Once a troublemaker, Johnny Depp of 21 Jump Street is now admired for his cool and his part in a series about teen problems
By Elaine Warren
On a lonely, rainy, anonymous street, Johnny Depp, running through a scene from Fox’s 21 Jump Street, roars up in his blue Mustang, screeches to a halt, leaps out and starts talking tough. His Jump Street character, Tom Hanson, is a rookie cop who’s gone undercover to infiltrate circles of teen-age criminals, but Depp’s stance as a hoodlum would fool anyone: with his angelic punk face and his hair cascading James Dean-style into his eyes, he looks the perfect teenage rebel.
It comes from years of real-life experience. Depp, 24, grew up in Miramar, Fla., where he wasn’t exactly on the road to becoming a National Merit scholar. “I hung around with bad crowds,” he admits. “We used to break and enter places. We’d break into the school and destroy a room or something. I used to steal things from stores.” And, like some of the kids Officer Tom Hanson has busted on 21 Jump Street, Depp was into drugs. “Pretty much any drug you can name,” he says, “I’ve done it.” At 13 he lost his virginity, and at 16 he dropped out of high school.
Fast-forward eight years to Vancouver, where Jump Street is shot. Depp has acquired a taste for $80-a-shot cognac and is a fan-magazine star, routinely mobbed by adoring teen-age girls. He is also one of the stranger sights in Vancouver, consistently wearing the same eccentric outfit: tattered blue jeans with a hole in the knee, combat boots, a beat up leather jacket, a weird white rag (actually a first-aid sling) wrapped around his forehead, and several tarnished earrings. It’s a look he perfected in 1986 in the Philippines while working on the film “Platoon,” in which he had a part as Lerner, the small-town boy who serves as the unit interpreter.
It’s easy at first glance to think that Depp is trying hard to stand out, but the people who know him best insist it’s something altogether different: Johnny Depp is simply the embodiment of that ineffable, universally coveted quality called “cool.”
“The coolest person I know,” says Holly Robinson, who plays Officer Judy Hoffs on Jump Street. “He’s naturally cool. Everybody else tries to be cool, but Johnny just is.”
“If this were the ’50s, he’d move to Paris or hang out with Jack Kerouac,” suggests Patrick Hasburgh, creator and executive producer of Jump Street.
“What struck me about him when he auditioned as that he wasn’t nervous,” says Steve Beers, supervising producer of the show. “He was laid-back. He had this presence. HE’s an unusual personality. He’s also one of the nicewst people I’ve ever worked with.”
How cool is Johnny Depp? He’s so cool that he orders a $75 bottle of wine without blinking as he sits down in his favorite Italian restaurant (weird white rag still around his head) to explain how he got that way. So cool that after a few months in Vancouver he persuaded his mother and stepfather to move there and live with him. So cool that when he was 16, shortly before he left high school, he moved out of his house to live in a car with his best friend, Sal, because that’s the only place Sal had to live and he didn’t want him to feel abandoned. It was a ’67 Impala that they filled with empty beer cans, while living on a submarine sandwiches from the 7-Eleven. A few months ago Sal went up to Vancouver to visit Depp and impressed the producers with his unusual, to say the least, ability to fill his mouth with air and blow it out like some strange-looking fish. Sal is now the character on Jump Street called “Blowfish.”
Back in blue-collar Miramar, where Depp’s father was director of public works and his mother was a waitress, Johnny and Sal were into drugs, girls, petty crime and, most of all, music. Music was how they kept the faith within their isolated teen-age world of angry parents and threatening teachers. When Depp was a kid, he heard a gospel group and knew right then that he wanted to make music. At 12, he paid $25 for an electric guitar, locked himself in his room and started playing. The next year, he started his own rock band and has since been in 15 different groups, supporting himself since leaving home at 16. The most successful group was called The Kids, and it was while playing lead guitar with that group that he moved to Los Angeles in 1983 to try and make it big.
At the same time, he took a seedy apartment in Hollywood and began peddling ball-point pens over the phone to make enough money to live. He also got married, got divorced and met actor Nicolas Cage, a former boy friend of his wife, who told him he ought to try acting. Cage set him up for a meeting with his agent, who, despite Depp’s utter lack of acting experience, took one look at his face and sent him to an audition for the movie “A Nightmare on Elm Street.” Depp had an actor friend stay up with him for the next two nights coaching him on the lines, and he got the part.
“He just had a very powerful and yet subtle personality,” says Wes Craven, director of “Elm Street.” “There was some sort of charisma about him.” Craven also admits, “My teen-age daughter and her friend were there at the reading, and they absolutely flipped out over him. He’s got real sex appeal for women.”
Next came a role in a teen sexploitation film called “Private Resort,” which Depp would just as soon forget. “It was a stupid movie,” he says. Depp’s lack of experience caught up with him, and he had trouble getting roles for about a year. He became so discouraged he contemplated abandoning acting, until “Platoon” came along and gave him the creative and professional boost he needed. Then immediately after returning from two and a half months filming in the Philippines, the Jump Street role came up as a possibility. The idea of going from a high-quality film like “Platoon” to a new, unproven television series was unpalatable to Depp, and he refused even to look at the script. Another actor, Jeff Yagher, was hired for the role, and that was that. But then three weeks into shooting Jump Street, Yagher was off the show, and Depp’s name came up again. This time he read the script, liked it and won the part.
After a few glasses of wine, though, Depp will tell you that when he decided to bend to the demands of television, he never thought the show would be as successful as it is, holding the possibility of a long commitment. “I thought it would go for one season, tops,” he says with a sly smile. In other words, he thought he’d get in and out in a matter of a few months, gaining experience and publicity in the process, and then be on his way. Instead, he’s in the strange position of being trapped in a successful show.
“I’m not trapped,” he insists. “I mean, it’s good. The best thing about the show is that kids learn from it; they’re able to see things that go on in their high school and see them objectively. It teaches kids about drugs and safe sex. The worst thing is that some of the scripts we do are not important; they’re purely for television. But what I thought when I originally started the show was, if I’m going to do a television series, I want to do something that means something. I don’t want to go out and do Dallas or Dynasty. You know what I’m saying?”
Outside a Vancouver high-school gym where Jump Street is shooting, Johnny Depp is trapped in the hallway, mobbed by a group of teen-age girls intent on getting autographs from him. It takes about 30 minutes, but he stays, patiently and politely signing and signing and signing, giving each girl a meaningful look and engaging her in conversation as he hands her a scrap of paper with a sweet little message scrawled on it. First Carol. Then Monica. Then BRandi-with-an-i. The girls are in teen heaven.
“He’s so cute,” sighs one.
“He’s so cool,” coos another.
Yes. We know. Cool.