The waitress at a seedy West Hollywood cafe and pool hall has just slid a plate of bacon and eggs under actor Johnny Depp’s goateed chin when his cellular phone rings.
It’s Jeremy Leven, the writer and director of the romantic comedy, Don Juan DeMarco, calling back about a message Depp had left regarding the previous day’s film footage. Does he want to come watch?
“No, uh, it’s just for my friends,” Depp said.
The former teen idol’s fans may be holding their breaths in anticipation of his next screen appearance, but today wild horses couldn’t drag Depp to face his image on celluloid. The one and only time the actor braved viewing the daily unedited film takes on his first movie, A Nightmare on Elm Street, he became physically ill. He has refused to watch them since.
“I’m better off not even seeing the (finished) movie,” he explained.
While he may not be able to do so himself, moviegoers soon will be able to see the 31-year-old actor’s portrayal of a Queens, N.Y., man who’s convinced he’s the legendary Spanish lover Don Juan. Depp’s blend of machismo, charm and sexuality in this film will surprise even those who caught the former 21 Jump Street star’s deft but boyish performances in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape and Ed Wood.
It was Depp who suggested Marlon Brando for the role of Jack Mickler, the burned-out psychiatrist assigned to convince DeMarco that he’s nuts. In the process, however, his patient’s passion proves so contagious that it rekindles Mickler’s waning love for his wife, Marilyn (Faye Dunaway).
“When I was reading the screenplay, I kept seeing (Brando) in the role,” said Depp. “People weren’t very hopeful because there’s some myth about him.” (Not to mention the fact that it had been four years since Brando’s last role in Andrew Bergman’s Godfather-spoofing The Freshman.)
But just because it was his idea didn’t make the thought of playing opposite Brando any easier, admitted Depp: “We all know the myth, but to meet the man . . .” As it turned out, the experience was far less intimidating than he anticipated. “From the first second I met him, I was instantly comfortable,” said Depp.
Like his title character in Ed Wood, the role of Don Juan DeMarco appealed to the actor’s slightly anachronistic sense of chivalry. “(Ed Wood is) one of those guys from the ’40s who were real gentlemen—very charming, loyal to his people,” he explained. “Don Juan was also very chivalrous. Those guys don’t exist anymore. Everybody is trying too hard to be hip or be accepted.”
Depp says he made up his character, who sports a mask, suede pants and buccaneer shirt through much of the movie, from bits of swashbuckler Errol Flynn, blended with a dash of Ricardo Montalban and Fernando Lamas.
His own chivalrous nature, as well as a natural shyness, made the movie’s many love scenes more than a little painful for the actor. For one fantasy sequence shot in Los Angeles’ art deco train station lobby, for example, he had to enter a harem filled with 250 women in various stages of undress.
The first thing I felt was uncomfortable,” recalled the actor. “They’re always trying to get women out of their clothes. It’s such an exploitive industry. I always want to make sure the girl is OK, comfortable. If she has any reservations, I don’t do it. But it’s sort of hard to go around to 250 girls and say, ‘Are you OK with this?'”
A more practical problem Depp faced in playing the lover on screen were the tattoos plastered all over his body. That helps explain why there isn’t too much equality in the film’s exposure department. “I have no aversion to nudity, but tattoos don’t cover well with makeup,” he said. “If they were to show, the viewer would be completely vacuumed out of the movie. It wouldn’t be Don Juan, it would be, ‘There’s Johnny’s tattoos.’ That’s a drawback.”
Tattooed and unshaven, outfitted in leather jacket and paint-spattered jeans, Depp is the epitome of bad boy chic and a bit of a Don Juan himself. Ex-girlfriends include Sherilyn Fenn, Jennifer Grey and Winona Ryder. His latest flame is superwaif model Kate Moss. But a part of Depp still sees himself as the 17-year-old “gas station geek” back in Miramar, Fla.
“I was not the most popular kid in school,” he said. “I always felt like an absolute and total freak. Edward Scissorhands. That feeling of wanting to be accepted but not knowing how to be accepted as you are, honestly.”
It was 10 years ago that Depp came to Los Angeles with his band the Kids. When a record contract didn’t materialize, his buddy Nicolas Cage suggested he try acting. Cage introduced Depp to his agent, and the agent sent him to see director Wes Craven, who was casting his next horror movie, A Nightmare on Elm Street. Next up was Oliver Stone’s Platoon, but most of his scenes landed on the cutting room floor.
Depp was broke and considering a return to his guitar when an offer came to join the cast of a new Fox series called 21 Jump Street, which made him a star overnight but failed to offer an acting challenge.
He cleverly broke out of the teen idol mold by spoofing it in John Waters’ Cry-Baby, following that with quirky outsiders in Edward Scissorhands, Benny & Joon and Gilbert Grape. Next he plans to do a drama with director Jim Jarmusch.
“I’m not really looking for those step-in-there-and-kiss-the-girl leading man parts,” he said. “You need to keep doing stuff that stimulates. The possibility that you might screw up keeps it exciting.”
Most nights after work, you can find Depp at his Sunset Boulevard club, the Viper Room, which became notorious in late 1993 following River Phoenix’s overdose on the sidewalk outside.
Recently, though, the actor has begun plotting an escape from Los Angeles—possibly to the south of France—reminiscent of Brando’s own flight to Tahiti at the height of his fame.
“There’s a part of me that would like to have a place with endless land around me,” he said, “a haven in the country—somewhere you could ride a horse, or ride your bike and wouldn’t have to worry about 800 greedy people trying to get somewhere half a second in front of everyone else.”
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