I like to grade my interviews based on how jealous they make my little sister, and this one ranks pretty highly. Having a chance to talk to Johnny Depp is obviously any Jump Street fan’s dream come true, and even if there was no time to talk about how he measures up to Richard Grieco, it was a blast.
Depp was in Toronto supporting Tim Burton’s new stop motion animated feature The Corpse Bride, where he plays a young man who accidentally gets married to a cadaver. I think we’ve all had nights like that, honestly. Depp showed up for the small press conference still wearing Captain Jack Sparrow’s gold teeth and whispy goatee, ready to dive back in for Pirates of the Caribbean 3.
Q: You’ve done many different genres of movies in your career, but this was your first animated one. Was that something that you had wanted to do for a while, and what appealed to you about this one?
Depp: It was something I wanted to do, something I always wanted to do. Since having my first child I’ve been watching nothing but animated films. So I really developed a respect and love for them. But more than anything what drew me to this was Tim. We were just commencing Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and he said, ‘Hey, I’ve got this other thing, The Corpse Bride.’ So I read it and loved it but somehow it didn’t occur to me that we would be doing it at the same time – I thought we would be doing it months down the road, so I would have some time to prepare the character. You can imagine my surprise when, as I was very focused on Wonka, Tim arrives on set and says, ‘Hey maybe tonight we’ll go and record Corpse Bride!’ I was like, ‘… Sure… Of course we can… I have no character!’ I didn’t know what the guy was going to sound like or anything. Good fun, though.
Q: How did you approach the character in that case, and how did you decide on that particular English accent?
Depp: Everything for Corpse Bride happened very quick. It all happened in about fifteen or twenty minutes. Literally. I had to finish the day as Wonka and then right after work Tim and I were going over to the studio for the session. The process lasted about the length of the walk from the soundstage to the recording studio, which was pretty quick, where I just grilled Tim. I said, ‘OK, where’s he from? What do you want him to sound like?’ And then he was just born in that little bit of time. And I didn’t hear him until they gave me the nod, when they started recording. The preparation for this – I was remiss, basically. I should be flogged.
Q: Do your kids think it’s cooler that you’re a cartoon or that you’re a pirate?
Depp: I don’t know. I’ll ask them. The funny thing is with my kids – my daughter is six and my son is three – my daughter is quite calm and ladylike and princessy, so she can sit there and watch a movie and not get antsy. But my boy will watch for about three and a half seconds and then sprint as fast as he can across the room to go break something. With this film, we watched Corpse Bride together, my boy sat on my lap and watched the entire film, just didn’t move. He was just riveted – he loved it. That says a lot. It’s so full, this movie.
Q: It wasn’t too scary for him?
Depp: No. There were certainly moments where he got that jolt, but so did I.
Q: What do you usually do to prepare for characters when you have more than fifteen minutes?
Depp: I don’t know. I think with any character it all comes from somewhere in there. It starts from some place of truth within you. It’s weird, when I read the script I get these images and stuff, these sorts of ideas come to me. Sometimes the image of people will come to me. With Sleepy Hollow I kept seeing Roddy McDowell, Angela Lansbury kind of thing. That became the inspiration. With Captain Jack, Keith [Richards] became the inspiration because I started thinking of pirates as rock stars of the time, with the idea that their legend arrived months, maybe years before they did. You just start taking little tidbits of things, storing them up to use later.
Q: Do you find it comes from external media for you as much as inside you?
Depp: Not so much media – for example one of the primary responsibilities (and luxuries) of an actor is the art of observation. Being able to watch people, watch their behavior. Which is fascinating, because people are really nuts. I’ve really enjoyed that over the years, stealing little bits from people.
Q: Keith Richards says that there’s one big song in the sky and everyone reaches up and pulls from it. Can you apply that to your own work – will you always be able to reach up and pull down characters.
Depp: As long as I am able to observe people, I feel like I’m always going to be able to store these little tidbits and gems that people give me. Or that I steal, whatever. But there was a moment years back when I was sitting having a conversation with good old Marlon Brando, bless him, and he said, [in a pretty good Brando voice] ‘How many movies do you do a year?’ And I said, ‘I don’t know, sometimes two, sometimes three.’ And he said, ‘You gotta watch yourself. We only have so many faces in our pockets.’ All this time later I’m starting to realize how right he was. He was very, very wise.
Q: What was your reaction when you first saw the Victor puppet?
Depp: I was very lucky in that I got to meet Victor the puppet just before the session. So just as I was walking into the studio, there he was in all his glory. And there was the Corpse Bride and everyone else. That was helpful. The amazing thing is, and people have said this, that there is some degree of resemblance. The funny thing is that they came up with those designs like a year before.
Q: Did you find that voice acting is more difficult than acting on camera?
Depp: I wouldn’t say that it’s more difficult, but I did go in there thinking, ‘Yeah, this doesn’t seem like it’ll be so difficult! You’ve got a piece of paper, you read it, the guy records it, you’re done.’ Not that at all. It’s much more like – you’re doing scenes with people you’ve never met and they’re not there. Your job is to pull these words off the paper, salt and pepper them, just layer them with stuff, and send it out there in a very non-organic environment. I wouldn’t say it’s as difficult as filmmaking, but it’s not easy either.
Q: This is your fifth collaboration with Tim Burton – can you talk about the dynamic between the two of you at this point?
