The epitome of cool. A look at ‘Edward Scissorhands’, ‘Chocolat’, ‘Sleepy Hollow’, and those ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ films.
Johnny Depp’s full name is John Christopher Depp II, and he was born into a typical American “blue-collar” family in Owensboro, Kentucky, a town that’s sometimes called “the barbecue capital of the world.” His father, John senior, was a city engineer and his mother, Betty Sue, was a waitress. His siblings are Danny, (aka DP, who now works as a scriptwriter), and sisters Debbie, who is now Depp’s personal manager, and Christine.
Depp was always closer to his mother than his father, and perhaps closest of all to his grandfather, whom he nicknamed Pawpaw. He visited his grandfather often and recalls happy times picking tobacco together. As a sensitive seven-year old boy, Depp was utterly devastated when his beloved grandfather died. Further upheaval came when the family relocated to Florida shortly afterwards and he moved away from the only secure home he had ever known. It took John senior quite some time to find work, and the Depp family were forced to live in a succession motel rooms, moving no less than twelve times until their fortunes improved.
Perhaps on account of his troubled family history, Depp was a poor high school student. He took up smoking at the age of 12, and reputedly lost his virginity at 13. He was later suspended for mooning at a gym teacher and then turned to petty theft and vandalism. His salvation arrived, however, in the unlikely shape of his fundamentalist Christian minister uncle. In the course of family get-togethers, Depp got to attend his uncle’s evangelical Sunday services and it was here that he discovered his love of music. His mother promptly gave him a guitar as a present, and Depp locked himself in his bedroom and taught himself how to play. His lifelong love of rock and roll was born, and he was soon well on the road to becoming a skillful garage rocker.
At the age of 16, Depp dropped out of high school so that he could focus on his music full-time. It was the late 1970s and punk rock was at the height of its popularity. He joined a punk band called The Flame, who soon succeeded in securing gigs at a string of Florida nightclubs. The band’s fortunes prospered, and after changing their name to The Kids, they were soon playing support to such big names as Iggy Pop, Talking Heads and The B52s. The band then relocated to Los Angeles in search of a recording contract, where Depp’s future destiny awaited him.
Whilst living on the West Coast, Depp met and married make-up artist Lori Anne Allison. The marriage was short-lived, but proved to be a major turning-point in his career. Depp’s new wife had a hunch that he might have a future in acting, and so she introduced him to her friend Nicholas Cage. Cage was very taken with Depp’s wild young “rocker” image and persuaded him to meet his agent Ilene Feldman – who in turn secured Depp an audition for a movie by Wes Craven that was about to go into production. Rumour has it that Craven cast Depp because his young daughter took a shine to him – and before long, the viewing public had their first glimpse of the future screen idol, in the role of a young hunk being devoured by a killer bed in ‘Nightmare on Elm Street’.
The film was a critical success, but Depp still felt that his future lay in music, rather than the cinema. But he was forced to reconsider when The Kids suddenly split up, and he found himself without a band to play with. After acting in a teen sex comedy, ‘Private Resort’, Johnny decided to take his “second string” of acting more seriously, and enrolled for drama classes with Peggy Feury at The Loft, a Los Angeles acting academy. The classes paid off, and he soon secured his next movie role as Private Lerner in Oliver Stone’s Vietnam movie ‘Platoon’. But his fortunes then ebbed again, as the good parts he’d hoped for failed to materialise. And when an offer finally appeared – that of playing a young police officer in a new TV series, ‘21 Jump Street’, Depp turned it down, as he considered it beneath him. But the producers persisted, so he finally accepted the part, whilst secretly hoping that the series would only run for one season! But the show took off, and Depp – who played Officer Tom Hanson – soon became its favourite character and an overnight teen idol and pin-up. During the show’s run he reputedly received 10,000 fan letters a month. Depp felt trapped and feared his image would be ruined – but then controversial director John Waters offered him a part in his new film, ‘Cry Baby’, along with porn queen Traci Lords, which he accepted with alacrity.
