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What Makes Johnny Famous?
Icon, June 1998
by Dana Shapiro, Photos by Anton Corbijn

Despite relentless attempts to abandon the image that launched his career, Johnny Depp can't seem to escape his own face.

Once told a front desk clerk that his name was Mr. Donkey Penis...used to hang off the ledge of a parking structure with Nicolas Cage... was spotted in a gay bar with John Waters...had his "Winona Forever" tattoo surgically altered to read "Wino Forever"...got a speeding ticket...broke some furniture...slept in the bed where Oscar Wilde died...got in an argument with a photographer named Jonathan Walpole in a London pub; "He pulled both my ears," Walpole said. "Very hard." "I've just handed Johnny Depp a thick stack of press clippings downloaded from the data retrieval service, Lexis-Nexis. "You just type in 'Johnny Depp' with a headline restriction, and this is the type of stuff that comes out," I explain.

He flips through the pages with a mix of intrigue , amusement, and disgust, reading the occasional quote that catches his attention. "Jesus," he says, "this is bizarre. 'Depp charged with assaulting a security guard in Vancouver in 1989, described Canadians as 'Moosehead-drinking hockey players,'" he laughs. "Good lord," he says. "Wow, this is weird: 'Emir Kusturica] and Johnny carried around

Dostoevsky books and Kerouac books and they wore black. They had never worn black in their lives. They kept everybody in the cast and crew awake all night because they were blasting music and getting drunk.' I think Vincent Gallo said that." He continues flipping. This is amazing," he says. "What's it called--Lexis-Nexis?"

It's two o'clock on a Tuesday afternoon and Depp is eating chicken chow mein at the Formosa Cafe, the star-clogged Hollywood restaurant that open in 1946 across the street from the Goldwyn Studios (now the Warner Hollywood Studios). Outside in the parking lot are mock reserved spots for Frank Sinatra, Clark Gable, Bette Davis, Lee Marvin, Grace Kelly, Larry, Moe, Curly, and Elvis--"Nothing But a Hound Dog" on the sound system.

I bet she used to be a real dish," Depp says quietly of the waitress, a skinny, motherly woman with extra makeup and a wink for the movie star. She doesn't say anything fan-like, but it's clear she knows who Depp is--after the meal, he's allowed to smoke in the nonsmoking section. "You wouldn't happen to have a toothpick, would you?" Depp asks her.

On the walls above the table, and all over the restaurant, hang the autographed faces of everyone from Tony Curtis to Michael Douglas to Liza Minelli to John Ritter. "Meet me at the Formosa" reads the sign above the bar. "Where the stars dine."

Whether or not you consider Johnny Depp a "star" depends on whether you chalk the concept of fame up to public recognition, acclaim, hatred, or talent. JonBenet Ramsey is famous for dying. Dennis Rodman is famous for making himself famous. Thomas Pynchon is famous for not being famous. And then there are those who become famous by dating famous people--Gwyneth Paltrow, Rande Gerber, Donovan Leitch, Nicole Kidman--an unfortunate factor that has kept Depp's name in print and made his personal life more marketable than his films.

"There's an episode, a little moment on Beavis and Butt-head that I really like," says filmmaker Jim Jarmusch, Depp's good friend who directed him in the 1996 film Dead Man. "They're watching a Tom Petty video and Beavis is saying, 'Why is this guy so famous?' And Butt-head says, 'Because he's always on TV.' Beavis says, 'Yeah, but why is he always on TV?' Butt-head says, 'Because he's famous.' And Beavis is getting really upset, y'know, because he can't follow that concept--why are people famous?"

Four years ago, Tim Burton called Depp and said, "What are you doing?" and Depp said, "Hanging out," and Burton said, "Can you meet me at the Formosa Cafe in about 20 minutes?" Depp said, "Yeah, yeah I'll be there." When he arrived, Burton was sitting at the far end of the bar, having a beer. "So I sat down, we had a beer, and he says, 'I got this story,'" Depp recalls. "And he started talking about the film, and within five minutes I was like, "Okay, let's do it, I'm there. Just say when.'" Burton had the idea of making a black and white biopic of the transvestite filmmaker Ed Wood and wanted Depp to play the lead. (It was Burton who, four years earlier, legitimized Depp's acting career when he chose him--over Tom Cruise, Tom Hanks, and Michael Jackson, among many others--to play the role of an innocent experiment whose scissorhands keep him in fear of cutting what he truly loves.)

