June 28, 2009 by Sarah Stewart mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org
Source: The NY Post
"Nobody," John Waters once said, "is sick of Johnny Depp."
It's as true today as it was when Waters directed Depp in 1990's "Cry Baby," the film that diminished his hated TV teen-idol status with the help of Iggy Pop and Ricki Lake.
But Waters' statement doesn't go far enough: We can never get enough of Johnny Depp. The man who started out on a cheesy '80s cop show has grown up to become our most enduring emblem of that distinctly American brand of cool.
Mostly by not ever trying to be cool.
Whatever Johnny does now, we're on board with. We just want to spend a little more time around him. Hence, the excitement over Wednesday's "Public Enemies." People may respect director Michael Mann's work; they may be curious to see Christian Bale attempt a Southern accent; but Johnny is the reason they'll buy tickets.
There was no better match for the infamous bank-robber role than Depp. "When we started talking about it, he said that he had been interested in Dillinger for a long time," Mann says. "He had Dillinger in him; that's something I sensed."
Of course he does; Dillinger is just another in a long line of outlaws, misfits and losers that Depp has forged a career around, subverting an industry that's tried its hardest to cast him as the mainstream leading man.
Depp is also an avid reader -- definitely out of the norm in the Hollywood set -- and drawn to anything outsider-y (he once bought a painting by John Wayne Gacy, though he eventually conceded it was too creepy and got rid of it). He doesn't do the normal thing -- ever -- and that, combined with his famous face, makes for a devastating combination.
"He definitely always does come up as being the epitome of cool," says clinical psychologist Adam Ferrier. His thesis, "Identifying The Underlying Constructs of Cool People," boils cool down to five principles: 1) self-confidence; 2) defying convention ("but not for its own sake"); 3) understating your achievements; 4) caring for others; 5) connectivity.
All of which can be demonstrated by a look at the span of Depp's career and life.
Nowhere in that list is longevity, however. Most of our coolest icons either die, fade away or do something so colossally uncool that it kicks them out of the club for good. Johnny, however, is coming up on the 20th anniversary of "Jump Street," and hasn't wavered from his spot at the top of the list.
(Conversely, his old pal Nicolas Cage -- the person Depp credits as encouraging him to get into the acting biz -- may have started out cool, doing films like the Coen brothers' "Raising Arizona," but has since turned into a bloated action hero who makes turkey after turkey.)
There were early indicators that Depp wasn't just more fodder for the Tiger Beat gristmill. When "21 Jump Street" mania started getting out of hand, he took a stand that he recounted with amusement to David Letterman a few years ago.
Depp was startled to drive past a billboard of himself brandishing a gun, stamped with the tagline, "Other kids pack lunch."
"I knew right away," he said, "that something had to be done about it.
"So I commandeered a friend of mine, and we went to a hardware store and bought some paint and brushes and went back at about 2 in the morning. We had painted out the gun, and I was in the middle of turning myself into Groucho Marx when a security guard came around the corner.
"He looked at the billboard, and he looked at me, and he said, 'That's you.' I said, 'I know.' He said, 'What are you doing?' I said, 'I don't like it. I think it's wrong.' "
The guard paused, then told him to just hurry it up. Of course! Because what's cooler than catching a famous young star in the act of making fun of himself via vandalism? It was a clear illustration of Ferrier's third coolness principle: understating your achievements. And then some.
Depp shares initials with another white-hot teen icon, James Dean, who died in a car accident at 24. Premature death is one of the easiest ways to ensure one's place as forever cool; it's much less effort than staying alive and falling prey to the myriad indignities of growing older.
Which brings us to another once-cool but still alive candidate: John Travolta. Travolta used to be cool in a slightly campy way: not afraid to go over the top, either as Vinnie Barbarino on "Welcome Back Kotter," or dancing and singing as T-Bird Danny Zuko on the big screen in "Grease."
Travolta's cool was knocked off course by several missteps: his becoming a devoted Scientologist (organized religion goes directly against the coolness of being unconventional) and making bad role calls. For every hip indie comeback, there has been an equal and opposite "Battlefield Earth."
Depp's choices, in contrast, have always been weird in a cool way. Rather than angling for leading roles -- and he has said point-blank that he's been offered "buckets of cash" to do so -- he re-framed himself as the most good-looking character actor in the history of character actors.
Highlights of his oddball resume: Edward Scissorhands, Sweeney Todd, Hunter S. Thompson, Willie Wonka in "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," and, from the looks of it, the Mad Hatter in the upcoming "Alice in Wonderland."
His partnership with director Tim Burton (who made four out of five of the above films) has played a central role in making him what he is today; it seems Burton, a bit of a misfit himself, got where Depp was coming from early on, and thus became a trusted partner in crime.
"He's always been true to who he is," Burton said in 2006. "He's never been ruled by money, or by what people think he should or shouldn't do."
