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A Window Into His Soul

Johnny Depp's complex persona and his troubled past are reflected in his offbeat career. His role in 'Blow' about the world of drugs is just the latest.

April 01, 2001|WILLIAM KECK | William Keck is a regular contributor to Calendar

More than once when he was a boy, Johnny Depp was visited in bed by ghostly faces floating in front of his own. Because his eyes were open, he was pretty sure he was awake-but it was possible he was dreaming. Someone once explained to Depp that the faces represented the spirit of a dead soul trying to contact him. But he's not sure if he buys that. All he knows for certain is that the images were very real-and while they lasted, wildly entertaining.

Today the faces floating around Depp are those of the characters he's played in his consistently offbeat film career. Each represents a part of his soul, he believes. Each opens a window. These films, which Depp thinks have defined him to studio heads as "the guy who does weird movies," not only unmask Depp to his audience, but have helped the actor decode himself. He refers to the experience as "meeting up with old friends that exist inside you."

In his first breakout film role, as the title character in "Edward Scissorhands" (1990), Depp explored his lifelong sense of loneliness. "What's Eating Gilbert Grape" (1993) forced the actor to confront painful family memories. In "Ed Wood" (1994) and in one of two small parts in last year's "Before Night Falls," Depp did the transvestite thing, enabling him to flaunt his feminine side.

Now with his latest film, "Blow," which opens Friday, Depp perhaps comes closest to facing down demons that nearly destroyed his life. As real-life cocaine trafficker turned addict George Jung, Depp portrays a man not unlike himself who has amassed great wealth and popularity-toasting and toking up at an endless carousel of parties-but still feels hollow. "I've felt that forever and ever," he says.

This March afternoon, Depp has arrived almost 90 minutes late to the interview, for which he apologizes repeatedly, and through his charm, manages to get away with it. That charm has no doubt come to serve Depp well throughout his troubled past. The 37-year-old is in fact so charming that you begin feeling a little guilty for having allowed his tardiness to validate his reputation as an irresponsible Peter Pan.

He is seated, rolling tobacco in licorice-flavored paper, in front of a beat-up coffee table in Room 69 in the Chateau Marmont-his former home and usual interview venue. He likes the Marmont because it is one of the few reminders of old Hollywood that still exists on the Strip. Though the photographer and publicist have left us alone, his sister Christi (who has worked as his assistant since 1992) remains. Though she keeps out of sight, one has a feeling Depp's protective older sibling is listening to every word.

He does not ask permission to smoke and makes no apologies for sending clouds of toxins directly into his interviewer's face. Nothing stops Depp from lighting up; he continued smoking throughout his actress girlfriend Vanessa Paradis' pregnancy (though he took it into another room and he and Paradis now go outside for their smokes).

As much as his careless actions may solidify his reputation as an aloof party boy who has little regard for others' time or (if you recall that infamous 1994 hotel room thrashing) property, that would be too easy an assumption.

His closest friends, even shock rocker Marilyn Manson, agree Depp owns the trademark on quirkiness-a trait detected by actor pal Marshall Bell during their introduction in 1984 at a Lebanese barbecue dive on Pico. "We were sitting at the table," recalls 56-year-old Bell, whose biggest role was the mutant-stomached George Kuato in "Total Recall," 'and then for no reason he dumped a beer over his head."

Childhood pal Sal Jenco, whom Depp has entrusted to manage his Sunset Strip club, the Viper Room, for the past seven years, talks of Depp's fondness for whoopie cushions, his deep-seated fear of clowns and his complete lack of vanity.

'He likes people who aren't beautiful," Bell explains.

While he manages to clean up nicely for his film roles, at the moment there are scant traces of the all-American pinup boy Fox turned him into back in 1987 when it launched the TV series "21 Jump Street." Depp describes that "disturbing" time as "the start of the weirdness," when Hollywood attempted to transform him into a "mass-produced thing." He has struggled hard to escape the Hollywood star factory ever since.


Today, he has most certainly escaped the image of sex symbol, perhaps too well. Pale, heavily tattooed and strangely bearded, he is dressed in a peculiar ensemble that's part Bob Marley, part Road Warrior and part Dr. Seuss (the floppy, striped "Cat in the Hat'-style chapeau).

"Maybe I'm a little sloppy in my dress," he admits. Manson remembers that when he and Depp went Christmas shopping at Toys R Us the year before last, the duo went unrecognized by the cashier. "And I was buying a 'Sleepy Hollow' action figure," says Manson, laughing.

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