Johnny Depp Lets Down His Hair

It’s the second time around for our roving reporter and Hollywood’s best-looking bad boy.

I mean, I’ve interviewed this guy before and one of the things I know about him is that he loves a good goof. After all, isn’t his “Are-they-or-are-they-not-a-couple?” status with Ryder one of those need-to-know Depp essentials?

These days, the former 21 Jump Street rave has a thing or two to feel cool about. By the time he’s finished up a new flick in Texas, a total of three Depp movies will be theater-ready, his first since Cry-Baby and Edward Scissorhands. First up is the oddball Benny & Joon. Then comes the oddball Gilbert Grape. And later there will be the oddball Arizona Dream.

Unlike the trying-too-hard-to-be-bad-to-be-really-bad guy I met and interviewed for Movieline a few years ago, the current-model Depp shapes up as more than just someone with whom the camera wants to pick out sofa beds. He’s speedier, edgier, more limber. The former teen pinup looks ready to play grifters, sociopaths, doomed romantics, sexy flotsam, saints.

“How are you and Winona doing?” He laughs and replies, “At a certain point, that stuff is really no one else’s business. There’s certain things you just don’t want to talk about. I have to partly blame myself for the situation, all these rumors. Let’s say that my mistake, from the beginning, was thinking I could do interviews, talk about it and be fairly open. But my doing that started a whole chain of events that were kind of disturbing. It somehow gave people in the street—total strangers—the key to open up my little treasure-chest box. I know this sounds whiny, and I don’t mean it to, but it can be real unfair to the people involved.”

Not whiny exactly, Johnny, just evasive. He shrugs, grins, and says, “Everything’s, you know, fine. To the public or to the people in Hollywood, it doesn’t appear like we are together sometimes because she’s working there while I’m here or I’m somewhere else working while she’s here. We don’t go to a whole lot of functions. I went to a function one time when she was out of town and, with the press, it turned into, like, some junior high-school thing. I mean, I would never walk up to another actor or anybody and say, ‘How’s your romance?’”

So what’s all this about Ryder’s recently “buying” him a celestial body and having it named for him? He breaks up in a happy cackle. “Oh, the star thing, yeah. It’s true. Romantic, isn’t it? I didn’t know it was coming. I was completely surprised. I’d like to see it through a telescope. Get to know it. From what I know, it looks exactly like me. It’s amazing.”

I’m curious to know what sort of hand Depp thinks the press has dealt him since, hell, even I’ve knocked him in print in the past and yet here he sits again, obviously game for another go-round. I tell him that I’ve heard that he recently did an Us interview, even though they’ve given him a hard time in the past as one of Tinseltown’s worst-dressed young actors. He laughs. “They also voted me one of the worst actors for Edward Scissorhands, but, considering some of the ‘Best’ and ‘Worst’ stuff they’ve done on everybody in the past, I took that as a very high compliment. As far as being one of the worst dressed, I was proud. My goal is to be number one worst dressed. Press stuff just rolls off me.”

I ask whether there’s any truth to the stories that he deliberately shies away from doing parts like Keanu Reeves’s role in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the Christian Slater roles in Mobsters and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, and Brad Pitt’s part in Thelma & Louise. He shifts in his seat, clearly less than comfortable with this topic. “Maybe one of those guys who actually did those movies—and I’m not saying I could have done them, either—thinks he got the offer first, you know?” he says. “Then he reads this interview and, all of a sudden, it destroys his whole thing. I pretty much know the people who are going to get a shot at a role before me and I definitely know who’s going to get it after me.” I persist. “Okay, on one of those movies you mentioned,” he says, “I thought about the era it was set in, the cool cars, the pinstriped-and-double-breasted suits. On the other hand, I thought about the piles of money they were just willing to put into my hand, and I smelled something wrong. The more I thought about that, I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. It’s amazing how easy it is to get on a big money trip of doing the routine stuff that comes your way.”

