Once a TV heartthrob, now an avatar of the outré and the outcast, Johnny Depp is bringing otherworldly insight to upcoming films “Benny & Joon,” “Gilbert Grape,” “Arizona Dream,” and Tim Burton’s biopic of schlock director Ed Wood. Susan Morgan talks to the actor about mapping out a terrain of stardom all his own.
"I just got back to L.A. two days ago, and I'm not completely unfolded yet," says Johnny Depp, hunkering down at Kokomo Cafe, a southwestern version of an East Village coffee shop. "I've spent the last four months in Austin, TX, and tomorrow night I leave for Paris, Berlin, back to Paris, and then New York." Settling in for this brief moment, Depp swivels his Texas Longhorns baseball cap back to front and whacks a fresh pack of cigarettes against the table. With his dark hair hennaed to an unnatural shade of red, a few random whiskers approximating a beard, and the requisite flannel shirt tied around his waist, Depp's image isn't exactly cranked up to an attention‑getting, movie‑star blast. "This is really the first time I've ever attempted working back to back on films," he explains, sounding a bit weary and somewhat surprised by his success. In the past year, Depp has completed three leading roles: There's the just‑released Benny & Joon (directed by Jeremiah Chechik), Arizona Dream, with Jerry Lewis and Faye Dunaway (directed by Emir Kusturica), and Peter Hedges' adaptation of his novel What's Eating Gilbert Grape?, directed by Lasse Hallström. And he's scheduled to start work on Tim Burton's new film based on the life of Hollywood director Edward D. Wood, Jr.‑cross‑dressing star and director of Glen or Glenda?, Bela Lugosi devotee, and creator of the schlock sci‑fi classic Plan 9 from Outer Space. Depp remarks about the project, "I love Ed Wood's movies. I think it's really interesting that he wore women's undergarments and had a fixation about angora. And, even though it was really a little sad, I love his life."
After a decade dominated by bullies, political and cinematic, Depp's off‑kilter heroes provide a delightful antidote to the automaton brutes, vengeful suburbanites, and noble defenders of public truth that so many male movie stars seem determined to play these days. His characters don't wield automatic weapons or sneaky agendas, nor are they models of admirable behavior; they wrestle with misunderstanding and thwarted desire. In John Waters' uproarious Cry‑Baby, he was Wade "Cry‑Baby" Walker, complete with jailhouse tattoo tear‑a soulful rebel with a cause, and the cause, of course, was love. As Edward Scissorhands, the man‑made boy with blades for hands who reaches tentatively into the world, Depp brought the comic melancholy of silent films and fairy tales poignantly up‑to‑date and straight into the pastel‑colored suburbs.
"I was able to do Cry‑Baby and Edward Scissorhands while I was working on the series," says Depp, referring to the four seasons he starred on Fox's hit TV show 21 Jump Street. Playing Jump Street's Tom Hanson, a cop working undercover at a high school, Depp received more than 10,000 fan letters a month. His career could easily have been fated to the predictable descent from primetime TV into effervescent, straight‑to‑video teen flicks and early oblivion, but Depp thoughtfully chose to work with directors and projects that were, by movie‑industry standards, less than conventional. "I've been very lucky with work," he marvels. There's not much about Depp's past that would have suggested such careful direction. Born in Kentucky in 1963, Depp moved to Miramar, Florida, at the age of seven; by 16, he'd dropped out of high school to play rock 'n' roll guitar. At 20, he arrived in L.A. with his band and fell into a thankless telemarketing job‑trying to persuade disinterested strangers to order worthless goods by phone. "Neither I nor anybody else ever thought I would be doing this," he admits. Gazing down at the table, focusing on nothing in particular, Depp speaks with a quietly self-possessed air and the startled dreaminess of the perpetually jet lagged.
At this moment, an eager waitress arrives to serve us coffee. Catching an eyeful of teen idol, she suddenly can't stop pouring: The coffee spills over the cup's rim, overflows the saucer, floods onto the table, and drips down to the floor. Depp apologizes solicitously for the accident. Trying to soothe the waitress' anxieties, he mops up the mess with a clump of paper napkins as she continues to self‑consciously flutter nearby.
