New Again: Johnny Depp

By and
Photography Wayne Maser

Published February 4, 2014

Earlier this week, news leaked that Javier Bardem was in talks to play the antagonist in Pirates of the Caribbean 5, with Johnny Depp reprising his role as Captain Jack Sparrow. This seemed like as good as an excuse as any to dig up this magical interview between Depp and John Waters from our April 1990 issue. We’re not joking when we say magical—Winona Ryder even shows up at the end with a new Ralph Lauren shirt for Depp.

Johnny Depp By John Waters

Manly males, masculine guys, two-fisted dudes, virile homeboys, potent chaps, handsome gentlemen, broad-shouldered hombres, hairy-chested lads, real blokes, big macs. Let’s talk some Johnny Depp.

Johnny Depp arrives on time, disheveled and as handsome as ever. The star of 21 Jump Street and my new film, Cry-Baby, agreed to meet me in the San Francisco home of my longtime friend and past financial backer, David Spencer. What better meeting place to get Mr. Depp to relax than this onetime home-away-from-home to Divine, myself, and many other regulars from my early films. In the old days, Mink Stole once lived on a mattress in the hall outside the guest bedroom that housed Divine for many years. I lived at the other end of the duplex, trying to persuade the welfare department to support me due to my “insanity” while I thought up movie ideas. It didn’t work, but a decade later I wrote my first book, Shock Value, in this same 1950s-style bedroom. If the walls of this apartment could talk, we’d all be in trouble. It was part of the ritual for the stars of my films to spend time here, so it was a great relief that I finally introduced Johnny Depp to David Spencer. They shook hands, smoked cigarettes, and ate bacon together. It seemed so nice, we began immediately.

JOHN WATERS: Why did you pick Cry-Baby as your first starring movie role? It wasn’t really a safe movie for you to pick. You had a lot of offers at the time.

JOHNNY DEPP: It was the best script. It was the funniest.

WATERS: But you’re missing out on being in all those cop movies.

DEPP: There were a lot of scripts where I would carry a gun, kiss a girl, and walk around corners and pose, and things like that.

WATERS: But my movie was basically making fun of your whole image.

DEPP: It makes fun of all that stuff I sort of hate. It makes fun of all the teen-idol stuff. It makes fun of all the screaming girls.

WATERS: I’ve been with you when that happens, and it shocked me. We are on the street and girls go up to you and start crying. I said, “What are they crying about?”

DEPP: Well, it’s scary.

WATERS: I think it’s hilarious. I can see the embarrassment on your face.

DEPP: Well, it’s terrifying. Do people come up to you and start crying?

WATERS: They don’t start crying, no. People come up and act like fans, but they don’t start crying.

DEPP: I’ve seen people come up to you shaking.

WATERS: Yes, but they don’t want to fuck me. That’s a different thing.

DEPP: Well, maybe they do.

WATERS: But they’re trying to fuck you.

DEPP: Well, maybe they want to fuck you and you don’t know it.

WATERS: I think the scariest thing was when the girl asked the teamster if she could buy your sewage from your dressing-room trailer.

DEPP: She wanted my compost?

WATERS: Yeah. If the movie doesn’t work we can go into business. What’s the dirtiest thing a fan has ever done? Letters?

DEPP: Well, yeah, they send me “art.” They send me underwear.

WATERS: Nude pictures?

DEPP: Nude pictures, underwear, pubes.

WATERS: They do?

DEPP: Well, they have. It’s not like every week I get an envelope of pubes.

WATERS: How did this all start? What’s the Johnny Depp story?

DEPP: I was born in Kentucky, and I lived there until I was seven.

WATERS: Who were your idols when you were five?

DEPP: When I was five? I think Daniel Boone.

WATERS: Hm. Well, you still dress a little like him. Did you ever voice the opinion that you wanted to go into show business?

DEPP: No. I moved to Florida when I was eight years old. My uncle was a preacher there.

WATERS: Is he an Indian?

DEPP: My uncle isn’t.

WATERS: Where is the Indian in your family?

DEPP: It’s on my mom’s side, mostly.

WATERS: I still think you should marry Raquel Welch and I’ll sell the children, because she’s part Indian too, and you could have the kids with the best cheekbones in America. And we could sell ’em to rich yuppies.

