Sweet teen idol Johnny Depp, now 30, has matured into a seductive screen star. He talks to Jessamy Calkin about drugs, demons and dressing up ... in women's clothes.
Picture Editor June Stanier
There is a scene in the film Arizona Dream where Johnny Depp is lying in bed in a beautiful house near Tucson, dishevelled and thoughtful, beneath a ceiling fan. There is a storm outside and he has just had sex. In one hand he holds a mouth organ, which he is playing, and in the other he holds three cigarettes, which he is smoking. It is just a split second, but somehow it captures the mystery that is Johnny Depp. There are many such fractured moments in Depp's films which make up the complicated aura that surrounds him: there is the single tear on his face in Cry‑Baby, the moment in Benny And Joon where he leans over to the dysfunctional Joon and whispers, 'I love you,' when what Depp wanted to say was, 'Joon, I'm a bedwetter...' There is his fate in A Nightmare On Elm Street (being swallowed by a bed and regurgitated as a gallon of cow's blood); there is the game of Russian roulette with Lili Taylor and the wild sex inside Faye Dunaway's petticoat in Arizona Dream. There is Edward Scissorhands with his sad liquid eyes and lethal hands. And there is everything that is not said in his films, just communicated with strange little looks and smirks. It's as if his roles are all connected by an invisible thread: the outsider, the misfit, the gentle melancholic oddball. Depp says he is neither sad nor lonely, but finds these qualities easy to tap into. He has a great understanding of the vulnerability of people; an empathy with solitude and the daily heartbreak of ordinary life.
Johnny Depp has deliberately chosen roles that he connects with. But in order to understand the extent to which he has managed to control his destiny, to stretch his image from teen heart‑throb to sought‑after actor, we have to listen to the silence in his career, the roles he has refused. Recently, for example, he read the script of Interview With The Vampire, but felt the film was not for him. Dracula, Mobsters, The Evil Empire, Point Break, The 3 Musketeers ‑ these are all films Depp is said to have turned down.
He doesn't want to do roles that have been played before. And at the age of 30, he doesn't want to be any more famous ‑ it's bad enough as it is ‑ and he doesn't need the money.
'Money is a strange animal,' he says. 'I don't see it as the great saviour, but it does allow you a certain amount of freedom, though it fucks things up, too.' He gives a lot away. He has bought a house for his mother, but he doesn't yet own one himself.
He is sick of Los Angeles. 'I haven't yet found a place I want to call home, but I know for sure it's not Hollywood, and I'm thinking right now that it's not the States at all.'
In 1983, when Johnny Depp first arrived in Los Angeles, it was to pursue his career as a musician. Via Nicolas Cage, he acquired an agent who landed him the role in A Nightmare On Elm Street. But he only intended to be an actor to support his guitar‑playing, and was unprepared for the teen hysteria that he was plunged into when he became the star of the TV series 21 Jump Street.
'When I met him,' laughs Cry-Baby director John Waters, 'his face was in every magazine and he couldn't go outside. Girls would cry when they saw him ‑ cry! He hated being a teen idol, hated it. I said, "Stick with us, Johnny -we'll take care of you..."'
And he did. By making Depp the star of his film, Waters turned the situation around. Cry‑Baby made fun of the teen idol, and Johnny, who had admired Waters for years, couldn't believe his luck. 'Oh man, it was like divine intervention,' he says now. He has described that time as the happiest in his life. Surrounded by an incongruous cast which included Iggy Pop and Patti Hearst, he says, 'it was like unconditional love, like belonging to this great family.'
In person, Johnny Depp is both accessible and enigmatic. He looks tougher than he does on screen, and his hair, shorter now, is stuffed into a woollen hat. ('Believe me,' says Waters, 'Johnny invented grunge 10 years before everyone else was into it.') He has a natural perversity about him which is very appealing. He seems like the kind of person who would turn over a dog turd to see what was underneath. Not in a creepy way‑just making enquiries.
It is, therefore, hardly surprising that he got along with John Waters, another suspected turd investigator. 'I loved him from our first meeting, when I realised we can both laugh at anything that's terrible,' says Waters. 'Everyone with a good sense of humour has demons. Johnny at least recognises his.'
Depp's demons occasionally creep into his angelic face. But his charm is so mercurial, his manner so seductive, his humour so intriguing, that you really want to be his best friend. 'There is something cool about him, cooler than he realises,' says Vincent Gallo, who starred with him in Arizona Dream. 'He thinks he's cool because of the hair and the clothes and the junked‑up cars, but it's what he really is that's cool. He's a very complicated kid and he pays the price ‑ he feels the feelings and it's not easy for him.'
Johnny Depp is in London to promote his new film, What's Eating Gilbert Grape? which he hasn’t yet seen because he can't quite bear to. The film is based on the book by Peter Hedges and directed by Lasse Hallström; Depp plays Gilbert, who has devoted his life to working in a grocery store in Iowa to support the family (his father hanged himself in the basement) but most of his time is taken up with looking after his autistic brother Arnie (Leonardo DiCaprio) and their 500lb mother (Darlene Cates), who is literally trapped by her own obesity. This is no picnic, and Gilbert has to leave his dreams behind until Becky (Juliette Lewis) arrives in town and penetrates his numbness.
Once again, Depp plays the passive leading man, the absorber of life. 'Gilbert is very much an observer, a reactor in the movie,' says Hallström. 'Johnny is able to convey a lot of emotions and feelings without dialogue. He's a very instinctive actor and I needed someone with a face as expressive as his.'
