Nationality: American. Born: John Christopher Depp, Owensboro, Kentucky, 9 June 1963; raised in Miramar, Florida. Family: Married Lori Anne Allison (divorced). Education: Dropped out of high school in Miramar, Florida, at age 16. Career: 1976—at 13 started his own rock group, Flame; later played lead guitar with band, The Kids, who opened shows for the B-52s, Talking Heads, and Iggy Pop; subsequently with the Rock City Angels; 1980—film debut in Friday the 13th ; 1987–90—as Tom Hanson in TV series 21 Jump Street ; owner of the Viper Room, a rock-n-roll club. Awards: ShoWest Male Star of Tomorrow Award, 1990. Agent: International Creative Management, 8942 Wilshire Boulevard, Beverly Hills, CA 90211, U.S.A.
Friday the 13th (Sean S. Cunningham)
A Nightmare on Elm Street (Craven) (as Glen Lantz)
Private Resort (George Bowers) (as Jack Marshall)
Platoon (Oliver Stone) (as Lerner); Slow Burn (Matthew Chapman—for TV)
Cry-Baby (Waters) (title role); Edward Scissorhands (Tim Burton) (title role)
Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare (Talalay) (cameo)
Arizona Dream (Kusturica) (as Axel Blackmar)
Benny & Joon (Chechik) (as Sam); What's Eating Gilbert Grape (Hallström) (title role)
Ed Wood (Tim Burton) (title role)
Nick of Time (Badham) (as Gene Watson); Don Juan DeMarco (Jeremy Leven) (title role)
Donnie Brasco (Newell); Dead Man (Jarmusch) (as William Blake)
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (Gilliam) (as Raoul Duke); The Astronaut's Wife (Ravich) (as Spencer Armacost)
Sleepy Hollow (Burton) (as Ichabod Crane); The Ninth Gate (Polanski) (as Dean Corso); The Source (Workman) (as Jack Kerouac)
Interview in Interview (New York), July 1987.
Interview with John Waters, in Interview (New York), April 1990.
Interview with Anita Chaudhuri, in Time Out (London), 7 July 1993.
Interview with Jamie Diamond, in Cosmopolitan (New York), November 1993.
Interview with Brendan Lemon, in Interview (New York), December 1995.
Interview with Kevin Cook, in Playboy (Chicago), January 1996.
Interview with Tom Charity, in Time Out (London), 2 April 1997.
Reisfeld, Randi, Johnny Depp , New York, 1989.
Robb, Brian J., Johnny Depp: A Modern Rebel , London, 1996.
Goodall, Nigel, Johnny Depp: The Biography , London, 1999.
Hunter, Jack D., Johnny Depp: Movie Top Ten , Berkeley, California, 1999.
Zehme, Bill, "Sweet Sensation," in Rolling Stone (New York), 10 January 1991.
Morgan, Susan, "Depp Perception," in Harper's Bazaar (New York), May 1993.
Schneller, Johanna, "Johnny Angel," in GQ (New York), October 1993.
"Beat Poet Alan Ginsberg and Actor-on-the-Beat Johnny Depp in a Conversation that Spans the Nation and the Generations," in Interview (New York), June 1994.
Beller, Thomas, "Fame Is a Four-Letter Word," in Harper's Bazaar (New York), December 1995.
Jabloñski, Witold, "Don Juan i umarlak," in Kino (Warsaw), October 1996.
Pol, Gerwin van der, "De verloren onschuld van Johnny Depp," in Skrien (Netherlands), October 1997.
* * *
In watching Johnny Depp in his early movies, one may have been charmed by his performances, such as that in Cry-Baby , but few would have claimed the young man was destined to become one of the finest actors/stars/presences of his generation. One could not, back then, be aware of his potential range—both emotional range and range of characterization. A mere five years after Cry-Baby , we find him in Don Juan DeMarco , paired with Marlon Brando, no less, and elegantly holding his own. He is perhaps, in his way, Brando's equal—though an equal as different as can be imagined, Depp's performance style being far removed from Method-derived acting.
In many respects he seems a strange anomaly in contemporary Hollywood, with its preoccupation with violent action or special effects in movies characterized by the hysterical overvaluation of masculinity in the persons of stars such as Stallone and Schwarzenegger (an obvious response to feminism, and already disintegrating into self-parody). While his image has been consistently rooted in male heterosexuality (even when he cross-dresses in Ed Wood ), he is surely the least aggressively masculine of all currently popular stars. His persona is centered upon gentleness, sensitivity, vulnerability, and an emotional as well as physical delicacy. This was already evident in Cry-Baby (and to be capable of expressing delicacy in a John Waters movie is already an achievement), but received its definitive formulation in Edward Scissorhands , made the same year, which is a somewhat disappointing film, but Depp's pathetic, sweet, and lovable freak, whose inventor (Vincent Price) dies before he could give him "real" hands, is unforgettably poignant and touching. Indeed, the irreducible sweetness is already there in a film Depp would doubtless not care to be reminded of: the 1985 Private Resort , a typically mindless boys-trying-to-get-laid comedy in which he looks about 15 years old and is rather charmingly miscast as a frantic pursuer of tits-and-ass.
The much more textured "Scissorhands" persona was developed further in the two films of 1993, Benny & Joon and What's Eating Gilbert Grape . The former—a little movie rendered almost irresistible by its three stars—gave Depp's comedic talents their full expression, especially in his celebrated Buster Keaton routine; like Keaton (and unlike, for example, Jim Carrey), Depp knows that you can only be really funny if you never, never suggest that you know you are being funny. In What's Eating Gilbert Grape he found, perhaps, his most sympathetic director aside from Tim Burton, Lasse Hallström, a filmmaker with a sensibility of a delicacy to match Depp's. Any other actor in the role wold surely have been upstaged by Leonardo di Caprio's extraordinary performance in a far more showy role; Depp and Hallström have understood that quietness and understatement can make an equally telling and indelible impression.
