Johnny Depp has had one of the most unconventional and extraordinary careers in Hollywood. Emerging as a teen heartthrob and TV star in the hit show 21 Jump Street, it wasn’t long before Depp was a leading man on the silver screen. However, Depp has always balanced his blockbuster career with tough dramatic roles in smaller art-house movies. As these top 10 movies prove, few A-list stars have managed to have such an illustrious and varied career as Johnny Depp has.
10. The Brave (1997)
Depp has always maintained that he has Native American ancestry. Although he has never publicly proven his genealogy, he is outspoken in his appreciation of the history and culture of the Cherokee and Creek Indian people who originally settled in his birth state of Kentucky. For his 1997 directorial debut, Depp chose to adapt a little-known mystery thriller novel by author Gregory McDonald (who is better known for the ‘Fletch’ series). The Brave follows Raphael (played by Depp), a Native American man recently released from jail who is desperate to build a better life for his family. Raphael enters into a shady agreement with a mysterious stranger (played by Marlon Brando – one of Depp’s biggest acting inspirations) that he will star in a ‘snuff’ film for a large sum of money upfront. Following Raphael’s last week before his violent fate, The Brave is a deliberately slow-paced and sometimes disturbing movie. Although he has not directed another feature film since, Depp demonstrated that he has promise behind the camera. The Brave is an interesting, unique story with a strong moral centre, and it perfectly captures the difficult environment and lifestyle of some modern Native American cultures. Depp recently revisited his fascination with Native American culture for his role in The Lone Ranger, but his portrayal of the Indian tracker Tonto received mostly negative reviews.
9. Nick of Time (1995)
One of Depp’s most underrated movies, Nick of Time is a suspenseful, high-concept thriller. Depp plays an accountant who is unwillingly drawn into an assassination plot when two shady strangers kidnap his daughter and blackmail him to do everything they tell him to. Unfolding in real time, Nick of Time’s quick, lean pace makes the movie fly by and the real time dynamic helps keep the tension building. It’s a neat, gripping little action thriller, and it’s a rare example of Depp playing a normal, everyman character.
8. Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003)
Although Depp had proven himself to be a successful leading man who could star in art-house films and big crowd-pleasers, it was the Pirates of the Caribbean series which made him a global superstar. The manic energy and sleazy charisma which Depp brought to Captain Jack Sparrow made the character an instant cinema icon, and the role shot Depp straight to the top of the A-list and even nabbed him an Oscar nomination. Although the sequels didn’t quite match the big-budget, popcorn appeal of the first movie, Depp still clearly has fun playing Captain Jack Sparrow and he steals every scene that he is in.
7. A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
Like many A-list stars, Depp made his movie debut in the horror genre. Although he doesn’t really get much of an opportunity to show off his acting chops in the role of Glen Lantz in A Nightmare on Elm Street, it’s still interesting to see the big screen debut of the then fresh-faced Depp (he also gets one of the best death scenes in the entire Elm Street franchise). Depp went on to make a cameo in the sixth Elm Street movie The Final Nightmare 7 years later, but he chose to be listed in the credits as Oprah Noodlemantra . Even though his star was on the rise, Depp was still willing to pay homage to the series which launched his career by appearing in a brief 10 second joke anti-drugs infomercial in which Freddy Krueger knocks him out with a frying pan.
6. What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (1993)
What’s Eating Gilbert Grape is a sentimental but earnest drama about a dysfunctional family which is held together by its eldest son Gilbert. Although an emotionally challenging movie, it still remains an upbeat character study which is anchored by Depp’s central performance. What’s Eating Gilbert Grape is better known for bringing Hollywood to the attention of a young Leonardo DiCaprio, but it was an important step in Depp’s early career and cemented him as an actor to be on the lookout for.
5. Sweeney Todd (2007)
Following the success of Pirates of the Caribbean, Depp demonstrated time and time again that he was willing to take on almost any acting challenge. However, few could have imagined that he would lead an all-star movie adaptation of one of Broadway’s biggest musicals. Collaborating once more with director Tim Burton, Depp jumped at the challenge of performing as the all-singing, razor wielding Sweeney Todd in this big screen take on Stephen Sodheim’s musical. Although he admittedly doesn’t have the best singing voice, Depp is still memorising as the psychopathic, charismatic demon barber.
4. Dead Man (1995)
Depp teamed up with cult director Jim Jarmusch for this unconventional spin on the Western genre. The psychedelic, trippy movie set in late 1800s America concerns young accountant William Blake (played by Depp). After he gets into a violent bar fight, Blake kills a man and is mortally wounded himself. With a bullet lodged close to his heart, Blake is taken under the spiritual wing of a mysterious Native American man who thinks he is the reincarnation of the poet William Blake. The dream-like black and white visuals give the movie a dynamic and unique aesthetic, and Depp transforms Blake from an ordinary man into someone whose identity is slowly slipping away. It’s another example of Depp taking on a slightly riskier role to prove that he was more than just a pretty boy young actor.
3. Ed Wood (1994)
Again pairing with Tim Burton, this biopic of filmmaker Ed Wood is an appreciative and sympathetic look at a man who is renowned for making some of the worst movies ever made. Depp plays Ed Wood with larger than life optimism and tireless enthusiasm. He manages to find sympathy and good-natured humour in the more eccentric parts of Wood’s personality (as well as having complete blind faith in his terrible movies, Wood was a closet transvestite) without it coming across as mean or judgemental. He perfectly matches the movie’s frantic energy and wicked sense of humour, and Ed Wood is a fresh, creative spin on biopic movies. Depp’s performance was critically acclaimed and earned him a Golden Globe nomination, and more and more people were beginning to take notice of his weird and wonderful acting talent.
2. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998)
Depp jumped at the opportunity to play gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson in Terry Gilliam’s adaptation of cult novel Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. The two had been friends for years and Depp admired Thompson’s work as well as his unhinged, larger than life persona. Perfectly mimicking his quirky personality and rapid speech patter, Depp’s performance allowed him to completely disappear into the role of the legendary journalist. Sporting a shaved head (to match Thompson’s male pattern baldness) and wearing Thompson’s actual clothing throughout the movie, Depp is a spot-on match as a younger version of the author and he perfects his understated comedic timing that had served him so well in Ed Wood.
1. Edward Scissorhands (1990)
The first of many collaborations with director Tim Burton, Depp surprised fans and critics alike in his role as Edward Scissorhands. Coming fresh off the TV hit 21 Jump Street, Edward Scissorhands was Depp’s first chance to really prove himself as a movie actor. Eager to cast off his teen idol image, Depp was plastered in white makeup and wore a weird modern Goth ensemble. Almost completely unrecognisable as the titular character, Depp plays the part with quiet humour and wide-eyed naiveté, and it’s almost the complete opposite of some of his louder, showier performances. The gothic fantasy is still a standout movie in Depp’s offbeat career and it proved that he was an actor who could confidently transform himself for any part.