Johnny Depp's Journey from Bad Boy to Family Man

June 20, 2003 -- — In a town where looks are the supreme currency and playing the role of handsome leading man is what most actors strive for, Johnny Depp has made his mark playing the unattractive, misunderstood, quirky character.

If you look back at the collection of characters he's brought to life — from Edward Scissorhands to Gilbert Grape — they're a quirky bunch.

"I always thought it would be interesting to see them all in the same room together," Depp told Vargas.

Drug use, arrests, high-profile romances and, ultimately, true love would shape an acting career that Depp basically stumbled into.

Born in Kentucky, he grew up in Florida. His father, a civil engineer and his mother, a waitress, clashed through much of Depp's childhood and eventually divorced.

Depp would take his guitar and lock himself in his room, escaping into his music. At 15, he dropped out of high school and started a garage band. A few years later, he and his buddies headed to Los Angeles to become rock stars. But the gigs were few and far between and Depp was forced to take odd jobs.

Depp said he and his friends got jobs as telemarketers, selling pens.

Falling Into a Remarkable Career

Depp said he didn't have much of a knack for it. "I was hideous, just awful. … Then I met Nicolas Cage … and Nick told me one day, 'you should try acting.' I just said, 'at this point, I'll try anything.'"

With zero training and no acting experience, Depp auditioned and landed his first role in the movie Nightmare on Elm Street.

"Here I was, this skinny kid with tattoos and spiky hair and all that. And miraculously, he hired me for the gig," Depp recalls.

Before he knew it, Depp's rock star dreams were being pushed aside when he landed another small part … this time in the movie Platoon.

And then came the role that catapulted him from failing musician to teen heartthrob — an undercover detective posing as a high school student on the 1987 TV hit 21 Jump Street.

But Depp says he hated the poster boy image that came along with the role. "I didn't want to be a product. I didn't want to be some sort of saccharine kind of bon bon, you know." So, he began looking for a way to turn that image on its head. But when his agent handed him the perfect script to do just that — the script for Edward Scissorhands — he became plagued with self doubt.

"I thought this one of the greatest things I've ever read, and, at the same time, I thought … this will never come to me. Never. Never."

He was so convinced that he wouldn't get the part that he called his agent and canceled his audition. But his agent wouldn't let him back out. Depp said, "She screamed at me and went crazy and … and forced me to have the meeting."

In spite of himself, Depp landed the lead in Edward Scissorhands. In it, he traded his teen star image for a pale, spiky-haired, scarred freak who had scissors for hands. Depp's body movements and subtle facial expressions made the character loveable. It became Depp's trademark.

Depp says he drew inspiration from silent films. "I always loved silent film. Everything had to come out of their emotions and their eyes and their body movements."

Depp threw himself into his subsequent roles — sometimes too much. In the film What's Eating Gilbert Grape, for example, he plays a brooding caretaker to his 500-pound mother and his retarded brother, played by Leonardo DiCaprio.

The gloomy storyline began to seep into his personal life and the question in the tabloids became 'What's eating Johnny Depp'? Off camera, Depp was binging on alcohol and drugs.

Depp said he felt uncomfortable in his own skin and would stuff anything into his system to numb himself. "I just took to poisoning myself, which is really stupid."

Depp said family and friends pulled him out of it — basically, telling him, "Hey, you're f---ing up."

Ed Wood & Coming Back from the Brink

Ironically, the very same thing that helped push Depp over the edge pulled him back from the brink — another role. This time it was that of a cross-dressing 1950s B-movie director — Ed Wood.

That role, Depp said, "was the rocket ship that took me away from that horrible, black, bleak time."

"This guy needed to be the ultimate optimist, dreamer, idealist. It was like being in a completely different suit or skin. It felt very good."

But Depp said he doesn't feel he gets into his characters to an unhealthy extent. "I was never one of those guys who ever believed in like, you know, you become the character and you know, and you walk to the coffee machine you are Henry the Eighth. But at the same time, you get to know them so well and you play them for such an extended period of time that by the time you're done … it took me a couple of months to not smile like Ed Wood.

