The Buzz On Johnny Depp

What a week. You know, you’re staying at this hotel, the Mark. It’s not your regular place, but come on–you’re paying twenty-two hundred dollars a night for the presidential suite, you think at least they wouldn’t look at you funny every time you cross the lobby. Is that too much to ask? Every time … especially this one guy who works there. You can just tell he doesn’t like you, he doesn’t like you at all. And why? Because you didn’t change your jeans or wash your hair?

So it’s five in the morning and a couple of million cups of coffee later, and you punch their stupid couch. So what? Technically speaking, right now, you own this couch. And the lamps and the coffee table–oh, sorry, was that an antique? Bummer. But, you know, for the first time, you’re really enjoying yourself here at the Mark hotel.

The next thing you know, you’re in jail and all these female cops want your autograph and the papers are making up funny names to call you. You get your stuff back, and it turns out somebody wrote “F** you” in your Brando book. You were reading that book, man.

You’re a nice guy. You pick up the checks, you pay the bills, you help people out. No problem. You’re rich, and the gold card means you don’t have to carry a wallet. You have this thing about stuff. You don’t want too much of it, but some of it is nice to have, like a good red wine and a fine car and a new pair of jeans once in a while. But you’re famous. They know you wherever you go. That means you gotta be careful. Every time you get a tattoo, they wanna know all about it. And the new one says, KATE FOREVER, right? They watch you, man. You stand in front of a mirror and cut all your hair, and they say it’s an image change. You make one movie that tanks, doesn’t matter if it’s good, and they say you gotta make a hit or you’re dead. You try to make good movies, smart ones; you find these cool directors who have something to say, and you help them say it. That’s it. You read the lines and hang out in your trailer. You just wanna be an artist and make beautiful, important movies and date really good-looking women and have a nice house in the Hollywood Hills where you can stash your suitcases–you hate to unpack all the time. Who doesn’t?

JOHN CHRISTOPHER DEPP II makes a forceful case for the plight of the American celebrity in the modern age. The thirty-one-year-old actor feels he must do so to correct a false impression held by a substantial percentage of the world’s population, who would drop everything to start life over as Johnny Depp. He wants everyone to know that driving a fancy sports car (he cruises around Los Angeles in a Porsche Carrera, parking wherever he feels like and paying the tickets), dating beautiful babes (his current girlfriend is London-based Kate Moss, whom he jets off almost constantly to visit), co-owning a Sunset Strip nightclub, and making Hollywood movies for a living (his asking price just passed $4 million) isn’t as great as it sounds.

Being famous is also what got Depp arrested last September for trashing a suite at the Mark in New York City. Depp knows his celebrity turned a trivial incident into a media event, and he feels certain it was all to promote a hotel and help it trade on his notoriety.

“It’s good for them,” Depp says. “Now they can say they have this little bit of history, this ridiculous morsel of history. They can say, `We had Johnny Depp arrested.’ I’d like to ask five people: Have you ever had a bad day? Have you ever been harassed in a passive-aggressive way? What does it make you feel like? You have no room to breathe. Have you ever punched a hole in your wall at home? Hotels are my home. I live in hotels more than I live in my house.”

“If it had been you,” Depp goes on, presuming that countless millions out there can barely resist smashing hotel-room furniture when they’re having a bad night, “nothing would have happened. They would have come to the room and said, `What’s going on?’ You would have said, `I’ll pay for the damages, and I’m terribly sorry.

Johnny Depp is pissed off, a fact that may surprise those who know him only through his movies.

Like so many young stars before him, Depp now suffers from an aggravated fixation on Marlon Brando. Brooding actors from James Dean onward have been struggling to emulate, surpass, or, at the very least, get to know the seventy-one-year-old eminence grasse of American movies. In Brando’s recent autobiography, he ridicules Dean’s efforts to mimic his behavior by once crumpling up his coat into a ball at a party they both attended. “It struck me that he was imitating something I had done,” Brando wrote, and I took him aside and said, `Don’t do that, Jimmy. Just hang your coat up like everybody else.

Depp has managed to costar with him in Don Juan DeMarco, coming out this month. Depp now calls Brando a friend, though his voice almost trembles at the thought of the Large One.

