As in Zadora. As in The Lonely Lady, the flick Entertainment Tonight’s movie critic, Leonard Maltin, calls “rock-bottom stuff, not even fun on a trash level.” “I think we can learn from that movie,” Depp says.
As he goes on about Pia, it becomes clearer why Depp, who probably could have had his pick of several high-profile Hollywood movies (“Movies where I play this tough guy or I pull out a handgun and shoot at people”), is spending his summer hiatus making a small film called Cry-Baby. The movie’s writer-director is John Waters, the cult-ster who made his name with aggressively trashy films such as Pink Flamingos and Desperate Living before the more mainstream success of last year’s Hairspray (in which Zadora had a cameo as a poetry-spouting beatnik chick).
Waters, who wrote the role of bad boy Wade “Cry-Baby” Walker with Depp in mind, doesn’t think he and his star make for an odd artistic pairing. “I don’t think there’s anyone else who could play it,” he says. “Johnny’s not a bad boy in real life, but he’s had some wild moments in the past which come in handy.”
As the title character, the leader of a gang of Fifties hoodlums, Depp, 26, has his first major movie role since becoming a TV star. It puts him under a lot of pressure, but he swears that he is looking forward to spending his summer in Waters’ considerably less glamorous (next to L. A., that is) hometown of Baltimore. “The big thing is crab cakes and thrift stores,” he says happily. “So I’m pretty excited.”
Depp, of course, doesn’t need crab cakes and thrift stores; he can afford to eat fancier foods and shop in more upscale environs. His $45,000-per-episode deal with Jump Street and the cool million he is pulling in for Cry-Baby could conceivably buy truckloads of caviar and designer duds. But today he is dressed de rigueur for Depp: torn jeans, black boots and a plaid shirt unbuttoned far enough to show a chain from which a cross and a medallion hang (actually, it’s a pop top from a Japanese Coca-Cola can). Glamorous, he’s not.
But he is something else: He doesn’t like to think about it or talk about it and he would rather journalists didn’t write about it, but Depp is indeed a full-fledged sex symbol, and a teen idol to boot. Jump Street turned the trick. Each week, he comes onscreen with his perpetually disheveled, offhand cool. As undercover cop Tom Hanson, he’s the tough kid who looks a little lost underneath the cool.
Waters concurs. “First of all, he’s a good actor,” he says, “but secondly, he’s handsome in a real way. He’s just got that thing that makes a star.”
Talk like this makes Depp nervous, although sitting on a couch in the den of his publicist’s Sherman Oaks, California, house, he initially seems comfortable and relaxed. Perhaps that’s because he spent most of last summer on this very couch after subletting his own L. A. digs. A year later, he still doesn’t have an apartment; nor does he own a house. And while he once lived in his best friend’s car when they were teenagers, that option isn’t open to him today because—you guessed it—he doesn’t own a car (his vintage Harley-Davidson sits idle in Vancouver, British Columbia).
He is friendly and talkative when the conversation concerns rock & roll, his occasionally wild teen years or his dissatisfaction with some recent Jump Street episodes. But when the talk turns to his stardom, and especially the sex symbol/teen idol stuff, he fidgets more and says less; the pauses get longer, the answers shorter.
“After we’d shot the first season, it got a little strange,” he says quietly, lighting another cigarette and running a hand through his trademark tangled hair. “I don’t hate it; I don’t mind it; it’s not an ugly thing,” he says, perhaps considering the fluttery girls who show up at his personal appearances and the sacks of fan letters (more than 10,000 a month). “But it’s a little strange. I’m still not used to it.”
Nor is he used to the invasion of privacy that comes with having a recognizable mug. As a result, Depp said little during his three-year (1985-88) engagement to actress Sherilyn Fenn of Two Moon Junction fame; or of his most recent engagement to Dirty Dancing star Jennifer Grey. When the relationship with Grey ended this spring, he admitted it was over but declined to elaborate. (Friends attribute the breakup to geography; with Depp in Vancouver and Grey in Los Angeles, they simply didn’t see each other very often.)
“It’s like when you’re in high school,” he allows, “and you’re going steady with someone, and your friends say, ‘Hey, man, are you seeing this girl?’ and they start razzing you. If you love this girl, you’re not gonna tell your friends. I think you have to shield things; otherwise we’d all be out there cutting our arms open and showing you. ‘Here’s my blood. Have a vein.’”
“She’s the greatest lady in the world,” says Depp, proudly hiking up his sleeve. “Best friend, coolest thing in the world . . . just unbelievable. Her whole life she’s been a waitress, but I won’t let her wait tables anymore.”