But has he been choosing off-kilter stuff by design or by default? “Cry-Baby wasn’t this esoteric thing,” he points out. “It had plenty of cool jokes—ones that apparently no one got— and plenty of music. The people putting the movie out sold me, and John Waters, out for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, which destroyed us that first weekend. At least I can say, ‘It’s not my fault nobody saw Cry-Baby, because there was this really sick turtle-karate-judo thing going on.’ But when that happened, I thought, ‘If this is how it’s going to be, better just keep making movies I like.’ It’s not really my goal to become that Tom Cruise thing, being one of the biggest box-office stars in the world. But it’s not like I’m allergic to commercial success, either.”

Still, it hasn’t escaped Depp that Cruise rakes in a zillion dollars a movie, boasts his own production deal, and can pretty much call his own shots. Depp’s quote reportedly weighs in at a couple of million, but his deal at Fox, proffered him around the time of Scissorhands, is kaput. “No disrespect to [former Fox bosses] Joe Roth or Roger Birnbaum, really good guys, but basically, it boiled down to I’d bring them projects and they would go, ‘I don’t think so,’ and they would bring me so-called commercial things and I’d go, ‘I’m so not into that.’ Most of the things I like and want to be involved in aren’t big-budget things. We’ve all read formula stuff over and over again, so I can’t help responding when I read something that really makes me cackle, stays in my memory, makes me feel.”

The mere suggestion that he glam up for a big, fat commercial movie again—just for the hell of it—conjures up memories of his cover-boy 21 Jump Street days as a national adolescent pastime. “The image of me that was being catapulted into people’s guts made me sick. Once I realized I had no control over what they were doing, which was, like, selling this product, I also realized, ‘These people will drain your blood and f**ing leave you by the side of the road.’ I knew that I had to fight real hard and had to go completely against the grain, against their expectations. The amazing thing is that, since then, I’ve so far been able to do what I’ve really wanted to do. I don’t know how long anyone gets to do that. I just hope that people will keep giving me jobs.”

Which is another way of saying that he’s hip to the perils of making too many outlaw movies, a strategy that nowadays can often pave the road to outlaw cable-TV movies. “It’s dangerous,” he admits, drumming the table’s edge. “It can be a little frightening at times. I don’t want to sound like some pompous actor asshole telling you he only wants to do ‘important’ stuff. I mean, some of the things I’ve been offered were not so bad. Not bad at all, even. They were just things I didn’t really feel like I wanted to do. Or couldn’t see myself doing. That could be a very big mistake at times because, it’s just like anything: you have to keep a balance. I’m not going to be able to do the things I want to do if I don’t do a certain amount of—whatever you want to call that stuff—to stay up in the eyes of the studio people.”

That might help explain the hot and heavy rumors that Depp will soon do a quintessential studio package, a Three Musketeers movie for Jeremiah Chechik, his Benny & Joon director, playing D’Artagnan, perhaps to Winona Ryder’s wicked Milady de Winter, swashing and buckling with a bunch of other doll-face swordsmen. “At first, I liked the idea,” Depp admits, sounding almost sheepish, “because I’d like to do that book, that period and because Jeremiah’s got a real good notion about making it brilliant and rich with guys in long hair, goatees, sword-fighting and leaping over each other.” Fine, so what’s the “but” I detect in his voice? He laughs, “But … it started to smell like Young Guns in Tights, you know? Like Guess? Jeans boys flashing swords. If that’s what somebody else wants to do, great. For me, though, no—I got real nervous. Right now,” he says, gesturing his hand in a fifty-fifty sign, “it’s exactly in the middle for me. I couldn’t make a movie until I know exactly who else is going to be in it. How’s it going to be done? What’s it boil down to?”

Depp is forthcoming about working with Faye Dunaway, who he calls “the last of her kind, a real old-time movie star,” someone who’s “all extremes, like a fire that never stops moving.” So what’s it like being around a woman aflame? “She’ll take no sh* and compromise nothing, which I really admire,” he asserts. “Hers is a very specific way of working, which isn’t necessarily a way for me. Sometimes, when we were working, it could get, uhhmm, interesting, but the result is staggering. I’d be doing a scene with her, watching her the whole time, and only later, watching it on-screen, could I see what she was actually doing. I enjoyed everything I could get from her: sweetness, anger, sadness. We have some good, good fire together.”

