Depp dropped out of school at age 17 in hopes of becoming a rock musician. The delicate-featured actor played with over 15 rock bands before turning to acting. He fronted a series of garage bands, including The Kids, which was once opened for Iggy Pop. Depp got into acting after a visit to LA with his former wife, who introduced him to actor Nicolas Cage. While he could have been a conventional leading man, the charismatic actor has, instead, often chosen unusual and odd roles. Although he has not proven to be "big box office" for these quirky choices, Depp has nevertheless won the respect of Hollywood and the critics as a serious and dedicated actor. Debuting as the heroine's doomed boyfriend in Wes Craven's original "A Nightmare on Elm Street" (1984), he next starred alongside Rob Morrow in the teen romp "Private Resort" (1985) and appeared as the translator in Oliver Stone's Oscar-winning "Platoon" (1986).
With his chiseled looks, thick hair and sleepy-smoky voice, Depp achieved teen idol status as Officer Tom Hanson in Stephen J Cannell's "21 Jump Street" (Fox, 1987-90). His character, established in the pilot as the son of a cop, looked too young to intimidate street thugs, despite being over 21 and an honors graduate of the Academy. Instead, he was assigned to a unit of undercover cops who infiltrates a seemingly never-ending supply of high schools where ne'er-do-wells want to keep the good kids from learning. After four seasons of the foolishness, Depp wanted out, and the show did not survive his withdrawal. Hoping to make the transition to the big screen, he eschewed offers of conventional young leading man roles and returned to features with two memorable, offbeat characterizations: John Waters' "Cry-Baby" and Tim Burton's "Edward Scissorhands" (both 1990). His physical grace and expressive features proved apt for the Chaplinesque Edward and the nimble Elvis-inspired Cry-Baby.
Depp's subsequent film career has exhibited an unwillingness to settle for standard heartthrob roles and a predilection for distinctive filmmakers and material. In Emir Kusturica's cult film "Arizona Dream" (1992), Depp, portrayed a young man unwillingly called to Arizona by his uncle (Jerry Lewis) who wants him to take over the family car dealership, anchoring the uneven feature which veered from slapstick to bathos. "Benny & Joon" (1993) presented Depp as a modern-day circus performer who, in the course of romancing a mentally disturbed woman (Mary Stuart Masterston), performs set pieces that recall the silent clowns (i.e., Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd). That same year, he lent gravity to the title role in Lasse Hallstrom's "What's Eating Gilbert Grape", a Midwesterner trapped in a small town by familial obligations. He went on to win considerable critical acclaim in a reunion with Burton, "Ed Wood" (1994), a biopic that cast him as the famed cult director whose fondness for cross-dressing doesn't prevent him from creating delightfully bad films.
Finally capitalizing on his good looks, Depp donned a mask and Castilian accent for the title role in the contemporary fairy tale "Don Juan DeMarco" (1995), playing a modern incarnation of the famous lover opposite fellow risk takers Marlon Brando and Faye Dunaway. Following his foray to action features in John Badham's "Nick of Time" (also 1995), he turned up in Jim Jarmusch's quirky Western "Dead Man" (1996), as a mild-mannered accountant named William Blake who finds himself branded as an outlaw. Adding to his cast of outsiders, Depp essayed the title role in Mike Newell's "Donnie Brasco" (1997), an FBI undercover agent who infiltrates a crime family and befriends its volatile leader. Well cast (in his first truly adult role) and more appealing than in some of his previous efforts, Depp won much praise for his layered portrayal and especially for his interplay with co-star Al Pacino (as his mentor). Their surrogate father-son relationship drove the film and brought humanity to a story that could have devolved into standard Hollywood cliche.
Depp made his feature directorial debut with "The Brave" (1997), a film he also co-wrote (with his older brother D P Depp and Paul McCudden) and in which he starred as a father who agrees to play the victim in a snuff film to earn money for his family's well-being. Premiering at the Cannes Film Festival, "The Brave", which also featured Brando and Clarence Williams III, earned mostly negative reviews, with most faulting its weak script. He suffered another box office disappointment as gonzo journalist Hunter S Thompson's drug-crazed alter ego Raoul Duke in Terry Gilliam's "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" (1998). Always looking to step away from his pretty boy persona, Depp shocked some fans by sporting a bald pate, but his clipped staccato delivery and unusual body language could not bring substance to the essentially one-dimensional character. Still, he was the glue to this "bad trip", perhaps destined for "stoner" cult status, and the question remains: Who ever thought a mainstream audience would go for this full-frontal assault on normalcy?
Depp may have chosen "The Astronaut's Wife" (the first of his three 1999 thrillers) for its opportunity to play good boy-gone wrong under alien influence, but the result was another one-note performance in a film that was not as bad as the studio's failure to screen it for critics had suggested. From one movie resembling Roman Polanski's "Rosemary's Baby", he moved to "The Ninth Gate" (released in the USA in 2000), another supernatural thriller, this one actually directed by Polanski. As a rumpled, bespectacled book dealer in search of a 17th-century volume allegedly co-authored by Satan, Depp was the soft, unassertive core of a film thought by most (but not all) to be a journey to nowhere. His last movie that year, "Sleepy Hollow" (based on the Washington Irving "legend"), matched him again with the imaginative vision of friend Burton and officially ended his losing streak. The studio nixed his notion of playing Ichabod Crane with a long pointy nose, so he appeared looking quite beautiful for most of his biggest commercial hit yet, though he did go against the heroic type with his prissy, neurotic and not very courageous characterization.
The success of "Sleepy Hollow" will not make Depp pursue more mainstream fare. Desperately afraid of complacency and astonished that he can still get work, he continues to make movies at breakneck speed. He and friend Sean Penn acted in Julian Schnabel's anything-but-commercial "Before Night Falls", the story of Cuban poet-novelist Reinaldo Arenas, and he also donned gold teeth for his role as Christina Ricci's gypsy love interest in Sally Potter's World War II drama "The Man Who Cried" (both lensed 1999).
Appearing the following year in the small but popular romantic drama "Chocolat", Depp returned to the world of drugs for Ted Demme's "Blow" (lensed 2000), playing George Jung, an American who became one of the major traffickers of cocaine for Colombian kingpin Pablo Escobar, before gearing up for roles in the Jack the Ripper thriller "From Hell" (2001) and Robert Rodriguez's "Once Upon a Time in Mexico" (2002). In what was perhaps his most surprising departure since "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas", Depp shed his oftentimes angst-ridden persona for a flamboyant role as a pirate in 2003's "Pirates of the Carribean: The Curse of the Black Pearl".