Johnny Depp: Johnny Handsome

Can Johnny Depp, TV's tattooed teen idol with the best cheekbones since Gene Tierney, make the leap to the big time with outré 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. It all went down in the Goldwyn Ballroom at Bally's, where thousands of movie exhibitors--woozy from sampling faux butter, state-of-the-art popcorn, and ergonomic theater seats--had gathered to chow down and to ogle movie stars, up close.

Newly named "Male Star of Tomorrow" by the National Association of Theater Owners, 27-year-old Depp was sharing the dais with fellow honorees Anjelica Huston, "Female Star of the Year" for Enemies, A Love Story, a 20th-Century-Fox release, Jeff Bridges, "Male Star of the Year," for The Fabulous Baker Boys, from Fox, "Producer of the Year" Joel Silver, maker of Fox's upcoming Ford Fairlane, and Batman director 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, number one foxy lady in the young actor's private life. Cozy.

Depp sat quietly, "generally at a loss for words," according to one observer, as lights danced off the obelisk-shaped lucite trophy that sat on the table before him with his named etched on it. Were he and his obviously-in-love girlfriend awed by the responsibility of living up to the standards set by such past "Stars of Tomorrow" as Andrew Stevens, Robert Hayes, Helen Slater, and Morgan Fairchild? We may never know. But after performances by comic Andrew Dice Clay and Tone Loc, stars of Ford Fairlane, came Depp's blow-away moment supreme: a one-hour "surprise" concert appearance by Wayne Newton, another Ford Fairlane star, who--as if his ebony helmet of superstar hair and rutting caterpillar eyebrows were not sufficient--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, slouched in a back booth of a 24-hour Sunset Strip hash joint, where a waiter's trilly greeting upon his arrival ("Here's our wandering waif!") suggests that Deep is a regular. Depp's jet-black leased BMW ragtop sits wedged between R.V.s and Harleys in the parking lot outside, where up-from-under-ground trash director John Waters, maker of Depp's first starring movie Cry-Baby, was recently robbed of $80 at gunpoint. Despite Depp's matted hair, shades, and facial scruff, every server in the place takes turns filling his coffee cup, pretending not to stare at the kid who became a cover boy cutie-pie playing Tom Hanson, undercover cop, on "21 Jump Street." Dressed in a vintage black jacket with brocade collar over a faded tank top and bagged-out jeans, Depp looks as glamorously disheveled as an off-hours Melrose Avenue waiter, or the canniest scam artist working the Sunset Strip.

Millions ride on whether this kid with eyes that radiate a used-up, fuck-it-all allure will deliver more in movies than the best cheekbones since Gene Tierney. Right now, Depp is chain-smoking Marlboros, wolfing down bacon, eggs, and caffeine, and 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 that suggests perhaps he and kitsch were on speaking terms before he tangled last summer with John (Pink Flamingos, Hairspray) Waters. "I love the whole flavor of Vegas," Depp says, grinning, but serious as a slot-machine junkie. "I love the big, gaudy sunglasses, the bat-wing collars, the Nik-Nik shirts, the leisure suits and white patent leather shoes."

The subject of Vegas leads to a Depp litany of other guiltless pleasures: Pia Zadora in The Lonely Lady, late-period Elvis ("I gotta get a ceramic bust of him," he says), true crime books, paintings by John Wayne Gacy, Sinatra, and John Davidson, of whom Depp cherishes a "truly frightening videotape where he sings, like, Hall and Oates songs in really tight polyester bell-bottoms." Depp frowns at his coffee spoon, then holds it up for me to see. "Why do people wipe boogers on spoons?" he wonders. I offer, "Because in a place like this, there's no room left under the table." Depp smirks in a sly, white-trashy way that suggests why he and Cry Baby director John Waters got along like a mobile home afire.

Depp's thicket of eyelashes, tsunami of hair, and pouty lips would surely have splashed him across the pages of the same fan rags of the '50s and '60s that devoured the Rocks, Tonys, Tabs, and Troys of the moment. 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. But questions arise as the curtains part on Depp's first movie since he began fluttering hearts as TV's dishiest undercover cop. Do he and James Dean have anything more in common than a pair of initials? Is Depp more than merely another of the Dean pretenders of the Michael Parks, Christopher Jones, or Maxwell Caul-field variety?

Cry-Baby, or "King Creole on acid" as its director calls it, is PG-13, filtered Waters: no three-hundred-pound doggie-do-eating drag queen, no lesbian glory hole scene, no "I blew Richard Speck!" punchlines. Depp is the eponymous Wade "Cry-Baby" Walker, teary-eyed leader of the '50s hoodlum gang, The Drapes. He slides off his cycle, adjusts his crotch, and woos Allison, queen of the Baltimore "squares," by murmuring: "Orphans have special needs." Director Waters, who has employed in films such pink flamingos of beefcake as Tab Hunter and Troy Donahue, wrote the script with no fix on who might play his studly comic lead. Then, he found young America's wet dream in twenty bucks' worth of teeny magazines. "The only other person who could have played it was Charles Starkweather, and he was dead," Waters explains.

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, who ranks Waters's Female Trouble atop his list of favorite flicks, "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, or what has been shoved down their throats. 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--cash-rich from investments in Cry-Baby by director Jim (Big Business) Abrahams and producer Brian (Parenthood) Grazer--could pay Depp's $1 million salary.

But some in Hollywood advised Depp against starring even in candy-colored, nouveau Waters, which contains such moments to cherish as pregnant gang moll Ricki Lake cooing, "Oooh, I feel so good all knocked up," and a French kiss montage that must be seen to be believed. Should an incipient sex god do self-parody before his time? "There were people who thought Cry-Baby was a bad idea," admits Depp, who receives over 10,000 fan letters a month. "But I've always admired people like John Waters, who's never compromised, or Iggy Pop [the singer, also in the movie], who's been through the wringer just because he stuck to his guns. 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. It's almost as exciting as it must have been working with Johnny Halliday in France in the beginning."

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." Money got so tight that Depp sold ballpoint pens by phone. 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 shriekmeister Wes Craven, who cast Depp as the kid who winds up getting sucked into a bed and spewed out as a bloody geyser in the original A Nightmare on Elm Street. "Johnny had an '80s, time-worn quality, and looked like he'd been around. He chain-smoked and had these yellow fingers. He was an older soul, somehow." Though the movie made a far bigger star of razor-fingered Freddy Krueger than of its teensters, co-star 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."

Depp's "It" factor was well-hidden in Private Resort, a smarmy 1985 teen stinkbomb-- featuring Depp's first nude scene--about which no one has anything good to say. "After I saw how bad I was in my first couple of jobs, I decided I better do something about it," says Depp, who, despite working on his acting chops with a few estimable coaches, could only scrounge up occasional roles in TV's "Hotel" and "Lady Blue" and a dismal cable-TV-movie, "Slow Burn," with Beverly D'Angelo and Eric Roberts. Then Depp found a more prestigious showcase in Oliver Stone's Platoon, playing Lerner, the glasses-wearing troop interpreter from Toonerville.

Pages: 1 2