Johnny Be Good

For all his offbeat roles Johnny Depp has the elegance of the silent-screen star and a decidedly European cut. Kevin Sessums finds the nomadic founder of Hollywood-style grunge making his directorial debut, The Brave, and settling into a $3 million 1930s mansion.

Johnny Depp sits in the middle of the Mojave. His shoulder-length hair has been dyed a shade or so blacker than the Hills that pass for mountains over in South Dakota. Movie makeup darkens his skin. Those hood­ed, haunted eyes of his concen­trate on the screen of a tiny monitor. Physically spent after many weeks of directing The Brave, a script he co-wrote with his brother, D.P., and in which he also stars, the 33-year-old actor is homesick for his own bed back in Holly­wood, as well as for the company of his girlfriend, model Kate Moss. Depp licks his parched lips. Shifts his lean, abundantly tattooed body in his director’s chair.

Floyd Red Crow Westerman interrupts his reverie. “That was my last line,” he says, referring to the scene that flickers before them. Westerman, a Dakota Sioux who played a featured role in Dances with Wolves, portrays Depp’s father in The Brave, a dark tale about familial love. The two men embrace as the crags in Red Crow’s ancient face shift upward into awe. “Look!” he commands, and points his intricately carved walking stick toward two creatures soaring silently in the desert sky.

“Hawks?” Depp asks.

“Crows,” Westerman says. “That’s my family bird…. But the spirit of the crow is important in all our lives. It does not fly away in the winter like most birds. It is the one who stays.”

Red Crow lumbers up a hill through a horde of local extras Depp has assembled, a heartbreaking array of poor, weathered faces. He then settles into his own chair in the shade of a production tent, where he and another of the film’s actors, Frederic Forrest, pass the time between scenes by swapping Jack Palance stories. Forrest is insisting that the famous entrance in Shane, in which Palance so gracefully dismounts his horse, is really rewound film of the actor mounting the animal, since Palance was “a city guy who didn’t give a sh* about horses. Scared of them.” Red Crow laughs, then changes the subject to their director, Depp. “At first I thought Johnny was taking on more than he could handle with The Brave,” Red Crow whispers. “I only seen one other guy who directed and acted in the same film. That was Kevin Costner in Dances with Wolves, but I seen Kevin break a couple of times and tear after someone and get mad. I haven’t seen that in Johnny. He goes beyond getting angry. He likes off-center, artsy roles as an actor, and he’s that way in his personality too.”

Down the hill, Depp is directing another scene, one which involves several children. It is getting late, and soon his crew will lose the light. The children are hot. The crew is hotter. Depp, with the grace of a rewound Jack Palance, just goes on about his business.

“Johnny invented grunge,” claims director John Waters, whom Depp once proudly described as his personal guru. “I don’t remember a movie star with that look before him.”

There is, indeed, a dirty sweetness about the actor; his unkempt, soulful slouch has combined with his dry disregard for the rougher shoals of machismo to deconstruct the very notion of male glamour. Descendants: the late River Phoenix, Leonardo DiCaprio, Ewan McGregor, Stephen Dorff.

After a string of artistic triumphs in carefully chosen films Depp remains devilishly incongruous. A deeply American actor—he often hints at his Native American blood—he has fashioned a career with a decidedly European cut.

“Johnny doesn’t suffer fools gladly. He tends toward a choice of material that’s going to interest him intellectually, and has always said to himself that the career comes second,” says British director Mike Newell (Donnie Brasco). “This particular role interested him, I think, because the whole character had to run beneath the surface, as it were,” Newell continues. “Johnny is one of those actors who acts in a kind of long term. You stay with his characterizations throughout a film because he tells you his story in his own good time—and, more important, you are willing to wait for it.”

“Donnie Brasco was a motherf**er of a movie,” Depp deadpans. “I spent a lot of time with the real Donnie Brasco, Joe Pistone. Brasco was his undercover name. He’s got an interesting rhythm to his speech. I did my best to get that. I put great pressure on myself to make it f**ing right for the guy. He lived it. I was just pretending.”

“He brought a sensitivity to the part,” says Pistone. “That’s a side of me that a lot of people don’t see. It was amazing—a lot of times during the shoot I’d close my eyes and say, ‘That’s me talking!’ It was eerie. The kid’s a good actor. He doesn’t put effort into it. He just does it.”

