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A Look at Johnny Depp

By Jarrod Sarafin     May 13, 2007


Johnny Depp in PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: AT WORLD'S END (2007).
© Walt Disney Pictures
I received two comments on my feature for Ridley Scott. Either all those fellow Maniacs I love to read from went out to lunch last week or not enough of you have seen Bladerunner, Alien, Black Hawk Down or Gladiator. I prefer to choose the former option. You were all out to lunch last week. (Or rather Spider-Man 3)
 
Did you enjoy the meal? (Or the movie?)
 
This week, we’re going to talk about an actor just hitting his stride in some peoples’ minds but have always been a favorite from critics. He’s always been selective with his roles and as such, he has stayed out of the whole blockbuster mainstream audience field of vision… until some film about Pirates, that is.
 
I put Johnny Depp in the same category as Leonardo DiCaprio. A lot of people equate these two actors with “former Teen Magazine buff balls” but to me, that aspect was never in their control. In point of fact, neither liked that whole Teen Girl Fantasy image branded them and they did their best to shed such an image early on in their careers. They chose roles which were tough, gritty, and outside the mainstream in the early years of their careers.
 
I notice now as they’ve aged, they’re both getting some light in the Academy spotlight for so many years of hard work and dedicated movie selective foresight.
 
Depp didn’t have the most successful of early careers in the manner that he got branded what I mentioned above. His first movie was a very popular horror movie about a cursed man with knifes for fingers killing teens in their sleep. Yes, that’s the one.
 
Nightmare on Elm Street (1984).
 
I’m getting ahead of myself here though. I’ll do a brief summary of his childhood. Depp was born on June 9, 1963 to his father John Christopher Depp Sr and mother Betty Sue Wells along with one brother and two sisters. Depp didn’t have what you would call the most “stable” childhood upbringing in the fact that they moved 20 different locations through his early years. He was also a nervous insecure trainwreck and suffered from anxiety issues. This in turn caused him to adopt “self mutilation” as a particular cure for his insecurity & anxiety. By the age of 7, he was self mutilating himself causing 6-8 scars he still carries around today. He’s always been upfront to the media about this childhood issue of his.
 
“My body is a journal in a way. It's like what sailors used to do, where every tattoo meant something, a specific time in your life when you make a mark on yourself, whether you do it yourself with a knife or with a professional tattoo artist”—Depp
 
Seeing how he has 13 different tattooes, I would say that quote is a self aware explanation of it on his part.
 
Around the time I was born (1978), his parents divorced and Depp felt the need to drop out of highschool and pursue his musical interests, something he’s had since his mom got him a guitar at the age of 12. The irony about this situation is two weeks after he dropped out of school, he wanted back in but the Principal told him to go on and pursue his dreams instead. Depp described this particular example of strange education practice as “really sweet” on the Principals part.
 
I just found the whole bit funny. Depp would go onward to play with his band “The Kids”. They actually got pretty good and would have some success outside the mainstream music scene. It was here where Depp found his first wife and caused friction within the band which ultimately break them up. Depp married Lori Anne Allison, brother of the bands drummer in late 83 and it was she which suggested he pursue the acting career and introducing him to Nic Cage. Another small irony is the fact that he got this advice which would help shape his success and they would no longer be married by 1985 or the band which had him meet his first wife who started his career would break around this time as well.
 
So Depp found himself going into the acting scene and it was here which had him accepting the role as a “boyfriend” which gets swallowed whole in blood and guts by one of the most pop culture iconic villians of the last era, Freddy Kreuger.
 
As I said though, Depp didn’t immediately start out as a success. All good actors run into some problems along their early years accepting bit parts and working their way into the scene. As I wrote in the Star Spotlight on Samuel L. Jackson, it’s just part of the hiccups along the journey to stardom. Depp would end up playing another bit role in Oliver Stone’s Platoon before going into a brief stint in television which would make him a Teen Idol favorite.
 
That brief stint which Depp doesn’t consider to the “best beginning” of his career is where he got notoriety but notoriety he was trying to avoid.
 
I’m referring to the popular teen loved show 21 Jump Street. I’m putting it lightly when saying he didn’t enjoy this part of his early years and he couldn’t wait to jump out of it.
 
