s fateful curse. (Edward, who cannot touch anything without slashing it, is a metaphor for the outsider in all of us, including Depp, who knows what it’s like to be mocked for being a little different. He is, after all, a teen idol.) “He certainly was closest to the image of the character;’ says Tim Burton, who directed Depp in Edward, Jack Nicholson in Batman, Michael Keaton in Beetlejuice and Pee-Wee Herman in Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure: “Like Edward, Johnny really is perceived as something he is not. Before we met, I’d certainly read about him as the Difficult Heart-throb. But you look at him and you get a feeling. There is a lot of pain and humour. and darkness and light. I think for him therote is probably very personal. It’s just a very strong internal feeling of loneliness. It’s not something he talks about or even can talk about, because it’s sad, ya know. What are ya gonna do?”

“If there’s any movie in the history of the entireworld,and even inthe history of any literature, Edward Scissorhands was the movie I would want to do. And I fuckin’ did it. When I first saw it, I was scared, because I kept thinking, ‘God, I just can’t believe I did this fuckin’ movie;” says Depp.

But then Depp is an impassloneo, if unlikely, aesthete. He is a high-school dropout with a lust for first editions. Once I saw him pay $75 for a rare Hemingway as if it were a pack of Marlboros, and I noticed the swagger in his stride when he carried the book off. He cites Jack Kerouac and JD Salinger, two idols, with staggering frequency. His most prized possession – and one that cost him a good portion of his burgeoning fortune – is a book on black culture in whose margins Kerouac has scribbled and doodled. “It’s a piece of history;’ he tells me reverently. “I look at it every day:’ .

And then there is fine art: “Gacy!” Depp says excitedly, in reference to imprisoned mass murderer John Wayne Gacy who used to dress in a clown costume and bury his victims under his house. In the coffee shop I hand him an order form listing Gacy’s latest oil paintings, knowing that Depp is the owner of a Gacy clown portrait. (Depp, incidentally, lives in mortal fear of clowns.) “The Hi Ho Series!”; he exclaims, impressed. “Shit!” He peruses the form, shudders, then tells me that he’s got rid of his Gacy canvas. “When I got it, I heard the money was going to the victims’ families;’ he says, but later he suspects otherwise. “The paintings are really scary and weird and great, but I don’t want to contribute to something as evi I as that:’

Depp likes to walk. “It’s good butt exercise;’ he tells me as we walk along Los Angeles’ Beverly Boulevard. “It’s good for the rump:’ Depp, it turns out, has no car. He does have a broken truck. For a long time he had no home. He and Winona moved from hotel to hotel before they recently got a place in Beverly:Hilis. They did share a loft in New York for.a brief time, but they tired of the East Coast. So they came west where no one walks except Depp. But even on foot, Depp is like a dedicated motorist, ever vigilant of traffic minutiae. “Your seat belt! Your seat belt!” he shouts into the snarl of the traffic. Depp has spotted a man driving with his seat belt dragging out on the pavement and can’t bear to think of the consequences. He also spots a woman driving with her door ajar. “Your door!” he yells. “Your door is operrt”

By now Depp’s origins are familiar to most functioning Americans – although he is still relatively unknown here, in the States he is a massive star.

Born in Owensboro, Kentucky, the self-styled barbecue capital of the world, Depp was the fourth child of John Depp, a city engineer, and his wife, Betty Sue, a waitress. (Her famous son would later have her name tattooed above his left bicep, so asto balance the Indian chieftattooed on his right one, a talisman of his partial Cherokee bloodline.) Depp was a small boy, so early on he learned to rely on his fists. Eventually his family settled in Miramar, Florida, when Depp was seven.

Rebellious in school, he was once suspended for mooning at a gym teacher. He learned to smoke by age 12 and then drink and finally take drugs. By 14, however, he is said to have sworn off drugs forever. Two years later his parents divorced,and, soon after, Depp quit high school to join a rock band called The Kids, who became a local sensation and opening act for the likes of Talking Heads, the B-52’s and Iggy Pop. (He remembers that his first words to Iggy Pop, one of his heroes and later a friend, were, inexplicably, “Fuck you, fuck you, fuck you:’ In response, a perplexed Pop called him a “little turd”.)

At 20 he married Lori Anne Allison, a 25- year-old musician and relative of a band mate, and together (band included) they left Florida for Hollywood, where The Kids broke up and so did Depp and Lori. Alone and starving, Depp turned to acting and made his screen debut in the original Nightmare On Elm Street as a guy swallowed by a bed. (Grateful to this day for that break, Depp will appear in the next Elm Street sequel as a cameo murder victim.) Then came Platoon, in which Depp played an interpreter who dies off-camera. But his movie career would have to wait: Depp became, for four years, America’s favourite boy detective.

