Sweet Sensation

Rolling Stone, January 10 1991

Sweet Sensation

On the cutting edge with Johnny Depp, the offbeat hero of “Edward Scissorhands”.

By Bill Zehme
Photos by Herb Ritts

He was born Depp. He has always been Depp. As a boy, he was ridiculed for it. In the schoolyard he was called Dipp. Or Deppity Dawg. Later he was called Johnny Deeper, this based upon a popular adolescent joke he barely remembers. He conjures up this dark memory with visible embarrassment. Being Depp, you see, has never been easy.

Depp came into my life during his Hollywood years, a time when the Depp name had begun to really stand for something. The day we met, he extended his hand to shake mine, except that his hand was not a hand so much as it was weaponry. In place of fingers, there were blades. This was the sort of unpredictability I would later come to expect from Depp. At the moment, however, we were on a Twentieth Century Fox sound stage where he was making Edward Scissorhands, his second major film, in which he portrayed the man- made boy with scissors for fingers. He laughed quietly at his own comic gesture and then introduced me to his attorneys, who hovered nearby. (Depp is a master of the ironic nuance.) Soon he was asking me what I knew of Al Capone and doing his impersonation of Warren Beatty blinking. Such is the irrepressible spirit of Depp.

Now I will reveal all that I know of Johnny Depp. I will tell of our adventures together: the time we found Jesus, or a guy who said he was Jesus, on Santa Monica Boulevard and Depp gave him cigarettes. The time we ate eggs with his movie-star fiancee, Winona Ryder, whom he loves profoundly. The time we trespassed on Harry Houdini’s abandoned property in the Hollywood Hills and got yelled at, I will describe his tattoos, his problem facial hair, his recurring nightmares that feature the Skipper from Gilligan’s Island. Clearly, earlier biographers have never gotten much of the real Depp, focusing instead on the surface Depp. This, then, is an all- new Depp – a man who lives hard, loves hard, but most of all, thinks hard.

The days I knew Depp best came and went quickly. There were three of them in all. They were November days, as I recall. The first one began in a coffee shop as so many things do in the life of John Christopher Depp II. Winona had left him that day. Left him at the coffee shop. Then she drove off to do some errands. So he was very much alone. He was smoking too much and drinking too much coffee, but who could blame him? He said he was enslaved by caffeine and nicotine and didn’t sound proud of it. “I like to be pumped up and hacking phlegm at the same time,” he said wryly.

“Coupla tequila worms flying out here and there,” Depp said, but he was joking about that. He hadn’t touched the hard stuff for a solid month, maybe longer. Depp was as dry as he’d ever been in all of his twenty-seven years.

Nobody recognized Depp in public places, not when I was with him. He is a man of the people and therefore doesn’t stand out much. Yes, he continues to be a teen idol and a heartthrob (“a throbbing thing,” he calls himself), but frankly he looks like someone else. Director John Waters, who cast Depp as a delinquent grease ball in the film Cry-Baby, used to imagine him as “the best looking gas- station attendant who ever lived.” or as Waters later told me appreciatively, “Johnny could play a wonderfully sexy mass murderer. I mean, it is a part made for him.” Which is to say, there is shadiness to Depp. He looks attractively unwashed. (“Nobody looks better in rags,” said Waters of the basic Depp sartorial statement.) As such, he does not possess the burden of great presence. He speaks and moves with quiet dignity. You hardly know he is there. It is easy to sit in silence with him, although ultimately – and I think he would agree here – not very interesting.