Depp and DiCaprio are two actors which didn’t like being branded teen sex symbols. They wanted to be recognized as serious actors whom weren’t afraid to take on more serious roles in their careers. It’s just another one of those ironies that 21 Jump Street and Titanic their careers into mainstream and more specifically teenaged girls.
 
On the experience of the show, Depp described it as this:
 
“forced into the role of product" and that it was "a very uncomfortable situation and I didn't get a handle on it and it wasn't on my terms at all."
 
As soon as his contract allowed, he jumped ship and swore he would only take one roles which he felt fit his personality and subject matter he covered.
 
If this is true, he must have one of those twisted personalities we all seem to have at times because he quickly found himself a best friend in the business, fellow up and comer Tim Burton who would just be finished making Batman 1 and Batman 2 around this time. Depp wouldn’t star in Burton’s two Batman films but he would go on to star in a lot of Burton’s “other” movies. Movies which helped jump start Depp’s movie career and leave the teen idol persona behind.
 
Tim Burton/Director and Johnny Depp/Actor Partnerships:
 
Edward Scissorhands (1990)
Ed Wood (1994)
Sleepy Hollow (1999)
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005)
Corpse Bride (2005)
 
They’re both working together right now on Sweeney Todd (2007).
 
By the way, he ended up adopting that horse (Golden Eye) from Sleep Hollow to save him from the Glue Factory. Not sure why I said that but thought you would get a kick out of it.
 
As for his relationship with Burton, here’s what he had to say on him:
 
He credits Burton's belief in him for rescuing him from being "a loser, an outcast, just another piece of expendable Hollywood meat."
 
“He can ask me everything. If he wants me to have sex with an aardvark in one of his next movies, then I will do that."
 
In the foreword on the book “Burton on Burton”, he wrote it and said this: What more can I say about him? He is a brother, a friend, my godson's father. He is a unique and brave soul, someone that I would go to the ends of the earth for, and I know, full and well, he would do the same for me."
 
Obviously, their friendship is strong. I mean, it goes without saying towards anyone who would admit they would have sex with an aardvark for them.
 
But Depp hasn’t just been in Burton films. He’s starred in quite a few classics that get little to no attention in the mainstream media but catch a lot of movie lover’s eyes. One such film was early on and which also starred Leonardo DiCaprio in it as his brother. I’m speaking of course of the emotional film, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (1993).
 
Here’s some other films of his. Some gained notoriery and some didn’t:
 
Arizona Dream (1993)
Benny & Joon (1993)
Ed Wood (1994)
Don Juan Demarco (1994)
Dead Man (1995)
Nick of Time (1995)
Donnie Brasco (1997)
The Brave (1997)-also directed by Depp
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998)—one of my personal favorites
L.A Without a Map (1998)
The Ninth Gate (1999)
The Astronaut’s Wife (1999)
Sleepy Hollow (1999)
The Man Who Cried (2000)
Before Night Falls (2000)
Chocolat (2000)
Blow (2001)
From Hell (2001)
Pirates of the Caribbean (2003)
Once Upon a Time in Mexico (2003)
Secret Window (2004)
And They Lived Happily Ever After (2004)
Finding Neverland (2004)
The Libertine (2004)
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005)
Corpse Bride (2005)
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (2006)
Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End (2007)
 
Upcoming films:
Sweeny Todd (2007)
Sin City 2 (2008)
The Rum Diary (2008)
Shantaram (2008)
 
You can tell from his upcoming movies which other partnerships he has molded from his past. He’s always been an avid fan of, now deceased, writer Hunter S. Thompson. He even toured with the writer on his last tour before his death. His potrayal in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was instant classic material in my eyes and I can’t wait for him to pick up those reigns again in the long awaited next title, Rum Diary.
 
Also, while he only filmed with Robert Rodriguez on Once Upon a Time in Mexico for 9 days, he fell in love with his role and made an instant connection with the style that Rodriguez brought to the table. Enough so that he actually wrote the theme song for Sands in the soundtrack and played another role a lot of people don’t know about in the film. He put on his best Marlon Brando impression and played the priest behind the curtain in the church scene. Now he’s possibly appearing in another Rodriguez film, Sin City 2.
 