With his image as a screen rebel now restored, Depp was a natural choice for the lead role when maverick director Tim Burton was looking around for a twentysomething actor to play the curious role of Edward Scissorhands, a boy who was both creative and destructive at the same time. Depp instinctively warmed to the challenging role, perhaps because the script resonated with the deep feelings of isolation and unhappiness he had experienced as a teenager growing up in Florida. The film was a massive critical success and established Depp once and for all as a leading Hollywood player. On the personal front, he also enjoyed an off-screen romance with leading lady Winona Ryder, to whom he was engaged for three years. They’d met at the movie premiere of ‘Great Balls of Fire’, and Depp announced that Ryder was “the one”. He even had “Winona Forever” tattooed on his arm (alongside the Betty Sue tattoo he proudly wore in honour of his mother) – later having it surgically modified to “Wino Forever” when he and Winona finally split up in 1993.
Depp’s career went from strength to strength during the 1990s, as he starred in an impressive line-up of successful movies. In ‘What’s Eating Gilbert Grape’ he acted alongside Leonardo DiCaprio, who played his disabled brother. He then starred in ‘Benny and Joon’, where he portrayed the life and work of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. But whilst Depp’s reputation as a brilliant actor was growing year by year, his private life was becoming increasingly rocky. He became involved in a volatile on-off relationship with supermodel Kate Moss and rumours of his heavy drinking and drug-taking abounded. Depp’s private reputation hit rock bottom when actor River Phoenix died of a drug overdose outside his night-club, The Viper Room, in Los Angeles. Depp finally split with Kate Moss in 1998, and soon afterwards met French singer and actor Vanessa Paradis: the couple married soon afterwards, and have lived happily together ever since.
Despite the ups and downs of his personal life, Depp’s professional fortunes have gone from strength to strength since the early 1990s, although he has consistently spurned the more predictable Hollywood lead roles in favour of the more quirky, off-beat parts at which he excels. He was widely acclaimed for his portrayal of an undercover cop in ‘Donnie Brasco’, where he played opposite Al Pacino’s mobster character. Interestingly, Depp spent time hanging out with the real-life “Brasco”, Joe Pistone, in order to research his movie role more thoroughly. After the success of Donnie Brasco, Depp got the chance to direct for the first time in ‘The Brave’, a film in which he also starred as a Native American Indian alongside Marlon Brando. Interestingly, Depp also wrote the screenplay, in conjunction with his brother DP, a budding scriptwriter. Since his directorial debut, Depp went on to also direct several music videos for his wife Vanessa.
Depp then played a series of controversial, challenging roles in which he explored the darker side of human nature through the lens of a succession of troubled screen heroes. He played Hunter S. Thompson in Terry Gilliam’s wacky ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas’, a role he also researched by actually living with Thompson himself and going hunting with him! He then played Jack Kerouac in a film called ‘The Source’, followed by the role of a rare book dealer in Roman Polanski’s chiller-thriller, ‘The 9th Gate’. After the sci-fi movie, ‘The Astronaut’s Wife’, Depp was invited to star in a new Tim Burton film, ‘Sleepy Hollow’, where he played the role of Ichabod Crane, a Victorian sleuth on the trail of a headless horseman who is terrorising a small New England town and murdering its inhabitants one by one. Although Depp was criticised by some reviewers for bringing humour to the role, his portrayal of the shy detective was widely recognised as masterful.
Sleepy Hollow was a huge Hollywood success, but Depp then shunned the limelight for a while, and took a role in the art house director Sally Potter’s film, ‘The Man Who Cried’. Before long, however, he was back in the limelight and playing the guitar on screen in the role of Roux in ‘Chocolat’ (2000), which led to his being nominated for an Oscar. Depp apparently modelled the Irish brogue he used for this character on his friend Shane McGowan of The Pogues, with whom he also appeared on Top of The Pops.