If Depp is anything, he is interesting. He take the big risks. Tom Cruise, the rumor goes, wanted to play the role of tragic, disfigured Edward Scissorhands – but only if his face was cosmetically restored by picture’s end. Not Depp. He wore Edwards scars like medals. And he wore the unwieldy, imposing hand shears with brio, recognizing the lyric poetry in Edwards fateful curse. (Edward, who cannot touch anything without slashing it, is a metaphor for the outsider in all of us, including Depp, who knows what it’s like to be mocked for being a little different. He is, after all, a teen idol). “He certainly was closest to the image of the character,” said Tim Burton, who directed Depp in Edward and Jack Nicholson in Batman and Michael Keaton in Beetlejuice and Pee-wee Herman in Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, as well as many other actors in those same movies. “Like Edward, Johnny really is perceived as something he is not. Before we met, I’d certainly read about him as the Difficult Heartthrob. But you look at him and you get a feeling. There is a lot of pain and humor and darkness and light. I think for him {the role} is probably very personal. It’s just a very strong internal feeling of loneliness. It’s not something he talks about or even can talk about, because it’s sad, ya know. What are ya gonna do?”

If you are Depp, you do what you can. Indeed, so devoted to Edward’s metaphoric millstone was he that, when smoking offcamera, Depp stoically learned to hold his cigarettes between the scissors’ blades. During shooting days in Florida, when temperatures soared above 110 degrees, he stayed trussed up in Edwards black leather bodysuit without complaint. “I would freak out,” said Winona, who played Etward’s dream girl in the film, “just thinking of how he must feel, like if he had an itch or if he had to go to the bathroom….” But Depp, being Depp, simply suffered in silence and dramatically cut down on his coffee intake. He learned to ignore his bladder and thus diminish the likelihood of horrible self-inflicted wounds. It was no wonder, really, that his performance demonstrated such admirable restraint. “I had to just sort of deal with it,’ he would say later, a better man for having endured for his craft.

“If there’s any movie in the history of the entire world, and even in the history of any literature,” Depp said triumphantly, “Edward Scissorhands was the movie I would want to do. And I xxxxxx’ did it, When I first saw it, I was scared, because I kept thinking, ‘God, I just can’t believe I did this xxxxxx’ movie.”‘

But then Depp is an impassioned, if unlikely, aesthete, a bedraggled literateur of sorts. He is a high-school dropout with a lust for first editions. Once I saw him pay seventy-five dollars for a rare Hemingway as if it were a pack of Marlboros, and I noticed the swagger in his stride when he carried the book off. He cites Jack Kerouac and J.D. Salinger, two idols, with staggering frequency. His most prized possession – and one that cost him a good portion of his burgeoning fortune – is a book on black culture in whose margins Kerouac has scribbled and doodled. “It’s a piece of history,” he told me reverently “I look at it every day.”

And then there is fine art:

“Gacy!” Depp said excitedly, in reference to imprisoned mass murderer John Wayne Gacy. There, in our coffee shop, I had handed him an order form listing Gacy’s latest oil paintings, knowing that Depp was the owner of a Gacy clown portrait. (Depp, incidentally, lives in mortal fear of clowns.) “The Hi Ho Series!” he exclaimed, impressed. “Shit!” He perused the form, shuddered, then told me that he’d gotten rid of his Gacy canvas. “When I got it, I heard the money was going to the families of the victims,” he said, but later he suspected otherwise. “The paintings are really scary and weird and great, but I don’t want to contribute to something as evil as that.”

We went walking that evening. Depp likes to walk. It’s good butt exercise,” he told me. “It’s good for the rump.” Depp, it turns out, has no car. He does have a broken truck. For a long time, he had no home. He and Winona moved from hotel to hotel until they recently got a place in Beverly Hills. They did share a loft in New York for a brief time, but they tired of the east so they came west, where no one walks except Depp (whenever Winona is using their rental cars that is). But even on foot, Depp is like a dedicated motorist, ever vigilant of traffic minutiae. “Your seat belt! Your seat belt!” he hollered into the snarl of Beverly Boulevard, where we trod along. Depp had spotted a man driving with his seat belt dragging out on the pavement and could not bear to think of the consequences. The startled driver now owes his life to Depp. Likewise, Depp spotted a woman driving with her door ajar. “Your door!” he yelled. “Your door is open!” No doubt, that very woman is now living a rich and productive life, thanks to the selfless instincts of a certain movie actor who is currently looking carefully for his next big project.

