Johnny Depp has been a Hollywood actor for three decades, a leading man for a quarter-century, and a dependable international box office draw in high-profile blockbusters for 10 years. For a guy that mainstream, the 50-year-old also remains one of the most defiantly oddball performers in movies. (Just look at the Kabuki-makeup/bird-headdress costume he dreamed up for his role as Tonto in the forthcoming The Lone Ranger.) Considering how universally known he and his hit movies are, it’s worth remembering that there are many less-explored corners of his filmography, works informed by that same eccentricity and complete immersion in his roles that finally made him a worldwide star as Capt. Jack Sparrow a decade ago. Here’s a look at 11 Depp roles you may have forgotten, including many typically disarming Depp performances in movies that are ripe for rediscovery.
Depp had come to Hollywood to be a rock musician, not an actor, but new pal Nicolas Cage changed his mind and helped him earn some cash on the side by landing him a role as a teen victim in the first Freddy Krueger movie. In Wes Craven's innovative horror classic, the 21-year-old plays the heroine's boyfriend, Glen. He doesn't get to do much except die gruesomely, slain in his nightmare by being sucked into his mattress, but thus begins a distinguished film career. A few years later, after Edward Scissorhands had made him a movie star, Depp would repay the favor to the franchise that gave him his start by appearing in a cameo (under the stage name Oprah Noodlemantra) in 1991's Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare, as an anti-drug spokesman on a TV commercial.
This witless teen sex comedy doesn't have much to recommend it except for the two then-unknowns in the lead roles: Depp and Rob Morrow. They're two horndogs who've infiltrated a private beach resort in the hopes of meeting bikini babes. Depp plays the slightly more suave one, Morrow (Northern Exposure, Numbers) the nerdier and more insecure one. Both acquit themselves without too much embarrassment, which is more than can be said for poor Hector Elizondo, as a toupee'd jewel thief. Oh, and yes, that is a pre-fame, pre-Pretty in Pink Andrew Dice Clay as a vacationing stud who threatens to flatten our heroes. You wouldn't think Depp's early career could sink much lower, but it did.
Depp and his then-fiancé, a pre-Twin Peaks Sherilyn Fenn, both auditioned for roles in the 1986 skateboarding movie Thrashin'. They both won their parts, but the producer overruled the director's choice of Depp. Fortunately, he landed a small role in Oliver Stone's Oscar-winning Vietnam War movie. He plays Lerner, a soldier in the platoon who speaks some Vietnamese and is wounded during an ambush. Again, he's not given much to do; he's just one grunt among many (including fellow future stars Forest Whitaker, Kevin Dillon, John C. McGinley and Mark Moses). Still, the realistic boot-camp training that the cast underwent before the shoot helped introduce Depp to the immersive, Method-like acting technique that would become his hallmark. Plus, the visibility in a prestige picture must have helped him land his starmaking role as a baby-faced sleuth on TV's 21 Jump Street, a role Depp has said he took primarily in order to work with a fellow Vietnam movie vet, Apocalypse Now's Frederic Forrest.
Depp was already getting a reputation for quirkiness, thanks to his work with John Waters (Cry-Baby) and Tim Burton (Edward Scissorhands), when he starred in this odd black-comic indie movie. Directed by celebrated Bosnian filmmaker Emir Kusturica (it's his only movie shot in the U.S., with an American cast), the indie movie features an unusual, Sundance-worthy cast, including Jerry Lewis, Faye Dunaway, Lili Taylor, Paulina Porizkova, Vincent Gallo and Michael J. Pollard. Depp plays Axel, a Cadillac salesman troubled, like most of the characters, by strange dreams. He dreams of being an Eskimo fisherman; Dunaway dreams of building a flying machine, Taylor dreams of dying and being reincarnated as a turtle. Kusturica is a director who's at home with the absurd and the symbolic (see his masterpiece Underground), but even in the mythic and desolate landscape of Arizona, it's easy to suspect that the director has no idea what he's doing. (Indeed, Kusturica reportedly suffered a nervous breakdown, and while the cast waited for him to recuperate, Depp and Dunaway appeared in Julien Temple's 18-minute music video for Tom Petty's "Into the Great Wide Open.") Still, for a movie about people obsessed with dying, everyone seems to be having a grand time. Dave Grohl has reportedly cited the film as the inspiration for the Foo Fighters' song "Enough Space." As it turned out, Depp's role in Arizona Dream would not be the strangest thing he would do on screen, not by a long shot.
In Jim Jarmusch's dreamlike Western, Depp is transfixing as William Blake, a tenderfoot accountant from the East who, through a series of misunderstandings, becomes a trigger-happy outlaw. Accompanying him is an Indian named Nobody (Gary Farmer) who, convinced that the wounded Blake is actually the psychedelic English poet of the same name, makes it his mission to guide the slowly dying gunslinger to the ocean, where he'll be free to journey into the next life. Imagine if the Chaplinesque, sad-eyed clown Depp played in Benny and Joon suddenly turned into Clint Eastwood, and you'll have some idea of the power of Depp's performance here. Jarmusch takes him and Farmer through an increasingly surreal landscape (yep, there's Iggy Pop wearing a dress), shot in ultra-grainy black-and-white and set to the tune of a jagged Neil Young score that evokes the evolution of the frontier, from lawless wilderness toward vulgar industrialization, as well as Blake's own disintegrating psyche as he rides toward destiny. Depp would briefly revive the Blake character in a cameo in Jarmusch pal Mika Kaurismäki's L.A. Without a Map, a 1998 romantic comedy set in contemporary Hollywood.
