Johnny Handsome

Can Johnny Depp, TV’s tattooed teen idol make the leap to the big time with movies like Cry-Baby and Edward Scissorhands—or is this just his 15 minutes of fame?

Wayne Newton blew away Johnny Depp in Vegas the other night.

Newly named Male Star of Tomorrow, 27-year-old Depp was sharing the dais with fellow honorees Anjelica Huston, Female Star of the Year, Jeff Bridges, Male Star of the Year, Producer of the Year Joel Silver, and Batman Tim Burton, Director of the Year, for whom Depp will next appear in the Fox movie Edward Scissorhands opposite Female Star of Tomorrow Winona Ryder.

Depp sat quietly, “generally at a loss for words,” according to one observer. But (then) came Depp’s blow-away moment supreme: a one-hour “surprise” concert appearance by Wayne Newton, who purred congratulations to the award recipients, but singled out, with a wave of his hand, “My good friend—Johnnnn-eeee DEPP!”

“I was in shock,” admits Depp a few days later.

Millions ride on whether this kid will deliver more in movies than the best cheekbones. Right now, Depp is talking about a real star. “I mean, it’s WAYNE NEWTON, man, LIVE! He’s an institution, like Elvis. Wayne Newton said my name and it MADE MY NIGHT.” Newton’s very essence draws from Depp a Vegas riff. “I love the whole flavor of Vegas,” Depp says, grinning, but serious. “I love the big, gaudy sunglasses, the bat-wing collars, the Nik-Nik shirts, the leisure suits and white patent leather shoes.”

Today, the Tiger Beat Adonis-in-jockey-shorts scenes in Cry-Baby should make pre-teen girls squirm and swoon for him like an old-style screen idol. At least that is what Universal, which is selling the movie entirely on Depp, hopes.

In search of “a real movie star,” Waters wrote Depp, asking if the actor would look over his script once he completed it. Luckily, Waters says, Depp had already seen and liked his other movies, “which is not something you lie about.” Says Depp, “John’s was the best script around—most unique, best-written, funniest. It makes fun of the whole teen dilemma thing, and was such a joke on how people perceive me. I was doing fast food every week,” he says of his TV series. “I wanted to work with an outlaw.” It hardly hurt that the outlaw could pay Depp’s $1 million salary.

“There were people who thought Cry-Baby was a bad idea,” admits Depp. “But I’ve always admired people like John Waters, who’s never compromised. The easy way is boring to me.”

Shooting the movie in Waters’s beloved Baltimore (“the strangest place I’ve ever been,” Depp says) left the star and director wanting more. “I’d love to become a member of his repertory company,” says Depp. Waters, who already has a Cry-Baby successor in mind for Depp, says, “He’s everything a star should be, the very opposite of a flash-in-the-pan.”

Part Cherokee, Depp grew up in Owensboro, Kentucky, the son of an engineer, John Christopher Depp, and Betty Sue, a waitress. When Depp was six, his family (he has two older sisters and a brother) moved to Miramar, Florida. Early on, Depp got a line on the marketability of charisma from an uncle, “an old-time preacher” of the fire-and-brimstone-and-salvation school of theatrics. Growing up, Depp caught his uncle’s act as often as possible, drawn by the “strangeness of seeing all these adults bursting into tears, running up and grabbing his feet when he’d say, ‘Come up and be saved!’ It was an obtuse sort of image for a kid.” Obtuse, maybe, and one unforgettable role model.

By the time his parents divorced (each has remarried since), Depp, 15, was Johnny Too Bad. A striking, rangy kid, he had dabbled in “every kind of drug there was” by age 11. Between bouts of swiping six-packs, breaking and entering, and classroom-trashing, Depp lost his cherry at age 13, and ditched school for good at 16. “It was fairly normal,” Depp says. “When you’re 13, 14, and you hang out with a bunch of guys and the junior high prom just doesn’t do it for you, you go out and do something. Experiment. You live in Miami as a kid and [drugs are] everywhere. You try it for the usual reasons: peer pressure, curiosity, boredom.” Depp left home to live in a ‘67 Impala with a buddy who had nowhere else to go.