Depp: I just think he’s a genius. And that’s not a word you can throw around so easily. I think Tim is so special, so unique. Our working relationship is, as you can imagine, weird. There is a sort of emotional shorthand there. There’s this language that, even crew guys have come up to me and said, ‘I just watched you and Tim discussing the scene and I have no idea what you were saying. I didn’t understand a word.’ There is some kind of connection that I don’t know how to explain, but most of the time – at least for me – all I’m trying to do is make him laugh. In the scene you can have all these motivations and objectives as an actor and stuff but when I get in the ring it basically all goes out the window and I want to make Tim laugh. I just want to see in my peripheral vision his sort of hunched over giggle where he’s trying to not make noise.
Q: You talked about what Marlon Brando said to you. What kind of advice or inspiration could you give another actor?
Depp: Oh boy. That’s dangerous territory. I don’t know that I’m in a position to inspire anyone. I don’t know how to answer that. I honestly don’t. You got me.
Q: Johnny, how has that collaboration evolved over time? Is it like a marriage, and do you expect to grow old together?
Depp: I sure hope so. But that’s up to you guys. When you see him you have to force him to give me another job. It’s funny; the process itself hasn’t changed at all since Edward Scissorhands. Even on Scissorhands itself, when we were just getting to know one another and feeling one another out, and building that all important foundation of trust, it was still the same. He would come in and say, ‘This is where I think it should go, but at the same time what do you think,’ and I would add my two cents which would give him a new idea and it would just mount into this insanity. Which somehow, there was this trust before we knew we could trust each other, so it made the process exactly the same. He includes you in almost every single level of the production. It’s pretty amazing.
Q: You’re living with Jack Sparrow for another year of your life. What are you discovering about him?
Depp: I just discovered that it occurs to me that I think that Jack Sparrow can be funny. So I’m going to try that this time. No, I don’t know – selfishly, the whole idea of sequels to me is a very odd notion. I never understood the idea of doing sequels until, as an actor, you think I’ve spent months doing this guy and I’ve gotten to know this guy and the clock starts ticking and the end is coming, and you go, ‘Jesus, I’ll never see him again. I’ll never feel this again.’ You start to get depressed and all that. And with Jack Sparrow I had the sneaking suspicion I might see him again. Selfishly I was so excited to do 2 and 3 because I wanted to meet up with him again.
Q: What’s so special about him?
Depp: I wouldn’t say there’s anything particularly special about him, it’s just someone I’ve gotten to know. You do end up with these weird – it’s a strange situation when you’re a grown man having separation anxieties with an imaginary character. It’s worrisome, because you know it’s not normal but you can’t stop yourself. I like the guy, he’s a pal.
Q: Another person you’ve collaborated with is Terry Gilliam, who’s back this year with two movies. He’s talking about revisiting Don Quixote and trying to do that film again. Would you be into going back to that?
Depp: I would love to. If there were any way to avoid the curse, that would be better.
Q: Does he talk to you about it?
Depp: Every time I see him he threatens this – in fact I saw him last night. I would love to do it again. Well, do it again – I don’t want to do that again. I want to do the film if at all possible. And I stress that – if at all possible. It was really going to be good. That was the thing we all felt, and it was really sad. It was going to be good. It was the best of Terry Gilliam, and I felt really good about my character. The good news is that if he wants to go back and do that, I know my character, so that’s less homework I have to do.
Q: One of the things that’s great about Victor is that there is some ambiguity about his motivations and his desires, which is so rare in animated movies. He goes back and forth between the two women. Can you tell us how you read the character?
Depp: He felt like a guy that I knew. When I read it he didn’t feel all that dissimilar from other characters that I’ve played for Tim, in just base emotional feeling. Along the line of Scissorhands, that was what I felt.
The funny thing is that I didn’t expect to get to a point where I as a reader or I as a viewer would step outside of the actor in me and go, ‘Man, I think he should stay with the Corpse Bride!’ I really found myself in that dilemma, which helped a lot when recording it. Even in reading it, I felt that Victoria Everglott is fantastic and everything, and thank God they fell in love, but the Corpse Bride is so magnificent. Have you ever looked at a corpse and thought, ‘Wow, she’s really sexy.’ But she is wildly sexy.
Q: The Corpse Bride shows a very fun afterlife – more fun than the land of the living. Does that concur with your own views on the hereafter?
Depp: It’s a complete mystery to me. I think it would be great if you one day went to sleep and woke up and it was 1920s Paris. That would be excellent. But I don’t know – there could be just dirt and worms.
But I certainly hope so; it was a pretty snazzy place Tim dreamed up for the land of the dead.
Q: You always have odd and lovable characters, and the only thing that has changed for you recently is that your films make a shitload of money. How has becoming Mr. Blockbuster changed your life?
Depp: It hasn’t changed my – here’s an oxymoron for you – work ethic. It hasn’t changed my approach to the work; it hasn’t changed my outlook to the work. I’ve been very lucky in my life that I have worn many hats. I’ve done everything from sold ink pens over the telephone to screen printed t-shirts to work construction, was a musician for a number of years, was a bus boy. I’ve done a lot of different things, and I’ve had a great deal of luck in this business. I’m somewhat together enough to know that if the ride is going smooth and fun and well and that everything is peachy keen this week, all of that could evaporate next week. And then I’m once again that weird guy that does art films. Which is OK.
I always said that I never had any allergy to the idea of commercial success, it was how you got there that was important.