Once, when he was very young, Depp harbored an irrational fear of John Davidson, the great musical entertainer. Today Depp has conquered that fear and, in fact, even appeared in a major motion picture with Davidson. (In Edward Scissorhands, Davidson convincingly played a talk-show host who interviews Depp, as Edward.) “He was a really sweet guy,” said Depp magnanimously. “I felt bad for ever being scared of him.” So imagine Depp’s reaction when we purchased a map to the stars’ homes from a street peddler, and the very first address he saw was Davidson’s. “Oooooh – John Davidson!” he crowed, reading off the numbers and displaying no residue of unexercised terror. This was one cured customer. (Of course, we never went to Davidson’s house. We didn’t go to anyone’s house – not to Peter Falk’s or Sandy Koufax’s or Phyllis Diller’s or Anna Marie Alberghetti’s. We were, after all, on foot.)

Instead, we wandered aimlessly, and he spoke of his darkest visions. “The most disturbing dream I ever had,” Depp said, “and I hope this is taken the right way, because I’m sure he was a very sweet man, was one where Alan Hale Jr., the Skipper (on Gilligen’s Island) was chasing me. He was in his wardrobe from the show, the white cap and white pants and everything, and I was running from him. He got on a bicycle and chased me into this weird little apartment, really small, very low rent. I looked over to my right, and there was an elderly woman, ethnic looking, squatting. She raised up her muumuu and took a piss. I got the xxxx out of there immediately, because she was very evil. Then I remember diving over the bushes, where the Skipper was trying to get me, and then I woke up.

By now, the origins of Depp are familiar to most functioning Americans.

Born in Owensboro, Kentucky, the self-styled barbecue capital of the world, Deep was the fourth child of John Depp, a city engineer, and his wife, Betty Sue, a waitress at many fine coffee shops. (Her famous son would later have her name tattooed above his left bicep, so as to balance the Indian chief tattooed on his right one, a talisman of his partial Cherokee bloodline.) Depp was a small boy, so early on he learned to rely on his fists, especially when fighting. Eventually, his family settled in Miramar, Florida, and Depp, seven at the time, elected to go with them.

Rebellious in school, he was once suspended for mooning a gym teacher. He learned to smoke by age twelve and then drink and finally take drugs. By fourteen, however, he is said to have sworn off drugs forever. Two years later, his parents divorced, and soon after, Depp quit high school to join a rock band called the Kids, who became a local sensation and opening act for the likes of Talking Heads, the B52’s and Iggy Pop. (He remembers that his first words to lggy Pop, one of his heroes and later a friend, were, inexplicably, “xxxx you, xxxx you, xxxx you” In response, a perplexed Pop called him a little turd.)

At twenty, he married Lori Anne Allison, a twenty-five-year-old musician and relative of a band mate, and together (band included) they left Florida for Hollywood, where the Kids broke up and so did Depp and Lori. Alone and starving, Depp turned to acting and made his screen debut in the original Nightmare on Elm Street as a guy swallowed by a bed. (Grateful to this day for that break, Depp graciously will appear in the next Elm Street sequel as a cameo murder victim.) Then came Platoon, in which Depp played an interpreter who dies off-camera. But his movie career would have to wait: Depp next became, for four years, America’s favorite boy detective.

He was undercover high-school cop Tom Hanson on Fox’s 21 Jump Street, a television series Depp hated and never saw more than six episodes of. Still, it transformed him into the major show-business figure he is today, and, better yet, the babes loved him. Beautiful actresses flocked to his side. Before it was over, there were two failed engagements: to Sherilyn Fenn (Twin Peaks) and to Jennifer Grey (Dirty Dancing). Then the TV show was canceled. But by now John Waters had hired him to star as the misunderstood hood Cry- Baby Walker – his first big-screen lead role! – in the troubled-teen musical Cry-Baby that was released last April. And it was during this time that he met Winona Ryder, the girl who would change his life forever.