After Chocolat, Depp opted for two “outsider”-type roles: first, he played George Jung, an American cocaine baron in ‘Blow’, and then Inspector Frederick Abberline, a policeman with a drug problem on the trail of Jack the Ripper alongside Robbie Coltrane and Heather Graham in ‘From Hell’. From Hell wasn’t a big hit, but when Depp returned to the big screen, it was with ‘Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl’ – which was one of the box office smash hits of 2004. Depp camped it up in the role of Captain Jack Sparrow, and totally stole the show from pirate Captain Barbarossa (Geoffrey Rush) and the two star-crossed lovers, Keira Knightley and Orlando Bloom. Depp is said to have based his portrayal of Captain Jack on the Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards, and once again injected an element of unexpected humour into his character acting that helped make the film into an overnight blockbuster.
Following the stupendous success of Pirates of the Caribbean, Depp chose two leading roles in films that appealed widely to younger audiences, perhaps reflecting his own newfound real-life role as a father – his daughter Lily-Rose Melody was born in 1999, followed by the birth of his son Jack in 2002. He played J M Barrie, the author of Peter Pan, in ‘Finding Neverland’, in which the writer befriends a group of children and their dying mother, played by Kate Winslet. Depp’s brilliant acting in Neverland led to a second Oscar nomination. The following year, Depp went on to star in another Tim Burton film, ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’, where he played chocolate factory owner Willy Wonka.
Depp is on record as saying that Captain Jack Sparrow is his favourite part out of all the screen characters he has ever played, and he returned to the screen in the sequel to ‘Pirates of The Caribbean, Dead Man’s Chest’, which was released in 2006. Unusually, the sequel proved to be even more popular than the original movie and became only the 3rd film in history ever to break the $1 billion international box office barrier – the other two being James Cameron’s ‘Titanic’ and Peter Jackson’s ‘Lord of the Rings’.
Following his 1998 role in ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas’, Depp’s love of Hunter S. Thompson led him to accepting the role of narrator in the award-wining documentary ‘Gonzo; the Life and Work of Hunter S. Thompson’, released December 2008. The documentary by Academy Award-winning director Alex Gibney (‘Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room’ and ‘Taxi To The Dark Side’) had unprecedented access to hundreds of photographs and over 200 hours of audiotapes, home movies and documentary footage which were made available by Hunter S. Thompson’s estate.
Not only did Depp give life to Hunter’s words, the actor also bankrolled Thompson’s spectacular funeral (photographed for this film) in which the good doctor’s ashes were fired from a rocket launcher mounted with a towering two-thumbed fist whose palm held a giant peyote button.
After appearing for a third time as Captain Jack Sparrow in ‘Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End’, Depp teamed up once more with his favourite director in ‘Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street’. The 2007 Tim Burton film led to a Golden Globe Award for Best Actor and a National Movie Award for Performance, as well as another Academy Award nomination. A Satellite Award for Best Actor nomination also came his way following 2009’s ‘Public Enemies’, in which he portrayed American gangster and bank robber John Dillinger.
Depp gained further recognition after collaborating once more with Burton in ‘Alice in Wonderland’ (2010), receiving Golden Globe and MTV Movie Award nominations for his adaptation of author Lewis Carroll’s fictional character the Mad Hatter. The computer animated fantasy adventure was a commercial success and grossed over $1 billion worldwide, pushing Depp’s bankability to new heights. The same year also saw Depp star alongside Angelina Jolie in ‘The Tourist’, which received hugely negative reviews, but performed well at the box office.
Depp’s versatility landed him a lead role in the animation ‘Rango’ (2011), while he is due to return to his old seafaring lifestyle in ‘Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides’, for which it is claimed he will earn the highest salary in Hollywood history – $55.5 million.
Despite all of his phenomenal box office success, Depp has yet to be rewarded for his prodigious acting talent by receiving an Oscar. He has, however, won Golden Globe awards for roles in Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood, Benny and Joon and Finding Neverland among others. Depp himself appears to be totally unconcerned with this lack of tangible acknowledgement from the motion picture industry and simply says: “I never really wanted to be an actor or a director. I was a musician and still am. The other stuff just happened.”