By Tony Fletcher
Photographs by Patrick Demarchelier
Johnny Depp is 26 but looks 18. The cop show 21 Jump Street has made him America’s most famous teen idol—so famous in fact that cult director John Waters paid him a million dollars for his first starring movie role, in Cry-Baby, due out this summer. Rock star good looks aside, Depp also boasts an intriguing bad-boy past—perfect credentials for another ready-made movie hero. Tony Fletcher meets him in Baltimore.
At the top of Johnny Depp’s lean and muscular right arm, above the fading tattoo of an Indian chief’s headdress, are two words that were etched into the actor’s skin for all eternity only months ago. They read “Winona Forever,” a public and permanent declaration of the 26-year-old’s love for his pregnant fiancée, actress Winona Ryder. [Editor’s note: the reporter’s assumption that Ms. Ryder was pregnant proved false.]
But if Depp hopes that the tattoo will persuade his legion of young female followers to search elsewhere for a hero, he is mistaken. The previous evening, at the premiere in Baltimore of the new John Waters movie Cry-Baby, a high-camp musical comedy in which Depp has the title role, the star was mobbed by hordes of screaming girls. Waters’ decision to base all his films in his home city of Baltimore has made him something of a local hero, but on this occasion it was Depp who stole the limelight. Even the sight of Winona Ryder clinging happily to his arm failed to deter the teeny-boppers from screaming out their undying love for this high school dropout and failed rock musician.
Depp’s co-stars in Cry-Baby—a send-up of the teen rebel movie genre of the 50s that has Depp as a delinquent “Drape” determined to win the love of a stunning “Square”—are no less subtle in their admiration of his physique. Amy Locane, an innocent 18-year-old from a Catholic girls’ school in suburban New Jersey, who plays his leading lady Allison, confesses that she almost fainted when required to do a love scene with Depp during the second day of rehearsals. Kim McGuire, who plays a convincingly ugly Drape called Hatchet Face, makes no secret of her desire to have been in Locane’s place. And Rikki Lake—the amiably hefty actress who found overnight success as Tracey Turnblad in Waters’ previous movie Hairspray—simply describes Depp as, “One of the most beautiful men I’ve ever seen.”
“Wow!” laughs Depp when confronted with these compliments. “I guess I must owe them money!” In torn jeans and T-shirt, his disheveled hair partly hidden by a bandanna, his face unshaven and his lips curled around a cigarette, Depp’s casual appearance only emphasizes his desirable street-tough image. He seems out of place in the plush surroundings of Baltimore’s luxury Harbor Court Hotel, where he is undertaking an arduous promotional schedule for Cry-Baby, but as he relaxes on a sofa in a private suite he is the perfect gentleman; polite, attentive, modest and forthright.
The TV series 21 Jump Streethas now enjoyed four stunningly successful seasons in the States, much of which is attributed to Depp’s role as Officer Tom Hanson, one of a group of young undercover cops assigned to watch over (and frequently infiltrate) high schools, youth clubs and gangs. Playing Hanson, Depp comes across as a younger, scruffier version of Miami Vice star Don Johnson, a good-looking tough guy with his finger on the trigger and one eye on the girls. It is a performance that apparently garners around 10,000 fan letters a week, but one that Depp, frustrated with his pin-up status, was determined not to perpetuate in his first starring role on the big screen.
Yet the majority of scripts he was presented with were designed for Hanson the character rather than Depp the actor. They were, he says, “the same thing that’s been done a hundred-and-fifty-times over, which is the gun-toting, Lycra-bodysuited, girl-kissing, posing, action, fast cars blowing up, fighting, coiffed-hair-type of guy. I just knew I didn’t want to do that.”
As Depp was despairing of being offered a decent role, far away from Los Angeles in the hip east coast community of Baltimore John Waters was searching for his very own James Dean. Waters, whose credits as a writer/director include such bad taste cult classics as Mondo Trasho and Pink Flamingos (in which the late drag artist Divine achieved infamy by swallowing dog turds on camera), had finally entered the mainstream with the delightful Hairspray in 1988. Now he wanted to step further back in time from that film’s early 60s setting to 1954, when the seeds of rock’n’roll were being sown by the first juvenile delinquents. For the leading role of Cry-Baby, a rockabilly-obsessed, guitar-playing teenager who sheds a tear each day for his father (a crazed bomber sent to the electric chair), Waters wanted a genuine pin-up. While he was searching through the proliferation of American teen mags for inspiration, he was continually confronted by one face: that of Johnny Depp.
