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MOVIES : The Normalization of Johnny Depp : He’s been in the eye of the media storm since River Phoenix’s death outside Depp’s Sunset Strip club. Now, all the star of the new ‘Gilbert Grape’ and coming-soon ‘Ed Wood’ wants is the chance to be normal for a while

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So, Johnny Depp, right? You figure with his bad-boy image, what GQ delicately termed “the philosopher king of the stoners” (and that was before the death of River Phoenix after collapsing outside Depp’s Viper Room in October), that he would be the kind of shambling, let’s-move-the-ashtray-so-you-can-sit-down kind of host. And who could blame you? Not Depp, not after all the stories out there.

Like the one where he was supposed to talk to a writer for Cosmopolitan and he showed up drunk. And kept on drinking, but still managed to tell the story about how the little scars on his forearm were self-inflicted knife wounds. And then that time in Berlin, when Depp bet the guy from Details a hundred bucks to eat a really disgusting pickled tomato. And he did, right before Depp explained how he’d cut those nicks in his arm on purpose and the two got into an argument about who was actually weirder.

There are other, nice-boy stories about Depp. Stories about the tattoos he’s gotten for his mom, his great-grandmother and Winona Ryder (“Winona Forever”). And his three engagements, which prove he isn’t a love-'em-and-leave-'em kind of guy. There’s even a story that Depp bought plane tickets for the family of a dying girl. Still, what would you remember on an approach shot to his house in the Hollywood Hills?

When he steps out his front door, running a hand through his slicked-back hair, squinting in the morning light, he is wearing a white button-down shirt and a vintage-looking baseball jacket. Long sleeves. Add to the stories about Depp: The reigning rebel of the PC generation knows when to cut his losses.

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As he says, “I was never the lampshade guy,” never wanted to be the center of attention, “but now I have this job . . . that is very exposing.”

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For someone who is only 30, Johnny Depp is a besieged man. Since closing the Viper Room, his Sunset Strip club, for a week after Phoenix’s accidental drug overdose, the actor-cum-rocker-cum-club-owner has been doing a hat dance with the tabloids while trying to get on with his day job.

“Not like I didn’t expect it,” Depp says about the ensuing, relentless publicity blitz. “I expected them to be gross about it, but I was shocked by how gross.”

He was finishing “Ed Wood,” Tim Burton’s film biography of the cross-dressing B-movie director of the ‘50s, which called for Depp to spend most days on the set dressed in high heels, lingerie and Angora sweaters.

Then there was his new film to promote, Paramount’s “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape” (opening Friday), which, despite its goofy title, is Depp’s most realistic film role to date. He plays the title character, a small-town guy saddled with caring for his retarded brother and obese mother. Great stuff for somebody who rocketed to film fame playing the half-man, half-metal Edward Scissorhands, in Tim Burton’s 1990 surreal fairy tale. But Depp refuses to see “Gilbert Grape.” Way too serious. Besides, most journalists don’t want to talk about his acting career.

“Basically, these pigs took a tragedy of a guy who was very well-known, River Phoenix, which happened outside a nightclub owned by a guy who was also well-known, and they saw magazine sales and TV ratings. It’s really unbelievable.”

Still, Depp has agreed to meet at his house, no small concession. And his new Hollywood Hills aerie (he just moved in a month ago) is definitely something of a distraction. The driveway is so steep it could use a rope tow. And the view, a 360-degree span, might rival that of Jack Nicholson’s fabled Mulholland perch. “The other night,” Depp says in his sleepy, smoke-scrapped voice, “it was so foggy up here, you couldn’t see anything. It was like I was living on a cotton ball.”

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Punk persona notwithstanding, Depp this morning might as well be on a Barbara Walters special. So polite in his tidy shirt, offering Coke in those little green bottles he likes, pointing out the sights. Like his two vintage cars, a cobalt-blue 1954 Chevy pickup for around town and an ebony 1951 Mercury for long hauls. (He also owns the requisite new black Porsche.) “It’s just a nostalgic thing,” he insists. But Depp likes old things. And his cottage seems less a young star’s crash pad than the repository for a carefully edited collection for what Depp obliquely refers to as his “stuff.”

He’s being modest. Start with the Art Deco furniture placed just so, the black-and-white photographs of Depp’s favorite authors, Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs. Gilt-framed oil paintings by some lesser Italian master that Depp bought in Paris hang on opposite walls. On the coffee table sits an Erte ashtray, four remote controls--"I’m way too ignorant to figure out to zap them all into one mondo guy"--a Mont Blanc fountain pen and a box of calligraphy nibs. Depp calls them nibs, their correct name, but only after pretending for a second that he doesn’t know.

