At 30, he’s the critically acclaimed King of Quirky. Is he too cool to care? Or has he just taken the slow road to success?
Johnny Depp appears to be in a trance. His eyes are glazed, registering something halfway between panic and pure bliss; his arms twitch in a kind of slow motion; his famously bowed lips are frozen in a secretive semi-smile.
This is how Depp behaves when he’s really happy. He is standing in his favorite store, the Heritage Book Shop, on Melrose Avenue, in Hollywood, staring at a stack of letters—unpublished correspondence between two well-known writers (whose names Depp has requested be kept off the record in case he buys them)—on a desk. Moments before, Depp’s arrival caused a cheery flutter of greetings from the staff, all of whom the actor knows by name. “This is where he gets into trouble,” says owner Lou Weinstein with a wink.
The 30-year-old actor has been coming here since he arrived in L.A. from Miramar, Fla., some 10 years ago as a high school dropout who thought playing guitar in a rock & roll band was his destiny. “I didn’t have any money, but they were always nice to me,” he says. Though Depp probably looks the same as he did back then—today he’s wearing chinos and a black jacket so frayed it gives new meaning to the word threads—now he can afford the pricey first editions and rare manuscripts that put him over the moon: He’s a movie star.
In the hierarchy of young Hollywood, Depp stands alone. While other actors in his age group compete for the privilege of toting tommy guns, swashbuckling on horseback and diving from planes, he has managed to find roles in movies remarkably free of such clichés. Instead, Depp’s body of work consists of playing innocents who wander quirkier roads: He was the ultimate juvenile delinquent in John Waters’ sublime teen sendup, Cry-Baby (1990), an exploited orphan in Tim Burton’s suburban fairy tale, Edward Scissorhands (1990), and a love-struck dyslexic with Buster Keaton tendencies in last year’s Benny & Joon. Currently he’s onscreen as a grocery delivery boy who has to care for his retarded younger brother and 500-pound mother in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. And mere days ago, he wrapped Ed Wood, his second collaboration with Tim Burton, in which Depp stars in the title role as the legendary bad-movie director with a penchant for wearing women’s clothes.
Depp’s been turning down high-profile, big-studio pictures for some time now. For example, a few years back when he was TV’s actor du jour via 21 Jump Street and Dawn Steel was running Columbia Pictures, she tried convincing him to take a leading role in Point Break. It should have been his big break, but he passed, and it went to Patrick Swayze. “And I’ve just offered him another movie and an enormous amount of money,” confesses Steel, who now heads her own production company at Disney. “And I know he will make the decision not based on anything other than whether or not he likes the part. Rising to the top of the heap is irrelevant to him.”
His friend Faye Dunaway doesn’t buy it. “You may not see him saying, ‘God, I want to make it big in Hollywood,’ but he has—in his soul and in his belly—the fire for good work,” says Dunaway, who co-starred with Depp in Arizona Dream, the 1992 Emir Kusturica movie that has yet to be released stateside. “It would be too easy for him to go for the next Musketeers movie, you know? That’s not what he wants.”
Says Gilbert Grape co-star Juliette Lewis: “A lot of actors and actresses just want to be safe and look really pretty and cool in front of the camera. Johnny’s not like that. He’s in it for the work and for creating.”
As successful as he’s been at constructing a unique American arthouse career, Depp has been unable to control certain aspects of his fame. Although he claims not to understand why anyone cares about his love life, his romantic entanglements make for interesting gossip-column fodder. Married and divorced by the age of 22, he has subsequently been engaged to actresses Sherilyn Fenn, Jennifer Grey and Winona Ryder. His profile rose again when he opened the Viper Room, the Sunset Strip nightspot where rock stars have been known to play impromptu sets. And when River Phoenix collapsed and died outside the club last October, Depp again found himself in the news, held personally responsible for any and all of young Hollywood’s mistakes. Disarmingly friendly (he’ll say hello to passers-by who’ve recognized him) and unfailingly polite, Depp appears serious, responsible and in control of his life. Over endless cups of coffee and legions of cigarettes—his two vices—he responds to questions, his low voice stopping and starting to clarify a point. Darkly handsome to begin with (“I told him I was leaving my husband for him!” jokes Dawn Steel), he becomes more attractive, but for a different reason: He seems like a man who knows who he is.
Are you ever gonna quit smoking?
