It's been a bizarre and bumpy road for Johnny Depp. He tried to be a rock star, only to see his band split. He moved into serious acting, only to have his credibility destroyed by accidentally becoming a teen pin-up. Then, defying his idol-status, he threw himself into the cinematic underground and slowly, slowly proved himself to be one of the most adventurous and genuinely bohemian actors of his generation, both a serial Oscar nominee and the headliner of some of the biggest moneyspinners in cinema history.
He was born John Christopher Depp II on June 9th, 1963, in Owensboro, Kentucky - the self-styled "barbecue capital of the world". His father, John Christopher senior, was a city engineer, and his mother, Elizabeth Sue Wells, a waitress. He was always very close to his mother, but perhaps even closer to his grandfather, who he knew as Pawpaw (Depp himself was known as Dipp or Deppity Dawg). He'd visit Pawpaw often, and happily recalls sunny days picking tobacco together. It was a terrible shock to the seven-year-old boy when Pawpaw died.
Also traumatic was the family's move to Florida soon afterwards. John Senior did eventually find secure work as director of public works at Miramar, but the family spent a long time living in motels and were constantly shifting from place to place - well over a dozen in total. It was bad for the older kids - daughters Debbie and Christie (now Johnny's personal manager), and brother Danny (known as DP, now a screenwriter) - but Johnny took it especially hard. Though an inquisitive child - at 8 he was hugely interested in Evel Knievel and World War 2 - he did not take to school and went off the rails, once being suspended for mooning the gym teacher. By 12, he was smoking, very soon came drinking, and drugs. There was petty theft and vandalism, he lost his virginity at 13. Small wonder he got into rock and roll.
Johnny first discovered a love of music back in Owensboro, when attending the church of his uncle, a fundamentalist minister. His uncle would preach, the people would clutch his feet and be redeemed, but Johnny was more taken by the gospel music. In Florida, as this troubled adolescent became a surly teenager, he received a guitar from his mother, a $25 Decca electric with a little blue amp. Having stolen a chord book from a local music shop, he, like millions before him, retired to his room and taught himself to play - Smoke On The Water and Led Zeppelin being his first ports of call.
On emerging, he was a competent garage rocker. Getting together with a bunch of neighbourhood lads - one had a bass, another a PA system, they made their own lights - his band began to play backyard parties, playing songs by The Beatles, Cheap Trick and Chuck Berry. By the time he was 16, with the band now called Bad Boys, he was making $25 a night at Florida's nightclubs. There were drawbacks. Still underage, he had to enter clubs through the back-door and leave after the first set. But it was good, and got better. Convinced they were on to something, Depp dropped out of school at 16. Not so sure, his parents (who'd divorced the year before) told him that, if he was capable enough to do without education then he'd also be able to support himself without their help. Thrown into a quandary, Depp considered returning to school and even met with the Dean. The Dean, though, told to stick with music as it was the only thing to which he'd ever applied himself.
Influenced by The Clash, Elvis Costello, early Motown and the fledgling U2, Bad Boys changed their name to The Kids and started to take off, supporting such luminaries as Talking Heads, Ramones, The Pretenders, B-52's and Iggy Pop (Depp remembers his first self-consciously punky words to Iggy being "F*** you! F*** you! F*** you!". Iggy called him "a little turd" and ignored him). Aiming for the big time, they packed their gear into trailers and relocated to Los Angeles, hoping for the big record deal. It would never come.
By the age of 20, Depp was married, to make-up artist Lori Anne Allison, five years his senior. As The Kids were struggling, having to get day jobs to support themselves (Depp was at one point selling ballpoint pens over the phone), she suggested her husband try acting, and introduced him to her friend Nicolas Cage. Cage persuaded a reluctant Depp to meet his agent, Ilene Feldman and she got him an audition for an upcoming movie by Wes Craven, already notorious for The Hills Have Eyes. After the tests, Craven turned to his young daughter for casting advice - she liked Depp. And so Johnny made his feature-film debut as a hunky boyfriend devoured by a killer bed in A Nightmare On Elm Street. The money, he figured, $1200 a week for eight weeks, would come in handy.
