Fame is a Four-Letter Word

by Thomas Beller for Harper's Bazaar | photographs by David Bailey | December 1995

Johnny Depp slips me $20 when we shake hands.

“Do that again.”

“It’s preparation, it’s all preparation,” he explains, and we shake hands again, more of a brush of fingers, really, the sort of discreet, low-key maneuver. A $20 bill appears in my palm. Depp looks around the room with a wry, satisfied smile, as though he’s just pulled off a magic trick.

“I’m a compulsive big tipper,” he says. “But it’s embarrassing if you just hand the money over. You give it to them in a handshake. If they put it in their pocket right away, they feel confident you’ve taken care of them.”

When I first see him he does not seem happy. Imagine a kid who hates eating spinach more than anything in the world. Imagine that kid’s expression when he is forced to eat spinach.

Magazine interviews are the spinach of Johnny Depp’s life.

He disappeared for an entire week before our meeting. He’d been in Ireland shooting a movie with Marlon Brando, and then–“in midthrust,” as Depp put it–the movie was called off for lack of funds. “Cinema interruptus,” he says. Brando left in a huff. Depp left in a puff. Suddenly there was no trace of him.

On Monday the publicists got worried. On Tuesday, the agent. On Wednesday attempts were made to contact his girlfriend, Kate Moss, but she wasn’t talking. On Thursday his sister–who acts as a sort of personal manager–was called, but she didn’t know where he was, either. No one was actually worried about his safety. Apparently he does this all the time.

Then today, Friday, he resurfaced in London, and I rushed over to his hotel to meet him. He was staying at the Halcyon, a plush establishment in Holland Park. Walking up to the front door, I caught my first glimpse of Depp’s world: Seated on the sidewalk across the street were three men with bulky cameras in hand, squinty eyes trained on the front door, waiting for their shot. They looked like pigeons.

I found him in the downstairs bar, where he sat on a cushy sofa, sullenly sinking into its depths. His hair was short, tousled, and cut a bit like James Dean’s. He looked like a hobo who’d been riding trains for a week.

Johnny Depp has been compared with Marlon Brando, and as we talk, the similarity is striking: Depp is doing the godfather. He looks at me with heavy-ridded eyes. Every now and then he grunts. Finally I ask about what his mother did when she was raising him and his siblings by herself in southern Florida, and as most people do when asked about their mothers, he perks up.

“My mom was a waitress, and sometimes she’d come home after working ten hours with, like, thirty bucks in tips. So in turn, when I was growing up, I just got in the habit of tipping.”

And the next thing I know he’s standing up and shaking my hand, playing all these parts, bristling with a thousand incredibly evocative gestures and mannerisms. The very act of moving brings out a certain warmth in him, and he sits back down in a more relaxed manner.

He certainly shows signs of wanting to quit the life of celebrity, which began with the television show 21 Jump Street, in 1987. “The devil was really in charge then,” says Depp. “For three and a half years I was stuck with this Partridge Family thermos and a Mod Squad lunch box. I finally got out of the contract on a technicality.”

And beginning with the title character in John Waters’ Cry-Baby, he’s taken a series of unusual, almost defiantly unpredictable roles. “I told him,” says Waters, “that the best way to get rid of the teen- idol thing was to parody it, which is what Cry-Baby was. And it worked!”

At 32, Johnny Depp may be the only major movie star who can claim that he’s never played a normal, well-adjusted character.

In his new film, Nick of Time, he plays an accountant who is pressed into service as a political assassin when his daughter is kidnapped. Many of Depp’s Hollywood contemporaries- -Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt, Keanu Reeves–have played leading roles in action-filled movies, and at first glance it appears that Depp has succumbed to the temptation, too. But of course, this is not quite the case.

Depp is by far the best thing about Nick of Time. There are plenty of shoot-outs and so forth, but Depp’ s character can never seem to get it right. Depp approaches the realm of the action hero but refuses to step over the line.

Oddly enough, he also plays an accountant in Jim Jarmusch’s upcoming film, Dead Man. “He’s pretty much half dead for most of the movie. It takes a lot of patience to be half dead. Especially for someone like Johnny.”

Jarmusch has been a friend of Depp’s for a while. “He’s moody and very emotional and very sensitive,” Jarmusch says. “In real life, sometimes, it’s hard for him to decide where to eat or what to do, but as an actor he’s very precise.”

Depp rebels when I bring up the subject of acting. “You don’t want to talk about my craft,” he says saltily. Jarmusch, however, has an interesting anecdote about the way Depp works. “I was staying at his house for a while when he was shooting Ed Wood, and sometimes I would pick him up from the set and we’d get dinner. It would take him three hours to stop being Ed Wood. I just wanted to slap him to get that stupid smile off his face. We’d be in this Thai restaurant and Johnny is going, `Hey, this pad thai is fabulous.'”

Then there are Depp’s tattoos. There’s the remains of the famous WINONA FOREVER, a relic of his three-year engagement to Winona Ryder. And then there is BETTY SUE, his mother. And on his ankle is the phrase DEATH IS CERTAIN.

But what shocks me are the ones on his hands. Several small squares are tattooed on his right index finger. “I don’t know what they are, ” Depp says. “I always end up drawing boxes–you know, phone doodles. This is a permanent phone doodle.”

On the fleshy part of his left hand, between the thumb and index finger, is the number three. Why three? “I like threes,” he says. “It’s a good little number.”

There’s something unnerving about tattoos on hands. Shoulders and chests and butts you can cover, but you can’t cover a hand, unless it’s with makeup, which is what’s done in all his movies.

Depp walks me to the door of the hotel. “Some people are fine being on display. But it had the opposite effect on me. It made me more insecure, if that was possible. I’ve read things about me in what are considered reputable publications, and it was horsesh*, and I just don’t buy it.” Suddenly he adds, “All Harpers Bazaar is trying to do is sell a magazine.”

We approach the door and the three guys across the street jump to their feet. Depp pauses and says with some emotion: “I’m not pretending to be anything other than what I am. I’m not trying to be Mr. Sensitive, I’m not trying to be Mr. Hardass, I’m not trying to be Mr. Cool. I’m just trying to maintain an existence and, you know, have a good time.”

The photographers have their cameras pressed to their faces. Depp looks through the glass door. Then he goes back inside.

This article has been edited for girlsspeakgeek.com. The complete story appeared in Harper's Bazaar, Dec.1995.

December 24, 1995 | Interview | this post contains affiliate links