Add into the fact that he’s also set to appear in another Tim Burton movie, Sweeny Todd, later this year and it’s these connections from his past which help shape the future of possibilities for him.
 
You then take into account that he now has box office success (something foreign to him) and a mainstream following due to his Pirates of the Caribbean dominance these past few years and I think it’s safe to say Johnny Depp will continue tacking on more great movie credits for years to come.
 
That’s going to do for this edition of Star Spotlight. See you next time, Maniacs.

COMMENTS AND RESPONSES

Showing items 1 - 8 of 8
1 
HudsonTaco 5/13/2007 2:24:16 AM
Yes a very talented actor to be certain, I have not yet seen Fear and Loathing (don't say it) but I promise I will. He has to be given kudos he dosen't care what anyone says about his performance he goes with what he wants to do. Oh as far as your Ridley Scott artice I didn't see it. Scott is in my top five Directors Loved all the movies you listed above, another movie that dosen't get enough credit is Kingdom of Heaven (I recommend the extended edition), The man shoots beautiful looking movies.
jorson28 5/13/2007 12:25:03 PM
I consider msyelf a film buff -- I like Ridley Scott's movies (at least a little...) and am a fan of Johnny Depp -- but the half-joke about preferring that people were "out to lunch" to the possibility that they had not seen the Ridley Scott movies irked me. It seems to be a tendency on these movie sites, however tongue-in-cheek, to sort of stick it to anyone that hasn't seen the batch of movies so beloved by the site, which in my experience tends to be pseudo-pornographic movies with hard R ratings, backwards story structure and directected by a select few directors (Tarantino, Rodriguez, Roth, Smith, etc.). To say there's something inherently WRONG with what I just said going on is a bit ridiculous, but equally ridiculous I think is the situation itself. I've seen all of the Ridley Scott movies mentioned, for example, but most of them only once and, you know what? I'm not extremely fond of any of them! By extension, I'm not that big a fan of Ridley Scott's work. Yeah, he shoots beautiful looking movies, as Hudson Taco rightfully points out, but so do a lot of directors. Since when did "looks" alone cut it for a web site with reputable film critics? Looks certainly matter -- we are talking about motion PICTURES, afterall -- but compare the imagery in Scott's work to the usually dull and subpar imagery from the early but still beloved works of Quinten Tarantino and Kevin Smith and the preference is really lopsided. 'You want to profile directors that matter? Try profiling the ones that taught these guys how to make movies in the first place: DW Griffith, John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles... Those are only the most famous -- there are a lot more out there either never get mentioned or only get mentioned for establishing filmmaking practices which today are labeled "old" and "cliched." They're usually only cliched because however often they're used, they work. I suspect that the reason these guys get little or no coverage has less to do with intentions than with just plain ignorance. I've not been to film school, but I've trumped film school graduates in conversations about film history when I should have been the one to get trumped, especially since the rumor I always heard was that film schools focus on theory and history. I still like the sites -- you guys have great movie news coverage. I guess I just find it strange that with so many movie buffs, on these sites and in general, what happened sixty years ago seems to matter when picking which political party to support (for example -- never say politics doesn't enter movie criticism), but not when picking which movies to review or directors to profile. Sure, one's a LOT more important than the other, but if your living is in analyzing and critiqing the movies... Well, I'm going to take a leap of faith and assume that my intended point isn't completely lost here. Oh, and for Mania.com's sake, just to prove I've been paying attention, profiling Spielberg and Lucas for movies made in the seventies doesn't make up for virtually ignoring Griffith, Ford and Welles simply because people consider the movies from the seventies "classics."
almostunbiased 5/13/2007 2:12:26 PM
I think I'm one of the few that loved Sleepy Hollow. It was my kind of horror movie if you could even call it one. I also love the first Pirates movie and admittedly I watched and even enjoyed the first season of 21 jumo street. Other than that I have respect for him as an actor, but he doesn't make me want to rush to the theater. I wouldn't mind renting finding neverland though, someday. Has any one seen the libertine? Any good?
bjjdenver 5/13/2007 8:34:13 PM