Music coming first, Depp had hoped this would be a one-off but, unable to see any future, The Kids split up. So he continued acting. After starring in the wretched teen sex comedy, Private Resort (and despite having been divorced from the supportive Allison), he decided to get serious and enrolled at The Loft, a Los Angeles acting school. Dividends were near-immediate as he won the part of Private Lerner in Oliver Stone's Oscar-winning 'Nam drama Platoon. Unfortunately, it was his last good part in years. He appeared in episodes of Hotel and Lady Blue, and the TV movie Slow Burn, with Eric Roberts and Beverly D'Angelo, but that was it. He'd found another band, Rock City Angels, but the work wasn't coming.
When it did come, he turned it down. The producers of a new Fox TV series came knocking. Called 21, Jump Street, this was to involve a crack squad of young policemen, working undercover in schools to stamp out youth crime. Now a budding Orson Welles, Depp thought it
beneath him, or at least wrong for a serious artiste. But no one else was right for the part, so the producers asked Depp again. This time he took it. Not only did he need the work but, he reasoned, no way would the show last more than one season. It couldn't hurt him.
And, of course, the show took off, with Depp - Officer Tom Hanson - its most popular character. Very rapidly, he became a teenie idol, worshipped for his looks (nightmare!), and was receiving 10,000 letters a month. The $45,000 per episode was nice, but Depp was trapped and, possibly, ruined. Help came from strange quarters. Director John Waters, infamous for having Divine eat dog-muck in Pink Flamingos, was looking for a real heartbreaker to star in his latest happily disgraceful enterprise, Cry-Baby. He cannot possibly have imagined that Johnny Depp, one of the hottest young stars on TV, would have been so keen to lampoon himself. But, desperate to escape his new pretty-boy image, he was, and signed on to star alongside Ricki Lake and porn queen Traci Lords.
With his run at 21, Jump Street coming to an end, Depp took another swipe at his image by starring in Tim Burton's lower-budget Batman-follow-up Edward Scissorhands. Spikey-haired, pasty-faced and horribly scarred, with terrifying blades for fingers, he tried to bury Tom Hanson for good. And, expressing himself only with his eyes and clumsy movements, he was brilliant, easily outshining his co-star Winona Ryder to whom he was then engaged. He'd earlier been engaged to Twin Peaks siren Sherilyn Fenn, between 1985 and '88, and then to Dirty Dancing star Jennifer Gray, but Ryder, he said, was the one. Their eyes had met at the premiere of her Great Balls Of Fire movie, they'd later been introduced at the Chateau Marmont hotel (where John Belushi OD-ed) and had their first date at a party thrown by psychedelic guru Dr Timothy Leary, Ryder's godfather. Depp famously had Winona Forever tattooed on his arm (he already had a Betty Sue one, for his mum), later changing it to Wino Forever when they split.
That split came soon, in 1993, as Depp entered an extraordinary run of movies. There was the superb What's Eating Gilbert Grape?, where he played a small-town boy torn between Juliette Lewis and Mary Steenburgen, wishing to escape but tied to his dysfunctional family (Leonardo DiCaprio was fantastic as his retarded brother). There was the sweet Benny And Joon, where he drew on the characters and routines of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. Then there was another strange family and two more women in Arizona Dreaming. Depp's reputation as a class act was growing but personally he was off the rails again, drinking heavily, with rumours of hard drug-taking rife. He was dreadfully unhappy, all the more so when River Phoenix died of an OD outside The Viper Rooms, the LA club Depp co-ran (in 1999, he'd open the Man Ray restaurant/bar in Paris, along with Mick Hucknall and Sean Penn).
In 1994, Depp began a tempestuous on-off relationship with supermodel Kate Moss. He was arrested for trashing a New York hotel room (he'd been arrested in 1989, in Vancouver, for fighting with hotel security, and would be again, in 1999, for scrapping with the paparazzi). But his work got better and better. First, he returned to Tim Burton with Ed Wood, a loving portrayal of the hopeless transvestite director, for which Martin Landau won an Oscar as the ageing Bela Lugosi (Depp would later buy a Hollywood mansion formerly owned by Lugosi himself). Then there was the excellent Don Juan DeMarco where psychiatrist Marlon Brando attempts to convince a hilarious Depp that he's not the great lover of legend - only to discover that sometimes madness is better than sanity. Nick Of Time was a taut thriller, running in real-time, while Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man was one of the most beautiful films of the last 20 years. Here Depp is Bill Blake, a young truth-seeker in the old West who, aided by a Native American convinced Depp's the poet William Blake, finds murder and mayhem, only to discover serenity and wonder in dying.
