Pretty wimp or wild one?

Jim Jarmusch’s films have finally arrived in South Africa. The director and star Johnny Depp talk about their latest movie

‘WHY don’t you take a year off from this film stuff and play Hamlet?” Marlon Brando asked his co-star in Don Juan DeMarco, Johnny Depp. “I was very honoured,” says Depp. “I think it would be nice to take a year off and study Shakespeare and that whole style of acting.”

He is wearing black T-shirt, black boots, blue jeans, brown leather jacket. A blue knit cap hangs out of his back pocket, and a skeleton-head ring rests on one of his fingers. He smokes continuously. It’s very Wild One.

Depp has mentioned Brando’s advice to recent interviewers. Is he the Nineties embodiment of Brando’s unique mix of method, sass, and anarchy, or more of a sensitive nerd boxed in by a bad-boy persona that he’s carefully constructed? Pretty wimp, or stinky tough guy? Is there a correlation between Johnny Depp, Extraordinarily Gifted Screen Actor, and Johnny Depp, Private Person in the Public Eye?

“Sometimes I do a Brando,” says Depp. “At times, he makes you laugh so much, you end up repeating his lines. You spend so much time with someone, you learn from them.”

Depp became an actor accidentally. Nicolas Cage helped him get the Nightmare On Elm Street part of unlucky Glen Lantz, who gets sucked into a mattress and emerges as a mini-geyser of blood shot up to the bedroom ceiling. The big break came in 1987, when he began nearly four years playing what Vincent Gallo — Depp’s co-star in the 1992 masterpiece Arizona Dream, directed by this year’s Cannes Palme d’Or winner Emir Kusturica — calls “that dork from 21 Jump Street”. This teen-idol phase marks the start of Depp’s makeover.

“He was dating Winona,” says the wacky, hyperverbose, but knowing Gallo, who is also a painter of note and was a downtown New York underground musician in the Seventies. “They were wearing thrift-shop clothes for the first time. He was tattooed and ear-ringed, and on a TV show. I just hated them.” The part of rebellious, Elvis-like Cry-Baby in camp/cult director John Waters’s film of that name merged Depp’s screen persona with the new private one, far removed from the movie cameras but well within the range of paparazzi and complicit journalists. (See British GQ’s recent Depp fawn-a-thon, called on the cover “Deeply Cool”.) “My business is my business, and that’s that,” Depp insists, perhaps unconvincingly.

Everyone knows that Depp plays outsiders, marginals: the title characters in Ed Wood, Don Juan DeMarco, Edward Scissorhands, and Cry-Baby; superb Buster Keatonish mime Sam in Benny & Joon; accountant-turned-outlaw William Blake in Jim Jarmusch’s film, Dead Man; New York-fish-counter-turned- confused-Arizona-auto-salesman-and-stud Axel Blackmar in Arizona Dream. “There’s a part of me that always wanted to change,” he says. “For example, ever since I was a little kid, I was fascinated by the idea of time travel, of being someone else in another time. I think that’s probably a normal thing — God, let’s hope it is.

“What interests me is that so-called ‘normal’ society considers them outcasts, or on the fringe, or oddballs. With any part you play, there’s a certain amount of yourself in it. There has to be, otherwise it’s not just acting, it’s lying. That’s not to say I feel different from others. Maybe they have a more difficult time saying: ‘I don’t feel accepted’ or ‘I feel insecure’. These characters are passive: I see them as receivers. I’ve identified with them since I was very young.”

How did this aspiring musician from Owensboro, Kentucky by way of Miramar, Florida, get on? (His group, The Kids, were a “cover band,” the warm-up for other groups.) How did the the straight high-school cop Tom Hanson on Fox TV’s 21 Jump Street, metamorphose into the strung-out-looking Johnny Depp of today, the asexual screen phenomenon that is at the apex of Hollywood’s A-list? Evidence points to a conscious reinvention, an auto-myth.

“I was a weird kid,” says Depp. “I wanted to be Bruce Lee, I wanted to be on a Swat team.” To his credit, he rejected some of the icons of American boyhood. “I know this sounds kind of anti-American, but I never could stand John Wayne,” he confesses. “He seemed like such a rightwing radical kind of guy.”

“We were gypsies,” he says of his family, including his now- divorced parents. “We lived all over Kentucky and South Florida. We were always transient. After a while, I thought, ‘I’m not going to introduce myself to the other kids.'” Truth is, the Depps moved when Johnny was quite young to Miramar, a working-class town just outside Miami, and stayed put. The nomadic image is one that sits more comfortably with the image of a lost, alienated soul than does the reality.

In Depp’s current, eccentric-movie-character period, he regularly hits the headlines for sensational behaviour: being hauled off in handcuffs (“city-made bracelets,” he calls them) for trashing a New York hotel room, and assaulting a security guard in Canada.

“The tragedy of Johnny Depp,” says Gallo, “is that the exterior — the TV pop star-turned-bad-boy-waif-lover- hipster, friend-of-Jim Jarmusch — is totally uninteresting. It’s tragic that he has this poser part of himself, that he has to invent himself like that. If he would only allow himself to be who he really is, somebody who’s traumatised and trapped by his childhood and emotional life, then he would be interesting, a great person, a great talent. He is one of the most funny, talented, likeable, sweet, authentic people I’ve ever met.” This description sounds less like a hedonistic troublemaker than it does Depp’s compassionate Gilbert Grape, who took care of his off-kilter family.

According to Gallo, the amity ended when Depp began to require director Kusturica’s constant attention — “and he was not completely nice to me to get it”. Gallo recounts the months in Douglas, Arizona: “Emir and Johnny carried around Dostoevsky and Kerouac books, and wore black. They had never worn black in their lives. They kept everybody in the cast and crew awake all night, because they were blasting music and getting drunk.”

The Arizona Dream team went to Cannes in 1992 to promote the still-unfinished movie. “Johnny had this need to go to Cannes and have everybody pay for him to get there,” says Gallo, “and to stay at the Hotel du Cap, and then refuse to do interviews, because he had read an article that Brando refused to do interviews.”

Depp’s performances in Benny & Joon, Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood, Don Juan DeMarco and Arizona Dream show an actor whose performing skills match the camera’s affinity for his delicate features and big bug eyes. And the consistency with which he has chosen parts in films that are so off-the-wall that they make little or no money is beyond reproach. But his greatest role may be the ultra-cool performance he has been staging over the past few years for his fans, his feel-good- at-any-cost longtime buddies gang at his LA nightclub, the Viper Room, girls like current girlfriend Kate Moss, but, most of all, for himself.

Arizona Dream and Dead Man as well as a selection of Jarmusch films are on the International Film Festival in Cape Town and Johannesburg. Call (011) 402-5477 for details

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