“You can do anything, write or draw,” he says. “It’s just good to escape into all kinds of things, but I would never consider myself a writer or a painter. It took a long time for me to even call myself an actor.”

This is Depp’s preferred MO, cool with a cap C. Despite the savant nature of his two most visible films roles, “Edward Scissorhands” and last spring’s “Benny & Joon,” in which he played a Keaton-esque clown, Depp is less the naif than a high school dropout trying to hide the ambitious, talented, cultured guy he’s become.

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As Juliette Lewis, his co-star in “Gilbert Grape,” says: “Johnny is self-debasing. Is that the right word? Anyway, sometimes he’s too self-debasing.”

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For an actor who’s made only a handful of films--only one of which, “Edward Scissorhands,” was an unqualified hit--it seems as if Depp has always been famous. Back when he still lived in Miramar, Fla., and most of his friends were slogging their way through high school, Depp dropped out to play in a band, the Kids, that opened for groups like the Pretenders, the Ramones and R.E.M. After he moved to Los Angeles in 1984, ostensibly to get a record deal, the actor with the limpid brown eyes and chiseled cheekbones became a teen idol with his first television show, Fox’s “21 Jump Street.”

By the time of “Scissorhands,” the actor was besieged by magazines like 16 and Sassy. When he became engaged to Winona Ryder, his co-star in “Scissorhands,” he was the prince of young Hollywood.

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“Some people, when they get attention in the public eye, stand a bit taller,” he says. “But I went the complete opposite--lower. I shrink and kind of hide.”

It’s one of the reasons Depp opened his own nightclub in August, moved to the top of this hill, picks quirky roles and encourages all the weird stories: so he can hide.

“I feel more comfortable in front of a camera, doing ridiculous things, than in real life,” he says. “I’m more comfortable making a movie than in a restaurant in Hollywood, say, because there I’m on display.”

Lasse Hallstrom, the Swedish director of “Gilbert Grape,” says it’s because Depp scares himself: “Johnny likes to hide behind the eccentrics he plays. He has real ambitions, but he is deeply afraid of being considered pretentious.”

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And for all those stories about knife wounds, Depp can play the innocent, sweet even, maybe a little helpless. Sarah Jessica Parker, his “Ed Wood” co-star, says that Depp has “this incongruous innocence--incongruous because of all the stuff about him in the papers--that is really seductive. It’s why women respond to him.”

It is also behavior that brings out the protective instincts in those--again, mostly women--who work for him. He has the usual Hollywood coterie around him, as well as his older sister, Christie Dembrowski, 32, who is Depp’s de facto personal manager. “She helps me out, tries to keep me organized because I’m not so good at that, all those little pieces of paper . . . " he says, letting his voice trail off.

Watching Depp amble around his house is a little like that scene in “Giant” in which James Dean tries vainly to rustle up a cup of tea for Elizabeth Taylor. He is a mix of white-trash insouciance and a star’s killer grace. His offhandedness and fumbling attempts at small talk are cut with conspiratorial smiles. Sinking onto his black velvet and burled-wood sofa in his ripped jeans and work boots, he lights a cigarette. Squinting into the smoke, Depp looks like the gas station attendant he once was. Or maybe a newer James Dean. Anyway, somebody with a zillion broken hearts in his wake.

“You know what I really like?” he says, exhaling a plume of smoke, lapsing, unbidden, into a confessional mode. “When I’m going to sleep. All those little weird nuts that drop directly on the roof above my bed. Sometimes it’s really kind of calming and other times it just sounds like D-day. But it reminds me I’m here, removed from all that stuff down there and I like that.”

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The first time Depp ever read a script was something like 10 years ago when he moved to Hollywood with his band. When they didn’t make it as musicians, they got part-time jobs selling ballpoint pens over the phone. When Depp wasn’t making long-distance calls back to Florida, lapsing into sales-speak whenever his boss strolled by, he was struggling through the scripted sales pitch.

“You had to recite this thing,” he recalls. “I was OK, but I was a sucker. You’d sell some guy two gross of pens with the promise of a grandfather clock that was made out of like, corkboard, and I would feel guilty. I’d get the sale and then go, ‘You know what? I’ll get back to you.’ ”

He sort of fell into acting for real through his friend Nicolas Cage, who set Depp up with his agent. He got a few jobs, playing victim number whatever in Wes Craven’s “The Nightmare on Elm Street” and “one of the 30 guys in green” in Oliver Stone’s “Platoon.” He started to study acting, first in classes at the Loft Studio in Los Angeles and then with a private coach.