DEPP: We could start a cheekbone-implant business.

WATERS: So you got to Florida and you were in a rock-‘n’-roll band. How did that happen?

DEPP: My uncle was a preacher, and his family had this gospel group.

WATERS: Did he speak in tongues and things like that?

DEPP: He did the whole bit where he stood up at the podium and held his arms out, crying, and said, “Come up, run up, and be saved.” And people would come up to his feet—that whole weird idol thing.

WATERS: So you had an Elmer Gantry uncle?

DEPP: That’s right.

WATERS: And that made you want to go into show business?

DEPP: No. His cousins had a gospel group and they came down and played gospel songs, and that was the first time I ever saw an electric guitar. I got obsessed with the electric guitar, so my mom bought me one from them for 25 bucks. I was about 12 years old. The I locked myself in a room for a year and taught myself how to play, learned off records, and then I started playing in little garage bands.

WATERS: What were the names of some of the groups?

DEPP: The first group I was ever in was called Flame. Then I was in the Kids. The Kids were the ones that moved to Hollywood.

WATERS: What did you wear in that first group.

DEPP: At first we just wore t-shirts that said “flame” on them.

WATERS: Uh-huh. People might have gotten the wrong idea.

DEPP: At 13 I was wearing plain t-shirts. Then I used to steal my mom’s clothing. She had all these crushed-velvet shirts with French-cut sleeves. And, like, seersucker bell-bottoms.

WATERS: So you looked sort of like the inside of a van. And platforms?

DEPP: I dreamed of having platforms, but I could never find any.

WATERS: What kind of hair? That “ape-drape” cut? Short on the top and long in back, that idiot cut?

DEPP: No, no. I’ve never been big on bilevels.

WATERS: Is that what they’re called?

DEPP: Well, you know bilevels are huge today.

WATERS: I know.

DEPP: Cops have bilevels. No, I never had a bilevel. It was always sort of long and shaggy.

WATERS: What made you quite school?

DEPP: Well, you know, I had been in high school for three years, and I might just as well have come in yesterday.

WATERS: What do you mean?

DEPP: I had no credits. I mean, basically, I had, like, eight credits, and I was in my third year of high school, and I didn’t want to be there, and I was bored out of my mind, and I hate it.

WATERS: I was with you recently when one of your teachers who had failed you asked you to sign an autograph for him. I remembered you were so perplexed.

DEPP: Well, what was I supposed to say? I mean, he failed me.

WATERS: I’d still like to punch some of the teachers I had in high school.

DEPP: I remember one time this teacher yelled at me so heavily in front of the entire class. He was such a dick. He didn’t have any time for me then, and now, all of a sudden, he wants an autograph?

WATERS: Did he encourage you?

DEPP: Shit. They all through I was going to end up in jail, a drug addict.

WATERS: And how do you feel now when the network asks you to do antidrug things or “Don’t Drop Out” promos?

DEPP: Well, recently they wanted me to do a public-service announcment that said, “Hi, I’m Johnny Depp, and listen: stay in school and graduate because it means the world to me and to you,” and all this stuff. And I thought, Well I’ve been working for these people for four years. Don’t they know I’m a dropout? How can I tell people to stay in school?

WATERS: And they still wanted you?

DEPP: No, then they said, “Oh, yes, we forgot.”

WATERS: So you quit school and ran away to Hollywood.

DEPP: Well, I didn’t go to Hollywood until five years later.

WATERS: Oh. What did you do in those five years?

DEPP: I played in rock-‘n’-roll clubs in Florida. I was underage, but they would let me come in the back door to play, and then I’d have to leave after the first set. That’s how I made a living.

WATERS: How much did you make a night?

DEPP: Oh, 25 dollars. But at times we would make $2,100—we used to make that for the entire group and road crew, which is a lot. We did a show with Iggy Pop when I was 18.

WATERS: And did you get along?

DEPP: Well, after we did two shows I got really drunk, really drunk. I was at the bar after the club had closed. I was, I don’t know, getting ready to puke or something. And I saw Iggy in skimpy little pants, wandering around the club with a dog. And for some reason, and I don’t know why—I think I just wanted to get a response out of him—I started screaming at him. I started calling him names and shit. I started screaming and yelling at him, “Fuck you!” I don’t know why, because I always idolized him. And he walked over to me and just looked at me, and I thought he was gonna hit me. And he said, “You little turd.” And he walked away.

