Matinee idol looks, and a rock star attitude; Johnny Depp’s career is the stuff L.A. dreams are made of. A high school dropout hailing from Owensboro, Kentucky, Depp, like virtually every other starry-eyed hopeful, moved to Hollywood in the hopes of becoming famous-in particular, a rock star. His dream could have turned out like every other true Hollywood sob story if it wasn’t for the fact that the man actually has talent and an incredible screen persona to boot. Depp’s list of screen credits is incredibly diverse for any actor, never mind his age (41), and he is always ready to challenge audiences’ perception of what being a Hollywood movie star entails.
Depp’s first role came in Wes Craven’s horror hit, “A Nightmare on Elm Street.” Based on series of teen dream deaths reported in the news, Craven’s film took the boogie man concept to a whole new level, creating one of the screen’s most memorable villains-the child killer you love to hate: Freddy Krueger. Needless to say, it drove audiences crazy and the 1984 film went on to become a tremendous hit. Although his role was minor, his death scene was probably the most gruesome in the film and left quite an impression on the audience. Depp followed up “Nightmare” with roles in “Private Resort,” alongside Rob Marrow, and Oliver Stone’s gritty war flick “Platoon.”
1987 saw Depp land a role in the undercover cop series “21 Jump Street.” More than anything, the show’s weekly dose of Depp was probably the primary cause for his rise as a teen heartthrob, a description he would come to loathe. Even though the show offered him a steady paycheck and plenty of exposure, Depp was never fond of the “’Street” (he once called the series “borderline fascist*”) and desperately tried to get out of his long-term contract in search of more adventurous work. His attempts to be set free from his deal on the show reportedly ranged from the strange (tying a rubber band around his tongue to garble his dialogue incoherent), to the dangerous (setting his underwear on fire… hopefully not while he was wearing it). Depp was eventually let out of his contract and bid adieu to the series in 1990. Depp’s first post-“Jump Street” role came in John Waters’ campy trip down memory lane, “Cry-Baby.”
Depp next starred in Tim Burton’s seminal suburban tale, “Edward Scissorhands.” As the title character, Depp portrayed the ideal Burton outsider, longing so much to be a part of a world he can never truly know. Much like Boris Karloff’s screen version of Frankenstein’s monster, Depp wasn’t given much room to verbally emote much in the same way the rest of the cast did; his performance was driven by his actions and body language, and he remarkably pulled off the seemingly difficult role.
In 1991, Johnny returned, in a cameo role credited as “Oprah Noodlemantra,” to the series that made him famous in “Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare,” the sixth entry in the “Nightmare on Elm Street” series. That same year, he also starred in Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ classic video-ode to rock star excess, “Into the Great Wide Open.”
1993’s “Arizona Dream” saw Depp tackle a challenging role in a strange film. Directed by Emir Kusturica and starring Faye Dunaway, Lili Taylor, and Vincent Gallo, the film was, on the surface, quite different than anything Depp had done before but it certainly wouldn’t be the last time he would appear in such a defiantly un-commercial film.
Depp next returned to more audience-pleasing fair with the sweet romantic comedy, “Benny & Joon” in 1993. His role as Sam, an admirer of silent film comedians such as Buster Keaton and Charles Chaplin, earned Depp wide acclaim from his young fan base, as well as older audiences and worked well to establish him as more than just another teen idol. Later that same year, Depp starred in “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?” as the title character. Directed by Lasse Hallstrom, the delicate drama also featured Leonardo DiCaprio and Juliette Lewis.
1994’s “Ed Wood” re-teamed Depp with Tim Burton for a loving tribute to “the world’s worst director.” Filled with a colorful cast that included Bill Murray, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Martin Landau as Bela Lugosi, the film was one of Burton’s most acclaimed ever and Depp’s performance in the film earned him a Golden Globe nomination.
1995 saw Depp in two unusual films that both worked to showcase his off beat sensibilities and talent. “Do Juan DeMarco” saw Depp playing a man who thinks he is the legendary lover and Hollywood icon Marlon Brando as the young man’s psychiatrist. In Jim Jarmusch’s offbeat, almost noir-like western, “Dead Man,” Depp portrayed a straight-laced, mild-mannered accountant in a wild and lawless version of the west.
1997’s gangster flick “Donnie Brasco” saw Depp in a more serious piece than he had ever starred in before as an undercover FBI agent in way over his head. Fueled by strong performances from co-stars Al Pacino and Michael Madsen, the film is equal parts crime story and relationship drama. 1997 also saw Depp step behind the camera for his directorial debut “The Brave,” which he also co-wrote and starred in. Although the film has yet to see a release in the U.S., it garnered much attention overseas and was screened at the 1997 Cannes Film Festival in competition. Depp next starred in Terry Gilliam’s surreal Sin City odyssey, “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.” Based on Hunter S. Thompson’s novel of the same name, the film is definitely an acquired taste even for Gilliam and Depp fans.
Roman Polanski’s “The Ninth Gate” featured Depp as a rare book dealer hired to investigate some ancient evil text. The 1999 film was thrilling from beginning to end and featured one of Depp’s more underrated performances. Later in that same year, Depp once again teamed up with Tim Burton in “Sleepy Hollow,” a grand re-telling of the classic American horror story “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” For the film, Depp injected many of his own sensibilities into the character of Ichabod Crane, the squeamish constable out to solve several murders that have occurred in and around the town recently. Although the film was a hit at the box office, its success was seen as more of Burton’s doing rather than Depp’s star-power. It would still be some time until the respected actor would be credited with a film’s financial success. The next year, Depp starred alongside his “Sleepy Hollow” co-star Christina Ricci in “The Man Who Cried,” and appeared in a supporting role in “Before Night Falls” (if you haven’t seen this film and consider his Jack Sparrow character to be out there, then you don’t know what you’re missing).
In 2001, Depp worked with acclaimed filmmaker Ted Demme (“Beautiful Girls”) in “Blow,” the story of George Jung and his rise and fall as an American drug kingpin. Unfortunately, the film would be the last for director Ted Demme, as he died only a year after the film was released. That same year saw Depp star in “From Hell,” a grim and graphic take on the still unsolved Jack The Ripper murders.
“Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl” was the film that firmly established Depp’s star power in Hollywood and ability to open a movie. As the flamboyant Captain Jack Sparrow, Depp stole the show and could very easily been seen as the film’s best special effect. The outrageous performance, which was reportedly inspired by Keith Richards, earned Depp his first Academy Award nomination. Depp also starred as the cool, calm and collected Sands in Robert Rodriguez’s “Once Upon a Time in Mexico.” He also received an Oscar nomination for his role as Peter Pan author J M Barrie in the excellent 2004 drama, Finding Neverland.
Johnny Depp has long been one of the most reliable actors working in film when it comes to delivering a great and interesting performance, with his most exciting work seemingly on the horizon and Burton fans can look forward to even more work featuring the actor. 2005 alone promises not one but two collaborations with Tim Burton in “The Corpse Bride,” and the much anticipated “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” where he will be portraying the mad candy maker himself, Willy Wonka.
-Joe Cortez, 2004
Everything Johnny – An excellent Johnny Depp site
Depp Impact – One of the best Depp sites around
Biographical information and filmography courtesy IMDB
*Source: Burton on Burton; edited by Mark Salisbury; foreword by Johnny Depp (revised edition); 2000