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“Classes really bugged me out, people imitating lobsters and stuff,” he says. “I’ve read a lot of books from Strasberg to Stanislavski, and in my opinion you just take what you need and discard the rest.”

If Depp is reluctant to reveal his methods, he is equally uncomfortable playing “the actor” even when filming. “Even in the heaviest moments, I have to maintain a kind of humor, screw around, make the crew laugh. Otherwise I die of embarrassment, because basically you are getting paid ridiculous amounts of money to lie.”

That self-consciousness is one reason why Depp prefers Burton’s surrealistic comedies--"Tim has a great, sick sense of humor,” he says --and the stylized clowning of “Benny & Joon,” to playing real guys like Gilbert Grape. “Gilbert is the most normal guy I’ve played and I’m not real comfortable with that,” he says.

He likes roles that don’t require him to speak much but that have lots of physical tics. For “Scissorhands,” Depp spent months practicing with the metal scissor gloves he wore in the film. “I just hung around the house doing ordinary stuff with them,” he says, “dialing the phone, adjusting the stereo.”

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For “Benny & Joon,” Depp practiced gymnastic stunts, studied with a mime and reviewed footage of Chaplin and Buster Keaton silent films. “I like Chaplin, but Keaton was something else, almost surrealistic in what he could say with his face--the subtlest of looks, just tilting his head.”

And for “Ed Wood,” which will be released by Disney next year, Depp spent months teetering around in high heels. “There is something fun and sort of exciting about doing something that shocks people, and (a male) wearing women’s clothing makes people really uncomfortable.”

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But Depp was intrigued by “Gilbert Grape,” the possibility of working with Hallstrom, whose acclaimed “My Life as a Dog” the actor admired, as well as the film’s source material, Peter Hedges’ coming-of-age novel about a small-town guy working in a grocery store to support his oddball family--a retarded younger brother (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) and his obese, neurotic mother (newcomer Darlene Cates). His only sources of pleasure are an affair with the wife of the local insurance agent (Mary Steenburgen) and a blossoming relationship with a new girl in town (Juliette Lewis).

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“Gilbert is a guy who had just given up on his own life and was eating away at himself from the inside out,” says Depp, who saw similarities between the character’s fictional life and his own small-town upbringing. “I was intrigued by this guy, not by what he said, but by what he didn’t say. He was really passive, but reluctantly passive.”

For Hallstrom, the challenge of bringing Hedges’ novel to the screen was one of realism.

“It would have been easy to go at it in a cartoony way with these slightly grotesque characters,” he says, “and I wanted them to seem authentic. Johnny’s a very honest actor, but he likes to hide behind these oddball characters, and I thought (Gilbert) would cut a little close to home.”

Although Depp had far less flamboyant characteristics to explore with Gilbert than in his earlier roles, he prepared for the film in a similar way, dying his hair red like one of his childhood friends and having his teeth bonded and then chipped out. “I remember kids growing up, how their teeth always looked chipped,” he says. “Gilbert wouldn’t have the money to fix them, and he wouldn’t have cared.”

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As for actual shooting--in this case, three months last winter in Manor, Tex.--Depp is of the less-is-more school. “I think you can shoot 50 takes, but in my opinion it will be within the first five. I don’t like to hear the words too much, because it starts to die.”

Says Hallstrom, who allowed certain sequences to be improvised: “Johnny has this fear of being an ‘artist,’ and there was a certain amount of emotional strain for him on this.”

The director developed a kind of shorthand based on Swedish words for vegetables that he used to communicate with Depp. “He would ask me to translate into Swedish the most bizarre sentences, and then he would go around saying them,” Hallstrom recalls with a laugh. “Eventually we wound up speaking about a radish and where the radish would be and relating that to the character’s emotional state.”

“Lasse thinks that I like to hide behind weird characters so I’m not exposed,” Depp says, “and that Gilbert is the most real thing that I’ve played, closer to reality and closer to me.” Depp pauses to stub out a cigarette. “And it could be true. I don’t know. I’m not in therapy.”

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If Depp is reluctant to plumb the depths of his psyche, he will tell some stories. Like that time he got arrested for jaywalking on La Brea or someplace.