On my second day with Depp, Winona Ryder showed up. She is nineteen and all pluck, the thinking man’s actress for her generation. Depp is the thinking man who thinks of her most. He swells in her presence. When they hug, they hug fiercely, in focused silence; their squeeze keeps regrouping. They seem to be lost in each other. She smokes his cigarettes, and she is not a smoker. (“you’re on the filter, babe,” he will coach her.)

Hands locked, they descended upon Barney’s Beanery, a frequent haunt, for caffeine, which they now took in desperate helpings. She wore a Tom Waits T-shirt and Depp’s engagement ring. She was saying, “I’d never seen anyone get a tattoo before, so I was pretty squeamish, I guess.” Depp chuckled-and said, “She kept taking the bandage off and staring at it afterwards.” They were speaking of WINONA FOREVER, the third and final (for now) Depp tattoo, eternally etched onto his epidermis: locus, right shoulder. (Depp told me he plans to have his tattoos pickled after his death as keepsakes for his children, should there be any.) This one was carved on at a nearby tattoo parlor as Winona watched with awe. “I sort of was in shock,” she said. “I kept thinking it was going to wash off or something. I couldn’t believe it was real.” Her eyes widened. “I mean, it’s a big thing, because lt’s so permanent!”

“It ain’t goin’ nowhere,” Depp said, and by this I knew he meant business. Over hash and eggs, they then traced the history of their romance for me: He knew her work (Beetlejuice, Heathers), and she knew his, but they did not know each other. At the premiere of Great Balls of Fire, a film in which she played Jerry Lee Lewis’s child bride, they spotted each other from across the lobby. “I was getting a Coke,” Ryder said. “It was a classic glance,” he said, “like the zoom lenses in West Side Story, and everything else gets foggy.” She said, “It wasn’t a long moment, but it was suspended.” He said, “I knew then.” They did not meet that night. Months later, a mutual friend dragged her to Depp’s hotel room at the Chateau Marmont; where John Belushi last drew breath, and this is where they began. “I thought maybe he would be a jerk!” she said, “I didn’t know. But he was really, really shy.” They knew it was love when they both professed deep feelings for Salinger and the soundtrack of the film The Mission. Their first date, a few weeks later, was a party at the Hollywood Hills home of counterculture guru Dr. Timothy Leary, who is her godfather. “We were kinda blessed,” said Depp, a Beat disciple. As it happens, Winona’s father is an esteemed Beat bookseller in Petaluma, California, where she and Depp weekend often. “My parents really love him a lot,” she told me. Depp said: “It could have been easy not to like me. Older people might have just seen tattoos.”

Tim Burton calls the couple “kind of an evil version of Tracy and Hepburn.” Which is to say, as celebrity couples go, these two are dark, spunky, glamorous and resilient, all requisite traits in this cynical age. For they are beset. Tabloid photographers terrorize them at airports, and tabloid reporters regularly report imaginary squalls and breakups. So he gets angry, and she gets incredulous. Winona: “They try to trip me at airports.” Depp: “What’s shitty about it is they feel like you owe them! That you should stop dead in your tracks and let them piss on you!” Winona: “I will say that there are some really nice ones.” Depp: “A couple of them are real nice.” Winona: “But aren’t we allowed to be in a bad mood sometimes? Everybody else is.”

We found Jesus after lunch. Winona left (took the car again), and Depp and I stepped out into daylight, where we saw a miracle. There, on Santa Monica Boulevard, in front of the Beanery, stood a man who looked very much like the Son of God – in pictures, at least. He was swaddled in robes, his face was serene, his eyes were benevolent, his hair was long, his beard was crisp, he wore tattered Reeboks and a decent tan. He even seemed sort of divine, in an approachable street person sort of way. I do not know if Depp is a praying man, but he is, evidently a closet theologian, if one is to judge by the adroitness with which he interviewed this hallowed figure. First, perhaps to put the holy man at ease, Depp complimented him on his clothing. (Was Depp considering a dirty-linen motif for himself?)

