A New Kind of Cool

updated 03/22/2004 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/22/2004 AT 01:00 AM EST

At the Academy Awards on Feb. 29, red-carpet watchers saw a whole new Johnny Depp: The famously scruffy Oscar nominee was surprisingly clean-shaven and especially dapper in a Gucci tuxedo. Gone were the tangled locks, replaced with a new do by Laurent D. of L.A.'s Privé Salon. The look "was going back to glamor but with an edge," says Laurent, who clipped Depp's hair just hours before the Oscars at the actor's Hollywood Hills home. There they spoke French, drank wine and listened to jazz as Depp's girlfriend, French pop singer Vanessa Paradis, 31, and their kids Lily-Rose, 4, and Jack, 23 months, wandered about. The style switch was deliberate, says Laurent: "He was looking for something different and wanted to make an effort."

At 40, Depp does seem more Hollywood-friendly these days. Though he has a $2 million villa in the French village of Plan de la Tour, he spends about half the year in Los Angeles and has even signed on to star in a sequel to Pirates of the Caribbean, last summer's $650 million international hit that earned Depp his Oscar nomination for Best Actor. His new thriller, Secret Window, is based on a Stephen King novella—a far cry from the edgy, sometimes bewildering movies he has often favored over more commercial projects throughout his career. In Window, he plays a terrorized writer who spends much of the film in a tattered bathrobe (the star's idea) and supplies the movie with the winningly off-kilter touch audiences have come to expect. "It's been a very shocking year," says PEOPLE'S reigning Sexiest Man Alive. "It's been a really wonderful year on many levels. I'm not sure I'll ever understand it."

Post-Pirates, "he's got little kids asking for his autograph now," says Pirates producer Jerry Bruckheimer. "It also showed the studios that he can carry a big movie." But even while he's enjoying his mainstream success, Depp hasn't hurt his artistic rep. Though Mystic River's Sean Penn beat him at the Oscars, Depp won a surprise award for his Pirates performance from the Screen Actors Guild last month. And several of his upcoming projects (see box) mark a return to more adventurous fare. Says Secret Window producer Gavin Polone: "Ultimately, it will be about him making decisions from a creative point of view."

And then there is his commitment to family. Arriving a little late to the Secret Window set one day, "he said, 'I'm sorry, my daughter really wanted to play, and there was no two ways about it,' " recalls Polone. No doubt his kids will be delighted by Dad's upcoming role as Willy Wonka, played by Gene Wilder in '71's Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. "Growing up with [Wilder's] performance is an amazing thing," says Depp. Then he makes a promise that no one doubts he can deliver on: "But now I have to go in another direction completely."

Michelle Tauber. Ruth Andrew Ellenson, Michael Fleeman, Amy Gurvitz and Marisa Laudadio in Los Angeles

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