While Edward Scissorhands certainly called attention to Depp's potential, it was his role as Ed Wood that solidified his status as an actor, proving he had a range beyond the passive handsomeness of his previous roles in Arizona Dream, What's Eating Gilbert Grape?, and Benny and Joon. Unlike, say, Tom Cruise, whose looks are obscured by a gung-ho enthusiasm that makes even his dramatic roles seem like action-adventure, Depp's brooding face and mannered coolness can be distracting. The most obvious exceptions are Edward Scissorhands and Ed Wood, because in the former Depp's face is disguised with makeup and scars, and in the latter he turns the passivity into a put-on--Ed Wood is more of a caricature than a character, and for that reason, Depp is all the more effective.

When Depp was shooting Ed Wood, Jarmusch was staying at his house in L.A. and recalls how the role of the grinning, panty-wearing "worst director of all time" was making his friend a little weird. "At the end of the day, Id hang out with him or whatever and he was Ed Wood for at least three or four hours after he'd leave the set," recalls Jarmusch. "He had this stupid smile on his face, and I'd ask him, 'Johnny, what do you want to eat--Thai, Chinese, Italian?' And he'd say, 'They all sound great! Everything's terrific! What would you like? And it was so not Johnny. I just wanted to slap him--come one, cut it out, you're scaring me. But he couldn't. I really gave me the creeps."

Though Depp says his role as the withdrawn, unfinished monster in Edward Scissorhands is closest to his own personality, his role as William Blake in Jarmusch's Dead Man may be a closer parallel to the boy from Kentucky who moved to L.A. to get a record deal but wound up with his face spread across the covers of every teen magazine in America, unintentionally becoming known as a heartthrob. In the film, Depp plays a soft-spoken accountant from Cleveland who goes west to the industrialized town of Machine with a letter promising him a job, but when he gets there, nobody seems to know who he is. He goes to the local bar, where an act of chivalry leads to a self-defense murder, and his face winds up spread across the covers of Wanted posters, unintentionally becoming known as a killer. The rest of the film is spent running away from, and ultimately confronting, the image on the poster.

"Johnny's character is sort of like a blank slate, and everyone projects an identity onto him that he doesn't even understand necessarily," Jarmusch explains. "He's not an outlaw, violent-type guy, but he gets made into a wanted, hunted criminal. And Johnny has that too, in that he has the ability to let others project things onto him. And it happens to him in his real life as well--movie star, bad boy--whatever they project onto Johnny seems, to me, so far off from who he really is."

"When I first met him I thought he was just that dork from 21 Jump Street," says Vincent Gallo, who stars with Depp in Arizona Dream. "What's interesting about Johnny is that he's been able to permeate the mainstream without pandering to it." Juliette Lewis, who played Depp's love interest in What's Eating Gilbert Grape?, says, "We were linked together in the first three weeks of filming, but we never even talked to each other really. I worked with him, but I don't have a clue who he is as a person. I mean, that's something to say." "If you don't mention how shy he is, you'll be missing the boat on a lot of stuff," says Peter DeLuise, who played big Doug next to Depp's small Tom on 21 Jump Street. "The reality is that he's a tiny, little, sensitive guy, and more times than not, he's overwhelmed with people coming up to him."

How do you like your potatoes?
"My favorite way to eat anything is fried," Depp says. "Gotta be fried."

Chicken fried steak?
"Oh, fuck. Live for it. Love it.

So you like McDonald's better than Burger King.
"I love 'em both. But I think I love Burger King maybe a little better. I know it's char-broiled, I knot, but...I'm a big advocate of fast food. I'm from the South. I'm complete and total and utter white trash, and that's okay, y'know. I love pork, I live for pork. I just think pork is the best thing in the world."

