It's only natural for artists to compare the creative purity of their early work to the compromised work of their later careers. I'm no exception. As I sit here in my chateau in France, absent-mindedly flipping through the script for The Diving Bell And The Butterfly by Oscar-winning screenwriter Ronald Harwood, I think of the man I used to be, and my heart sinks. I know I shouldn't let thoughts of the past get me down. Rather, I should overcome my insecurities and remind myself that there could be an even bigger success around the corner. Why, you never know what you can achieve if you just believe in yourself and… Aw, hell. Who'm I kidding here? I'll never top 21 Jump Street and I know it.
I've tried, honestly I have. I've picked roles carefully and gone out of my way to work with unique and talented collaborators, regardless of their level of commercial success. I've done my best to go the extra mile: wearing pancake makeup and scissor-hand prosthetics, sporting fake gold teeth and channeling Keith Richards, even having my friggin' head shaved to play Hunter S. Thompson. I can honestly say I've committed myself to every part with all I've had. But, let's face it: Those characters on Jump Street shared a special camaraderie as they went undercover to solve mysteries in Southern California high schools. An actor just doesn't find that sense of belonging and purpose while working with Jim Jarmusch.
Ah, the heady early years of the Fox network. The executives were hungry, motivated, and willing to try anything. A young Stephen J. Cannell, 21 Jump Street's creator, had the world on a string. My future seemed assured as well, but little did I know how disappointing it would prove to be. Cannell went on to produce Booker, Silk Stalkings, and The Commish, and where did I end up? Aimlessly wandering from one project to another and sitting around the Viper Room with a "Wino Forever" tattoo.
I've kept my career afloat. I've been blessed with more lucky breaks than most guys my age, I'll admit. But I know what everybody's thinking: "What a sad little man. Depp's just going through the motions. Can't he see that Tom Hanson was the role of a lifetime and it's all been downhill since?" As I walk past the paparazzi, I can hear their thoughts: "Give it up, old man! You're almost 42. You're a fossil!"
Pathetic. I'll bet John Waters only cast me in Cry-Baby for my kitsch value.
Sure, sometimes Terry Gilliam, Roman Polanski, or Jerry Bruckheimer will take pity on me and throw me a bone. Tim Burton has been charitable. I even thought that by playing the role of Hollywood outcast Ed Wood, I might be able to recapture some of the defiant spirit I had during my Jump Street days. But what happened? My costar, Martin Landau, got the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, and I got a one-way ticket to Palookaville.
It's not like I haven't tried to hone in on what made Jump Street such a perfect role. I did Nick Of Time and Secret Window because the characters solved mysteries, like we all did on Jump Street. But it just wasn't the same as when the Jump team took orders from hard-nosed but sensitive Capt. Adam Fuller, our multi-ethnic police squad's kindly African-American mentor. And that old feeling, like I was making a difference in the lives of millions of young viewers across the country by tackling important teenage issues like race, drug addiction, and AIDS—that feeling was just gone.
In this world, you only get one chance to play a member of an elite squad of young-looking cops who work out of an abandoned church, intervening in the lives of troubled teens before they grow up and become hardened criminals.
I know it doesn't do any good to dwell on the past. Because, in my heart of hearts, I know that afternoon I spent in the studio recording the "Jump!" background track with Peter DeLuise (Officer Doug Penhall) is gone. The stirring vocal track Holly Robinson (Officer Judy Hoffs) laid down will haunt me to my dying day:
We thought we'd never find a place where we belong
Don't have to stand alone, we'll never let you fall
Don't need permission to decide what you believe…
I said jump, (jump!), down on Jump Street
You'd better be ready to, be ready to jump!
Oh well. Wes Anderson is on the phone. Time to put on a happy face and try my best to move on.