His reputation now solid, he was thoroughly convincing as undercover cop Donnie Brasco, falling under the spell of mobster Al Pacino - for this role Depp spent much time with real-life Brasco, Joe Pistone. Then he directed for the first time with The Brave, a screenplay he co-wrote with his brother DP. Here Depp also starred as a Native American (Depp is actually part-Cherokee) who, alcoholic and just out of jail, decides to die in a snuff movie in order to feed his family. The movie, featuring Depp's buddy Brando, was nominated for the Palm D'Or at Cannes, but never received a proper cinema release.
Finally splitting with Kate Moss in 1998, Depp would soon meet French singer/actress Vanessa Paradis and relocate to the south of France, then Paris, where he could live a "normal" life. They'd marry in 1998 and have two children, daughter, Lily-Rose Melody and son Jack. Depp would continue to battle with the paparazzi, but now he was protecting his children's privacy. Possibly Nick Of Time, where he played the father of a kidnapped kid, made him all the more sensitive.
But though he sought normality in the day-to-day, his roles were now far from normal. He played Hunter S. Thompson in Terry Gilliam's freaky Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas, having researched his part by living in the man's house, drinking and shooting with him (Depp has a huge collection of guns, a habit he got from his father), and setting off 75-foot explosions. Next he was Jack Kerouac in The Source, with Dennis Hopper as William Burroughs and John Turturro as Allen Ginsberg. He was a rare-book dealer in Roman Polanski's odd satanic thriller The 9th Gate (Depp also collects rare books himself, as well as insects). This was shot in France, Depp meeting Paradis while there, then shelved for some time. Next came the equally strange sci-fi weird-out The Astronaut's Wife, and then it was back to Tim Burton yet again with Sleepy Hollow, with Depp as young detective Ichabod Crane, on the trail of Christopher Walken's superlatively horrible Headless Horseman. Some criticised Depp's insistence on bringing comedy to the role but he delivered some delightful moments of surprised innocence that worked well with Burton's grim backdrops and a heavy-duty thespian cast. He was rewarded with a Number One hit.
After this, there was Sally Potter's The Man Who Cried with his Sleepy Hollow co-star Christina Ricci, and Before Night Falls, the tale of Reinaldo Arenas (brilliantly played by Javier Bardem), a gay Cuban poet persecuted by Castro's post-revolutionary regime. In the latter, Depp would appear twice, in violently different roles. First he'd pop up as a pouting drag queen who smuggles Arenas' manuscripts out of prison in his anus (the handover scene, involving four rolls of paper, is hilarious), then as a sadistic interrogator with an unfeasibly large member, taking erotic pleasure in sliding his revolver into a terrified Bardem's mouth. Then came the Oscar-nominated Chocolat, wherein Depp based his accent on that of his friend, The Pogues' Shane MacGowan. Depp has continued his musical connections throughout, appearing in the video for MacGowan's That Woman's Got Me Drinking, as well as The Lemonheads' It's A Shame About Ray, Concrete Blonde's Joey and Tom Petty's In The Great Wide Open. He's also in an occasional band called P, who released an LP in 1995, played slide on Oasis's Fade In-Out on the Be Here Now album, and appeared with Brad Pitt and Keanu Reeves on the Hollywood Goes Wild LP, in aid of an animal rescue charity. Beyond this, 2001 would see him direct several videos for his wife.
Depp's refusal to pander to the mainstream continued with Blow, where he played George Jung, the man credited with helping Pablo Escobar gain entry into the US cocaine market. Depp, naturally, visited Jung in prison to get his part right. Onset, he was not always so serious, indulging in an ongoing fart-joke with co-star Penelope Cruz. His humour is as idiosyncratic as his choice of roles. He calls himself "Mr Stench", and it was telling that he chose to send himself up so mercilessly on the last ever Fast Show.
Next came From Hell, where Depp appeared as Inspector Frederick Abberline, a psychic and opium-addled cop aided by a disapproving Robbie Coltrane and tart-with-a-heart Heather Graham while on the trail of Jack The Ripper. It wasn't a big hit, but that has never mattered to a man so keen to avoid trading on his looks that he turned down the lead in Speed (which made Keanu Reeves a star), the Brad Pitt part in Legends Of The Fall, and the rather tasty role of Lestat in Interview With The Vampire (taken by Tom Cruise).
