Johnny Depp: In Depp

The star of some pretty strange movies tells some pretty strange tales--about fighting armadillos, meeting Marlon Brando, getting freaked out at the Oscars and stepping into women's shoes.

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Fewer people caught Johnny Depp's charming work in Benny & Joon and What's Eating Gilbert Grape than saw Speed or The Firm in their first weekends alone, but so what? Depp keeps getting hired by directors from Oliver Stone and John Waters to Lasse Hallstrom and Tim Burton. The latter, for whom Depp played the title character in Edward Scissorhands, chose him to play another Ed: Z-budget, '50s movie director Ed Wood, a movie due out next month. Later this year, Depp plays the title role in Don Juan DeMarco and the Centerfold opposite Marlon Brando for new director Jeremy Leven. Virtually every young actor with whom I've talked admires Depp. Older actors say lovely, generous things about him, too. Even though there are those who dis the perverse integrity that keeps Depp resisting such allegedly dangled bait as the role Charlie Sheen took in The Three Musketeers or the one Keanu Reeves took in Speed or the one Christian Slater took in Untamed Heart or the one Brad Pitt took in Legends of the Fall, few doubt his gifts.

Maybe Depp's better off for spurning the chance to flash swords or to defuse bombs on speeding buses. His doe-eyed, touchingly fragile, man-who-fell-to-earth qualities make him perfect casting for magical crazies and disaffected marginals. His melancholic buoyancy is more Fellini-esque than, say, Pollacky. He seems wonderfully unsocialized, stranded somewhere in time. Wherever he is, he likes it there just fine. I'm reminded of this when we sit down to talk, just after he's finished the photo session to accompany this piece. Although he tells me he's feeling flu-ish, he says he wants to talk anyway. Suddenly, a nearby phone rings and a disembodied voice on a speaker pages someone. Depp's brows knit, his gaze narrows. He stares, baffled, at the phone as if he has never seen such a contraption before. "Weird," he mutters, shaking his head. His tone says, "I'm a stranger here myself." The thing about Johnny Depp is that he convinces you this is no act.

STEPHEN REBELLO: We've talked by phone, but haven't actually seen each other since you shot What's Eating Gilbert Grape. So let's get to the crucial stuff first. As an early tattoo advocate, gotten any new ones? Gotten any body parts pierced?

JOHNNY DEPP: No, nothing pierced. I'm glad people are off the tattoos, though. I was really starting to get depressed about that. I remember when I made my first movie, everybody on A Nightmare On Elm Street was so freaked out, going, "Jesus, the kid's got tattoos!" Then tattoos became a huge trend. Everybody's got one. It's really funny because people in, like, 10 years are gonna be depressed about some of the scratches they got on their bodies.

Q: Are you depressed about yours?

A: I've always respected tattooing as an art form. I always did it as part of an art that you wear, as a kind of journal. Your body is a journal.

Q: Let's talk about a new page in that journal. You told me once that you believe that having spoken to the press about your relationship with Winona Ryder affected that relationship. Are you doing things any differently with Kate Moss?

A: I don't talk about it and she doesn't talk about it, 'cause it's nobody's business.

Q: The tabloids recently ran pictures of you two nuzzling in some hideaway.

A: I haven't looked at one of those magazines since about 1988. Somebody [may have] showed me a picture, but I haven't really looked at one. Because it's all just bullshit, and I really don't care, man. [People] can think what they want, do what they want, say what they want. You're not gonna stop them. They're gonna say whatever the fuck they want, so piss on it.

Q: So, you think the tabloids have pounded you?

A: They've been shitty to me, yeah. In their eyes, I've screwed everyone from the Queen of England to the Pope.

Q: I'm guessing you did not screw the Pope.

A: Oh, you know, we dry humped. It was all very innocent, very sophomoric.

Q: Did he take off all those rings?

A: Absolutely not. I wanted those things there.

Q: What bothers you most about the tabloids?

A: Well, the whole unfortunate thing with River [Phoenix] at [The Viper Room]. I mean, they were writing horrible things. They were really disrespectful to him and to his memory, to his family, to his friends, to his fans. The press was trying to tarnish his memory in the minds of all those people who loved him, when it all boils down to a very sweet guy who made a very big mistake, a fatal mistake, a mistake that we're all capable of. I was really pissed off. What took place was so heavy that I didn't even retaliate on the accusations towards me. The fact is, I was there that night. The fact is that it was my club. I said, "I refuse to be a part of this morbid circus that you fucking ambulance chasers have going. Fuck off!"

Q: At that time, someone told me you were thinking of shutting down The Viper Room.

A: The place became a scene instantly when we opened it. I never had any idea it was going to do that. I really thought it was gonna be just this cool little underground place.

Q: You're kidding. A cool little underground place on the Sunset Strip? Co-owned by Johnny Depp?

A: On the Sunset Strip, but you can't even see the place. There's no sign on Sunset. It's just a black building and the only sign is on Larrabee, a tiny little sign, real subtle, and I figured it'd be low-key. What soured me was what happened after all that took place on Halloween, you know, the unfortunate passing of River. I closed it down for two weeks out of respect so the kids could write their messages and leave flowers. I thought that was real sweet. I knew for the next month or two, it was gonna be a gawkfest, just filled with gawkers and tourists and all that shit, Graveline Tours, all that stuff. I just didn't go around for a while. We've weeded out the gawkers. Now it's back to being a good place.

Q: Speaking of rumors, despite those who dog you with stuff about drugs and your relationships with beautiful actresses, nobody much has gossiped that you might be gay.

A: No, but some tabloid said that I was a huge homophobe. Figure this out. One of my best friends is John Waters. We went for a drink in a gay bar that John has gone to in New York City. A guy comes up and says, "Hey, John, I'm a big fan of your films," and, "Oh, Johnny, I've liked your movies." A real nice guy. He began to tell us about himself and said, "I'm HIV-positive." And what do you say to that kind of thing? At the end, when we were saying good-bye, he said, "John, do you mind if I give you a kiss on the cheek?" John said no and the guy kissed him on the cheek. And he said, "Johnny, do you mind?" and I said, "No, go ahead," and he gave me a kiss on the cheek, too. We finished our drinks and split, went to some other bar or something.

The next day, one of those tabloid shit-heads said I was standing at the bar with John Waters and some guy came up and kissed me and I ran out of the place freaked out, all fucking weirded out by the whole scenario. If I was homophobic, why would I be in the bar and why would one of my best friends be John Waters? [But] they can say what they want because I don't read it.

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