Depp Reunites With Tim Burton For His Maddest Role To Date
By Alex S. Morrison
It’s become a cliché in recent years to suggest that Hollywood lacks originality. But in an economy where innovation is less important than the bottom line, it seems as if creativity has become something of a liability. As a result, it’s increasingly rare to find actors and filmmakers who achieve commercial success on their own terms, swimming directly against the mainstream.
These days, Johnny Depp is about as huge as movie stars get: His last five live-action films (Public Enemies, Sweeney Todd, two Pirates of the Caribbean sequels and the Charlie & the Chocolate Factory remake) have made over $1 billion at the U.S. box office alone, earning an average of $217 million each, and he was recently named People Magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive for 2009. With his role as the Mad Hatter in this month’s Alice In Wonderland, that hot streak doesn’t appear likely to end any time soon. But throughout his career, the unconventional actor has opted to take the road less traveled more often than not, riding a rebellious reputation and engendering an enigmatic image that has made his career arc both impossible to predict and fascinating to watch.
Born in Owensboro, Kentucky in 1963 and raised in Florida, Depp dropped out of high school at the age of 15 in hopes of becoming a rock star. He didn’t consider acting until his early twenties, when his first wife (makeup artist Lori Allison) introduced him to Nicolas Cage, who encouraged him to giving the craft a try. Early roles in A Nightmare On Elm Street and the TV show 21 Jump Street seemed to have him on a date with destiny as a teen heartthrob, but Depp quickly realized that typical leading man roles held no interest for him.
“It’s good fun playing characters like Captain Jack and Willy Wonka, who can do things I’d never dream of doing,” the 46-year-old admits. “I feel like these guys are straight characters. They may seem bizarre, but I think everybody's nuts. The weirdest thing in the world to me is to see some guy who’s super-earnest. As far as doing that, there would have to be something underneath for me to make that work. Otherwise, there are a bunch of guys who do that kind of thing very well. I don't think I could. I've got to have a bunch of different things going on, with lots of layers.”
Depp found his cinematic soulmate in director Tim Burton, with whom Alice In Wonderland marks his seventh pairing. It was his breakthrough role as an alienated outcast of boyish beauty and an almost tragic poetic grace in Burton’s 1990 classic, Edward Scissorhands, that irrevocably altered the course of Depp’s career and established a creative bond with Burton that remains more vibrant than ever today.
“Tim was the guy who went out on a limb and took a chance on me,” Depp recalls fondly. “I know over the years he’s had to butt heads with the studios quite a few times to allow me to be in his films, because I wasn’t particularly popular at the time. He’s fought long, hard battles to get me in and won, so there’s a bond of love and respect that will be there forever. But he also happens to be one of the most interesting filmmakers of all time in my opinion, so I feel really lucky to have been chosen by him. We have a similar outlook and similar sensibilities.”
Those shared sensibilities between muse and mentor– including a dark sense of humor, flamboyant appearance, a love of gothic imagery and an affinity for outsiders whose eccentricities leave them misunderstood by society– made Depp and Burton a potent filmmaking team. They collaborated on three films in the ‘90s, earning them a legion of devoted fans among the burgeoning alternative subculture.
But Depp’s rise to the top of Hollywood’s A-list was hardly meteoric. For every critical success such as What’s Eating Gilbert Grape and Donnie Brasco, there was a string of disappointments, including Nick of Time, The Ninth Gate and The Astronaut’s Wife, which made his career seem more erratic than eclectic. Tabloid stories of drugs and debauchery, troubled romances with Kate Moss and Winona Ryder, and high-profile arrests threatened to overshadow his career. Worst of all, the studio system didn’t seem to have a clue what to do with his idiosyncratic approach.
“For years there were people saying, ‘You have to do this kind of movie because you've got to make money.’ I always felt like, hopefully the money will come at some point, but if it doesn't that's all right. I've done the things I felt were right in terms of movies,” he insists. “The only problem I ever had in terms of frustration with Hollywood was that I didn't think they understood the movies that I did and didn't know how to sell them properly, because they didn't know how to label them.”
According to Depp, his frustrations with being perceived as an industry outsider began to dissipate when he found out that his girlfriend, French actress-singer Vanessa Paradis, was pregnant with the couple’s first child, daughter Lily-Rose. “Knowing I was going to have a kid made it a lot easier to roll with the punches,” he says. “It put a lot of things in perspective. When I found out Vanessa and I were going to have a baby, you figure out what's important real quick. I finally understood what it was all about for me.”
The result of that life-altering development was a move to France with Paradis and a resurgent career that began with 2000’s Chocolat, and exploded with 2003’s Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. Loosely basing Captain Jack Sparrow on Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards, Depp’s wildly original character choices captured the imaginations of audiences around the world, to the tune of over $650 million in global box office and five Oscar nominations (including a Best Actor nod for Depp). The sequels were even more successful, ranking as the #2 and #5 top-grossing films of the decade.
“I had about 20 years of studio-defined failures,” Depp admits, “but to me they were all great successes because we got them done. In terms of what struck a chord with Pirates, I believe studios were underestimating the intelligence of the audience. Those films had such a different angle– that hyper kind of realism, and the insane action sequences– it wasn't something they've seen all that much. Some people could look at it and say, ‘A-ha, Depp sold out!’ But I don’t believe that I have. I think there’s so much more to explore with that character that I’d keep going and do Pirates of the Caribbean 7.”
In the wake of POTC’s success, Depp has continued to make the sort of eclectic career choices that have defined his career, whether singing Sondheim as a murderous barber in Sweeney Todd, stepping into the late Heath Ledger’s shoes to help Terry Gilliam finish The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus or lending his voice to a 2009 episode of SpongeBob SquarePants. According to Tim Burton, Depp’s willingness to tackle any unusual challenge thrown his way is a major element of his appeal.
“He’ll try anything!” the director says with a laugh. “The fact that he's not a singer, but would tackle one of the hardest musicals ever written, that says it all for me. He's really willing to put himself out there, and for me it’s an artistic pleasure to see someone try different things and actually achieve it beyond expectations. He's just completely open to whatever you throw at him, and he doesn’t have any vanity about it. He gets into the spirit of doing it rather than sitting around and analyzing everything.”
Of course, Depp would credit much of that spirit to his unconditional trust in Burton, who clearly culls the actor’s most colorful performances. "I think he's a genius,” Depp says of the director, “and that's not a word that you can throw around very easily. Tim is so special and unique and our working relationship is weird, because there’s an emotional shorthand there that I don't know how to explain. You can have all these motivations and objectives as an actor, but when I get into the scene it basically all goes out the window and I'm just trying to make Tim laugh.”
It’s a heck of an image: Two of Hollywood’s most respected visionary talents on the set of an expensive film adaptation of one of the most beloved books in the history of literature, trying to crack each other up like a couple of crazy school boys having a lark at recess. But it’s also completely consistent with his character. Like Burton, Depp has forged a successful Hollywood career out of embracing his left-of-center inner child, always taking the job seriously, but never himself.
“Somebody mentioned me being on some Forbes list [of the highest-paid actors],” Depp says with a chuckle, “and it just made me laugh. I've done everything from selling ink pens over the telephone and screen-printing T-shirts to working construction and being a busboy. I've had a great deal of luck in this business, but I'm somewhat together enough to know that if the ride is going smooth this week, then all that could evaporate next week. Then I'm once again that weird guy that does art films, which is okay. I've never had any allergy to the idea of commercial success: It was just how I got there that was important."