Did Winona Ryder eat pork?
"Yeah, Winona ate pork."

How about Kate Moss?
"Kate eats pork, hell yeah. She's English."

But you're single now, right?
"I'm single now, yeah."

Is it strange looking up at a billboard and seeing your ex-girlfriend?
"No, it's nice, you know? It's nice to be able to sort of drive by and wave, say hi. It's sweet. I like seeing her face."

Do you date vegetarians?
I"I did date a vegetarian actually. And she'd sit there and watch me feast on some pig snout, hog snout. Yeah, I've dated a couple vegetarians."

Do you trust vegetarians?
"I don't really trust anybody who doesn't eat pork. I mean, it's fine if you're a vegetarian, but fuckin' A, man, how can you not eat pork?"

What's interesting about Depp is not that his parents got divorced, not that he dates mostly white women, not that he pulled some guy's ears for repeatedly asking Kate Moss's friend for a cigarette and then taking a sip of her drink (actually, that is kind of interesting), not that he smoked some pot or swallowed some acid. What's most interesting about Depp is his career. Not because it was launched by playing an androgynous sex symbol on the Fox Network's first hit show, 21 Jump Street, not because he showed his ass in the embarrassing Private Resort, but because the films that he's chosen to be in, and the fact that he's chosen to be in them, is, for lack of a better word, interesting.

"I think Hollywood would have preferred to have made him into a different kind of product," Jarmusch says. "Johnny's not your typical player--you can see by the choices he makes. He hasn't done the Nick Cage-type of moves, to be in big action movies."

It's an observation worth exploring because Depp's films are atypical (past costars include Joe Dallesandro, Patty Hearst, Traci Lords, Vincent Price, George "The Animal" Steele, Jerry Lewis, and Robert Mitchum), and Nicholas Cage (besides introducing Depp to acting) is a relevant person to bring up, if only for the sake of contrast. Cage launched a career with the same type of "oddball" roles that Depp has become know for taking--Valley Girl, Birdy, Vampire's Kiss, Wild at Heart--but now he's making summer blockbusters. Conversely, Depp began his film career by playing preppy roles in mall-targeted films like A Nightmare on Elm Street and Private Resort, and went on to make films like Arizona Dream, Ed Wood, and Dead Man--good work that few people saw.

What's also interesting is how this self-proclaimed white trash, high school drop-out wound up living in Bela Lugosi's old mansion in the Hollywood Hills and getting A-list acting offers when not one of his 14 starring roles has ever been nominated for an Oscar, and the highest grossing movie that he ever starred in (Edward Scissorhands: $56 million) came out eight years ago.

Of Depp's last three major releases since Ed Wood--all more "typical" than his usual work--Nick of Time seemed to be the most conspicuous peek over the "mainstream" fence, but Christopher Walken, John Badham (the director of Saturday Night Fever), and the film's Hitchcockian roots made a good defense for Depp's bad decision. Before that, Don Juan DeMarco was almost legitimized by Marlon Brando's surprising participating and Depp's authentic accent, and Donnie Brasco had ex-Godfather Al Pacino and an identity-questioning script to separate it from a genre that should have ended with Goodfellas in 1991. Still, none of these films approached the original craftiness of Ed Wood.

Of Nick of Time--released three years before this month's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (directed by Terry Gilliam and starring Depp as Hunter S. Thompson's alter-ego, Raoul Duke)--Waters says: "Of all Johnny's movies, I wouldn't pick it as my favorite." Jarmusch: "Nick of Time wasn't a movie that interested me very much, nor did the character that he played." DeLuise: "I thought Nick of Time was a valiant attempt, although I don't think it really worked as they thought it might." While it seems unanimous that Nick of Time was the low point, Depp's recent decisions--to star in Roman Polanski's next project, The Ninth Gate, and as the lead in the Hughes Brothers' biopic of, curiously, Howard Hughes--once again show he is more attracted to working with certain actors and directors than increasing his visibility at the multiplex. "His motivations are based on what makes his life interesting," Jarmusch says, "rather than what skyrockets his quote for a film or whatever."