For a while, Depp moved his mother to Vancouver to be closer to him while he was shooting 21 Jump Street. Now, she is back in South Florida, where Johnny’s dad, John Christopher Depp Sr., an engineer, moved his family from Kentucky in 1970, when John Christopher Depp Jr. was only 7. Though they are divorced and have remarried, both his parents still live in that area, as do his two older married sisters, Debbie, 33, and Christie, 28. Brother Danny, 35, is a writer who lives in Kentucky.
“Man, family is the most important thing in the world,” says Depp softly. “Without that, you have nothing. It’s the tightest bond you’ll ever have. When you’re in your teens, family’s family. You think it’s always gonna be there. You think, ‘I want friends and I want cars and I wanna do things different.’” He laughs. “But there’s a certain age you hit when you realize, ‘What am I doing? This is my family.’”
And when did he realize that? “When my parents split up was when I think I realized these are the most important people in my life, and you know, I’d die for these people. I was 15, and it just sort of happened. You just deal with it, but there’s no escaping the hurt. I mean, it definitely hurts, man.”
Before that, Depp had been more concerned with keeping himself entertained than staying close to home. The entertainment took some serious forms: He started taking drugs at age 11, got involved in petty theft and vandalism around the same time and had his first sexual experience at 13.
“Everybody puts a label on it and calls me a bad boy or a delinquent or a rebel or one of those horrible terms,” he says. “But to me, it was much more curiosity. It wasn’t like I was some malicious kid who wanted to kick an old lady in the shin and run, you know? I just wanted to find out what was out there.
“The only reason why any of my past came out is because I brought it out,” he continues. “And the reason is that, hopefully, people can learn from it. Kids can say, ‘Jesus, he went through the same thing I’m going through now. Maybe I’m not a bad kid like everybody says.’”
Depp’s “bad kid” phase was mostly over by the time he was about 16. But all the same, after his parents’ divorce he dropped out of high school in his junior year and devoted more of his time to his real passion, rock & roll. A self-taught guitarist and occasional singer, he moved through a succession of garage bands before becoming part of the Kids, one of the most successful bands in South Florida. In 1983, when Depp was 20, the group pulled up stakes and moved to Los Angeles in search of the big time.
Instead, they found a club scene chock-full of bands in similar circumstances, all of them desperately scrambling for a few low-paying gigs. To support himself—and his new wife, Lori Allison, the sister of a musician friend—he sold ballpoint pens over the phone.
He grins and says: “I got very good at it. But guilt started to get me. I felt like I was ripping people off. The last couple of times I did it I just said, ‘Listen, you don’t want this stuff, man.’”
Depp’s marriage didn’t last much longer than the job: Married at 20, he was divorced at 22. But he and his ex-wife stayed in touch, and when she later dated actor Nicolas Cage (Moonstruck), Depp and Cage became friends. Cage then suggested that the struggling musician meet his agent, Ilene Feldman.
Once again it was his looks that impressed. “He came in with long hair and an earring and a T-shirt with cigarettes rolled up in the sleeve,” says Feldman. “He was not what someone usually looks like when they’re coming in to look for an agent, which was what was so great about him: He just wasn’t into it.”
She sent him to see horror director Wes Craven, then casting the original A Nightmare on Elm Street. Craven, who had been auditioning beach-boy types, took notice when Depp walked in. “Johnny was a chain-smoker; he had yellowish skin,” he recalls. “But he really had sort of a James Dean attraction—that quiet charisma that none of the other actors had.” The director’s daughter and a friend were also at the auditions, and when Craven casually asked the girls whom he should cast, they both said, “Johnny Depp.” That clinched it.
While he was shooting Elm Street, Depp’s band members went their separate ways, and he figured, “Well, I have no band, I’ve had some pretty good luck with this, so why don’t I see what this acting stuff is about and just give it a shot?”
Sure enough, he quickly won the lead in another movie, the ghastly teen sexploitation comedy Private Resort. His costar, New York-based actor Rob Morrow, says that although Depp still had a lot to learn about the movie business, he displayed a natural talent. “He had no idea what he was doing,” recalls Morrow. “Yet he had an understanding of how people operate. He had obstacles, but he was aware of them.”
While neither actor looks back on the movie as one of life’s most memorable moments, they had a few good times together. Take, for instance, their scam to get into a test screening of the picture. “Nobody affiliated with the film could go, but Depp and I heard about it and wanted to see it,” Morrow explains. “So we dressed up in the weirdest possible way. He had dorky glasses and a knit hat on and I put cotton in my mouth so my face puffed out. We walked right past all the execs who knew us.”
“I don’t always agree with him, but I see where he’s coming from,” says Jump Street producer Carson. “He fights hard for what he believes in, and he has a tendency to fight for other people as well, which sometimes puts another strand of gray in my hair.”
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