“I think he’s one of the greatest minds of this century, a genius, ” Depp said recently, focusing on one of Brando’s lesser-known attributes, “Brando never got caught up in the illusion. You go to a Hollywood function and there’s fifty million teeth smiling and talking and chomping. It’s all teeth and hands. Pats on the back. I know that 50 percent of the conversations I’ve had in this town didn’t start because they thought I was a good guy. What can you do? There’s a game to be played here. You can play it to the hilt and make piles of money. I don’t want to be ninety years old and look back and see how full of sh* I was. The people I admire didn’t do that.”

Depp has been associated with his own conspicuous acts of aggression ever since he became a teen heart-throb in 1987. The events at the Mark have tapped right into Depp’s violent image. “I had a bad night,” he says modestly.

“There have been times that he’s misbehaved,” says his agent and close friend, Tracey Jacobs of ICM, to whom Depp placed his one phone call from jail. “I’m very tough on him about that stuff.”

Six months later, not even close friends of Depp’s believe that the Mark incident caused any damage to his reputation. Six major movie roles beckoned by late January, when Depp finally signed with Paramount to make Nick of Time.

Depp fantasizes about making a silent film someday, but in Nick of Time, he’s trusting himself to director John Badham. But despite his low budget returns, Depp has, managed to keep the industry believing he is a star–a title sometimes defined by an actor’s talent for keeping his name in the papers.

“The hotel thing hasn’t hurt his career,” says director John Waters, Depp’s friend. “He looked good under arrest. Criminal movie star is a really good look for Johnny.” Waters adds, “The success of a hotel-room trashing should be calculated by the amount of damage divided by the amount of column inches.”

Something alerted Depp’s keen sense for imminent conflict right after he checked into the Mark early last fall. This wasn’t one of his regular haunts, but when you’re in the market for a presidential suite at the last minute, you take what you can get. He’d come to New York in part to do publicity for Ed Wood, the Tim Burton project he felt so passionate about that he’d passed up the part of Lestat in Interview with the Vampire and the lead in Speed. In retrospect, what followed- -especially his arrest for two counts of criminal mischief resulting in $9,767.12 in damages owed–did not surprise Depp all that much. Nor did the media response, which resulted in precisely the morsel of history Depp envisioned.

“Did Beethoven go to jail for it?” Depp asks the question with an extended blink of both eyes. At the moment, he sits in a black vinyl booth at his black-walled Hollywood hangout, the Viper Room, demonstrating his perfect ability to be cool without trying. He’s almost annoyingly good at it. Without waiting for an answer, Depp gets up to pour himself another cup of black coffee from behind the bar. The guy drinks an enormous amount of coffee. After hanging out with Depp for a while, you start to realize how he came to be awake in his hotel suite at five in the morning and maybe a little jittery.

Depp knows his reputation for anger. He’s been in trouble with the authorities since his early teens–from breaking into classrooms as a self-styled delinquent in a blue-collar Florida suburb to an arrest for assaulting a security guard in Canada in 1989. He’s well aware that the incident at the Mark supports the public view of him as a menace, which he doesn’t really care about.

“Let’s just say that my stay there wasn’t particularly comfortable,” Depp says.

In Depp’s view, the source of his discomfort at the Mark was Jim Keegan. As the hotel’s midnight-to-eight security guard, Keegan saw Depp frequently coming in and out of the Mark’s quiet, austere lobby. Depp, an insomniac, had been out several nights on the town in New York, and his peak partying hours coincided with Keegan’s watch.

“It seemed like this guy couldn’t stand Johnny,” says Jonathan Shaw, a close friend since the early 1980s, when Depp was a Los Angeles rock ‘n’ roller in the slow lane and Shaw a local tattoo artist. Shaw remembers this from his own visits to the hotel to see Depp, who confirms the description. “The guy was a little froggy,” Depp says. “He decided that he was going to ‘Let me get in the famous guy’s face.’ I don’t really take too well to that.”

That night, Depp was in his suite with thin-as-a-Calvin-Klein-billboard Kate Moss. She and Depp had been dating for months. He’d won a hard-earned reputation for serial monogamy. Moss may not have yet earned herself a mention on Depp’s body, but friends say the two are definitely in love. Depp seems almost depressed over the public’s fixation with Moss’s weight. “She eats like a champ,” Depp says sweetly, defending her against criticism of her waifish figure. “She really puts it away. Why punish somebody because they have a good metabolism? Because they digest their food better? It doesn’t make any sense.”