I’m no quitter.
I quit once for two weeks, and I was really, really miserable. And I had boundless energy, and I was having huge conversations with people I couldn’t stand, and at that point I just thought, What are you doing?! I’m really shocked at this whole nonsmoking thing. I mean, let’s just really go the distance: Let’s make it absolutely against the law to eat between the hours of 9 p.m. And 4 a.m., and let’s make people walk backward, you know? [Mocking] I’m angry about it.
So let’s talk about something more pleasant: Gilbert Grape.
I haven’t seen it yet.
I’m waiting until the last possible second. I think I should see it with a paying audience. I have no way of being objective—I get crazy and make people sick when I watch that stuff. So to see the real reaction would be grounding in a way—not to have those courtesy laughs and applause that happen in screenings.
I confess I went to a screening—a friend and I—and we cried.
Yeah? Good. It’s nice to be affected by something.
Your teeth are kind of gross in the movie—I’m relieved that in person you have lovely teeth.
[Laughs] Yeah, they’re fine. I went to the dentist and had him do some bonding and some chipping for the movie.
And you have lovely red hair in the movie.
[Smiles] Miss Clairol. I don’t remember the number, just that it was redder than red. It had to do with this guy I grew up with, a friend named Bones, who saved my life once. I was doing a really ridiculous thing—I was blowing fire with gasoline in my mouth [shakes his head], and I lit my face on fire. I couldn’t get it out, and Bones put it out. Bones kind of reminded me of Gilbert.
In the movie, your mother is a wreck after her husband leaves and her children have to take care of things. Did that parallel what happened when your parents split?
I wouldn’t say it’s an exact parallel, but, you know, there are elements of being that age and going through that which parallel what Gilbert’s experiences might have been. It’s traumatic for everybody, and especially for a wife. My mom wasn’t well. So we all pulled together and did the best we could. And everything worked out fine. Everybody is happy as . . . a big ball of snot.
What a nice way of putting it. So, hmm, you’re 30. So . . .
Yeah [nods], I’m 30. I’m approaching that area where I find myself thinking about all kinds of things I never thought of before. Like . . . silverware.
Yeah—silverware, plants, furniture and making an effort to be more organized than I’ve ever been. Whereas for 30 years, I had no control over that—I would just throw things, and it was like a filing system . . . But now I’m trying to find a place for everything. It’s interesting. I think it’s just growing up.
I was in this antique store recently, and I saw this set of silverware—it was from the early ‘30s, and it had Bakelite handles—and I thought, Wow, this is really beautiful. So I decided to buy it. As I was leaving the store, I thought, Christ, I just bought silverware! This is insane.
Now you have to get a set of dishes . . .
I know. [Whispers] But I’m a little frightened, a little scared to buy plates . . . I don’t know if I can do it.
So you’re starting to think about all that grown-up stuff.
Part of me does want to be grounded in that way and have a foundation and be amongst my stuff and live quietly, domestically. But the other part of me wants to, you know, rub mud all over my face and climb trees . . . It’s interesting because here I am at 30, and I find the two merging, and it’s easier—it’s not so much oil and vinegar anymore. And the good thing about being a collector of stuff or having that place you’re afraid you’ll be stuck in because all your stuff is there, that you can always pile it up and light it on fire.
So when do you think you’ll be ready to have children?
I don’t know. I just know that I’ve always loved kids, but I’m also frightened of them. Little tiny babies with their little rolling heads [wide-eyed, as if holding a baby], no neck muscles formed yet. They frighten me, you know? But I have a lot of friends who have kids, and it’s great for them, so . . .
Is marriage your ideal?
Yeah, that is certainly the ideal situation. I wouldn’t do it in this town, though. Ideally I’d have a big chunk of land somewhere, not necessarily in this country, maybe in France or something. A wife, kids, a dog, some chickens, a pig, a mule . . . But there is still this part of me that can’t sit around in one spot.
But an actor doesn’t sit around in one spot. Every movie is another location.
Yeah, but one thing about being on a film that’s always uncomfortable for me is that I have to be on the set for a certain time, and I have to be there every day. So for three, four months, I have to be somewhere, and theres a very strong part of me that doesn’t want to have to be anywhere.
Are you saying you’re getting out of the business someday?
