has 12 tattoos a pair of gold teeth, two kids, a house in the south of France, a large collection of fake mustaches, one huge hit -- and did you hear the one about the rubber bands?

By Chris Nashawaty
September 19, 2003 at 04:00 AM EDT

Let’s start with the story about the rubber bands, the turban, and the George Washington wig. It takes place in the late ’80s, when Johnny Depp had gone virtually overnight from pumping gas in Florida to being minted a teen-steam heartthrob on 21 Jump Street. It was a strange time. He was making more money than he’d ever seen in his life. And when he would walk past newsstands he’d see his mug grinning back at him from the covers of magazines like Tiger Beat and Bop. Despite all of that — or, more likely, because of it — Johnny Depp was miserable. He saw himself as an actor. America saw him as a small-screen pretty boy. That’s when he decided it was time to bust his ass. Bust his ass to get fired.

First, he tried by showing up on the set of the TV show with rubber bands wrapped around his tongue. When the cameras began rolling and he opened his mouth, he started mumbling his dialogue as unintelligibly as, well, a man who had rubber bands wrapped around his tongue. When that didn’t work he arrived on set wearing a feathered turban on his head, speaking in a curry-rich Bombay accent. No luck there either. By the time he finally waltzed onto the soundstage in a powdered George Washington wig and a pair of hip-hugging elephant bell-bottoms with the American flag embroidered on the crotch, it was becoming clear to the show’s producers that their star might be more trouble than he was worth. Still, they wouldn’t swallow the bait. After all, Depp had a contract and ratings were ratings.

”It was pretty obvious what I was trying to do,” says Depp some 15 years later. ”It was a frustrating time. I didn’t feel like I was doing anybody any good on there. Not them. Not the people watching the show. Certainly not myself. But at the time I tried to mask it by saying these were the choices I made for the character.” After he says this, Depp begins to crack up. It’s unclear whether he’s laughing at his sartorial creativity at the time, or just his jerky hubris. But perhaps it says something that the first two movies he starred in after his initial unwelcome taste of hunkdom were John Waters’ Cry-Baby (a satire on teen idols) and Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands (a film in which his face is covered in scars and white Kabuki makeup, and framed by a fright wig).

There’s a second Johnny Depp story worth telling here too. A more recent one. It takes place in San Miguel de Allende on the set of his new film Once Upon a Time in Mexico. In the movie, a sequel of sorts to 1995’s Desperado, Depp plays a sociopathic CIA agent who hires Antonio Banderas’ El Mariachi to sabotage a political assassination on the Day of the Dead. Not surprisingly, when Depp arrived on location, he had certain ideas about his character. ”Before he even got there he called and said, ‘I imagine this guy wears these really cheesy tourist shirts,”’ recalls director Robert Rodriguez, who admits that he still had no idea what he would be in for.

Before showing up in Mexico, Depp called his sister in Florida and had her scour the area for T-shirts with silly slogans like ”CIA: Cleavage Inspection Agency” and ”I’m With Stupid,” featuring an arrow pointing below the belt. ”Florida has no shortage of idiotic T-shirts,” says Depp. ”I was also desperately looking for one of those baseball caps that say ”S — -head” and has a picture of a coil of dookie on the bill.” Some of Depp’s other idiosyncratic flourishes for his character included carrying around a Judy Garland biography (”I just kind of figured that this guy might have a sideline obsession with Broadway”) and wearing an assortment of obvious disguises (”That’s why I brought along all my wigs and fake mustaches”).