The Secret Lives of Hollywood Boulevard's Johnny Depp Impersonators

Inside the competitive, stressful, and occasionally lucrative world of the men who dress up like Jack Sparrow, Willy Wonka, the Mad Hatter, and "regular" Johnny Depp.

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Apr 10 2015, 4:00am

All photos by Michelle Groskopf

The Johnny Depps of Hollywood Boulevard are sweeter than the Spider-Men, classier than the Elvises, and far less lecherous than the Zorros. They won't harass you, unlike Spongebob. No, the Johnny Depps aren't trying to con you or grab you or guilt you into giving them money. They're here for the art of it. They're the emissaries of Johnny himself. Sort of.

Among the characters who lurk in front of Grauman's Chinese Theater and the Hard Rock Café, there is no other actor as broadly represented, in all the shades of his quirky career, as Johnny Depp. There are at least five Jack Sparrows swaying slightly on their pirate boots. Edward Scissorhands emerges shyly from the shadows, hoping to cut your hair. The Mad Hatter occasionally pushes his way through the crowds with a blacked-out gap between his front teeth. And every now and then you'll spot what looks like the real thing: Regular Johnny Depp, chatting up the ladies in his fedora, tinted glasses, and silver rings.

But despite their prevalence, the Johnny Depps can be elusive. Even the people who work on Hollywood Boulevard will give you conflicting reports about their whereabouts. "There's only one Johnny Depp impersonator," a policeman tells me. "People think he's the real thing all the time." A man selling Hollywood tours claims that all of the Johnny Depps are in Vegas for the weekend. Cinderella says the Regular Johnny Depp is at a bikini contest in Beverly Hills. Elvis doesn't know where they are and doesn't care, either. To find what you seek—like so many other things in Los Angeles—you have to knock on the right door, or know the right password, or talk to the right Hollywood insider.

My insider turns out to be Dr. Frank-N-Furter, preening by the curb in glittery red heels and fishnet stockings. I trudge over to him, weary and disheartened. "Have you seen the Johnny Depps?" I say. He gives me a long smile. "Darling," he says, "sometimes I'm one of them."

Dr. Frank-N-Furter is an aspiring actor and therefore wouldn't allow me to use his real name—I'll call him Gilbert—but he introduced me to the most dedicated and accurate portrayer of Jack Sparrow on the Boulevard, Joseph Ansalvish. The transplant from Delaware is so dedicated to his role that he's considered buying brown contacts to ensure that his eyeballs are the same hue as the real Johnny Depp's.

"Everybody kept telling me how much Johnny Depp looked like me—or that I looked like him," he says. "I put together a really good outfit, and the next thing I knew I was being hired by McDonald's, I was being put in parades. So I came out to LA with $500 in my bank account and just made things happen. This job allows me to go to acting classes and auditions. I'm one of the only [impersonators] who actually travels and does a lot more than just standing here. [This gig] contributes a lot to giving me my freedom."

One day, while lunching in his Jack Sparrow outfit, Ansalvish was approached by the casting director for the upcoming Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, who, Ansalvish told me, gushed that the resemblance between him and the real Depp was "uncanny." The only difference between them, she supposedly said, was his height (Ansalvish is significantly taller), but she took his contact information anyway, saying that she could "use him" for the film. It had all the makings of a big break, but that was over a year ago, and she never called. "I'd like to know if I didn't get the part," says Ansalvish, "and if so, why?"

His knowledge of the Pirates canon is astounding, and according to him he's spent almost $2,000 just to ensure that his costume is accurate. "The jacket is one of a kind; I've done all sorts of work to make it look the way it does," he says. "I've aged this gun to make it look 300 years old. Parts of the hair are a wig, but I've sewn some of my real hair into it. The boots alone are $450." He once heard an interview with the Pirates costume designers in which they said that Jack Sparrow wears a bit of lace around his wrist, a gift from some old paramour. So Ansalvish went out and bought a piece of lace too. You can't see it—it's tucked beneath his jacket sleeve—but the point is, it's there.

His mission, as he sees it, is to give tourists what they came to Los Angeles for: that sense of Hollywood magic, of illusion, of transportation, the thrill of a brush with fame. The mark of a good impersonator, for him, is looking like you "just stepped right off the screen." As we talk, a middle-aged woman interrupts us to tell him how much she enjoyed chatting with him the other week. Her eyes are shining. She tells me he was "so nice." She takes a new photo and presses a wad of bills into his hand. "I get my butt grabbed a lot," he says later. "I've gotten marriage proposals."

But Ansalvish is not the only charming buccaneer on the block. Walk about 50 feet down the Boulevard and you'll spot a shorter Jack Sparrow whose costume is less elaborate but whose face is almost freakishly Sparrow-like. Bone structure aside, Edgar Arenas says that he didn't choose the pirate life—the pirate life chose him.