Maybe, I’m not sure. I mean, it could all go away in 20 minutes. Anything’s possible. I like the business—more than I ever did, at this point—and I feel myself becoming more adult about the business. But there are other things I want to do. [Pause] I like the process of creating—whether it’s writing—and this is not necessarily for the public, it’s just for me—writing, making little films, drawing, making music for friends, not for any kind of record deal. In the same way, I like acting—I like the collaboration between a filmmaker and an actor, and the grips, because to me all those people are working together and conspiring for me.
What is it about seeing yourself onscreen that makes you queasy?
I don’t know. [Squirming] Everything—it’s just so uncomfortable. I guess, on a real simple level, as an actor, you see things you could have done. [A bird lands at his feet and stares at him as if for food.] Sorry, I don’t have any food. I’ll give him some sugar. [He opens a packet and pours it on the ground.] But also, I’m comfortable with the fact that I may never be satisfied with my work and I like that—I don’t want to be too satisfied. [The bird moves to a tree above his head.] He’s sharpening his beak . . . I think he’s going to shoot himself into the back of my head, burrow into my skull.
That would be really great for this story. You’ve gone far in your 10 years as an actor.
Yeah, I’ve been very, very lucky.
But is it luck, or did you want it that way?
Well, it is the way I wanted it, but people don’t always get what they want. I’ve been lucky that people like John Waters and Tim Burton were willing to take a chance with me.
How did you get Tim to see you?
I resigned myself that he’d never see me in the role [of Edward Scissorhands]. I was sent the script by my agent, read it, thought it was one of the most beautiful things I’d ever read, and my agent said I’d meet with Tim Burton. And I said: “Forget it, won’t happen. It’ll just be embarrassing.” I canceled the meeting, but my agent pushed me, and I had the meeting, and it went really well. He liked me, I liked him, but still I thought it would never happen. Then I got the call saying I got it and . . . [shakes head] I was ecstatic.
And now you’ve just done Ed Wood with him.
Ed Wood was a perfect experience. I know that sounds like I’m bullshitting because everybody says that after a film, but it was, really, and a perfect escape from playing a serious role in a kind of sad movie like Gilbert Grape.
Ed Wood liked to wear women’s clothes. Did that require lots of research?
No, not really. I just thought I’d get comfortable with the feeling of being in women’s . . . articles. I’d go out with a tight bra on under my shirt and jacket. Around the house I wore slips and pumps and then tested the waters with garter belts and stockings. I got braver every day.
So what surprised you about the experience?
The shocking thing was how much goes into the process—the stockings, the garters, then doing those things up and then girdles, brassieres, straps! . . . It made me have more respect for you guys—for women—when you get dolled up. And I have a profound respect for transvestites, who get all dolled up and then have things to hide. It’s painful . . .
Perhaps you kept an angora sweater from the film?
I kept an angora sweater and my pumps.
I like to keep articles of clothing from films I do. I started on Platoon—I kept part of my uniform, the boots, I stole the helmet. From Cry-Baby I have my leather jacket and boots and jeans, from Scissorhands I have the costume and the hands, from Benny & Joon the cane, the hats and a jacket or two, from Gilbert Grape I think I just took some clothing.
Are you aware that people say, “He does all those weird movies”?
Yeah. [Laughs] I just don’t see the point in redoing things that have been done 10,000 times and done better by someone else.
But do you consciously not do big mainstream movies that make, like $100 million?
I’d like to be in a film that makes $300 million—it’d be great. But I’m not gonna do something just to gain more commercial success.
You wouldn’t shy away from car chases and guns?
No. I just don’t feel that it’s right to do something . . . I don’t feel like I have to make $15 million or that the picture has to make $300 million. My job is just to try to play a character and take that character from point A to point B to wherever.
In person, you don’t seem hungry or ambitious at all, yet objectively, considering who you’ve worked with, you seem very ambitious.
There are things I’d like to achieve in my life . . . I do ultimately want to have enough money so that when I do have kids, they don’t have to worry . . . I suppose the only ambition I have is to be able to do the right thing and not have to compromise.
Do you want to create art?
I want to create . . . things. And if it’s art, then that’s good. If it’s not, then I don’t know what I want to call it. I want to create things and to be involved in creating things. I don’t know if movie making is art, either. I really don’t. When you look at something like Beauty and the Beast by Cocteau, there are things in that film that were so beautiful, so surreal, so great, that you think of it as art. But, I don’t know, is it really? I mean, look, it’s too easy to make something today that people consider art. I don’t see that pouring ketchup on your hand and chopping it off is art.