WATERS: Did you tell him that story when you met on the set of Cry-Baby?

DEPP: Yeah.

WATERS: Did he remember?

DEPP: He said, “I was probably in about the same condition as you, maybe worse.”

WATERS: All right, the band is catching on, you’re opening for all these acts. So what made you decide to go to California?

DEPP: Dion Ray, a guy who booked bands at the Palace, in Hollywood, thought we should come out. He wanted to manage us, so he pitched me some money, and we saved up some money and we drove out there.

WATERS: Where was the very first place you went the day you got to Hollywood.

DEPP: The first place I went to was a gay bar called the Gold Coast. I was trying to find the house we were gonna live in, and I couldn’t find it. So I went looking for a pay phone, and I walked in this place called the Gold Coast.

WATERS: That’s a sort of heavy-leather bar, right?

DEPP: There were a lot of men there who had very big mustaches.

WATERS: The first place I ever went was Hollywood and Vine, and got a jaywalking ticket as soon as I got out of the car. Was it hard to get work?

DEPP: Yes! It was horrible. There were so many bands it was impossible to make any money. So we all got side jobs. We used to sell ads over the telephone. Telemarketing.

WATERS: You got a percentage of what you sold?

DEPP: Yeah, but it’s nothing. You get $100 a week,

WATERS: I can’t imagine you being a salesman.

DEPP: We had to rip people off. We’d say they’d been chosen by so-and-so in their area to receive a grandfather clock.

WATERS: Your first acting training!

DEPP: It was! They would order $500 worth of these fucking things, and we would send them a cheap grandfather clock. It was horrible.

WATERS: Well, the band got jobs eventually, right?

DEPP: Yeah, we did good shows in L.A., and we played with the Bus Boys and Billy Idol.

WATERS: So, then, how did this ever turn into an acting career? What happened?

DEPP: A friend of mine—

WATERS: Who was your friend.

DEPP: Nicolas Cage. We met through a mutual friend. I met his agent, and she sent me to read for Wes Craven and Annette Benson, the casting agent for New Line Cinema. I read for Nightmare on Elm Street, and I was just totally not what Wes had written for the story. He had written the part of a big, blond, beach-jock, football-player guy. And I was sort of emaciated, with old hairspray and spiky hair, earrings, a little fucking catacomb dweller. And then five hours later that agent called me and said, “You’re an actor.”

WATERS: In Nightmare on Elm Street you get killed by Freddy Krueger?

DEPP: I got sucked into the bed.

WATERS: But your career didn’t take off after Elm Street?

DEPP: No. Freddy’s did!

WATERS: Did you get any reviews from Nightmare?

DEPP: Well, what kind of reviews can you get opposite Freddy Krueger? “Johnny Depp was good as the boy who died.” I just kept working, and I did a few things here and there, and I studied.

WATERS: You studied acting? With who?

DEPP: I studied at Loft Studio.

WATERS: Once you were in Elm Street you must have liked acting.

DEPP: Yeah. I mean, it was amazing to me that someone wanted to pay me that much money, which was just union scale.

WATERS: You got a part in Platoon. How did that happen?

DEPP: I went and read for Oliver Stone, and Oliver scared the shit out of me! I read for him and he said, “O.K., I need you for 10 weeks in the jungle.” It was a great experience.

WATERS: So you came home from Platoon. You got a part on 21 Jump Street before Platoon came out?

DEPP: Yeah. I had done Platoon and was just going out on auditions. No one was banging my door down with scripts, so I started playing in another band, the Rock City of Angels.

WATERS: What happened to the Kids?

DEPP: We broke up when I did Elm Street.

WATERS: Were they mad at you?

DEPP: Yeah, they were mad.

WATERS: You’re friends with some of them still, though, right?

DEPP: Oh, yeah, sure. But I’m sure they still say, “That fucker!” They probably still hate me.

WATERS: So you’re in this new band and then you get Jump Street.

