He was an indie darling, an alternative scene heartthrob, and always an acclaimed performer. It was until recently however that Johnny Depp crossed over into mainstream superstardom thanks to his performance as Captain Jack Sparrow in 2003’s “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl”.
Since then he has shrewdly been picking his next projects carefully and now stands on the brink of delivering yet another signature role, this time as Willy Wonka in Tim Burton’s new adaptation of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”.
Currently in the Caribbean shooting two ‘Pirates’ sequels back to back, the press was invited down to the Bahamas to meet with the Oscar nominee in question to talk about his interpretation of the classic Wonka character, how the ‘Pirates’ sequels are going and what’s up next for him.
Question: You’ve been very open about your influences for Captain Jack Sparrow. Was there anyone who was your model for Wonka?
Depp: On this film with Willy Wonka there wasn’t specifically any one or two guys that were models, so to speak, for the character, but there were memories that I have of when I was a little kid of watching children’s shows and children show hosts. I distinctly remember, even at that age, their speech pattern and their kind of musical quality of the way they’re speaking to the camera, to the children.
I thought, even then, it was really strange. I thought it was super bizarre because it was all, “Hello, children. How are you??” You know, that kind of thing. Guys that I watched like Captain Kangaroo and Mr. Rogers and Uncle Al became that main part of the ingredient. Game show hosts that I remember seeing and watching and thinking, “My God! They can’t be like that at home. They can’t actually be like that.”
Which sort of led me to believe that they put on a mask to get that all-important positive smile. So, that was the other side of Wonka. And then doing stuff for the look of Wonka was incredibly important. It was incredibly important to have a feel for it and to be able to put that costume on and click those veneers into my mouth and the teeth, which actually changed the shape of my face a little bit.
Question: You’d previously mentioned that one of the hardships about making films for you now is that you’ve had to be away from your kids. You’ve tried to keep them around you as much as possible?
Depp: Yes, they’re here. They’re with me. The most I’ve ever been apart from my kids in my career was four or five weeks, and that drove me mad. One shouldn’t have to do that. I can’t do it. So I, as much as humanly possible, I bring them with me on location. And if Vanessa is doing a film and I’m not working, I’ll go on location with her. So, yeah, I have to have them around.
Question: What was your inspiration for this interpretation of Willy Wonka?
Depp: As a kid, from what I understand, I’d like to think I was like Charlie, but I don’t think I was. My [mother] says that I was… she uses the term hellion. I wasn’t obnoxious or precocious, but I was curious. A lot of practical jokes and stuff like that. I got on her nerves, basically. I pissed her off quite frequently.
Question: Some have already drawn the conclusion that your interpretation of the character could be likened to Michael Jackson. Tim and you have already stated that this never was the case. Does the fact that this comparison has been made bother you?
Depp: It doesn’t bother me. Everybody’s entitled to think what they want, even while being violently wrong. (Laughs) The weird thing is, that actually never occurred to me, that there would ever be any kind of connection to Michael Jackson. It never entered my mind. I still don’t quite understand it. I guess I can on one level because of the make-up and the children and the fantasyland kind of thing. But it seems weird to me. I say if there was anyone you’d want to compare Wonka to it would be a Howard Hughes, almost. Reclusive, germaphobe, controlling.
Question: Can you tell us, what was it about Freddie Highmore that made you so convinced he was the right kid to play Charlie? What was it that you said to Tim as far as convincing him to cast Freddie?
Depp: Have you guys met Freddie yet? He’s pretty impressive. The first thing that struck me about Freddie when I met him on Finding Neverland were his eyes. Not just because they’re these piercing, beautiful blue eyes. It was something in that there’s a purity in Freddie that is astonishing. It’s mesmerizing. He’s incapable of lying or telling a lie. He’s just so pure. That’s the first thing. And then you get to work with him see what his abilities are as an actor. He’s super talented. Beyond all of the great things that Freddie is, yes, he’s a great actor, he’s had great success as a young actor, but it doesn’t remotely interest him really. He wants to play football. He goes on vacations with his family. He’s just a really normal, very well-rounded kid.
Question: You do tend to move around from character to character? Is that a reflection of your life? Do you think you’ll now do something completely different than Jack Sparrow or Willy Wonka?
Depp: About moving around, I don’t want to be stuck in one spot. My childhood was spent moving around. We were total nomads. Like gypsies just moving from one place to another all of the time and it’s just kind of ingrained into my psyche, into my being. So, I couldn’t stand being in one spot for too long a period of time. Essentially we spilt the year out. Six months in Los Angeles and six months in France. It just seems to work for us. I like, very selfishly and very simply, I like keeping a distance from Hollywood and the sort of whatever… social expectations in Hollywood… because I’m not good at it. I’m really not good at that kind of game. I find great comfort in having that distance because I don’t have the pressure or responsibility of knowing who’s the top dog this week and who’s out from last week. I don’t know who anybody is and I really like it.