Johnny Depp is neither vain nor complacent. He doesn't like to watch his films ('I just get a little weird') and he doesn't come across as a person who is content with his achievements. He confesses that one of the few things he is really proud of is a short film he directed with Gibby Haynes (of The Butthole Surfers) entitled Stuff. It is a beautifully warped and anarchic hallucination with a deadpan lyrical narration by the painter and musician John Frusciante (formerly of the Red Hot Chili Peppers) and a cameo performance from Timothy Leary, who described the little movie as the best hallucination that he has ever seen on film. Depp regards this as a great compliment.
Depp tends to hang out with musicians. He was 12 when he got his first guitar and since then has been in numerous line‑ups with variously embarrassing names; his current band, of which Haynes is also a member, goes by the name of P. Together with fellow musician Chuck E Weiss and old friend Sal Jenco, Depp also owns The Viper Room, a club on Sunset Boulevard.
He rarely goes out in LA, except to The Viper Room, where he feels safe. 'For me the club has a protective atmosphere ‑ all the people who work there are like family.' But the club took on a new significance last Hallowe'en, when River Phoenix died on the pavement outside. This is a painful subject for Depp, who was playing on stage when it happened. He was deeply upset by Phoenix's death and closed the club for 10 days as a mark of respect for his family and friends. But he was also annoyed with the hysterical, moralising attitude of the media ‑ with the fact that, by association, he was deemed in some way responsible and his club condemned as a drug hangout. Depp knew Phoenix ‑ not well, but enough to have respect for him. 'He was a really good guy and a fine actor, but he made a mistake and that should be a lesson to people: be careful. It doesn't make him a bad person, he just made a mistake, and we all make mistakes. No one is exempt.'
Depp himself is no stranger to drugs; they used to be, he says, his way of dealing with things 'until I discovered that it didn't work -that sooner or later I would have to face the inevitable. But I feel focused now, and much calmer.' He seems quite self‑contained, and hesitantly attributes this to growing older, to a reconciliation of conflicting desires.
Part me wants to walk a dog and change a diaper and the other part wants to go and eat dirt somewhere,' he said recently.
All girls like Johnny Depp. There is something about him that hypnotises the imagination. And he just is very spunky; he can't help it. He rejected the sex symbol image and came out the other side, still a sex symbol, but in the left field.
And Johnny Depp likes girls. He has been married (when he was 20, to Lori Anne Allison; it lasted two years) and engaged three times ‑ to actresses Sherilyn Fenn, Jennifer Grey and Winona Ryder, who he split with a year ago. When asked about his private life, he will usually evade the issue or tell a convoluted but amusing tale which has little to do with the question.
He is much more interested in discussing other things. He has a definite sense of schadenfreude. He likes to see people choke. That cracks him up. And he is riveted by Tourette's syndrome, the peculiar affliction whereby the sufferer cannot contain himself and goes round spitting and using abusive language in a sort of verbal convulsion. 'I'm fascinated by that,' says Depp. 'It's so honest, somehow.'
He is interested in Jack the Ripper, and concepts of evil. He cites Dean Stockwell's role as nightclub crooner Ben in Blue Velvet as a particularly disturbing character, and Robert Mitchum in The Night Of The Hunter, playing a preacher with LOVE and HATE tattooed on his knuckles.
'That movie had a really intense effect on me. When I was growing up I had an uncle who was a preacher. I thought he was a nice guy, but when I was about seven I'd go and see him preach in church, and I just didn't buy it. All these people were screaming, "Hallelujah!" and being saved, it was real hellfire and damnation stuff. I thought he was full of shit.'
So far, Depp has always played the innocent; his finest role to date is in Arizona Dream, a sprawling, surreal and moving film directed by Emir Kusturica which stars Jerry Lewis, Faye Dunaway, Lili Taylor and Vincent Gallo. It tells the story of Axel Blackmar (Depp), who is dragged back to his home town in Arizona by his star‑struck cousin Paul (Gallo) for his uncle's wedding. Blackmar is drawn into an intriguing love triangle with the sensual, unstable Elaine (Dunaway) and her sneering stepdaughter Grace (Taylor), who plays the harmonica and brims with muscled neurosis. 'Being caught in the dream of two women,' intones Blackmar, 'is the craziest storm you'll ever find yourself in.'
Arizona Dream is a difficult film, containing many moments of sheer brilliance (as well as a few cringingly embarrassing ones). The shoot lasted for eight months instead of the projected three and was way over budget. Pressurised by financial wrangling, Kusturica left the set for two months. His loyal cast, meanwhile, waited patiently for his return.
'We waited,' smiles Johnny, 'and waited. Emir is not your typical director. He's something else entirely, he's more ethereal. With him, it's collaboration in the best sense. I'd dive off the Eiffel Tower for that guy...'
Kusturica is not the only director towards whom Depp feels such loyalty. There is also Tim Burton, who directed him in Edward Scissorhands. Depp has just completed a film with him called Ed Wood, about a mutual hero of theirs. The late Edward D Wood Jr is widely thought of as one of the worst film directors of all time. He was responsible for such 50s ultra‑B movies as Plan 9 From Outer Space. Wood was a transvestite often appearing on set in women's clothes ‑who in the 70s turned to writing pornographic novels.
Depp plays Wood, and admits that he loved the ritual of dressing up in women's clothes. The role needed a lot of preparation, and Depp started wearing exotic underwear all the time. When he was staying at the Ritz in Paris, a room service waiter was surprised to find him answering the door in a slip and high heels. 'I totally forgot what I was wearing, until I saw the shocked look on his face.
'It's interesting –as a man I'm not a big guy, but as a woman I'm enormous. I'm an enormous woman.'
Johnny Depp is an enormous woman. Somehow it's a fitting epitaph.
What's Eating Gilbert Grape? opens nationwide on May 6.