What certainly hasn't skyrocketed Depp's quote--and perhaps his riskiest career move yet--was his directorial debut, The Brave (based on the book by Gregory McDonald and cowritten with his brother Dan), a film about a Cherokee Indian who agrees to be in a snuff film to earn money for his family. It stars Depp, Brando, and Max Perlich, and features a score by Iggy Pop. The poster for The Brave (which Depp has hanging in his house) features an image of a painted creature that looks like a Basquiat scrawl--Depp saw it on a wall, and has no idea who did it. But perhaps the most striking aspect of the promotional image is that Depp neglected to put his own face on it. (For now, anyway.)

As a first-time director, Depp says he was "scared shitless" for the film's premiere last year at the 50th Cannes Film Festival. "You walk up the red carpet, you know, the whole thing: go up there, wave, go in and sit down and watch the film with 2,500 people. Films goes through. No coughs, no moving shoes. You're charged, you're out of your mind, you're everything. You're dying, you're ready to vomit, you're shaking, you want nothing but to get horribly drunk. And at the same time you're really proud, and you're embarrassed, because you feel exposed, you know? You just feel like you've ripped your chest cavity open and just begged someone to shit in it."

Which is not far from what some critics did, and with a vengeful sort of glee. By most accounts, The Brave was booed at the 8:30 AM press screening, but found a much warmer reception later that evening at the official premiere. Lisa Schwarzbaum, a critic from Entertainment Weekly who was at the press screening, recalls, "It had a nice look to it, it was beautifully lit, had a very moody feeling to it, but was sort of astonishingly not ready to be seen. It was actually kind of embarrassing. He really needed somebody older who wouldn't be afraid to say, 'You know, Johnny, nice idea, but let's sit on this for a while. Let's get a little life behind you before you take on something like this.' With any luck, it will never be released and nobody will ever have to see it, and I mean that for him as well as the audience."

Says Waters, who was with Depp later that night for the premiere: "Well, it's very serious, but it's certainly arty. He didn't make a commercial kind of movie, which I think is good. People loved it."

But the film has yet to be picked up, and Depp seems frustrated by the negative press. "Hollywood Reporter, Variety, all these fucking things, they come out and they say, 'The Brave was booed last night'. Well, they lied. And distributors were scared shitless. It was a film that was over two hours long, it got booed, you know--they thought it got booed--but it's like, the people in this town play Follow-the-Leader, man. If Joe down the street has a really nice pair of sneakers but, you know, Bob doesn't know if he likes them or not until he sees Sue's boyfriend Lance wearing them. Then if two people like 'em, I'm there, y'know? That kind of mentality is like a fuckin' disease."

In 1986, Depp spent 10 weeks in the jungles of the Philippines filming Platoon, only to come home and find his part as Lerner the translator had been almost completely chopped out of the finished film, partly because Oliver Stone thought the Lerner character was diluting the good-guy power of Charlie Sheen, and partly, Depp says, for his changing some lines (something he says he does often). Around this time, he began dating Sherilyn Fenn (Twin Peaks, Just One of the Guys), one of four girls he's been engaged to in his life. ("Haven't you seen the bumper sticker in L.A.?" asks Jennifer Grey, who was engaged to Depp for eight months in 1989: "Honk if you've been engaged to Johnny Depp.")

Depp's first fiancee, Lori Ann Allison (a makeup artist five years his senior), became his wife for two years in 1983. "I was engaged to Sherilyn, um. I was engaged to Winona. I was engaged to Jennifer Grey," Depp says. "Out of respect to the girls I was with, I'll just answer that I was engaged to those people. But a lot was written about that shit, and it was taken to another level and it was turned into some kind of horrible joke, you know. I like the idea of marriage. I don't know if I believe in it, but I like the idea, the concept. I don't know if one person can be with one person until they die. I don't know if that's humanly possible."

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