“I thought, ‘This guy looks great,’” recalls Waters, who was even more delighted to see Depp described in the teen press as a “juvenile delinquent.” When the pair met to discuss the part, Depp’s appearance sealed the role without the need for an audition. “He came in dressed completely in rags,” said Waters, “with Levi’s ripped to his underpants, boxer shorts hanging out through the holes, hair completely askew . . . and he looked really like a movie star.”
An enormous fan of Waters’ happy-go-lucky kitsch films, Depp’s only fear when offered the chance to star in one was that Cry-Baby’s character as the local tough guy and sex symbol was uncannily close to the public persona that he was determined to shake off.
“I said, ‘I you want to get rid of it, make fun of it,’” Waters explains. It was the same advice he had given ex-porn-star Traci Lords, who plays a tough, sexy Drape in the movie. (In an inspired bout of casting, Cry-Baby also includes former kidnapped heiress Patty Hearst, and punk grandfather Iggy Pop.) “All of them have to make fun of themselves a little bit to be in my movies,” Waters says.
Depp says he relished the opportunity to send up “the labels and the image . . . that manufactured thing,” but admits that much of his younger audience might not appreciate the parody. The advertising campaign in particular seems to polish, rather than demolish, Depp’s image.
“It would seem that way, wouldn’t it,” the actor acknowledges, studying a promotional poster in which his face, accentuated by sharp cheekbones, embellished with a tear and rounded off by a dripping lock of greased hair, rests on Amy Locane’s reclining chest, her 50s-style torpedo bra jutting towards his chin. “Maybe it’s just the pastels—the pink and the turquoise together,” he says lightheartedly, while admitting that the catchphrase—“He’s a doll, he’s a dreamboat, he’s a delinquent”—also plays up his looks. “Yeah, it would appear that I’m doing ‘teen guy’ stuff,” he concludes. “But it’s really all a very big joke. And last night, at the premiere, I found out that we achieved what we wanted to achieve, which is that it was a joke, that it was funny. It reeks of John Waters, which is what I wanted. To me, Cry-Baby is like Grease on psychedelics.”
Without knowing it, Depp has been in training for the part of Cry-Baby all his life. Born in Kentucky in 1963, his family moved to south Florida when he was eight. Four years later, his mother bought him his first guitar, from which point, “that was my whole life.” After fooling around with local garage bands, Depp and friends formed The Kids, a punk-influenced group who supported such established bands as U2, The Ramones, the B-52s, REM and Depp’s future uncle in Cry-Baby, Iggy Pop.
His search for rock’n’roll glory caused him to drop out of high school at the age of 18 [Editor’s note: Johnny was actually 16 when he dropped out], but The Kids’ determination proved to be their very downfall. “We got caught up in that ‘big fish in a small pond syndrome’ and decided we weren’t really getting anywhere in Florida,” recalls Depp. So in 1983 they moved to L.A. Despite the occasional decent support slot, The Kids, now called Six Gun Method and playing a U2/Big Country hybrid, were suddenly mere minnows in a very large pond, and Depp had to resort to selling ink pens over the phone to pay his rent. Even his hasty marriage, to a girl called Lori whom he met on his arrival in L.A. [Editor’s note: another error; Johnny met and married Lori Anne Allison in Florida], collapsed within two years.
It was the classic Hollywood fairy tale gone wrong, but Depp had established a clique of friends, and one of them, the actor Nicolas Cage, suggested he meet his agent. She in turn immediately sent Depp out to audition for a low-budget horror movie by Wes Craven and, to his surprise, Depp landed a major part in A Nightmare on Elm Street as Glen, the heroine’s boyfriend who is swallowed up by a his bed and spewed out as “a hundred-and-ten gallons of cow blood, red dye and paint.”
The film was a roaring success, but more so for its memorable villain Freddy Kreuger than Depp’s performance. A bit part in the award-winning Platoon followed, but still Depp’s sights remained firmly set on music. Six Gun Method had split up in anger over Depp’s burgeoning acting career, so Depp played in a Stray Cats-style band called Rock City Angels before landing the role of Hanson in the new TV series 21 Jump Street.
At the time of its launch, Jump Street was considered radical, tackling “real” issues such as AIDS and racism and refusing to conform to television’s conventional “happy ending” syndrome. Now, as Depp waits to hear about a fifth season—he is contractually obliged to appear in two more seasons if asked to—he seems determined to bad mouth the show into dropping him.