Winona’s a ‘Good Kid’

While he wore skirts in the film, he had a reputation for chasing them. His personal life played like a steamy soap opera … with a string of engagements to actresses Sherilyn Fenn, Jennifer Grey and Winona Ryder.

Depp said, "They're all great girls. We helped each other get through certain periods of our lives."

He said he hasn't spoken with Ryder since her arrest for shoplifting, but he expressed sympathy for her and said he thinks the media treated her badly. "They way they dragged her through the — I would say 'mud' but in fact it was like broken glass," he said, adding, "She's a good kid, you know? She's also very strong spirit. She'll make her way through it."

Depp also had a reputation as a Hollywood bad boy. Beyond the partying, there was the time he trashed a New York hotel room after a spat with his then-girlfriend — model Kate Moss — causing nearly $10,000 worth of damage. Depp chalked it up to having a bad day. "You know, some guys go play golf, some guys smash hotel rooms. You know? That's what it felt like for me at the time, you know?"

The only problem with that last option was that it landed Depp in jail.

Depp's image was further damaged when 23-year-old actor River Phoenix died of a drug overdose in front of the Viper Room, the wildly popular Los Angeles club Depp owned.

Depp recalls the night as "scary, devastating — just an absolute nightmare."

Phoenix's death was a big wakeup call. Depp pulled back from the drinking and drugs but pushed farther into his roles. He would soak up every character to an extreme. To prepare for his role as the whacked-out gun-toting writer Hunter S. Thompson in the movie Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Depp moved in with the notoriously nutty Thompson.

"I was there every day, every night you know, with him. You know, sometimes with a video camera … You just try and take as much as you possibly can from their life — their movement, their tics, their sort of beliefs."

Eye Contact & ‘That Was It’

And although Depp had resisted the role of leading man his whole life … it ended up catching him totally off guard one night at a crowded restaurant.

As he looked across the restaurant, Depp said, "I saw this back and this neck. And I thought 'My God, what's that?' And suddenly, the back turned to face me, like you know, from 20, 30 yards away and it made eye contact. … That was it."

That beautiful back and neck belonged to Vanessa Paradis, the then-27-year-old French actress and pop star. The couple have two children.

Fatherhood and family life seem to suit Depp just fine. Fatherhood, he says, has grounded him in a way that his acting career never did. Depp said, "I was sort of roaming around, wandering kind of aimlessly until that moment when my baby girl arrived, and then everything became clear."

The former Hollywood bad boy is now 40 years old and takes pleasure in a mellower European lifestyle. He and his family have made their home in the south of France. "I think kiddies should grow up in a very simple, calm environment, you know, where everything is not about the next movie or success," he said.

Making a ‘Movie My Kids Could Watch’

However, seeing the world through the prism of two wide-eyed kids has compelled Depp to do the unthinkable — at least for him — take a leading role in the upcoming big budget summer blockbuster: Pirates of the Caribbean.

"Having a 4-year-old daughter, over the last few years, I've been watching quite a few of the Disney animated films. I just love these movies. When the pirate idea came around, I sort of said it would be great to make a movie that my kids could watch," Depp said.

As much as he appreciates his success, Depp says he wouldn't encourage his children to follow in his footsteps.

"Dad kind of stumbled into it and God, you know, be a writer or be a painter. Be a poet. Whatever. Do something that you can do by yourself." And Depp often ponders taking the advice he gives to his kids.

"It might be nice to sort of drop off at some point — write a book or paint or just kind of sit there and drool someday," Depp said. For a man who's made a career out of making the unpredictable choices, maybe he'll just chuck it all?

Whatever his next step is, Depp seems comfortable with the thought that Hollywood success can be fleeting. "Tomorrow the call may come out where they say, OK, don't ever hire Johnny Depp again. He's finished. Get him out. You know, you never know."