DEPP: I got a call from my agents, who said, “These people want you to come and read for this TV thing.” And I said, “No, no, no, no, no.” I didn’t want to sign some big contract that would bind me for years. So they hired somebody else to do it, and they fired him after about a month, and then they called me and said, “Would you please come in and do it?” My agents said, “Listen, this is Frederick Forrest, and he’s a great actor.” I loved Frederick Forrest. And they also said, “The average life span of a TV series is 13 episodes, it that. One season.” So I said O.K.

WATERS: I think you should do the show forever and ever and ever, until you get so famous you can never got out of your house. I think that’s the best thing anyone can do with his life.

DEPP: I know you have these weird dreams for me—shooting out TV sets in hotel rooms…

WATERS: Well, I was on your show this week playing a Moonie bus driver as a sort of promotional joke for both you and me. I had fun doing the show. I know of you from the show. I was writing Cry-Baby, and I thought, Who can I get to play this? I went and bought every teen magazine, and you were on the cover of every one of them. I said, “This guy looks perfect!” I didn’t know anything about you and then read these magazines and they said that you were a juvenile delinquent! I thought, This is great! I know you have never given any teen magazine an interview.

DEPP: Well, they had come to me in the beginning and said, “We want you to do these interviews and stuff for these magazines,” and I said, “What magazines?” And they said, “Sixteen! Teen Beat! Teen Dream! Teen Poop! Teen Piss! Teen Shit!” And I said, “No, no, no, no, no!” Because I don’t want that.

WATERS: So there is a burning journalistic question here. What is your favorite color?

DEPP: My favorite color? My favorite color is black.

WATERS: O.K.! Well, now when they ask you, you can say you’ve done those interviews! When we had our first Hollywood meeting in the office of Imagine Films, you came dressed literally in rags. You had clothes that were totally ripped apart.

DEPP: It was the Daniel Boone thing.

WATERS: Right! And we just started talking about John Wayne Gacy’s paintings. How did you get yours?

DEPP: I got mine from a tattoo artist who deals on the side in art.

WATERS: But he beat you for it, right? Because they cost only 25 dollars, and you paid more.

DEPP: I know. I don’t have my Gacy anymore.

WATERS: Well, didn’t you say the person you were involved with at the time wouldn’t allow you to have it in the house?

DEPP: No one wanted to have anything to do with it.

WATERS: I know. Even at my house it’s way in the attic.

DEPP: But I like John Wayne Gacy’s paintings.

WATERS: Yeah, but I hope you don’t like him, because he was basically the worst dressed mass murderer in America. And, secondly, the ultimate closet queen. He just killed everyone he slept with so they wouldn’t tell. Anyway, when you first came to Baltimore, what was your impression?

DEPP: Well, the first thing I saw when I got to Baltimore, I walked into the hotel, and on the window was a big, huge banner, that said, “Welcome Home.” The second thing I saw was a photo from you with the rat that said, “I’m so happy you’re going to be in my movie.” So I knew I was in the right place.

WATERS: And that afternoon we had our first rehearsal, where you had to make out with Amy Locane on the floor of my house. Amy was just out of Catholic high school, she was whisked to Baltimore, missing her prom and everything, and I said, “Hi, this is Johnny Depp. O.K., lie down on the floor!”

DEPP: I know! You wanted to rehearse kissing—

WATERS: Yeah. Just so we could get it over with.

DEPP: Well, I guess you just wanted to—

WATERS: To break the ice!

DEPP: She turned purple.

WATERS: I know! Well, anybody would have. You knew the cast when you got there. I mean, Iggy Pop you certainly remembered. And Patricia Hearst.

DEPP: The best thing was being able to get off work and go downstairs for a drink, and there’s Iggy sitting there, eating a piece of chicken. And Patty Hearst is sitting right across from him, and they’re talking about skiing or golf.

WATERS: That was the Celebrity Bar. That was the name of the bar in the hotel. No one ever had the nerve to go in after we took it over. We’d be in there on a Saturday night and a couple on a honeymoon in the hotel would come in the bar, and they’d see this group and just run. Do you remember the first thing that Susan Tyrrell said to you when she met you?