Ummm Jorson, I think instead of ranting on and on, you may want to re-read the paragraph above. What he is saying is there were only two comments on his article, so everyone that usually replies must have been out to lunch (or at Spidey3) instead of posting here. In no way is he saying that if you haven't seen those films then you are out to lunch. I usually wouldn't write this, but your ill-informed comments irked me, you were all to happy to jump him for your misreading.
galaga51 5/14/2007 9:22:39 AM
Jorson, the article was not on the history of film directors that happened to focus on Ridley Scott, the article WAS on Ridley Scott. Ridley Scott has made quite a few genre (scifi/fantasy/adventure/horror) films. As I understand it, this site is about such films (look in the title bar). Regular on this site probably appreciate quite a few genre films and have probably seen quite a few Ridley Scott films because of that. Therefore, his comment that he expects that readers have seen Ridley Scott films is reasonable. And some people actually like his films; while your opinion on his work may be as valid as mine or the next guy, you should still be able to recognize that he is an accomplished, successful director. Given, perhaps more directors from the early days of film need to be given attention, but the comment that you pointed out had NOTHING to do with that. Again, the article was on Ridley Scott, not pre 1950s film or film history in general. But if the writers will profile such elder directors/actors/etc. ... I'm all for that too. As for Mr. Depp, I nearly always find him engaging, even if the role isn't written very well. And I usually find his selection of movies to be quirky and out of step with most mainstrem films, which is more to my taste. So, while I don't catch every Depp flick, I tend to consider his films more than the typical movie star.
ashscousin 5/14/2007 1:24:46 PM
I have to agree with the above posts, you misread the opening of the article Jorson and went on a the warpath for something that was just meant as a good natured joke. I'm someone who looks forward to Jarrod's Star Spotlight and usually posts, but I was busy as hell last week - part of witch was catching "Spider-Man 3" - and didn't even get a chance to read last weeks article so I found the opening to this weeks article pretty funny. As for your complaints Jorson, you have realize this is not a site for film buffs its a site for genre fans, most of whom wouldn't know who DW Griffith and John Ford are, or much less care. They're more interested in getting info on the up coming "transformers" movie or other genre pictures then learning about movie legends of days past. As for complaining about no classic directors being profiled and too many 70's directors being profiled, I have two points to make. 1) If you're as big a movie buff as you claim then you would realize that the late 60's and 70's were arguably the most creative periods of Hollywood's history. Granted, the directors of the 70's wouldn't of been what they were if it wasn't for the greats that came before them like James Whale, Billy Wilder, Cecil B DeMille and countless others, but the fact remains that many view the 70's as the period when the best movies ever made were filmed. So that's why most film buffs choose to focus mainly on that era. 2) I guess you missed the article a few weeks back on the the late and great Director Robert Wise who started his impressive career in the 40's and kept filming up till the 80's. I personally think Jarrod does a good job of balancing articles of high profile stars and more obscure ones. You'll get an article one week on George Lucas or Sam Raimi, directors every one on this site knows, and there'll be like 20 posts. Anther week you'll get Dario Argento or Robert Wise and they'll only be a hand full of posts from the film buffs. Anyway, in the end it's Jarrod that's writing the article so he's gonna write about people that he himself is a fan of, and if that happens to be mostly 70's directors and cult favorite actors then thats to bad for people that don't like it. As for Johnny Depp I'm a big fan of his as an actor and as a person (he seems very down to earth). I'm happy for him for his resent success but at the same time feel a little riped off that now he's everyones favorite actor. Johnny's an actor who has been consistently turning out brilliant performances for his entire career but has always flown under the radar of mainstream supper stardom. Though he wasn't in the general publics mind, for us movie buffs it was always interesting to catch his most resent flick and see his latest performance. I'm not a big fan of actors but Johnny keeps impressing me, he really is something to watch, my favorite performance of his has to be a tie between Hunter S. Thompson and Edward D. Wood Jr. both outstanding performances in two great films. I'd also like to see Johnny give directing another shot, "The Brave" was a pretty good little flick with another killer performance from Johnny as well.
maverickrenegade 5/15/2007 9:20:53 PM