Rowdy and obsessed with music, Depp kept constant company with a battered, $25 electric guitar upon which he began teaching himself, after catching the fever from hearing a gospel group. “I had blinders on to anything else but music; I made that my life,” he says. Almost overnight, Johnny Too Bad became Johnny Guitar. While working at construction jobs, Depp gigged in 14 different garage bands before clicking with the Kids, a popular South Florida group which he describes as “Muddy Waters meets the Sex Pistols.” He recalls, “There’s no greater feeling than playing guitar in a band.”

In 1983, at 20, Depp and the band members moved to Los Angeles for their shot at stardom. The same year, he married Lori Allison, a younger sister of a musician pal, whom a friend at the time describes as “tiny, dark, pale, beautiful, and quiet. Johnny was the more outgoing of the two.” Although he and Allison divorced two years later, Allison’s one-time boyfriend, actor Nicolas Cage, hooked up Depp with his agent.

Depp scored a movie job on his first audition. “Johnny was more worldly, compared to all these pretty boys that were coming in,” says Wes Craven, who cast Depp in the original A Nightmare on Elm Street. “Johnny had an ’80s, time-worn quality, and looked like he’d been around. He was an older soul, somehow.” Mimi Craven remembers, “Johnny had such an innocence about him with that look. He had ‘It’ in spades, more than anybody I’ve ever met.”

“After I saw how bad I was in my first couple of jobs, I decided I better do something about it,” says Depp. Then Depp found a more prestigious showcase in Oliver Stone’s Platoon.

Professionally, things dried up again after Depp’s return from several months filming with Stone in the Philippine jungles. Despite no movie offers, Depp turned down producer Patrick Has-burgh’s offer to play an undercover cop who busts high schoolers in a TV series. Instead, he accepted an invitation by a friend who lived in his apartment building to join a band—Rock City Angels.

Meanwhile, the producers of the TV cop show were dissatisfied with the actor they had cast and again offered Depp the role. The fewer movie scripts Depp got, the more tempting the series sounded. Liking the script for 21 Jump Street, and eager to work with actor Fredric Forrest, Depp signed on, thinking the job might see him through a lean season or two. Instead, Forrest departed the show after a few episodes, and, two months after Depp began filming the series, Geffen Records and Depp’s Rock City Angels band members signed the biggest deal since Madonna’s. “It was like,” Depp recalls of hearing the news of his ex-band’s success. “All I wanted since I was 12 years old was to go on the road.” (To date, however, the band has not released a second album.)

Part of Depp’s appeal to kids appears to stem from the hint of grit and fingernail dirt that lurks beneath the style dramatics of the TV show. Depp does nothing to polish his image. “If you’re honest with people, without splitting yourself open, sometimes you can help somebody in trouble,” says Depp, who told the press early on about his former drug and alcohol use. He’s no one’s idea of a role model, which suits him fine. “Things are pretty bad if kids have to write to an actor for advice. I couldn’t tell anyone what to do. I don’t want to be some spokesman for ‘Just Say No’ to drugs. I’m just as f**ed up as the next guy. If I can help people by saying, ‘I’ve done this and it really feels bad after a while. I wouldn’t do it if I were you,’ that’s great. But also, the [producers] were trying to make me out to be this, like, perfectly baked cake. I don’t want to be what these people created.”

Some observers say that what “these people” created is, in fact, an ego monster who keeps cast and crew members of 21 Jump Street, which is filmed in Vancouver, B.C., in an uproar. According to reports, Depp has set fire to his underwear, been deliberately belligerent to his producers, and even thrown them a punch or two. Two things are known. When Depp refused to do certain episodes, Richard Grieco, replaced him (and got his own hit series for his trouble). And just before Depp left to begin filming Cry-Baby, he was arrested for assaulting a hotel security guard. (And, later, he was completely cleared of those charges.) “Guys have gotten a little cocky with me sometimes,” Depp says, in defense of his alleged behavior. “They either see that they can make themselves look good in front of their friends by being a man or they see free lunches in their future. So, they figure if they f** with you, you’ll hit them and they can take you to court.”

Four seasons and major TV stardom later, Johnny Depp keeps this calendar: “Every day,” says the actor, “I mark down the days left. Two more seasons… contractually.” After a moment, Depp says of his $45,000-per-episode series deal: “I don’t want to bite the hand that feeds me. I’ve been lucky. It’s put me on the map. But once you put your name on a piece of paper, you have no choice. There are people in ties with hulking desks who do bad things to you.”