DEPP: You said, “Johnny Depp, meet Susan Tyrrell. Susan, this is Johnny.” And she said, “Call me Sue-Sue,” and then she studied me for about 15 seconds, and then she said, “I have the pussy of a 10-year-old and I’m mailing it to you in a box.”

WATERS: Well, that’s definitely Susan. She loves to get a reaction right away. She tests you. It’s like going to jail—show no fear and you’ll get along fine.

DEPP: It was great, because in the hotel Susan was right across the hall from me, and Iggy was right next to me. Susan called it Cell Block 9. We used to leave our doors open, and Susan would have James Brown blaring.

WATERS: Well, I remember after the movie you lived nowhere.

DEPP: I was homeless.

WATERS: The movie star who lived on a park bench!

DEPP: My address was “A Bench. Anywhere.”

WATERS: You know there’s one rumor everybody knew about this movie—and I’m wondering if you would go public with it—that you’re slightly a “shrimper.”

DEPP: “Shrimp?” Well, you know, I’m fascinated by “shrimp.”

WATERS: Would you maybe want to tell the readers of Interview, some of the more square Interview readers—

DEPP: No.

WATERS: People who don’t know what that means.

DEPP: No. I’ll only say that I first heard the term “shrimper” from Willem Dafoe, who was in the movie also. Willem told me that I was a shrimper. And then he explained what it was. I didn’t really know that I was a shrimper until then.

WATERS: O.K. Does your mother know you’re a shrimper?

DEPP: Oh yeah. My whole family’s shrimpers.

WATERS: And next you’re doing Edward Scissorhands, which is Tim Burton’s new movie. As you know, a very much sought-after role that you got. And you’re doing it with Winona Ryder.

DEPP: Who?

WATERS: Who—we’re gonna talk about your personal life here to make you crazy—is your fiancée.

DEPP: Winona Ryder’s my fiancée, yes.

WATERS: I think you’re a great couple. She’s already a big star, but she’s going to be a major star of the ’90s. Where did you meet?

DEPP: My friend Josh introduced us and we just started hanging out. And we’ve been hanging out ever since.

WATERS: And you’re engaged.

DEPP: We’re engaged, yes. I love her more than anything in the whole world.

WATERS: Do you ever think what would happen if everything you did suddenly didn’t work? What would you do? If nobody would hire you, if suddenly your career died.

DEPP: I’d be your gardener. I’d work on your yard. And I’d live in your house.

WATERS: If everything bad happened with me, I’d open a bookstore.

DEPP: Then I’d be your janitor. Because I’m depending on you now for this.

WATERS: What is Edward Scissorhands?

DEPP: It is a really beautiful fable. It’s something that came out of Tim Burton’s mind, but it’s a sort of classic fable, almost like Beauty and the Beast or Pinocchio. It’s about this guy who has scissors for fingers, and his first steps in suburban life. And seeing what that is all about. So he’s this innocent coming to this warped life. I think Tim is a great director.

WATERS: Here you are. You’re 26, there’s already a book out, an unauthorized biography. How did you feel when you saw that?

DEPP: Oh, I was just so shocked.

WATERS: See, I wanted it immediately because those are the kind of books that in 20 years will be worth a fortune because they’re in print for only six months or something.

DEPP: It’s probably sold two copies. I don’t know why anyone would write that I never read it.

WATERS: I did.

DEPP: You read it?

WATERS: How could you not read it? I don’t believe that.

DEPP: What am I gonna read? Why would I read it?

WATERS: How could somebody have a book about them and not read it?

DEPP: I didn’t.

WATERS: You didn’t skim it?

DEPP: Sure, I skimmed it, but I didn’t read it. I looked through a couple of different sections and was mortified, and then through it away.

WATERS: No, you gave it to me. I have it. Because I kept nagging for a copy of it. Anyway, here you are—26 years old, you’ve been in a couple of movies, you have a hit TV show. How do you keep yourself grounded? Don’t you see how young kids that become stars in Hollywood go crazy?

DEPP: Well, there are a lot of assholes in Hollywood.

WATERS: But how do you suddenly handle having a huge amount of money? It is scary for you? I guess it’s scary to think of not having it.

DEPP: Well, I never see it. It just goes right to my business manager. So I never really see it.