He wasn’t drunk or on drugs, and he wasn’t fighting with Kate Moss. That is all Depp will say about what went on between him and Moss that led up to crashing noises at five that morning. The commotion summoned Keegan to Depp’s floor; the security guard told police later that he’d heard crashing sounds from inside the suite and saw a broken picture frame in the hallway outside the room.

“That guy had probably one too many cups of coffee that night,” Depp reflects, and he is in a position to know. “He was particularly feisty. He decided to call the shots in a way that I didn’t think was particularly necessary. If I walk into an antique shop and I bend down to look at something over here and I accidentally knock a pot off the rack, it’s $3,000, of course I’d pay for it. If I bust a piece of glass, I smash a mirror or whatever, I’ll pay for it. I can probably handle the bill. That’s that.”

Keegan told Depp he’d have to leave the hotel or he would call the police. Depp offered to pay for the damages but argued that he shouldn’t have to check out. So Keegan called the police, and by 5:30 A.M., Depp had left in the company of three officers.

“It wasn’t a great night for me,” Depp says. “I’m not trying to excuse what I did or anything like that, because it’s someone else’s property and you gotta respect that. But you get into a head space, and you’re human.”

Depp is in the lobby of the Sunset Marquis in West Hollywood. The valet parkers here know him and nod happily toward the high-tipping star as they walk past. Depp claims to have lived in every hotel in L. A. at one time or another, including this one just a few blocks from the Viper Room. At the moment, he’s living in his Laurel Canyon house for practically the first time since he bought it two months before the 1994 earthquake. He’d been in London during the quake, and it wasn’t until somebody asked him, “How did you make out in that earthquake?” that he called and found out his place had been wrecked. It took seven months to rebuild, and now he’s back in it, at least until his next departure.

The son of John and Betty Sue Depp, now divorced, had dropped out of high school eight years before and had spent most of his youth tearing up his hometown of Miramar, Florida, outside Miami. He’d been committed enough to rock ‘n’ roll to pack up his guitar, his wife (Lori Allison, whom he married and split from within a year), and his band (the Kids) and move to Los Angeles, until his wife’s ex-boyfriend Nicolas Cage helped him get his first real acting job, in A Nightmare on Elm Street. Depp remembers making $1,200 a week for six weeks of work. (“Never had I seen anything like that.”) He kept at it with TV roles. Jump Street introduced Depp to big-time celebrity. But he hated Fox’s packaging of him as a Tiger Beat cover boy and left as soon as his contract expired in 1989. “I always thought Johnny should have been more into the teen- idol thing,” John Waters says, “and live in a big house with huge gates and have screaming girls outside day and night.” But instead, Depp made Waters’s Cry-Baby, which turned his TV image on its head and was the first of back-to-back cult classics. Even though Cry-Baby flopped, Depp’s choice led him out of television in a cosmic way. His second starring role elevated him to the level of movie star. Tom Cruise had to turn down Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands before Twentieth Century Fox would offer the title role to Depp. The studio had no regrets. The movie grossed $54 million.

“That character was the closest to me,” Depp says fondly. “Edward had a lot more dialogue in the script. But I personally felt that he was a little baby in die brain. A really small child.” After Scissorhands‘s success, Depp’s career was assured. Five years later, Depp has reached Hollywood’s A-list without a single box-office smash. Along with Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt, and Keanu Reeves, Depp gets a look at most major screenplays in Hollywood with a starring young-male role.

Depp likes to travel almost all the time. He fantasizes about one day living in France. He carries no wallet and has only a few crumpled dollar hills in his pocket, though also crammed into his baggy jeans is that well-worn gold card. He helps provide for his family and friends; his best friend from Florida, Sal Jenco, manages the Viper Room, and his sister, Christi, works for him full- time. “She’s organizing all my stuff,” Depp says. “I still have suitcases I haven’t unpacked from Scissorhands.”

This article has been edited for The complete story appeared in Esquire Apr.1995.

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