It's that first principle of coolness, and Johnny has it in spades. He knows who he is even when channeling a teenage girl, as he said he did to play Ichabod Crane in Burton's "Sleepy Hollow."
Depp also managed to pull off the remarkable feat of turning a bizarre impersonation into one of the most beloved film characters ever: Capt. Jack Sparrow, whom Depp is said to have based on Keith Richards with a hint of Pepe le Pew.
Reportedly, studio higher-ups suggested that Depp drop the gay-ish shtick, to which he said, simply, no. "I believed it was the right thing to do," he told Entertainment Weekly. "Finally, I said, 'Look, you hired me to do the gig. If you can't trust me, you can fire me. But I can't change it.' It was a hard thing to say, but
f- - - k it."
Even Depp's most out-there projects, like his self-directed and badly reviewed "The Brave," kept him on the path of cool, mostly by association. Marlon Brando, who co-starred with Depp in that film, became one of his close friends -- and a part of the unassailably cool triumvirate of Depp's mentors, the other two being Hunter S. Thompson and Richards.
Depp invoked Brando in a prophetic interview with Playboy, in his Viper Room era: "Maybe I should do what Brando did 30 years ago," he said. "Buy an island. Maybe take my girl and some friends and just go there and sleep. And read and swim and think clear thoughts."
Fast-forward to Depp's private island in the Bahamas, recently chronicled in Vanity Fair. Its beaches are named for his wife, children, Thompson and Heath Ledger, whose role he partly takes over in the upcoming film "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus."
Another component of Depp's cool: his adoration of his life partner and kids. Though he had a well-documented wild streak in his 20s and 30s, dating Winona Ryder and Kate Moss, he found lasting love with French singer Vanessa Paradis and settled down in her native country. He's always only too happy to turn interview conversations to the joys of fatherhood, and it's gotten him interested in children's causes, as well.
When he makes star appearances, most of them are for charity. He routinely blows off awards ceremonies, but was a proud honoree at the "Courage To Care" charity event in 2006.
A fan group called Johnny's Angels sprang up in 2007, asking Johnny's fan base to raise money for charities he believes in. "He's very supportive of the Children's Hospice and Palliative Care Coalition," says the group's director, Christine Di Rienzo. "He often wears a bracelet they sell that's designed by one of the kids that says 'Life is a gift. Have fun.' He's also very involved with L.A. Children's Hospital. But he's very quiet about it."
She recently got the chance to meet Depp at a fund raiser and was not disappointed. "I told him who I was, and he was sweeter and more gracious than you can imagine," she says. "He was totally touched by it."
(His graciousness doesn't just extend to hospitals, either; just last week, he left a $4,000 tip at a Chicago restaurant.)
Johnny's been known to show up dressed as Capt. Jack to entertain childrens' hospital wards, although he -- in keeping with cool principle No. 3 -- keeps it under the radar and out of the press.
On a recent episode of the Showtime show "This American Life," a young man named Mike with severe muscular atrophy and no ability to speak told host Ira Glass that if he had to choose a voice he'd "totally want either Johnny Depp or Edward Norton, whoever is available, because they are both badasses."
Cut to Depp's voice as the narrator of Mike's emails.
It's in this respect that Depp most closely resembles another cool standard-
bearer. Paul Newman's charity work was higher-profile, especially when his food label became affiliated with McDonald's, but it always donated all of its post-tax profits to charity.
And then there was Newman himself: consistently beloved by the public, never caught in a role that made him look stupid or money-grubbing, and never doing enough press for people to get tired of him.
Overexposure hasn't been a serious risk for Depp, who looks upon movie press junkets with about the same enthusiasm he looked upon his few years in high school. "I just don't understand it, really," he told Vanity Fair in 2004. "I don't understand the animal. It's a strange, roundabout way of selling something; it leaves a foul taste . . . The thing that fascinates me is: Who cares what an actor thinks?!"
Which, naturally, makes people want to know what he's thinking.
"Cool people are able to mask their emotion and not be too demonstrative," says Ferrier. "Never overly earnest or overly keen to show people their emotions."
There's a fine line between coolness and coldness, though. Actors like Daniel Craig or Ed Norton, who meet some of the criteria for coolness, radiate a contempt for the trappings of Hollywood to a degree that's off-putting. But, to paraphrase Waters, everybody loves Johnny.
When he appeared on "Inside the Actors Studio" in 2002, it was the biggest turnout they'd ever had; "there were riots," James Lipton said half-jokingly.
As the camera panned over the faces of the acting students in the audiences they seemed downright rapturous as they watched Depp answer questions about his wide-ranging career, while still trying, a little, to hide behind his hair.
"Everybody wants to speak to him. He could be one of the most connected people in the world, if he wanted," says Ferrier, referencing the fifth principle of coolness.
It's true: We all want a piece of Johnny, but we also want to leave him alone.
Because stalking him would just be. . . so incredibly uncool.
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