“I have always dressed like this,” said the man in a soft commanding voice. What, Depp inquired, was his name? “Jesus,” the man said, although he used the Hispanic (Hay-zoos). Where had he come from? “Oh, I don’t know,” he said. “Heaven.” His age? “Over forty.” Why had he come to Los Angeles? “I’m here for a special occasion.” What was the occasion? “I like it here.” Where did he like it best? “Beverly Hills.” At which point, Depp whispered to me, “Apocalypse. Second Coming, Armageddon.”

Suddenly a Hollwood climber – short, with a noisy sport coat, on his way to lunch – accosted Jesus from the side. “Hey, I just wrote a story treatment about a guy who dresses like Christ and wanders the streets,” the Hollywood guy said, seeming as earnest as one of his ilk can seem. “Do you have a phone number where you can be reached in case a deal happens?” (He did not notice Depp who looked properly mortified.) Jesus regarded the pitch artist wordlessly, but his message was abundantly clear: idiot. Defeated the guy slunk away. Said Jesus, “He was different,huh?”

“You want a cigarette for the road?” Depp asked him. Jesus assented, and together the robed one and the young actor smoked for a while. “Take the pack,” Depp told him. “I can buy some more.” Afterward, Depp seemed thrilled. “I smoked with Christ!” he said, not a little boastfully. “Jesus is a Marlboro man!”

Perhaps it was the brush with Jesus that did it, but Depp spoke to me from his heart that night. He seemed somehow inspired by the divine fellow. “I wish I could grow more facial hair,” he said, bemoaning the wispiness of his whiskers. “I can only get an Oriental sort of bearded.” Spooning up corn chowder in a tiny restaurant, he was openly penitent about his younger, hellion, hitting-the-sauce kind of days. He owned up to his short fuse: “I’ve got a bit of a temper.” He spoke of a tussle or two and of the circumstances surrounding his arrest in Vancouver during his 21 Jump Street tenure. Apparently he tried to visit some friends late one night in their hotel, where Depp himself had once lived, and a security guard would have none of it. “The guy had a boner for me,” Depp said. “He had a wild hair up his ass, and he got real mouthy with me, saying, ‘I know who you are, but you can’t come up unless you’re a guest here’. The mistake he eventually made was to put his hands on me. I pushed him back, and then we sort of wrestled around a bit, and I ended up spittin’ in his face.”

The police didn’t want to hear Depp’s story. He was jailed for a night, fingerprinted, posed for mug shots (“I wish I could have them”), and in the morning he walked.

But the most beloved legends of Depp are not violent legends. Hardly. For Depp is a name synonymous with great romance. In his young life, he has asked for the troth of four separate women. Whereas other actors are elusive Lotharios, Depp is the marrying kind, unintimidated by the notion of connubial permanence. (Is he trying to succeed where his parents did not?) “I knew this was gonna come up,” he said, looking stricken. But Depp is nothing if not courageous. So, for the first time ever in recorded media, he offered these assorted insights into his mythic ardor: “I’ve never been one of those guys who goes out and screws everything that’s in front of him…. When you’re growing up, you go through a series of misjudgments. Not bad choices, but wrong choices…. You know, people make mistakes. We all xxxx up…. I was really young for the longest time. We were young. (My relationships) weren’t as heavy as people think they were. I don’t know what it is, possibly I was trying to rectify my family’s situation or I was just madly in love…. You’re the first person that I’ve talked to about this kind of stuff. And I’m being really honest with you when I say that there’s been nothing ever throughout my twenty-seven years that’s comparable to the feeling I have with Winona…. It’s like this weird, bounding atom or something. You can think something is the real thing, but it’s different when you feel it. The truth is very powerful. Now I know. Believe me, this WINONA FOREVER tattoo is not something I took lightly…. Her eyes kill me.”

He then said this about his engagement to Winona: “People don’t realize this, but we’ve been together almost a year and a half. Out of any, whatever, thing I’ve been through before, it hasn’t been this long. It wasn’t like ‘Hi, nice to meet you, here’s a ring.’ It was about five months {before we got engaged}. They thought we ran away to Las Vegas and got married.” When will their nuptials actually transpire? “The wedding thing?” he said. “We’re just gonna do it when we both have time, because we both know we’re gonna end up working in the next couple of months. And we want to be able to do it when we can get hitched and then go away for a few months. Leave the country, just go wandering around, and be on a beach somewhere with tropical drinks.