It just occurs to me that you’re a high school dropout. But you’re well read, you know a lot about art and history. Do you think in any way that you’re compensating for your lack of formal education?
Definitely. But immediately, you know—as soon as I dropped out. When I was in school, I didn’t feel inspired to learn. And when I got out, you know, I wanted to know what my big brother knew. My big brother was a guy who read everything and knew great books and knew great art and knew great music, and I admired that. I don’t think I read a thing in high school.
So you’re making up for lost time?
Sure. You can learn a lot from books. I get obsessed with certain periods in history and the lives of writers and painters, and I want to know about them. And then when I learn about them, I want to know why they did certain things—the process is endless.
Yeah. So let’s just get something over with. Let’s talk about the Viper Room. You were there the night River Phoenix died?
When did you find out that he had died?
[Clears his throat] Well, before we go into this, which we can, there are two different subjects. One of the subjects is, you know, the unfortunate, very sad death of River. Then there’s me being attacked by tabloids and stuff about the club. So, one, your question: I found out that it was River at about three of four in the morning. I was calling to find out how the young man was who had been taken away in an ambulance.
I had literally walked off the stage—me and a group of guys were playing—and one of the bouncers said, “One of Flea’s friends is having some kind of seizure,” or something like that. I walked out the door, and the paramedics were there with this young man, and there was a bunch of people around. And I stood there, and I was hoping that, you know, everything would be OK. And I let the person—who I later found out was Samantha Mathis—I said to her, “If there’s anything we can do, if you need a ride to the hospital, whatever,” and she said: “No, I have a way to the hospital. I’m fine.” And they took him away, and Flea went in the ambulance with him. That was probably one in the morning, and then, later that night, after calling the hospital and calling the club back and calling everybody, I found out that it was . . . that the kid had passed away, and that it was River.
Did you know him?
We had met. We weren’t close friends . . . and on a professional level, I respected him as an actor. I mean, there was a specific road he was on that I respected as an actor . . . [struggling], and it’s really unfortunate and a waste, I think. I feel terrible for his family. And I felt angry at the way that the media handled it. And that’s the tabloid press and the legitimate press. A lot of the legitimate press, I thought, really merged with the tabloids on this thing and exploited the situation, and I thought it was really disrespectful and unfortunate that his family and friends had to experience that 911 call, you know? And I don’t know his family, but I understand they’re a very close, strong family . . . I just . . . I’m sympathetic.
You closed the club for a week?
About a week and a half, I think.
Had you considered closing it permanently?
I considered closing it permanently. I . . . [uneasily] I considered it before that night. Our initial feeling on the club is we—
The other two owners, Sal Jenco and Chuck E. Weiss. We can take this little space on Sunset Boulevard, we can make it nice inside and create a place where people can go and hear Billie Holiday over the sound system, and Louis Jordan and Cab Calloway, and John Coltrane, Frank Sinatra or Chet Baker . . . And it took on a life of its own. We had lines outside of the place! And I thought, My God, this is not what I wanted at all. So, yeah, I’ve thought of that all along, since day one.
One story that was printed said that the night the Viper Room reopened, a well-known drug dealer was standing by the front door.
[Disbelief] Who’s to say? Does a drug dealer wear a sign or a jacket that says, “I’m a drug dealer”? I mean, who knows who’s what? You cannot—in a nightclub in any city that I know of—go and strip-search people. [Strongly] And I do wonder if these people think that I’m ignorant or insane—that I’m going to allow people to do drugs in a place that I am a part owner of. I would never allow that to happen . . . Look, if anything positive is to be gained, it’s this: A normal young man with a good head on his shoulders and a promising future, a guy who was a good human being, made a mistake. And it’s a mistake that any one of us could make. And kids should know that, and adults should know that. People should know that . . . You don’t tarnish the memory of this person because he made a mistake. We’ve all done things we shouldn’t have done. Everybody. No one is exempt.
One more thing, and we’ll change the subject. You’ve answered this before, but once more: Are your drug days far in the past?
[Nods] Yeah, it’s in the past. Definitely.
OK. There’s another subject you don’t want to talk about: your personal life.
[Stiffly] Yeah . . .
You were married and divorced by the age of 22?