“I’ve never consciously played into any image,” insists Depp who accidentally became a teen heartthrob. “I never wanted to emulate anybody else. Every young actor who comes out of the blocks, they say, ‘James Dean,’ because it’s easy.”

“Jimmy Dean was my best friend,” says Martin Landau, who won an Oscar for best supporting actor opposite Depp in Ed Wood. “The point is that it is not easy to compare young actors to James Dean. Yet I don’t know anybody who’s closer to Jimmy than Johnny…. They share a similar subtlety in their work. But Jim’s was a fragile talent—not as developed as Johnny’s is.”

“I’m not ‘Blockbuster Boy.’ I never wanted to be. I wasn’t looking for that,” Depp says, having turned down the role of Lestat in Interview with the Vampire before Tom Cruise accepted it, passed on the Brad Pitt romantic lead in Leg­ends of the Fall, and declined the offer of the action hero in Speed. “I mean, it would be nice to get a whole sh*pile of money so you can throw it at your family and friends…. I just don’t know if movies can ever be considered art, because there’s so much money involved,” he continues, perhaps protesting a tad too much, since he himself recently crossed the $4-million-per-picture threshold. “It’s all about commerce. I don’t think art can come from that place. But I aspire to be an artist someday. Maybe I’ll be 70. I don’t know if it will come from being in a movie, though. Maybe I’ll just whittle something.”

The first seven years of Depp’s life were spent in Kentucky, so I ask the erstwhile whittler if he still considers himself a southerner. “Definitely. I need a big ol’ greasy meal every now and then—lots of pork and collards and biscuits.”

“How about the church, if you’re a true Bible Belter?” I ask. “You seem to have packed away a few demons in the baggage you’ve hauled around all these years.”

“When I was a kid back in Kentucky, we went to this church where my uncle preached. It was kind of a weird Baptist, full-on kind of place. People kept running up to the pulpit and grabbing his ankles and being saved. Lots of crying. Even then, at six or seven, I questioned how pure the emotion could be if it were on such display…. That’s where I found music, really—where I started playing guitar was in church, through that uncle. He had a little gospel group…. We’re all a mishmash of extremes. I know that I have demons,” Depp confesses. “I don’t know if I want to get rid of them altogether, but I would like to experience them in a different way. Maybe go face-to-face with them. I’ve never really had the time to go to therapy. Well, here and there. But not enough to help.”

“I do get into moods by periods. I’ll go through a couple of months when I listen to nothing but old 20s and 30s stuff. Then I’ll come back and listen to modern stuff—Oasis or Iggy Pop,” ­he says, the latter a good friend of his, who is composing the sound track for The Brave.

At seven, Depp left Kentucky with his family and headed for Florida. By the time he was a teenager, he, along with his brother and two sisters, had called more than 30 houses home. An infamous denizen of the world’s finest hotels, Depp has finally bought a house he can call his own.

Depp’s early nomadic existence may have played havoc with his sense of security, but it only strengthened his bond with his mother, Betty Sue, a waitress who was divorced from his father when Depp was 15. After he settled in California, he bought a house for Betty Sue and moved her from Florida to Palm Springs. “It’s a very Elvis-and-his-mama kind of thing,” says John Waters.

“Somehow it all leads back to family,” Depp insists. “I mean, in a town like this, you become on some level a commodity. But when you get back to your family, that all goes away. You’re Johnny again. At a certain point I wasn’t Johnny Depp anymore. I’d become ‘Johnny Depp.’” He stops for a moment, steeped in himself. He closes his eyes. “I remember picking tobacco with my grandfather back in Kentucky,” he finally says. “We were inseparable, me and Pawpaw. He died when I was seven, and that was a real big thing for me. But somehow I believe that he’s around.”

Soiled green Astroturf surrounds the murky pool in the center of the Hollywood Suites Motel. Depp’s makeshift production office for The Brave is located in this seedy hangout on the western end of Hollywood Boulevard. Though the subject matter of the film is quite disturbing, Depp seems downright jaunty. On his face is a bemused grin. On his head, a white nautical cap. Inside it, on the band, is printed one of Depp’s nicknames for himself: mr. stench.

“I’ve had this skipper cap forever,” he says. “Worn it since I had a weird dream about the Skipper on Gilligan’s Island. He was chasing me around, kind of evil-like. But he never did catch me. I ran into this hideous little apartment building and into a kitchen. I looked over to my right, and there was this overweight Hispanic woman in a nightgown. That dream’s really stuck with me.”

