‘Idiot,” Johnny Depp likes to joke, is the German translation of his surname. The swooned-over film actor, who picked up his first Golden Globe for his all-singing portrayal of Sweeney Todd, has, over a 24-year career, gained a reputation for playing the outsiders, rejects and oddballs – the idiots. Big-bucks, twinkly-eyed romantic leads have never held any allure.
Instead, Depp has transmogrified into pallid Edward Scissorhands, kohl-eyed pirate Captain Jack Sparrow and Cry-Baby Walker, the delinquent of John Waters’ 1990 Cry-Baby. He has cross-dressed in Before Night Falls and Ed Wood, shaving his legs for the latter.
“I always thought it’d be interesting to see them all in the same room together,” Depp says of his characters.
Tim Burton, who’s directed Depp six times, describes him as a risk-taker. “He could’ve gone and made millions as this great-looking lead guy. But no.” Depp turned down leads in Speed and Interview With A Vampire, but he’s not in penury: he picked up $20-million for each his Pirates Of The Caribbean films, and smaller movies reputedly start at $8-million.
With the straggly beard, skull rings, nerd specs, fedora, leather jackets or Rat Pack suits, Depp doesn’t have the clean-cut appeal of a Pitt or a Cruise. His is “a delicate beauty that’s startling, perhaps more so for being intermittent … with a tilt of the head, impossibly handsome,” according to Franz Lidz in the New York Times.
On celluloid, Depp does not exude menace or muscularity, but rather a lightness and naturalness. “Johnny doesn’t rely on tricks, his acting is about ease and intuition,” says Lasse Hallström, who directed him in Chocolat and What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?
After the success of the Pirates films, Depp is now a blue-chip Hollywood name with indie appeal. He doesn’t play the La-La land games and claims not to have seen the final version of many of his films: “Once my job is done, it’s none of my business. I walk away.”
In 1983, Depp escaped to LA and joined the Loft Studio school to take acting lessons, but dropped out to concentrate on his band, The Kids. The Kids were successful enough to support the Talking Heads and the B-52s, but Depp was still forced to find sales work. “We sold ink pens. I’d met Nicolas Cage who was, like, a friend of a couple of friends. And he told me one day, ‘You should try acting or whatever’.”
Depp went to see Cage’s agent and, in 1984, landed his first significant role, in Wes Craven’s Nightmare On Elm Street, playing a boy who was swallowed by a bed, and he made $1 200 a week . That was followed, in 1986, by a role as a Vietnamese-speaking private in Platoon. But TV gave Depp his big break, as an undercover cop at a high school in 21 Jump Street.
The teen idol image was all but forgotten after his first movie with Burton, Edward Scissorhands. But, even as Depp chalked up critically acclaimed roles in Gilbert Grape and Benny & Joon, he took more drugs. “It was anything I could stuff into my system to medicate, self-medicate, or numb myself,” he admits.
The role of Ed Wood, another Burton project, was for Depp “the rocket ship that took me away from that horrible black bleak time”. So convincing was his female impersonation, Depp was reportedly considered as the first transvestite cover girl of US Vogue.
During the late ’90s, he starred in Don Juan DeMarco, Donnie Brasco, Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas, Sleepy Hollow and Chocolat. In 2001, he played the 1970s cocaine kingpin George Jung. Then came a curious career transition. From that seedy role, Depp moved into the world of Disney, starring as Jack Sparrow in the first Pirates movie in 2003. More than that, fatherhood altered his tastes. “I thought it’d be great to make a movie my kids could watch.”
Sweeney Todd, which opens tomorrow, has been hailed as the Burton-Depp relationship at its best. Even Depp’s singing has mostly been praised; only the New Yorker’s Anthony Lane dismissed his warblings as a “Bowie impression”.
If there is criticism of Depp’s work as an actor, it is that his weirdos are so emotionally guarded that we never get beneath their skin. “For me, it seems he’s been hiding a bit beneath eccentrics and outcasts,” says Hallström.
For all his rebellious instincts, Depp is uncomfortable with political statement. In 2003, he tried to withdraw quotes that criticised the Iraq war – dismissing America as “a dumb puppy that has big teeth” – given to Stern magazine in 2003.
Perhaps that attitude will have to change: Depp’s production company has bought the rights to the story of the Litvinenko poisoning.
If all else fails, he’s kept the scissorhand gloves. “In a couple of years, I may be doing birthday parties at McDonald’s – as Edward. You know, $200 a party.”
Idiot? Hardly. – The Independent