WATERS: Yeah, but I’ve seen how you live.

DEPP: I buy a couple of things here and there.

WATERS: Why don’t you describe your house, because you have a few peculiar things in it that I’ve seen.

DEPP: Well, I have a genie in a lamp.

WATERS: You have a giant rooster in your living room.

DEPP: I have a big cock in my living room. A nine-foot rooster in my living room. What else do I have? Clown posters, clown paintings, because clowns scare me. I have this fear of clowns, so I think that if I surround myself with them it will ward off all evil. And I have a fear of people…like John Davidson has always scared me. So I took one entire day and I watched John Davidson videotapes, him singing all these horrible songs and singing Christmas songs in polyester pants, and I watched that to overcome my fear.

WATERS: So you had fear of him.

DEPP: I met him once.

WATERS: You did? Where?

DEPP: I was doing a morning talk show, and he was on it.

WATERS: I met Erik Estrada on a talk show. His wife had just had a baby, and he was wearing her placenta as a necklace. I’m not kidding.

DEPP: What?!

WATERS: I’m not kidding. I was speechless. This was, of course, in L.A.

DEPP: Did he introduce himself?

WATERS: Yeah! “Hi, I’m Erik Estrada…”

DEPP: “…And this is my wife’s placenta”?

WATERS: I’ve been out with you in Hollywood where people are running backward, photographers falling in the street. Can you go out in certain areas? I mean, we went out in Florida to that place—what was it called?

DEPP: Bushwhackers. Remember, the guy said, “Good evening. Welcome to Automatic Weapons Night.” I can go to the Bushwhackers-type place. I can go to scary bars with you. But I can’t go to fancy places.

WATERS: Do you still read scripts? Do they still send you scripts?

DEPP: Yeah. Yeah, I still read scripts. They’re all so predictable. That was one of the great things about Cry-Baby—it gave me a chance not only to make fun of the whole situation but to do something really different. To be able to work with someone like you, who’s an outlaw in filmmaking and has always has done his own thing.

WATERS: Well, I don’t know how much of an outlaw I am. Brian Grazer and Universal Studios paid me to do this movie. That’s not exactly being an outlaw. Are you conscious of TV ratings and all that stuff?

DEPP: No.

WATERS: Do you know what your TVQ is?

DEPP: I don’t even know what that means. I know nothing about that stuff. And I don’t want to know. I just want to do my job.

WATERS: But you have to say that this TV show gave you a whole lot too. It made you a star.

DEPP: It put me on the map.

WATERS: But that’s good. I’m for it.

DEPP: I think they should make my character start to lose his mind. Because, you know, the hazard of being a policeman can make you crazy. So I think that they should make him become obsessed with hoarding peanut butter in his desk and things like that.

WATERS: I do think it’s a good idea for you to lose your mind on the show, but then, you know, you’ll have to get it back.

DEPP: No, I think he should go completely insane. They should really break the boundaries that are in television. They should make him lose his mind. They should put him in an asylum.

WATERS: But then you have to come back. TV has to have a happy, life-affirming ending.

DEPP: Why?

WATERS: Because it’s TV!

DEPP: But it doesn’t have to be like that. He should just be a maniac and pluck his eyebrows all the time.

WATERS: Here’s Winona Ryder.

DEPP: Winona!

WATERS: Come on in. No, we’re just finishing up. Let’s see what you bought. She’s been shopping!

WINONA RYDER: Well, it’s all for Johnny.

DEPP: Christmas all over again.

WATERS: Let’s see.

RYDER: A pair of pajamas.

WATERS: Mm, nice ones.

RYDER: And then another pair. I got you two pairs.

WATERS: They’re nice. Where’d you get them?

RYDER: American Rag. And then I got you a pajama shirt.

WATERS: Gee. Thinking about sleeping?

RYDER: And then a shirt.

WATERS: Oh, it’s nice.

DEPP: It’s a Ralph Lauren.

WATERS: No, it’s not. Is it? It is Ralph Lauren! Good god, Johnny In Ralph Lauren! What would Daniel Boone say?

THIS INTERVIEW ORIGINALLY RAN IN THE APRIL 1990 ISSUE OF INTERVIEW.

New Again runs every Wednesday. For more, click here.