“Are you surprised that you and Kate are still a couple?” I ask, taking this as a warped cue to ask him some woman questions.

“I am amazed,” he admits. “I am doubly amazed at how great it still is. It’s still new. It’s still fun. It’s still very naïve—even though we have all this history together now and all this luggage. But it’s still a good time. She makes me laugh. And, man, you can’t beat that South London accent.”

Depp and Moss met in February 1994 at Cafe Tabac, the trendy downtown-Manhattan spot. Though they’ve had their public ups and downs, both have claimed that it was love at first sight. Depp told Moss that he would not mind if she talked to me publicly for the first time about their relationship but she said through a spokesman that this is the one area of her life that remains private, and she did not feel comfortable commenting upon it.

“All the women you’ve been serious about are quite white,” I tell Depp. “You pride yourself on being in touch not only with the ethnicity inside you but also with the ethnicity that enriches our culture. How do you then explain this fixation on white women?”

“The ones that have been highly publicized are white, yeah. That just says more about the press than my tastes. I ain’t f**ing ‘white,’ that’s for sure. Kate’s definitely not. She’s about the furthest thing from ‘white’ there is. She’s got that high-water booty,” he brags. “A high-water booty is important…. And feet. Feet are very important.”

Back at the Viper Room, a security video monitor flickers on above Depp’s head. Divided into a grid of four equal parts, the monitor displays the areas of the club where trouble is most likely to occur. One of the quadrants offers a perfect view of the part of the sidewalk in front of the club where, in 1993, River Phoenix collapsed and died from a drug overdose. “It was a f**ing wake-up call for everybody for sure,” Depp says. “They tried to drag the club through the mud. They tried to drag me through the mud. But I don’t give a f** what the tabloid press writes. Forget about me. Forget about the club. This club is going to go away at some point. It’s just a piece of real estate. But to drag River’s name through the mud and turn the incident into a f**ing circus was such a horrible thing. It was unforgivable.”

Did you go through your own drug phase?
“Yeah. I experimented—especially when I was a kid. I remember when weed was $25 an ounce! And they don’t have nickel bags anymore! Remember nickel bags?”

Did River’s death make you question your own temptations? You’ve been arrested a few times for rowdy behavior. You’ve admitted in the past you’ve had a few drinks in your life.
“No, a few drinks have had me. It’s just kind of pointless. I mean, some people can drink—you know, a few whiskeys or vodkas. But I just keep going.”

Many of the characters you choose to play carry around a lot of sadness with them. But there have been times during your career when you appear exceedingly sad yourself. Watching What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, for example, one gets this sense of a kind of refracted sadness—your own looking back at us through Gilbert’s eyes.
“Oh, man, yeah. Johnny was unhappy then…. It was a pretty dark time for me. I don’t know what was going on. Well, I was poisoning myself beyond belief.” He points to his soda. “I’d eat that glass, man. There was a lot of liquor. A lot of liquor. I was pretty unhealthy.”

Were you doing heroin?”
Depp takes a deep breath. “Oh, let’s not talk about that…. It was a very sad time for me. I’ve never seen Gilbert Grape, actually. I can’t watch it.”

I think a lot of drug use is based on redemption. It’s about getting your life back together after an episode of using. It’s the redemption that’s addictive.
“We chase our tails for so long,” Depp softly says. “Getting high is about f**ing trying to numb something. Getting load­ed and trying to destroy yourself…. Well, you just get to a point and you go, F**! What am I doing? What the f** am I trying to do to myself? … It’s not so much redemption as it is clarity. This really shows I’m getting older. I’m sounding like John Denver or something. But I look forward to having a kind of peace of mind. I know that we all get there eventually, but it entails—at least for me—going through a lot of chaos.”

Depp the director decides to call it a day, and the hubbub on the Mojave movie set increases.

“Did you get to hang out with Red Crow?” Depp asks as we head for his trailer.

“That’s good. The first day, before we started shooting, I had him perform a Lakota Sioux sunrise ceremony to bless the film. Right after he finished, just as the sun was coming up and I was sitting down in my director’s chair for the first time, I got a call on my cellular. It was Brando telling me he’d do the role,” he says, referring to the character in his movie. “Can you believe that? Marlon’s an angel, man,” says Depp about the legendary actor who also co-starred with him in Don Juan DeMarco. “He’s my angel.”

This article has been edited for The complete story appeared in Vanity Fair Feb.1997.

February 24, 1997 | Interview | this post contains affiliate links