After From Hell, Johnny disappeared for a while. This was due mostly to the spectacular collapse of Terry Gilliam's The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, a farrago masterfully captured in the documentary Lost In La Mancha. 2003 brought rumours that Gilliam had managed to re-finance the project, seemingly an advancement on The Fisher King, and that Depp would return to the fray. It's to be hoped that it works out. Though many disliked the pair's collaboration on Fear And Loathing, Don Quixote would see Gilliam back on familiar mediaeval ground and surely back on form. And Depp's sense of adventure and fun could only serve him well, just as it has done for Tim Burton, Gilliam's only modern rival in the (serious) fantasy genre.
When Depp DID return, it was with an unexpected smash hit. Based on a Disney theme park ride, Pirates Of The Caribbean: The Curse Of The Black Pearl looked doomed to go the way of Renny Harlin's Cutthroat Island. However, with inspired casting that saw Geoffrey Rush ham it up wildly as the ferocious (and undead) pirate Barbossa and Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley shine as life-threatened lovers, word of mouth turned it into a huge smash that passed $200 million at the US box office in only four weeks. And Depp was the undisputed star. As Barbossa's nemesis Jack Sparrow, he could easily have taken the Errol Flynn route to action heroism. Instead, just as he had based his Chocolat character on Shane MacGowan, so he conjured Sparrow from the crumbling but still caustic remains of Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards. It was brilliantly weird, so weird that director Gore Verbinski actually had the other characters in the movie comment on its strangeness. And, given the performance resided in such a massive success, millions now recognised Depp's versatility and comic ability, even the critics agreed. No one was surprised when he was Oscar nominated. After Sleepy Hollow, this was the second time Depp had chosen an unpredictably comic path to Number One.
Another reason for Depp's absence from the world's screen's during 2002 was the delayed release of Robert Rodriguez's Once Upon A Time In Mexico. A follow-up to the director's El Mariachi and Desperado, this saw Antonio Banderas return as the guitar-player-turned-assassin in a higher-budget cross-double-cross scenario. Now on a major roll, Depp once more stole the show as the manipulative, corrupt and black-hearted CIA agent Sands, even writing his character's musical theme. Another held-up production would be JM Barrie's Neverland, charting the author's path towards writing Peter Pan by examining his relationship with dying mother Kate Winslet and the inspiration he receives from her young children. Depp would star as Barrie, alongside Julie Christie, Dustin Hoffman (who'd earlier appeared in Spielberg's Hook) and Johnny's Fast Show buddy Paul Whitehouse, and put in a performance of huge charm, flitting between childlike scamp and serious adult artist. Quite rightly, he'd be Oscar-nominated for the second time. Filmed before Pirates, Neverland had been briefly shelved to avoid competition with an excellent live-action adaptation of Peter Pan.
Before Neverland's release had come a brief cameo in Yvan Attal's Ils Se Marierent Et Eurent Beacoup D'Enfants, a comedy drama where three friends enjoyed/endured relationships of varying stabilities. Two are jealous of the third's seemingly steady marriage to Charlotte Gainsbourg, but in fact he's getting some on the side and she's thrilled by a chance encounter with Depp's handsome stranger. Very different would be Secret Window, based on a Stephen King story, where Johnny played a writer attempting to escape the pain of his wife's infidelities by throwing himself into his work in a cabin in the woods. Then spooky John Turturro appears, accusing Depp of plagiarising his work and then stalking him with severely malicious intent. Once again undermining his glamorous image, Depp would play the persecuted Mort Rainey as morose and painfully self-contained, innocent and hopelessly dishevelled, adding to the tension as his world is violently invaded. It was an above-average thriller with some thoroughly neat twists.
Once Neverland had seen him hit the box-office heights once again, Johnny finished 2004 in The Libertine, another period drama, this time set in the 17th Century. Here he played John Wilmot, the Earl of Rochester, one of the most dashing personalities of the Restoration - a war hero, poet, drunk and womaniser, who kidnapped a wealthy heiress he then married, indulged in many affairs and, though a favourite of Charles II, managed to get himself banished from court on several occasions. Quite a character, as he was also a fine poetical satirist and prime influence on Alexander Pope. It was a shame he died of drink and syphilis when only 32, but what a part for Johnny Depp, the sensitive hell-raiser, the pretty-boy with hidden depths, romancing Samantha Morton and Rosamund Pike and making impassioned speeches to Parliament. Having used Shane MacGowna's accent for Chocolat, he also now brought him onboard in a bit part as a scruffy bard.