“It’s been great for me, it’s put me on the map, it’s given me a following of sorts, and I’m happy with that,” he says as a precursor to his attack on Jump Street. “But in my opinion, I feel that I’ve run the gamut of anything you can possibly do on that show. I don’t think I have anything more to offer on the show. I’ve had six nervous breakdowns—I’ve lost my father on the show, I’ve lost girlfriends who’ve been killed on the show, I’ve supposedly murdered a cop and went to prison for it . . . I don’t know that people wouldn’t have found me out after all that stuff! We’re heading into Fellini. And also, I don’t really agree with the idea of cops in high schools. Morally I don’t agree with it. I think it’s slightly unjust, I think it’s borderline fascism.”
Hastening to add that this “just my opinion,” Depp acknowledges that his stubborn artistic nature—he has refused to appear in episodes that have conflicted with his personal and political beliefs—has not endeared him to the show’s producers.
“The one thing I don’t think they like about me is that I’m honest about it. That type of honesty can make for problems. But I do respect them, and I do respect what the show has done. At the same time, if it gets repetitive it could be dangerous. If they’re going to tackle issues like racism they should really do it, instead of beating around the bush.”
Depp evidently also feels bitterness towards the show for creating the teen idol image he is now burdened with. “The people who wear the ties and sign the checks needed to put a label on the product, so they went for the thing that would sell. And basically what they did was they took the personality of the character that I was playing on the TV series, associated it with my name, exploited that, and gave people this sold-and-stuffed-down-the-throats-of-America idea of what they thought I was. And they [Americans] bought it. And it’s not me at all.”
If Cry-Baby sends up that image without quite destroying it, at least it has demonstrated the lucrative rewards of being such hot property, bringing Depp a million dollars up front for the chance to work with his heroes. “If they want to pay me for that, I’ll take it,” he says with a wry grin. “But I couldn’t have paid for a better vacation.”
“All through the movie, he’d say ‘John Waters made me a millionaire—whoever would have thought it?’” recounts Waters himself, who started out shooting black-and-white movies for under $10,000 on 8mm film. With an $8 million budget, Cry-Baby cost more than all his other 10 movies put together, but Waters has no qualms about working with Hollywood companies and million-dollar stars. Depp “deserved every penny,” says Waters. “I’m completely for movie stars. That’s why I started making movies, and that’s why people go to the movies. I like the surrealness and the fakeness of being a movie star. I tell Johnny, ‘Keep working so much and eventually you’ll never be able to go out of the house.’ And that’s the goal.”
In Waters’ warped view of celluloid infamy, that might well be the goal, but in Depp’s subdued, reluctant acceptance of fame and fortune, it definitely isn’t. “I don’t think any of us would have gotten into this business if we weren’t in one way or another starved of attention,” he admits. “But it’s an uncomfortable feeling to be on display at all times. I try and keep my head down and not look at it. I figure if you don’t see it, it’s not there.”
Naturally, this approach fails completely. Depp is mobbed almost everywhere he goes. Rikki Lake understands why: “His persona is that of a movie star. He’s got that charisma. It’s plain to see.” But, perhaps as a result of his struggling rock’n’roll past, his actual personality is far from your typical spoilt movie brat. “He’s very much a man’s man,” says Traci Lords. “He doesn’t act like a star. He’s not egotistical, he’s not hung up, he’s not an idiot. He’s just very relaxed, very easy to work with, and very much in love right now.”
Johnny Depp and Winona Ryder’s affair is the sort of romance that tabloid newspapers dream of. The pair met on the set of Batman director Tim Burton’s new movie Edward Scissorhands, [Editor’s Note: another inaccuracy; they had actually met previously.] which Depp describes as “a classic fable, almost like Beauty and the Beast or Pinocchio, about a guy that has scissors for fingers and his first steps in suburban life.” Once more Depp plays the title role, and by the time the film is released in the States this Christmas, he will be married to his leading lady and father of her child. [Editor’s note: neither event happened.]
They’re the perfect couple,” says Rikki Lake. “Physically, they look so similar, it’s amazing.” Twenty-one-year-old Lake, who plays Depp’s perpetually pregnant younger sister in Cry-Baby, says she feels like his sibling in real life, too. A friend of both Depp and Ryder, she played a part in hooking the new family up.
Rikki was definitely a cupid of sorts,” Depp acknowledges. “When we were doing Cry-Baby, she told me about Winona, and besides, she had also talked to Winona about me, which was pretty great of her.”
Discussion of Winona, who in the brilliant Heathers also starred in a send-up of the teen movie genre, gets Johnny Depp positively glassy-eyed. “I love her more than anything else in the whole world,” he says, quite unashamedly. Which is just as well; with the new tattoo that he proudly shows off to all who ask, he will be living with Winona forever whether he likes it or not.