The only feature (so far) that Depp has directed and co-written (along with his brother, D.P. Depp) is also the first to take advantage of Depp's claim of Native American ancestry. Clearly a family labor of love, it was surprisingly never released in American theaters. In this adaptation of a tale by Gregory MacDonald (Fletch), Depp plays Raphael, an Indian ex-con living in a trailer with his family and struggling to get by. A Faustian businessman (Depp's pal and Don Juan DeMarco co-star Marlon Brando) makes him an offer he can't refuse: be killed on camera in a snuff film and earn a posthumous windfall for his wife and kids. Of course, in his last week before the fateful film shoot, Raphael gains a new appreciation for life and a new closeness with his family. Given the plot, the potential for allegorical heavy-handedness looms large, but Depp's performance and direction keep the film grounded in gritty reality. (So does an evocative score by Iggy Pop, who has a walk-on role as well.) Brando isn't on screen for long, but his performance as an angel of death figure has maximum impact. Brando, of course, had famously rejected his Godfather Oscar, sending a Native American activist to pick up his trophy as a gesture of protest over Hollywood's mistreatment of Native Americans. You be the judge as to whether The Brave does much to redress that wrong.
Chuck Workman's documentary, which played the festival circuit before resurfacing as an episode of PBS' American Masters series, traces the history of the Beat writers and the literary revolution they wrought. Depp appears on camera to read passages written by Jack Kerouac. (John Turturro does the same for Allen Ginsberg, and Dennis Hopper does the honors for William S. Burroughs.) Depp does justice to the spirit of American restlessness and wanderlust that animates Kerouac's writings, so much so that you may find yourself wishing he could have starred in On the Road when he was younger.
Julian Schnabel's searing biopic of Cuban poet Reinaldo Arenas properly belongs to Javier Bardem in the lead role, but Depp is daring in two supporting roles. In one, he's a drag queen named Bon Bon, boldly strutting his stuff in a Cuba that, after Castro's coup, suddenly had no room for flamboyance of any kind. He also plays an uptight military man, Lt. Victor, who could be Bon Bon's repressed flip side. Depp's gifts as a chameleon have never been on better display within a single movie.
Depp reunites with his Sleepy Hollow love interest Christina Ricci in this period costume romance. She plays Suzie, a Russian Jewish refugee in the 1930s who winds up as a chorine in Paris. Depp is Cesar, a Gypsy (Romany) horseman who is part of the act, and with whom Sozie falls in love. With the Nazi invasion imminent, Suzie (who has kept her Jewish heritage secret from nearly everyone) must choose between remaining with Cesar and fleeing to America, perhaps to be reunited with her long-lost father. Depp, in a rare supporting role, doesn't have much to do except smolder; in fact, the movie is often stolen by Cate Blanchett and John Turturro, as a golddigging showgirl and her Mussolini-loving opera-singer beau. Director Sally Potter fills the soundtrack with beautiful music and manages to fill the screen with lavish period detail on a budget. In other words, this is the rare movie where you will go home humming the scenery.
The Restoration period in England under King Charles II in the late 17th century is seen as a time of creative, political and sexual license. Taking advantage of all three is Rochester (Depp), a playwright, satirist and philanderer, and frenemy to the king (John Malkovich). In Depp's portrayal, he fancies himself an outrageous rebel who prides himself on alienating those closest to him. (He keeps repeating, "Do you like me now?", challenging the viewer as well as the other characters.) Of course, calculated outrage grows old fast, and so does Rochester, dying of complications from syphilis at 33. You can see why the role appealed to Depp, especially the later parts that have him wearing a mask to hide his decaying face and hobbling on two canes, delivering a rabble-rousing speech to Parliament that changes the course of English history. Rochester is also the most brazenly sexual character Depp has ever played. Still, not even Depp is inventive enough to keep the character's endearing impishness ahead of his insufferable selfishness. And for all the movie's deliberate button-pushing, it doesn't offer much insight into the period. The movie suffered from having been released in the same year as Stage Beauty (starring Billy Crudup), a similar film that's a much more penetrating examination of the Restoration era's artistic, sexual and political ferment.
Filming Hunter S. Thompson's novel about his early-career stint as a reporter in Puerto Rico was clearly a labor of love for Depp. A longtime pal of the author (and Rolling Stone mainstay), Depp had portrayed Thompson in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, unearthed the long-unpublished Rum Diary manuscript from among Thompson's papers, and paid for Thompson's carnivalesque funeral after the writer's suicide in 2005. Depp produced the Rum Diary movie and starred in it as Paul Kemp, a younger version of the autobiographical Raoul Duke character from Fear and Loathing. Alas, not everyone shared Depp's admiration for Thompson, and the movie vanished at the box office. Those who have seen it are divided over whether the movie caught the comic, anarchic spirit of Thompson's writing or was mired, like the characters sometimes are, in a listless, alcoholic fog. (Legendary Withnail & I writer/director Bruce Robinson, who wrote the Rum Diary script and directed the movie, fell off the wagon twice during the production.) As in Fear and Loathing, Depp certainly has his Thompson imitation down pat. Whether there's enough of a movie around him to make the enterprise worthwhile is another story.