Come 2005 and it was time for a reunion with Tim Burton and oddly, after the weak Planet Of The Apes and half-baked Big Fish, on this occasion Burton needed Depp more than Depp needed Burton (Depp once said of Burton that the director had saved him from being "a loser, an outcast, just another piece of expendable Hollywood meat". Charlie And The Chocolate Factory was to be a non-musical take on Roald Dahl's classic, far darker than Gene Wilder's extraordinary Willy Wonka effort. Many were considered for the Wonka part - comedians like Steve Martin and Robin Williams, and Burton's favourite screwballs Christopher Walken and Michael Keaton. But thankfully Depp won it, and brought along his own Charlie - Freddie Highmore, one of Kate Winslet's kids in Neverland, who'd impressed Depp with his otherworldly talents. Johnny's Sleepy Hollow co-star Christopher Lee would join in the fun, as would Burton's now-wife Helena Bonham Carter, with Depp's outstanding turn as a psycho child-man earning him another Golden Globe nomination. Lee and Bonham Carter would also join Depp in the director's next piece, provided voices for the animation The Corpse Bride, based on a Russian folk tale. Here Depp's character would be led into the underworld by a spooky Bonham Carter (she is surely the best spook in the business) whom he's accidentally married while his live fiancee Emily Watson waits at home.
The second and third parts of the Pirates Of The Caribbean saga would be filmed back-to-back. The second would see Depp escaping cannibals, swordfighting on giant rolling mill-wheels and attempting to save his soul from Bill Nighy's monstrous Davy Jones. The third, where at one point he'd play multiple versions of Jack Sparrow, would have him fleeing both Jones and Tom Hollander's ruthless East India Company official. So popular had the first Pirates movie been that its sequels became cinematic events, massive money-spinners, with the third installment becoming the third biggest box office hit of all time.
Never one to waste such freedom, Depp now offered to work alongside Benicio Del Toro in The Rum Diary, based on the work of Hunter Thompson, Depp and Del Toro having earlier enjoyed their working relationship on Thompson's Fear And Loathing. The movie would also serve as a tribute to Thompson. When he committed suicide in 2005, it was Depp who financed a lavish party and fireworks display that peaked with Thompson's remains being fired from a cannon. The project, though, would prove complicated, Del Toro dropping out and Bruce Robinson taking over as writer and director. There'd also be Shantaram, based on Gregory David Roberts' novel, which would see Depp star as a junkie robber who escapes jail and flees to India, where he works as a doctor in the slums before turning gun-runner and counterfeiter and fighting Russian troops in Afghanistan. Pre-production would again be a troubled affair, with intended director Peter Weir walking after disagreements with Depp. In late 2007, Warner Brothers would postpone the production due to spiralling costs and script problems that could not be fixed due to the writers' strike.
By then, Depp already had another hit on his hands. Seeking a new challenge he'd reunited with Tim Burton for Sweeney Todd, a filmed version of Stephen Sondheim's hit musical. Burton had actually been attached to the project some six years before and approached Depp to play the lead. Depp, though, had been unsure of his singing voice. Now, his curiosity piqued, Depp would repair to a recording studio with his old friend Bruce Witkin, formerly his bandmate in The Kids, and try out the songs. He was, he felt, good enough to pull it off. In one way it would be a troubled shoot, production having to be shut down briefly when Depp's daughter suffered a mystery illness and spent time in Great Ormond Street hospital. In gratitude for the hospital's successful efforts, Depp would donate $1 million to its upkeep, thus mirroring the actions of JM Barrie, who he'd played in Finding Neverland, Great Ormond Street having long been financed by the proceeds from Barrie's Peter Pan.
In Sweeney Todd, Depp would play a young barber who's framed and transported to Australia by Alan Rickman, an evil judge who ravisheses and ruins Depp's wife and steals his daughter. On his return to England, Depp would seek bloody revenge, reopening his business and, with the help of an adoring Helena Bonham Carter, turning his foes into pies. It was dark and gory and great fun with Depp receiving his third Oscar nomination and, at last, after years of courageous and quite brilliant performances, actually winning something, being awarded a Golden Globe. With Shantaram and The Rum Diary both held up, he would move on to Public Enemies, to be directed by Michael Mann, where he'd slip back to the 1930s to play uber-crook John Dillinger, pursued by the nascent FBI.
Forever testing himself and his audience, Johnny Depp is still on the run from 21, Jump Street. In the process, he's become one of the very, very few film stars whose movies are unmissable. Indeed, he's arguably the most fascinating actor at work today.