“I’ve never actually come out and said this,” Depp added portentously, “but the one claim to fame I’m most proud of is that I’m responsible for having John Waters ordained. I sent in to the Universal Life Church and had him ordained by mail. He’s now Reverend John Waters, and we want John to perform the ceremony. Who better? You know what I mean? John is a stand-up guy. And Winona loves the idea.”

(From the sanctum of Pastor Waters: “I told them I wouldn’t do it without their parents’ blessing,” said the Reverend. “I mean, I’ve met her parents! They’ve eaten dinner here! I’m not gonna just horrify them. And of course, I always counsel Johnny and Winona – too young! I tell them to wait, wait, wait! But I’d be thrilled to perform the ceremony – I’d feel like the pope!”)

My last day with Depp went like this: I picked him up at home, which wasn’t really home but a small bungalow he and Winona were briefly renting. (Their new house was not yet inhabitable.) Depp was on the kitchen phone, pacing furiously, caffeine wiring his arteries. Heaps of laundry and luggage and books cluttered the living-room floor. A stray cat was loose in the house. Winona was out. Mail was strewn about Depp told me about his fan mail, unique in its female pubichair content. “I’ve gotten some weird pubes” is how he put it. We got into my car and drove. We passed a slatternly pedestrian. “That,” said Depp, “was a man in drag.” Depp cannot be fooled.

We passed a coffee shop adorned with a giant rooster. “I have one of those,” he said, meaning the rooster. “I have a nine-foot rooster. I have the biggest cock in Los Angeles. My large cock is in storage.”

This was the old Depp, spry and antic as ever. He saw a dog and said, coincidentally, that he based his Edward Scissorhands performance on a dog. “He had this unconditional love,” said Depp, who probably cherishes that role above any other in the Depp repertoire. “He was this totally pure, completely open character, the sweetest thing in the world, whose appearance is incredibly dangerous – until you get a look at his eyes. I missed Edward when I was done. I really miss him.”

We drove to Harry Houdini’s house, which wasn’t really a house but a scattering of ruins perched above Laurel Canyon. Houdini’s ruins, they say, are haunted. Depp read from a guide book, “Nearby Canyon residents tell of strange happenings on the hilltop site.” Depp, incidentally, believes that he was once Houdini. “I often think I might have been Houdini at one time,” he said. So we dropped over to see if anything looked familiar to him. We scaled a steep hill and found a crumbling staircase and little else. “There’s no house,” said Depp, disappointed. He was now obviously soured on the whole endeavor. “I bet this was a really romantic place at night,” he added dreamily. Then a German woman emerged from a nearby house and, apparently mistaking us for urban archaeologists, chased us off. “Yes, ma’am,” said Depp politely as we fled.

Here is how I will remember Depp best: After the Houdini incident, he grew more and more quixotic, thirsting for the wondrous possibilities that lay before him. We snaked through the Hollywood Hills, whose ripened lore endlessly enchants Depp. “I would love to buy Bela Lugosi’s old house,” he said. “Or Errol Flynn’s. Or Charlie Chaplin’s. I want some old, depressing history to call my own. Plus, I love the idea of a view.” He sat in silent reverie, but within moments was overtaken with purpose. “I think I just have to make a lot of cash,” he said calmly. “I also think I want to be a sheik. I want to be the sheik of Hollywood. What do you have to do to become a sheik, anyway? I wonder if it just takes cash….”

Before any further grandiosity could delude him, however, Depp made me stop the car. “Something’s wrong with that mailbox!” he said, pointing to a blue corner mailbox that seemed to have exploded. “I’ll go see what happened.” With that, he hurried to assist a U.S. postal worker hunched over the damaged box. I cannot be certain of how Depp managed to help. But now, whenever mail is delivered safely and on time anywhere in this great land, I don’t think it would be presumptuous to say that one American actor did his part.