oh god ... yet another group of people who claim johnny depp is a good actor ... i wish i could get paid millions of dollars to act like an idiot in front of a camera, and then be called a genius for doing what even a child actor can do
michaelxaviermaelstrom 5/16/2007 12:58:45 AM
(- Jorson -) It's not like they're mutually exclusive. The covered spectrum of spotlit figures tends to broaden, over time. I guess you're from the bomb-the-embassy-to-get-attention-focussed-on-your-cause-NOW school. Well, just so long as you're not attacking JS/DJ, which'd just be dunderheaded, since in my observation he does his homework and knows his film stuff. Otherwise I'm down with focusing on some earlier directorial talent. For my part I think Hitchcock and Welles are ace suggs, though I suspect DJ would be heading there eventually anyway. I'd prob sugg a focus on Film Noire / Dick Noire and tracing their roots in German Industrial film, that ties in to 'Genre' filmdom nicely; where's Blade Runner and its numerous style-offs without Metropolis? and the like. Not sure how many hits they'd get, and I know DJ would do em well, But if none of them are covered, so the fuck what? Complainin about what someone HASN'T written is far too easy. Pester em in email if you really want to see someone in particular spotlighted. Anyway, this will probably strike as a strange parallel/observation but I think Depp is currently a bit dangerously like Cruise _prior_ to the couch-jumping and finger-waving, you know, before all the ugly people had their reason to jump on him for being pretty, uh, I mean for being (*finger quotes*) "an asshole". In a word, Depp (like Cruise used to be) is an perceptual enigma, difficult to pin down, he appears not to take himself too seriously and comes off as affable with the added benefit of having just the right twinge of 'artistic oddness' to his persona. I say pre-Cruise-blow-out because let's not forget that for all his artistic image and demeanor, Depp is also a pretty-boy one 5 hundred dollar hair-cut and suit short of being a member of the brat-pack, which means if he at any point takes himself too seriously, the ugly people will jump on him, in a nanosecond. (yes, I'm being facetious, yes, I'm nailing ugly people that attack Cruise _under false pretenses_ yes if this pisses them off, I am saying they're most likely an ugly person who is going to go ballistic for being called on it, no, I don't give a nun's left tit about pissing that sort off, no I'm not talking about all Cruise bashers or all present or future Depp bashers) *pause* ..I'm just talking about the ugly ones. AHAHAHAHAHA *cough* Seriously, I think there's a tendency in some circles to *suspect* that Depp may have carefully cultivated his artistic persona to obfuscate some character flaw, like say, wanton superficiality in excessively combing his pubic hair, or something. But, whatever, if so, count me as amongst those that don't think he's faking it, and even if he is, who cares? Separate the art from the artist. I've enjoyed 3 of his films/portrayals. 1. What's Eating Gilbert Grape. Extremely "honest" film and portrayal. If this had been released by someone like John Ford, this would be a classic by now. This deserves to be a modern classic imo. It's subtle, it's subdued, there's no flash or bang, but it's one of the most honest films I've seen. This is you or me stuck in his situation. And make no mistake, if you have a family you are in Gilbert's situation. I think this is where Depp most reminds us of ourselves. And I mean that literally as well as metaphorically. I think we all have these internal images of ourselves (that may or may not clash with what we see in the mirror) when we look at Depp I think a lot of us see our internal image. Particularly in this portrayal. In the end our dreams and hopes and aspirations have to take second fiddle to our families, it makes us angry sometimes, we resist it, we want to run away and be free, but do that and we lose both our families and ourselves, and then imo we're not worth scraping off the bottom of a boot. touching, truthful film. imo. 2. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Convincing eclectic portrayal of an interesting bloke. I never met Hunter S. Thompson so I 'ave no idea if it's accurate, but I can say that Depp convincingly syncs with the image I have of a 60's music/experimental/literary American artiste character. id est. if HST was an drug-experimenting interesting, intelligent, unique, constantly-observing-things-around-him-character that had the general demeanor and intellect of one of the hipper members of the 60's literary movement, then Depp nailed it. He sold me on the portrayal. I can see it not working for some people, too out-there maybe, I don't know, I know it works for me, I think he nails the portrayal of a man that represents the zeitgeist of his/a particular moment in American time, and I find myself thinking that if this guy didn't exist as portrayed, he should have. mXm
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