“I’m a little long in the tooth to be in high school. Clay won’t help the bags under my eyes anymore. [The producers] really should do a Menudo-type thing, just pop other guys into the role, or else, like on soap operas, if one of the regulars is sick, announce: ‘This week, Lance McGillacutty will be playing the role of Alan Quartermain.’ ” He sighs, “They only cancel TV after it’s been really bad for a really long time.”

On the evidence of Cry-Baby and the fact that top filmmakers as different as Tim Burton and Oliver Stone want to work with him, Depp can probably feel optimistic about the near term. He enthuses over Edward Scissorhands. “Johnny related on a real emotional level to the character’s pain and humor,” asserts (producer) Denise Di Novi who says that she and Tim Burton chose Depp for his “dynamite combination of clear, accessible vulnerability, real strength, and sexuality.” According to some, Depp won out over such contenders as Tom Cruise for the role. Di Novi explains, “We’re creating a new character and didn’t want an actor that carried baggage with him. Johnny could do any movie he wants, yet he chooses to take risks on emotionally complex parts. The camera likes his cheekbones but it also likes what comes through in his eyes. He’s deep, complex, intelligent, and sensitive. To me, that suggests he will fare very well.”

For his part, Depp says, “On my movies, I make my own decisions based on what I feel, not on [what] someone says the public wants. I try to fight the everyday, normal leading man stuff as much as I can. [Edward Scissorhands] has what would appear to most people as a real severe disability. On the other side, there’s got to be something good from it. There’s a lot of interesting twists to it.”

Not the least of these twists has to do with “Winona Forever.” That’s how the scroll-like tattoo reads when Depp strips off his jacket to proudly display his bared biceps. “Betty Sue”—a bright red heart commemorating his mother—adorns one arm; an Indian chief’s head, a salute to his bloodlines, stares out from his other.

“It was no big deal for him, because he’s had tattoos done before,” says Mike Messina of Sunset Strip Tattoo whom Depp engaged for about $75 to needle into his flesh his feelings for Winona Ryder, the actress whom he currently acts with by day in Edward Scissorhands and cohabits with by night. “The fact that we’re together and we’re in love certainly won’t hurt the movie,” Depp says, with a warily happy smile. “Winona and I are engaged. It’s official. She has a lot of talent and, aside from that, I also happen to love her. I’m sure we’re going to do more things together. People have had great success at that, like John Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands. In a perfect world, I’d just do movies with [Winona], John Waters, and Tim Burton, and live happily ever after.”

“I have a house now that I’m renting,” says the actor whom John Waters calls “a homeless movie star.” Although Depp hints that his and Ryder’s probable marriage has him thinking about “sniffing out a place to own and live in, maybe somewhere on the east coast,” Waters says: “I’ve only known Johnny for a year-and-a-half, but I have a page of addresses for him. The best way to reach him is to write: Johnny Depp. A Bench. Vancouver, British Columbia. By the way, he moved again this week.” And as for friends? “I’ve got a couple who are very important to me and I have Winona who is very, very important to me. That’s all I need.”

I propose that Depp try to talk John Waters into directing him and Ryder in a whacked-out remake of Viva Las Vegas with Depp taking over for Elvis’s hip-swiveling grease monkey and Ryder for frenzied, lip-smacking Ann-Margret. “That would be beautiful,” Depp says. “I would love to do something like that. Especially with the Dead Kennedys’ version of the theme song.” But for the present, once Depp completes his inspired weirdness with Tim Burton in late spring, it is back to Vancouver for another season of kiss-kiss, run-your-hands-through-your-tousled-hair, bang-bang.

“Most of this business is so full of sh*,” Depp observes. “People take it so seriously, as if their life depended on this episode or that movie. I mean, film burns. You can light it on fire.” I ask how Depp foresees future pop culture historians noting his career. “Johnny Depp got his big break on 21 Jump Street, ” he says, without missing a beat, “went into films, then went on to become a Las Vegas entertainer.” Johnny Depp, a lounge act? “Sure,” he says. “I would hope that my final hootenanny might be in a Vegas or Tahoe nightclub.”

This article has been edited for The complete story appeared in Movieline May.1990.

May 1, 1990 | Interview | this post contains affiliate links