Are you still friends with your ex-wife?
Since then, you’ve had a succession of serious relationships, three broken engagements.
What I’m getting at is, didn’t your divorce scare you from trying marriage again?
[Long pause] I think what it all boils down to is, I was having a real good time. [Pause] I mean, I can’t say that I regret anything I’ve done, as far as girlfriends or being engaged goes. I had a good time.
But you didn’t marry any of them . . .
I am very . . . I’m uncomfortable planning something in the future. I’m uncomfortable saying, “This is going to be happening when I’m 32,” you know what I mean? So I rely very much on what’s happening at the particular moment, and I like living like that. So if I’ve gotten engaged or if I got married and divorced and this and that, you know, it’s really—in my opinion—unimportant to anybody else’s lives. It is not going to affect their lives one way or the other, so why are they so curious about it?
They’re curious because these women are famous—
No, when Sherilyn Fenn and I were together, no one had really heard of me. And that was before she had sort of broken out into the public eye.
So what happened?
I mean, I couldn’t give specific reasons for anything that I’ve done, you know, and a team of shrinks couldn’t, either, probably. You know? [Dry laugh] Am I trying to repair my mother and father breaking up? I don’t know. I don’t know what any of it is. And I really, to be honest, don’t care, because I don’t regret any of it. I had a really good time.
OK. Let’s lighten up and talk about your movies and the people you’ve worked with. We’ll leave out A Nightmare on Elm Street.
That was a fun experience. Not many people can say they were sucked through a bed [laughs].
Platoon: What do you remember about Oliver Stone?
Um, Oliver is a really great director. He’s got his methods that, you know, that work. He wanted to keep us angry and kind of hungry and confused, and he did certain things that kept us that way. He would try to piss us off. I have a lot of respect for Oliver.
I think you’re being diplomatic.
[Laughs] He’s an interesting guy.
Cry-Baby: Where to begin? A cast of millions . . .
A great experience.
Obviously you bonded big-time with John Waters.
Yeah, I consider John one of my best friends. But also, not a lot of people can say that they have been able to sit down at a table with Iggy Pop and Patricia Hearst and Polly Bergen and John Waters all at the same time.
What did you think of Patricia Hearst?
I love her. I think she’s great. She’s really a good, good, good person. [Pause] I sort of had a crush on her.
Edward Scissorhands . . .
[Smiles] Edward . . .
. . . and Tim Burton . . .
Tim. I love Tim. Tim’s brain is incredible. He was one of the few people I think I could call a genius. Believe me, I’m careful with that word. But Tim is.
Um . . . nice girl.
C’mon. As an actress.
A very good actress. A really good actress.
Aiden Quinn in Benny & Joon.
He is just really a great actor. And my idea of what a real man is: He’s a great husband. He’s a great father . . . [Grins] I’m trying to think if there is anyone I can trash . . .
I know. I just can’t think of anyone . . .
What’s Juliette Lewis like?
Cool. Really calm. Nice, sweet. [Laughs] She’s very funny, you know, I love the way she’s just, like, seen everything. It’s just like [imitating her distinctive voice], ‘Yeah, whatever.’
It’s been written that you two have been dating.
Oh yeah, I know. No, it’s not true. And it was written that we were, you know, shtupping while we were doing the movie.
Shtupping. No. She’s a friend of mine. We made a film together.
I hear you loved working with Martin Landau in Ed Wood.
I admire Martin. He’s rejuvenated my respect for acting and my respect for it as an interesting and fun creative process. He made me feel like you can do this and have a great time. I don’t go for the whole troubled-actor thing—the pained, tortured actor. I just feel fortunate and lucky.
So you’ve made a couple of great movies and worked with a lot of interesting people. Does it feel like 10 years since you’ve started?
No, no . . . [Grins] Uh-uh. It feels like 30 years and 2 years at the same time.
Can you picture yourself in 10 years?
Only, you know, very loosely do I think about things like that. It just doesn’t do any good. I just hope, you know what I mean? I hope everything is OK. I hope my family’s OK. And I hope that I’m able to do the things I want to do, whether it’s acting or whatever . . .
There you go again, hinting that you’re leaving the business.
[Teasing] Yeah, you never know . . .
Just promise that you won’t quit the business by the time this story comes out, OK?
[Laughs] No, no, no. I won’t quit.
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