He ‘was undercover high-school cop Tom Hanson in Fox’s 21 Jump Street, a television series Depp hated and never saw more than six episodes of. Still, it transformed him into the major show-business figure he is today, and, better still, girls loved him. Beautiful actresses flocked to his side. Before it was over there were two failed engagements: to Sherilyn Fenn (‘(win Peaks) and to Jennifer Grey (Dirty Dancing). Then the TV show was cancelled. But by now John Waters had hired him to star as the misunderstood hood Cry Baby Walker -his first big-screen lead role- in the troubled-teen musical Cry Baby And it was at that time he met Winona Ryder.

The following day Winona Ryder arrives with Depp. She is smoking his Cigarettes, and she is not a smoker.

Hands locked, they descend upon Barney’s Beanery, a frequent haunt, for caffeine, which they now take in desperate helpings. She wears a Tom Waits T-shirt and Depp’s engagement ring. She is saying, “I’d never seen anyone get a tattoo before, so I was pretty squeamish, I guess.” Depp chuckles and says, “She kept taking the bandage off and staring at it afterwards.” They are talking about WINONA FOREVER, the third and final (for now) Depp tattoo, eternally etched onto his right shoulder. (Depp tells me he plans to have his tattoos – pickled after his death as keepsakes for his children. should there be any.) This one was carved on at a nearby tattoo parlour as Winona watched with awe. “I sort of was in shock;’ she says. “I kept thinking it was going to wash off or something. I couldn’t believe it was real:’ Her eyes widen. “I mean. it’s a big thing. because it’s so permanent!” 

“It ain’t goin’ nowhere;’ Depp says. Over hash and eggs. they then trace the history of their romance for me: He knew her work (Beetlejuice. Heathers). and she knew his. but they did not know each other. At the premiere of Great Balls Of Fire. a film in which she played Jerry Lee Lewis’s child bride. they spotted each other from across the room. “I was getting a Coke;’ Ryder says. “It was a classic glance;’ he says. “like the zoom lenses in West Side Story. and everything else gets foggy’ She says. “It wasn’t a long moment. but it was suspended.” He says. “I knew then:’ They did not meet that night though.

Months later. a mutual friend dragged her to Depp’s hotel room at the Chateau Marmont. where John Belushi last drew breath. and this is where they began. “I thought maybe he would be ajerk,” she says. “I didn’t know. But he was really. really shy:’ They knew it was love when they both professed deep feelings for Salinger and the soundtrack of the film The Mission. Theirfirst date. a few weeks later. was a party atthe Hollywood Hills home of counterculture guru Dr Timothy Leary. who is Ryder’s godfather. “We were kinda blessed;’ says Depp, a Beat disciple. As it happens Winona’s father is an esteemed Beat bookseller in Petaluma. California. where she and Depp spend their weekends. “My parents really love him a lot;’ she tells me. Depp says: “It could have been easy not to like me. Other people might have just seen tattoos:’

Tim Burton calls the couple a “kind of an evil version of Tracy and Hepburn.” Which is to say. as celebrity couples go. these two are dark. spunky. glamorous and resilient. all requisite traits in this cynical age. And they need them. Tabloid photographers terrorise them at airports. and tabloid reporters regu larly report imaginary squalls and breakups. So he gets angry. and she gets incredulous. Winona: “They try to trip me up at airports!” Depp: “What’s shittyabout it is they feel like you owe them! That you should stop dead in your tracks and let them piss on you!” Winona: “I will say that there are some really nice ones:’ Depp: “A couple of them are real nice.” Winona: “But aren’t we allowed to be in a bad mood sometimes? Everybody else is:’

We meet Jesus after lunch. Winona leaves (taking the car again). and Depp and I step out into daylight and see a miracle. There. on Santa Monica Boulevard. in front of the Beanery. stands a man who looks very much like the Son of God – in pictures. at least. He is swaddled in robes. his face is serene. his eyes benevolent. his hair long. his beard crisp. and he wears Reeboks.

Depp compliments him on his clothing.

“I have always dressed like this;’ says the man in a soft. commanding voice. What. Depp asks. is his name? “Jesus;’ the man says. although he uses the Hispanic pronunciation (Hay-zoos). Where has he come from? “Oh, I don’t know.” he says. “Heaven:’ His age? “Over forty.” Why is he in Los Angeles? “I’m here for a special occasion:’ What is the occasion? “I like it here:’ Where does he like it best? “Beverly Hills.” At which point Depp whispers to me. “Apocalypse. Second Coming. Armageddon:’

“You want a cigarette for the road?” Depp asks him. Jesus assented. and together the robed one and the young actor smoked for a while. “Take the pack;’ Depp tells him. “I can buy some more:’ Afterwards. Depp seems thrilled. “I smoked with Christ!” he exclaims.