Although Depp in the meantime (when Arizona Dream‘s director walked out) met such directors as Francis Coppola, to talk over the role Reeves got in Dracula, and Richard Attenborough, to discuss his playing Chaplin, he knew he wouldn’t necessarily be free to accept offers that came his way. “I met with Attenborough,” Depp says, “knowing all the while that I was totally wrong to play Chaplin. I just wanted the chance to meet him, to say hi. With Francis, that possibility came up just when Arizona Dream heated up again, so off I went to finish it.”

The shooting of Benny & Joon was no waterslide, either. Early on, MGM brought suit against Woody Harrelson for ditching the role of the brother when Indecent Proposal came his way. Then, co-star Laura Dern defected. Sighing at the memory, Depp says, “I’d gone through the whole mess I usually go through when I’m about to start a movie, and then there was this strange thing with Woody, who actually lives down the road from me. To be honest, I wasn’t familiar with his work. I’d never seen Cheers. I was in France doing voice-overs for Emir and I’m hearing all this kind of weirdness, like, ‘Woody’s out,’ then, ‘Laura Dern’s out because Woody’s out,’ then, ‘Woody’s in.’ On and on. I was shocked by the whole thing.”

More shocks lay in store once Depp realized director Chechik was “like a guy who jumps behind the wheel of a semi truck with bombs strapped to the sides, who says, ‘I think I’ll drive this thing cross country ‘cause it might be. fun!’” On the other hand, Depp strews verbal rose petals before the feet of his co-stars Mary Stuart Masterson and Aidan Quinn. “Hearing it was to be Aidan Quinn in the part, not Woody, really made me happy; I didn’t know how happy until I started hanging out with the guy, who’s so strong, smart, centered.”

But Depp’s main kick came from playing a character “who’s Buster Keaton-like, and Keaton is truly one of my all-time heroes.” The mere mention of the silent movie genius causes Depp to break out in symptoms of an advanced case of film-geekese. He’s suddenly spouting from memory—hell, practically acting out for me—a slew of connoisseur’s moments from lesser-known Keaton films, stuff that holds a sacred place in his home library of virtually impossible-to-find videos. When I mention that there’s more than a nod to the Great Stoneface in his Edward Scissorhands performance, he just beams.

“Stuff that Keaton did in movies 60-odd years ago is shocking, so brilliant. He did stunts without wires and head spins that—and man, I know, because I’ve tried to do them again and again—cannot be done by a human being. Unless you’re Keaton. Or, maybe, a 12-year-old Russian gymnast.”

“I’m not that outspoken or aggressive,” he answers when I ask whether he’s ever tried doing something really out there to land a role. “But I did steal a script off someone’s desk. I read it and couldn’t help thinking, ‘If I could only do this and never anything else, I wouldn’t care,’” he says about the gloriously weird screenplay. Yet, as if to prove his reticence, he adds, “It took me years to get the [courage] to call Neal and tell him: ‘I’ve really got to do this.’”

Once he polishes off Gilbert Grape and—maybe—The Three Musketeers, Depp wouldn’t mind another fling with Tim Burton or John Waters, the latter of whom, thanks to Depp, is available between pictures to perform marriage ceremonies. “I’m very proud of how, for just $60 and some help from my lawyers,” Depp says, grinning, “he became Reverend John Waters.” The idea behind it all was that Waters would then preside over his and Ryder’s nuptials.

Historians of pop culture, Depp says, can make of his career what they will. But he observes, “I hope they can say, ‘He’s still alive.’ Just so long as I’m not remembered as a TV showboat.”

This article has been edited for The complete story appeared in Movieline Apr.1993.

April 1, 1993 | Interview | this post contains affiliate links