“To give you the condensed version, blue lights, OK?” he says twirling his finger in the air, spinning a tale not unlike the scene in “Annie Hall” in which Woody Allen tears up his own driver’s license in the face of a police officer in an act of perfect passive aggression. “The guy was belligerent, calling me punk and stuff like that, and told me to put out my cigarette,” Depp continues. “So I said, ‘I’m sure that you watch way too much television.’ He put me in cuffs and took me to jail.”

By his own admission, Depp has a problem with authority. It’s the reason he bolted from high school after the 10th grade. It’s also why it took him years to re-establish a relationship with his father, John Christopher Depp, a civil engineer in South Florida, after his parents split when Johnny was a kid. Although he was the youngest of four, it was Johnny’s job to go to his father’s office and pick up the weekly child-support money.

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Depp is still providing for his mother, Betty Sue Palmer, for whom he bought a house outside Los Angeles. He likes being close to his family, especially his mother’s side, where the Cherokee bloodlines flow. His great-grandmother, who inspired his first tattoo, was a full-blooded Native American who died at 102. Depp was born near her home in Kentucky but was raised in Florida. He hated Florida.

Which might be why Depp first cultivated weird behavior.

“I made odd noises as a child,” he says. “Just did weird things, like turn off light switches twice. I think my parents thought I had Tourette’s syndrome.”

Some of those tendencies have lingered: “I always have this fear if I’m in the theater that I’ll suddenly stand up and scream or run up on stage. Or if I’m walking down the street with a pal. ‘My God, that pole back there, we have to go back and walk around it.’ I think it’s normal. Isn’t it?”

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Some might say Depp is exploring issues of control--at home, at his club, with a character--because he feels so obligated the rest of the time.

“He’s really hidden his personality in his roles,” says Depp’s “Ed Wood” co-star Parker. “But after working with him, I figured out Johnny’s a co-dependent. He’s the star, but he’s always running around asking if you need water or anything. And not just with me, but with the crew. He asks them if he can help carry cable.”

It’s why he gets mad when his escape hatches don’t work. Like the time he signed up for six seasons of “21 Jump Street” and regretted it before a single episode aired. It was the first time he could actually pay his rent, “but I would flip around the TV and there were all these commercials about me. I felt like a box of cereal.”

Or his engagements to Jennifer Grey, Sherilyn Fenn and Ryder, private acts that became very public.

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“It’s very hard to have a personal life in this town,” says Depp, whose engagement to Ryder ended earlier this year. “My relationship with Winona, it was my mistake to be as open as we were, but I thought if we were honest it would destroy that curiosity monster. Instead it fed it, gave people license to feel they were part of it.”

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Then there is the Viper Club, which he opened with a couple of music friends on the site of Bugsy Siegel’s old haunt, so he could have his own place to hang out unassaulted by others’ bad taste.

“The only bit of culture we have in this town is Old Hollywood, and it’s being destroyed,” Depp says. “I thought maybe I could turn this into a 1930s be-bop speak-easy with viper music--Fats Waller and Cab Calloway--good music which nobody else is playing.”

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But when Phoenix died of an overdose on Halloween on the street outside the Viper Room, Depp felt as though he became the fall guy.

“I felt terrible for (Phoenix’s) family and his friends. On the other hand, I was being slandered and taunted by the tabloid press and put in a position of having to defend myself,” he says evenly. “We’ve all done things that aren’t great for us. And you learn from your mistakes. Unfortunately, every single one of us has the potential to make one too many mistakes and it’s over.”

For the moment, he’s staying clear of the Viper Room. Instead, he’s holed up in his new digs, resting up after “Ed Wood,” reading scripts. He will probably do another film in the spring. Or maybe he’ll go to Paris and forget to come back.

“I can’t figure out where I want to live,” he says. “Part of me wants to go have piles of land in France and live in a 12th-Century monastery. And the way they take care of their stuff, all that Art Nouveau in the Metro, it’s shocking that it survived, and it feeds you.”

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Depp is, if nothing else, ambivalent about a long acting career.

“I don’t mind it, and sometimes it’s very fun,” he says. “But I wouldn’t say that’s all I want to do. Because no matter how much of a collaboration it is, it’s always a collaboration and sometimes it’s nice to have totally your own creative decisions.”

Like maybe direct one day. He’s already made a couple of short films that he’s got lying around somewhere, one of which he actually likes:

“It’s just about a guy. It takes place in his house. I hired a guy to go around with a Steadicam and just look at his walls, his floors, his bathroom and ultimately look at him.”

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What did he call it?

“Stuff.”


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