Here, where the unhinged and the unflappable collide, Depp plays out a bittersweet scene worthy of Buster Keaton, a connection that is not a little significant. Depp has made the transition to film by embodying a kind of cosmic Keatonesque diminutiveness that, in Benny & Joon, makes him seem smaller than his 5’11” frame. Far from deflating his image, however, this cosmic smallness gives the former pretty‑boy TV idol an appealingly idiosyncratic persona unlike that of any other Hollywood actor.
During the opening credits for Benny & Joon, the audience first glimpses Johnny Depp through the window of a moving train. Hidden behind a book about Buster Keaton, Depp's pale face and unblinking brown eyes rise slowly above the jacket photo and recapture Keaton's sublime deadpan. As Sam, an oddly endearing young man with a love of old movies and a tenuous relationship with the non-celluloid world, Depp plays the offbeat love interest to Mary Stuart Masterson's erratic Joon. Benny & Joon doesn't overdose on inherent whimsy; sharp performances (by Depp and Masterson, as well as Aidan Quinn as the overprotective Benny and Julianne Moore as an actress‑waitress‑realist), unexpected plot turns, and tart dialogue cut through the threat of cloying sweetness. "What are you having‑a Boo Radley moment?" Joon snaps when Sam stares too wistfully into space, referring to the strange hermetic character of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird. "That is my favorite line," says Depp, "but there was another line I begged them to include. Do you remember the scene when I tell Joon that I love her? Everyone was expecting that 'I love you.' Instead, I thought it would be great if Sam was to reveal his deepest, darkest secret. I wanted to be the first person to say, 'I am a bed wetter' in a major motion picture." Depp still hasn't seen the completed Benny & Joon. When he learns that his groundbreaking bed‑wetter declaration didn't make it into the final edit, he isn't discouraged. "I know that someday I'll get to work that bed‑wetter line into a script," remarks Depp, smiling enthusiastically at his rather skewed ambition.
Depp's personal demeanor and attitude about his work is unremittingly relaxed. Since making his 1984 debut as a hapless teen swallowed up by a bed and spit out as a torrent of blood in the original A Nightmare on Elm Street, Johnny Depp hasn't really been watching his own movies. "To be honest," he admits, "I might have seen six episodes of Jump Street." He's just seen his performance as an updated, "more positive Holden Caulfield" in Arizona Dream (winner of the Special Jury Prize, Silver Bear, at the 1993 Berlin International Film Festival) on the big screen but has yet to encounter Gilbert Grape, the story of a small-town grocery clerk tangled up in complex relationships with his simpleminded brother and their gargantuan mother. "You want to be as honest as possible in your work," Depp reckons. "Looking at yourself, you are reminded of everything that you could have done to make it better."
When Depp talks about movies, he doesn't talk about himself. He tells stories about his "mad guru," John Waters, the "strange, thin line between comedy and tragedy" in Tim Burton's films, and the "raw" power of Kusturica's earlier Yugoslavian films. Describing Time of the Gypsies, Kusturica's twisting family saga tinged with magic realism and a heartbreaking naturalism, he insists that "if this film doesn't affect you, you have no pulse." Depp inhabits a different Hollywood than the one with a lot of sequins and car‑phone conversations about "small fees up front for ownership on the back." It's an un‑'80s Hollywood, a transitory population of Generation X buddies who still borrow one another's cars, get together to play guitars, and always know the best place to get a new tattoo. "I've been here since 1983," says Depp as we browse through the stalls in the old Farmers Market. "And I've probably lived in almost every hotel in L.A. Now I've finally rented a house, but I still feel that it's all temporary."
Ephemerality seems to be a topic close to Los Angeles' constantly shifting heart. "I wonder if a lot of the people sporting tattoos these days realize that it's not a temporary deal," says Depp. Personally, he's been sporting tattoos since he was 17. He points out his first, an Indian chief's head in profile, and second, the "Mom's tattoo" featuring her name, BETTY SUE; but the third one, the frequently photographed WINONA FOREVER‑from the days when he and girlfriend Winona Ryder were a staple for the tabloids‑he doesn't describe at all. "The most intriguing thing to me about tattoos is that your body is your journal," he remarks, rolling down his sleeves and covering up everything that has been recorded on his upper arms. "I've been tempted to get more, but I guess these were the ones I needed. But maybe in my line of work, it's not too smart to get any more."