Question: Did you get to spend a lot of time with the Oompa-Loompa man himself, Deep Roy?
Depp: He’s a ball, man. He’s a real force to be reckoned with. We started calling him the hardest working man in show business. I’d see him on a Tuesday and he’d be in his red Oompa-Loompa outfit and then on the Wednesday he’d be in his blue outfit Oompa-Loompa outfit and then on Thursday the white one. And then on Friday he’s dressed up as like this 80’s metal star. It was like, “What are you doing?” He was all over the place. He’s just incredible.
Question: You had quite a strange experience at Cannes, can you tell us about that? Your film The Brave was well received by some, but then on the other hand, it was loathed by others.
Depp: You know what was traumatizing, what was very, very strange in terms of this film I directed a few years back called The Brave. Well, I guess I wouldn’t say traumatizing, but I would say weird: at the premiere of the film the reception of it was beyond any expectation that I had. I had no idea I’d be looking at Bertolucci or Antonioni sitting there watching my film. And then to receive the applause that my film got, it was so incredible. And then the next day the majority of the American press, just turn it into this horrible thing. Once again, everybody is entitled to their opinion, man. Maybe it’s a bad film? Maybe it’s a good film? To me it’s just a film. It’s something I needed to make.
Question: How are things going with Pirates of the Caribbean 2?
Depp: We’ve been shooting Pirates 2 for a few months now. We had a hiatus that was planned. It was supposed to start tomorrow, but we went into hiatus a bit early because of bits that we were going to shoot up in Grand Bahama; sets and stuff that weren’t ready. But more than that, one of our actors, one of our main guys, Kevin McNally who plays Gibs, ended up with a really nasty ear infection in both ears. He was in England and unable to get on a plane. So we just weighed all of the options and said we’ll break now, go on hiatus, and when we start up again we’ll finish the bit through to 2.
Question: Any truth to the rumor you’re trying to get Keith Richards to play your father in the movie?
Question: Will he?
Depp: I don’t know exactly. It looks like it’s going to happen but I don’t know when. It’s all going to depend on where we are and where he is. Because, you know, he’s got a little thing called the Rolling Stones tour.
Question: What did you think of their decision to add some flashbacks to Wonka’s childhood to add depth to the character?
Depp: The first thing I thought was that it was very brave of [screenwriter] John August and Tim to make that decision and to go in that direction. And to keep it in the spirit of Roald Dahl’s intent was no small undertaking. In terms of cinema it’s a great tool. It’s a beautiful luxury for an actor because it explains of the back-story, a lot of where Wonka comes from. But for an audience it gives you a bit more insight to what this guy is and how he’s become what he’s become. So, yeah, I was really pleased about the back-story.
Question: You’ve now received Oscar nominations two years in a row. Would you like to get another one for this film?
Depp: It’s not something that I think about everyday. I try not to think about that kind of stuff. I’m really flattered and honored that I’ve been able to get the nominations and stuff for various awards that I ended up getting. That was like totally unexpected and shocking to me. In fact, that’s sort of enough for me. The nomination, that was fine. I don’t like to go up in front of all those people and say thanks. You know what I mean? That stuff scares the s*** out of me. I just scares me. Winning would be nice but I don’t need it. For me it’s all about the work and the need to do something.
Question: As a kid having seen Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory did you ever dream you’d play the man himself?
Depp: No. My dream, always when I was growing up, was that I wanted to be a rock & roll guitar player. (Laughs)
Question: In portraying Hunter S. Thompson in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas you became very close to him. How have things been for you since his passing?
Depp: On the day that Hunter made his exit it was… I found out… It must have been an hour or two hours after it actually happened. It was and is – even though on the one hand I understand. He was a guy who lived his life exactly the way he wanted to live it. He dictated to life what it was going to be like, and so he made his exit in the same way. It… it doesn’t make it hurt any less. He was a great hero, a great pal and a great friend. He was a pop, he was a father, he was a grandfather. He was so many things to so many people. I, I’ll miss him every day. And I think about that bastard every day. (Laughs)
Question: Are you and Tim Burton just essentially drawn to bringing to life more quirky characters?
Depp: We both have a tendency to do that. I think Tim and I share as well, there’s a kind of fascination with people, with human beings. The human animal. And I think we share also the idea that most people in life, especially the one that are considered super normal, you really can kind of step back and observe them and watch them. You’ll realize that they’re actually really fascinating. Most people are really nice and that’s fascinating to watch. And I think Tim feels the same way.