"I went to the West Hollywood Annual Halloween parade, and I got swarmed," he says. "People were freaking out, thinking I was really Johnny Depp." He told his friends about the insanity, and they urged him to impersonate for a living. "So I worked up the courage to come out here, and next thing I knew I was being swarmed out here and people were giving me money to do it." He haunts the Boulevard about once every other day for five hours at a time. "It's exhausting to do this all day," he admits, "especially if I stay in character."

The Jack who works the longest hours is Robert, who didn't want me to use his last name. He doesn't particularly look like the movie character, but he chose to dress up as the pirate because he's a fan of Johnny, of the Pirates franchise, and of the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland. He's also a veteran who served as a medic for 12 years before injuring his back. Today, he uses this job to supplement his monthly veteran's disability check. On an average day, he makes between $30 and $50, and often works from 9 AM until 11:30 PM to increase his likelihood of getting photos with tourists. He will not, however, directly ask anyone for money, despite the fact that by the time he finishes upgrading his costume, he will have spent between $3,000 and $4,000 on it. "I served my country," he says, "and now I'm serving my community."

Money, day jobs, real names—these subjects tend to make many of the Johnny Depps skittish. Some of them don't want their names used. Some of them don't want their faces used. One impersonator backed out suddenly after being interviewed and photographed at length, paranoid that I was trying to expose him, to make him look—what? Ridiculous? Un-Depplike? Maybe the hyper-performative nature of this hustle makes the Johnny Depps wary. Maybe the constant interactions with gaping, stingy tourists make them feel ashamed. Here they are—some of them highly trained actors—caked in makeup, saying the same movie lines over and over again for a distracted audience who would prefer the real thing. This isn't the Hollywood dream. Is it?

Gilbert, who used to dress up as Willy Wonka, is the most bitter of the impersonators. "Please don't show my face," he pleads. "I really, really don't want to be identified, as it can have severe recourse on my person." He's walked into auditions only to have the casting directors say, "Hey, aren't you the guy who dresses up like Willy Wonka?"

It took him two hours to dress the part, which included elaborate makeup, a custom-made suit that cost him thousands of dollars, and violet contact lenses. All this effort, and he says people would hand him a dollar and sneer, "Don't spend it on drugs."

"I would not recommend this gig to anyone," he says. "It's hard, and I am looking for an exit. As an actor, this has been my undoing." Recently, he switched over to another costume—Dr. Frank-N-Furter—because it nets more in tips. The Willy Wonka of Hollywood Boulevard is no more.

Then there's the man who dresses up simply as Johnny Depp. Erez Peretz is a 27-year-old Israeli who's so convincing as Regular Johnny that even the most hardened Angelinos do double takes. All the signifiers are there: the ombré bob, the hat, the glasses, the leather bracelets, the silver rings, the necklaces, the facial hair. He is nearly perfect. He is also hard to track down. This is because he lives mere blocks away and wanders over to the Boulevard whenever he feels like it.

We finally arrange to meet at a coffee shop on the Boulevard, and he appears around the corner very suddenly, looking for all the world like a slightly thicker, slightly younger version of present-day Johnny. In fact, we only talk for about 15 minutes before we're interrupted by a young boy convinced that he is the real thing. "Sorry to bother you," the boy says, "but do you remember Shelly from Miramax?" It takes him a few beats to realize that he's talking to an impersonator. (Apparently Shelly from Miramax used to date the real Johnny Depp years ago, before Depp was famous.)

"I always looked like him somehow, since I was a kid," says Peretz. "I was born with the name Johnny—I'm adopted. 'Little Johnny,' they called me." His look is so on-point that when he went to the courthouse to get married last year, the workers called TMZ, convinced that Johnny himself was about to tie the knot with a stranger. So many people showed up that it took Peretz an hour to get to his own wedding. The next day, both Peretz and his wife were back on the Boulevard again, working (his wife impersonates both a Playboy bunny and Elsa from Frozen).

Peretz has really hit the sweet spot of Johnny Depp impersonators, as his costume costs very little and takes almost no effort to put on. He used to own a pair of glasses that Depp himself wore, which were worth $10,000 and were given to Peretz for free by Depp's own glasses maker. But someone stole them, so now he wears a flawless imitation pair made by the same guy.

On a good day, Peretz will work four to five hours and make anywhere from $80 to $300. On a bad day, he makes $40 or less. He has an entire brood to take care of: his wife's two children, his mother-in-law, and his 19-year-old brother-in-law. Money isn't the only thing offered to him, though. "I get lots of naughty stuff, " he says. "There are lots of girls that say, 'I'm in this hotel, I will pay you to spend the night with me.' They don't care [that I'm not the real Johnny Depp]. It's totally normal, it's America, it's Los Angeles. I take everything as a compliment. A 12-year-old came up to me yesterday and said, 'You are so handsome,' and I said, 'You're 12,' and she said, 'Actually, I'm almost 12.' And then her mom came over and said, 'You are really handsome.'"