Three films released in 1994 and 1995 contain marvelous performances that show a broadening of his range without ever betraying the qualities and values of his basic persona. The most recent of the three, Nick of Time , a silly, gimmicky movie unworthy of Depp's talents, demands little attention, but Depp gives it what distinction it has in his portrayal of a very ordinary, unimaginative young bureaucrat spurred into activity and inventiveness by the threat to his little daughter's life—Depp's first "ordinary" character. Ed Wood and Don Juan DeMarco are another matter; they are, with Gilbert Grape , the most distinguished films in which Depp has appeared so far, and are both (not to belittle the quite marvelous support he gets) essentially carried on his own apparently slender shoulders.
Ed Wood reunites him with Tim Burton, and they have collaborated to develop a character (does anyone really care whether it is factually accurate?) that both takes up and extends the "Scissorhands" persona. Like the earlier Edward, Depp's Edward D. Wood, Jr. is at once a "freak" and an artist: an artist so caught up in his delight in creation that he is never able to recognize that his products are worthless, and will in fact end up being celebrated as the "worst films ever made." Yet it is doubtful whether anyone—not even Kirk Douglas's van Gogh—has been able more convincingly to communicate on screen the sheer joy of creativity. The Burton-Depp Ed Wood is at once funny, touching, and pathetic, yet oddly inspirational; the suggestion is that the delight in creation is sufficient unto itself, irrespective of the value posterity places upon the works. After all, one of our culture's greatest artists, Schubert, composed a number of his supreme works without the least guarantee or even expectation that they would ever be performed. This is not to collapse Schubert's great intelligence with Edward D. Wood's virtually insane delusions of grandeur—we are concerned here with personal pleasure and satisfaction, not objective value.
Depp's Don Juan DeMarco (in the film of the same name) is an equally remarkable assumption, in certain ways closely paralleling his Ed Wood. Here, creativity is recast in sexual terms, in which the character's fantasy is no longer that he produces great art, but that he brings a transitory happiness to frustrated women. Depp's Don Juan can best be defined by juxtaposition with Mozart's Don Giovanni. Mozart's Don is an extraordinarily—almost bafflingly—complex figure: a social/sexual revolutionary who breaks all the restrictive conventions of the culture, yet always at the expense of those (especially women) in a socially inferior and vulnerable position. He is at once the hero and the villain of the opera. Against Don Giovanni's exploitation of women we have Don Juan DeMarco's total identification with them, his assumed role as "great lover" built less upon personal gratification than on empathy and compassion. Depp's Don Juan is unlike Ed Wood in that he is not entirely the victim of delusion; he really does change people's lives. The film clarifies most beautifully the very basis of the persona, its fascination and complexity—strong and unambiguous heterosexual appeal, combined with an extreme and potentially revolutionary femininity.
Depp's recent work shows him, far from being content to rest on his laurels, fearlessly electing to appear in offbeat and uncommercial films ( Dead Man , Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas ) when they offer him roles that extend his range and present him with challenges. His performance in the more mainstream Donnie Brasco carries him into Scorsese territory, as an undercover agent whose task is to infiltrate the Mafia; he brings to it a new emotional maturity. Joe Pistone/"Donnie Brasco" is seen by the ageing mafioso Lefty (Al Pacino) as an alternative son, a role whose implications Joe gradually accepts, his diction and behaviour-patterns changing as he becomes the imaginary person he is supposedly acting. He ends up trying to save the increasingly weary and expendable older man, for whom he has come to feel both respect and compassion, from his inevitable fate. Depp makes us feel that we are watching Joe's sense of his identity disintegrate before our eyes. His progress from confident activity to a total disillusionment as the clear division between black and white, Mafia and FBI, dissolves into a uniform greyness leads to the film's ultimate desolation. Depp's unmannered, understated acting contrasts effectively with Pacino's equally brilliant, more flamboyant "method" performance, which would overshadow a lesser actor.
Fear and Loathing seems somewhat marginal to Depp's career: he becomes less an actor than a "performer," there being barely any character for him to inhabit; what he has to do, he does well. Dead Man is quite another matter, one of the peaks so far both of his and Jim Jarmusch's work. Jarmusch remains faithful to the minimalist absurdism of his early work, but develops it here to the point where it takes on new depth and resonance. Depp's characteristic reticence, a kind of modesty of expression and gesture (he appears to be doing so little, yet achieves so much), becomes the perfect vehicle for the realization of the bleakness of the director's vision. Sleepy Hollow returns him for the third time to Tim Burton; Depp's Ichabod Crane, outwardly assured, inwardly vulnerable, firmly anchors Burton's brilliant flights of invention in a calm core of purity.
His two latest films make a somewhat odd pair: The Astronaut's Wife is a virtual remake of Rosemary's Baby (with aliens replacing the devil); The Ninth Gate is about devil-worship and is directed by Polanski. The latter received the more favourable critical response, no doubt in deference to the director; although generally scorned, The Astronaut's Wife is perhaps, by a short margin, the better film, regaining some of the disturbing quality of its famous original. The Ninth Gate , engrossing enough for much of its length, leaves one feeling that it's well made, but why should anyone want to make it? Depp's presence lends distinction to both, but neither adds anything significant to his already remarkable achievement.