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He starred in it as a poor Native American man, who accepts a proposal from a wealthy man, played by Marlon Brando, to appear in a snuff film in exchange for money for his family. Thompson, and played his alter ego Raoul Duke in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998), Terry Gilliam's film adaptation of Thompson's pseudobiographical novel of the same name.

Depp became a popular teen idol during the late 1980s, when he starred as a police officer who goes on an undercover operation in a high school in the Fox television series 21 Jump Street, which premiered in 1987.

Depp's first film release in 1990 was John Waters' Cry-Baby, a musical comedy set in the 1950s.

Depp later stated that he was at the time depressed about films and filmmaking, but that "within 10 minutes of hearing about the project, I was committed." Ed Wood received critical acclaim, with Janet Maslin of The New York Times writing that Depp had "proved himself as an established, certified great actor" and "captured all the can-do optimism that kept Ed Wood going, thanks to an extremely funny ability to look at the silver lining of any cloud." The following year, Depp starred in three films.

He played opposite Marlon Brando in the box-office hit Don Juan De Marco, as a man who believes he is Don Juan, the world's greatest lover.

Depp has said that Sparrow is "definitely a big part of me", Depp was again nominated for the Best Actor Academy Award for his performance as Scottish author J. The film was a box office success and had a positive critical reception, In 2007, Depp also collaborated with Burton for their sixth film together, this time playing murderous barber Sweeney Todd in the musical Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007).

Burton had first given him an original cast recording of the 1979 stage musical in 2000, and although not a fan of the musical genre, Depp had grown to like the tale's treatment.

Depp has taken on the task of challenging himself to portray "larger-than-life" roles, starting with a supporting role in Oliver Stone's Vietnam War film Platoon in 1986, then playing the title character in the romantic dark fantasy Edward Scissorhands (1990).