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Johnny depp has defied the Dream Machine, first turning his back on teen stardom and later pursuing roles that explore the underground currents of American life. From Cry-Baby to Donnie Brasco, from Ed Wood to Edward Scissorhands, Depp's work has combined sweetness and intensity. At thirty-four, he has shaped a vision that seems hearteningly immune to cliche.

You were in a band before you were an actor, and you still play. How crucial is music in your life?

Jesus, music has always been my first love. I use music in my work because it's the fastest way to an emotional place. You hear a song, and that memory comes right back you're there.

What's the difference between making music and acting?

Making music is immediate, and it's all about you. If you're playing guitar, the feeling comes through the way you bend the note, the intensity with which you hit the strings. With making films, although it's real emotion, it's false emotion. You're lying.

There's a quality of innocence in your acting. How do you keep it?

It's not easy in Hollywood. It's all about trying to force commerce and art together. I don't think that's possible. I don't believe movies can be art now. We accept formula. And people don't read. That's a drag. When you read A Moveable Feast, by Ernest Hemingway, and you look at how he and Fitzgerald were living in Paris as expatriates in the Twenties it's unbelievable that somebody could have lived that life. The newness of experience it's unfair that we don't get it.

You were a teen idol on "21 Jump Street," and you rejected it. Why?

They're trying to ram you down the public's throat, and you have absolutely no control over it. The only thing you can do is say, "This is where I stop." I mean, I was bound for thermoses and lunch boxes. Not for me. I'd have been a joke. Maybe I'm a joke now, but at least I'm my own joke.

Is it hard to stay in touch with yourself with all those distractions?

I feel like the same person I was when I was seventeen when I worked construction or pumped gas. For me, ambition has become a dirty word. I prefer hunger. To be hungry great. To have hopes, dreams great. But ambition? It means that somebody wants to be famous. Why would you need that? Basically, I stepped in shit and it worked out.

Your characters are often open and vulnerable. Are those qualities missing in our culture?

Oh, yeah. I see kids who are complete cynics. They're not dreaming. They're out there with high-powered weapons, smoking crack behind the 7-Eleven. They've seen it all. These kids are going to take us into 2000 and beyond. That's scary, man. I wouldn't say I'm pessimistic or optimistic. I'm more realistic, I guess. But not cynical. I look. I watch.

By Anthony Decurtis