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Scarf-less and accent-free: 8 times Johnny Depp played an ordinary human being

1. Glen Lantz, A Nightmare On Elm Street (1984)


Were Johnny Depp to appear in a Nightmare On Elm Street movie today, he’d almost certainly be starring as Freddy Krueger himself. (It wouldn’t be the first time the actor played a slasher or a guy with razors for fingers.) Back in 1984, however, Depp was just a handsome high-school drop out, best suited to normal heartthrob roles. His first screen gig was as the neighbor and squeeze of Nightmare heroine Nancy (Heather Langenkamp), a part that required no elaborate makeup, outlandish costumes, or quirky affectations. His Glen is just an ordinary teenage boy, with an affinity for climbing through his girlfriend’s bedroom window, talking for hours on his corded telephone, and watching Miss Nude America on mute while listening to his records. Plenty of current A-listers did their time in the Hollywood horror trenches, dutifully serving as machete and chainsaw fodder. Depp may be the only one of them, however, who seems to have spent the remainder of his career trying to out-weird the homicidal maniac who first butchered him on-screen. [A.A. Dowd]

2. Frank Tupelo, The Tourist (2010)

The English-language debut of Florian Henckel Von Donnersmarck (The Lives Of Others), a soufflé-light travelogue thriller, isn’t the fiasco it’s often painted as, though one could argue that the movie’s casting of Johnny Depp as a clueless, e-cig-sucking everyman is somewhat undermined by the decision to give him a little too much smoky eye. Depp plays a vacationing American who gets dragged into some Euro intrigue by a femme fatale (Angelina Jolie, speaking in a Brit accent that’s a little hard on the ears). The movie’s big twist ending doesn’t really cancel out the pleasure of watching Depp keep it simple as an ordinary man in exceedingly cartoonish circumstances; however, his performance isn’t what you’d call awards material, and the movie’s Golden Globe nominations—including ones for Depp and Jolie—will forever be remembered as a stain on the otherwise sterling reputation of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]

3. Officer Tom Hanson, 21 Jump Street (1987-1990)


Johnny Depp landed his first leading role when he was just a fresh-faced 23-year-old, though it wasn’t much of a stretch for the young actor, whose baby face was key to landing the part. The character, Tom Hanson, is a green police officer yearning to walk in his father’s footsteps, but he’s cursed with the face of a teen idol. After another botched attempt at arresting criminals who can’t stop laughing at him, he’s reassigned to Jump Street Chapel, an undercover unit tasked with infiltrating local high schools and sniffing out teenage delinquents. The premise is insane, and the execution more so—the unit’s captain is an aging hippie who first appears sliding down a fire pole—which makes Depp’s relatively grounded performance all the more impressive. [Joshua Alston]

4. Gene Watson, Nick Of Time (1995)

Johnny Depp hasn’t done a lot of “everyman” roles in his career; he’s far too special a flower for that. But the conceit of 1995’s Nick Of Time didn’t allow for too crazy a lead character, and since Christopher Walken plays the villain, there’s already more than enough hamming-it-up to go around. In the real-time thriller, Depp plays regular dad Gene Watson—even the name is boring—who’s presented with a big choice: He must assassinate the governor of California or his daughter will be murdered. Depp, in tasteful glasses and a relatively rumple-free suit, is billed as “an ordinary man” in the trailer, and his performance is simple and handsome—exactly what the movie called for. [Josh Modell]


5. Donnie Brasco, Donnie Brasco (1997)

You might argue that Johnny Depp isn’t exactly normal in his role as Joe Pistone/Donnie Brasco. He’s so damn good at going undercover with the mob that he’s almost like a superspy, willing to yell “It’s a FUGAZI” right in a guy’s face in order to prove his mettle to Al Pacino. But Depp is pretty down to earth throughout the film, perhaps because the character he played is based on a real-life FBI agent. So while he may be fast on his feet, he’s not basing his performance on Keith Richards or some other mythical figure—he’s just playing a law-enforcement offer with a slightly blurred sense of where the line is. [Josh Modell]


6. William Blake, Dead Man (1995)

Jim Jarmusch’s guitar-feedback-drenched, black-and-white transcendental Western has plenty of strange sights—Iggy Pop in a dress, Billy Bob Thornton as a mountain man, Crispin Glover as a train fireman who seems to have wandered in from a David Lynch-directed Herman Melville adaptation—but Johnny Depp isn’t one of them. Despite sharing his name with a visionary poet and wearing the kind of hat-and-make-up combo that distinguishes the star’s most eccentric performances, Depp’s William Blake functions as the closest thing the movie has to an audience surrogate: a meek wanderer experiencing death and resurrection as he passes through Jarmusch’s funny, post-modern vision of the American West. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]


7. Gilbert Grape, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (1993)


It’s not often that Johnny Depp gets to play the most normal, well-adjusted character in a movie. But depending on one’s definition of those words, that’s exactly what he does in Lasse Hallström’s seriocomic What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. As Gilbert, a twentysomething grocery-store clerk secretly yearning to get out of his tiny Iowa town, Depp sports a mop of shoulder-length, grunge-era hair and an average-Joe affability. Gilbert is charged with the thankless task of holding his fractured family together, and that allows Depp to play straight man to a group of small-town eccentrics, including his depressed and morbidly obese mother (Darlene Cates), his developmentally challenged brother (Leonardo DiCaprio, in his first widely acclaimed performance), a philandering housewife (Mary Steenburgen), the new girl in town (Juliette Lewis), and several other colorful locals. Depp is far too adventurous of a performer to have continued playing aw-shucks nice guys, but he’s good enough in Gilbert Grape to imagine an alternate career of more down-to-earth star turns. [A.A. Dowd]

8. The Stranger, Happily Ever After (2004)

Depp lived in France throughout the 2000s, and during that time he apparently got close with actor-director Yvan Attal, the star of Anthony Zimmer, the movie that provided the basis for The Tourist. He even pops up for two scenes in Attal’s battle-of-the-sexes riff Happily Ever After, playing a handsome American expat whom Gabrielle (Attal’s real-life partner, Charlotte Gainsbourg) first encounters at a Virgin Megastore listening station. Depp has had his oddball extended cameos, but this one is memorable for how naturalistic it is, with Depp’s bumbling charm playing against Attal’s on-the-nose soundtrack choices. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]


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