“I wish I could grow more facial hair;’ he says that evening. bemoaning the wispiness of his whiskers. “I can only get an Oriental sort of beard:’ Spooning up corn chowder in a tiny restaurant. he is openly penitent about his “younger. hellion. hitting-the-sauce kind of days:’ He owns up to his short fuse: “I’ve got a bit of a temper:’ He speaks of a tussle or two and of the circumstances surrounding his arrest in Vancouver during his 21 Jump Street tenure. Apparently. he tried to visit some friends late one night in their hotel. where Depp himself had once lived. and a security guard got in his way. “The guy had a boner for me;’ Depp says. “He had a wild hair up his ass. and he got real mouthy with me. saying;’! know who you are. but you can’t come up unless you’re a guest here: The mistake he eventually made was to put his hands on me. I pushed him back. and then we sort of wrestled around a bit, and I ended up spittin’ in his face:’

The police didn’t want to hear Depp’s story.

He was jailed for a night. fingerprinted. posed for mug shots (“I wish I could have them”). and in the morning he walked.

But most of the stories about Depp are not about violence – they are about women. He has been engaged to four women – including the one he married. Even now there are constant rumours that he and Winona are splitting up.

“I knew this was gonna come up;’ he says. looking stricken. But Depp is nothing if not courageous. “I’ve never been one of those guys who goes out and screws everything that’s in front of him …. When you’re growing up, you go through a series of miSjudgments. Not bad choices. but wrong choices …. You know. people make mistakes. We all fuck up …. I was really young for the longest time. We were young. My relationships weren’t as heavy as people think they were. I don’t know what it is. possibly I was trying to rectify my family’s situation or I was just madly in love …. You’re the first Person that I’ve talked to about this kind of stuff. And I’m being really honest with you when I say that there’s been nothing ever throughout my twenty-seven years that’s comparable to the feeling I have with Winona …. lts like this weird. bounding atom or something. You can think something is the real thing. but it’s different when you feel it. The truth is very powerful. Now I know. Believe me. this WINONA FOREVER tattoo is not something I took lightly …. Her eyes kill me:’

He then says this about his engagement to Winona: “People don’t realise this. but we’ve been together almost a year and a half. Out of any. whatever thing I’ve been through before. it hasn’t been this long. It wasn’t like ‘Hi, nice to meet you. here’s a ring: It was about five months [before we got engaged]. They thought we ran away to Las Vegas and got married:’ When would their nuptials actually transpire? “The wedding thing?” he says. “We’re just gonna do it when we both have time. because we both know we’re gonna end up working in the next couple of months. And we want to be able to do it when we can get hitched and then go away for a few months. Leave the country. just go wandering around. and be on a beach somewhere with tropical drinks.”

On my last day with Depp I pick him up at home. which isn’t really home but a small bungalow he and Winona are briefly renting. (Their new house is not yet habitable.) Depp is on the kitchen phone. pacing furiously. Heaps of laundry and luggage and books clutter the livingroom floor. A stray cat is wandering round the house. Winona is out. Mail is strewn about. Depp tells me about his fan mail. unique in its female pubic-hair content – “I’ve gotten some weird pubes” is how he puts it. We get into my car and drive.

We pass a coffee shop adorned with a giant rooster. “I have one of those;’ he says. meaning the rooster. “I have a nine-foot rooster.1 have the biggest cock in Los Angeles:’

This is the old Depp, spry and antic as ever.

He sees a dog and says. COincidentally. that he bases his Edward Scissorhands performance on a dog.

“He had this unconditional love;’ says Depp, who probably cherishes that role above any other in the Depp repertoire. “He was this totally pure. completely open character. the sweetest thing in the world. whose appearance is incredibly dangerous – until you get a look at his eyes. I missed Edward when I was done. I really missed him:’

We drive to the escape artist Harry Houdini’s house. which isn’t really a house but a scattering of ruins perched above Laurel Canyon. Houdini’s ruins. they say. are haunted. Depp reads from a guide book: “Nearby Canyon residents tell of strange happenings on the hilltop site.” Depp, incidentally. believes that he was once Houdini. So we drop over to see if anything looks familiar to him. We scale a steep hill and find a crumbling staircase and little else. “There’s no house.” says Depp, disappointed. “I bet this was a really romantic place at night;’ he adds dreamily.

The myths of the Hollywood Hills enchant Depp endlessly. “I would love to buy Bela t.ugosi’s old house.” he says. “Or Errol Flynrrs. Or Charlie Chaplins. I want some old. depressing history to call my own. Plus. I love the idea of a view.” He sits in silent reverie. but within moments is overtaken with purpose. “I think I just have to make a lot of cash.the says calmly. “I also think I want to be a sheik. I want to be the sheik of Hollywood. What do you have to do to become a sheik. anyway? I wonder if it just takes cash .. ” 

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