Depp's effect on women is well documented, and even Peretz's wife isn't immune to it. He admits that his wife's love of the real Depp "helped me get to her." Now she'll tell him, "I love Johnny, but I love you more." They have an ongoing joke: If Depp "came to her bed," he would join them. Why? "It's Johnny," he says, grinning.

But Peretz's experiences sort of beg the metaphysical question: What does it mean to "be" Johnny Depp, anyway? If enough people think that Peretz is the real Depp, then the line between celebrity and celebrity impersonator starts to blur. After all, celebrity isn't something inherent to Johnny Depp—it's a status that we, his fawning public, have conferred on him. So what happens when we confer that status onto someone else, even mistakenly? Peretz looks so much like the real thing that he says his very existence has affected Real Johnny, albeit mildly. Peretz told me a story about how, last month, TMZ saw Johnny Depp walking down Rodeo Drive and didn't take a single picture of him. Peretz believes they thought the man in the hat and tinted glasses was him.

Like any in-group, the Johnny Depps have allegiances, secrets, and drama. Everyone gossips about everyone else. When Gilbert was Willy Wonka, he and the Mad Hatter used to be pals, but now they hate each other, possibly because the Mad Hatter was in denial about his own sexual orientation. Another Willy Wonka used to stand outside the candy mega-store in the Hollywood and Highland Center until he was fired for yelling racial slurs at customers. The guys who hold up those "$5 Sale!" signs mistakenly think that Peretz is Cinderella's "baby daddy." Jack Sparrow #3 tells me that some of the other Jack Sparrows are "panhandlers." Jack Sparrow #1 sniffs that one of the other pirates "looks more like Dustin Hoffman playing Jack Sparrow than he does Johnny Depp." Peretz laughs at the other characters who have tried to dress up like him: "One had a girly face, one was too chubby, and one talked too much like Jack Sparrow." And they all despise the sketchier characters, who wear cheap costumes and spin lies about having cancer to get bigger tips. "I hate the Halloween costumes," says Gilbert. "They require all the effort of taking a polyester rag out of a Kmart bag."

The job can be great, sure. Many Jonnnys tell me that making people happy—especially kids—is the biggest perk of the job. But when they're not making children's dreams come true, it's a rough gig. The characters of Hollywood Boulevard have a long-standing reputation as creeps, druggies, child molesters, and generally dangerous people. Spongebob has openly felt up women; Mr. Incredible once body-slammed Batgirl; a character from Scream was fatally shot by police for allegedly wielding a knife.

The Johnny Depps, as a whole, are a far classier breed than most of the other impersonators. Perhaps the type of person drawn to Depp's quirky, versatile oeuvre is just naturally more stable? I don't know. What I do know is that getting regularly scammed by tourists under the hot Los Angeles sun can get under an impersonator's skin, especially one who has already dropped $2,000 on a costume just so kids can have 30 thrilling seconds with someone they believe is the real thing.

"Most [of us] go crazy," says Gilbert.

If you stand on Hollywood Boulevard for long enough, and you talk to enough impersonators, and you stare at the eyeliner melting around the eyes of enough Jack Sparrows, and you witness enough selfies, and you trip over enough tourists crouching on the Walk of Fame, you may start to wonder: Why Johnny Depp? Why Jack Sparrow? Why do people care?

Johnny Depp—the real one, age 51, born John Christopher Depp II in Owensboro, Kentucky—is the ultimate absentee here, the void that this strange little industry swirls around. The impersonators are constantly using the language of Johnny; they tell me that Johnny "would do" this or "wouldn't wear" that or "tends to act" this way or "would never" engage in that sort of behavior.

Any connection to Johnny Depp is prized here. Whatever makes the impersonators more like Johnny is valuable, both on a financial level ("movie accuracy" is the ultimate goal) but also on some sort of spiritual level. It's almost as though some of the impersonators see themselves as lesser Johnnys—not the real thing, but a fragment of his public persona. During one of my visits, Ansalvish places his hands and feet in the handprints and footprints of Depp himself to show me that their measurements match up. To do this, he has to kneel by Depp's star. Erez Peretz says that he and Johnny have the exact same face shape. These facts are presented as magical coincidences: What are the odds, they seem to say, that he and I are so much alike?

Ansalvish saw the real Johnny Depp outside of an event once. Depp was, of course, being ushered into some inner sanctum by a gaggle of security guards, while Ansalvish stood on the sidewalk in his painstakingly accurate costume. Ansalvish tells me that Johnny Depp looked over at his unauthorized doppelgänger, pressed his hands together in a gesture of gratitude, and gave a little bow. Again and again, the stories come back to Johnny, who defected from this world of starving actors long ago.

Still, there's power in looking like a powerful thing. "I'm like the Godfather here," says Peretz, shortly after being mistaken, once again, for the real Depp. "None of the other characters will fight me, even if they don't like me. I'm the image of Johnny Depp." And then he lights up a cigarette and leans against a store window, waiting for someone to ask him for a picture.

See more of Michelle Groskopf's photography on her website and on Instagram.

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