Johnny Depp talks 'Alice in Wonderland'
Johnny Depp tells Mark Salisbury about Vanessa Paradis's teeth, why Carroll purists won't like his 'Alice in Wonderland' and why he's looking forward to working with 'good girl' Angelina Jolie
There are actors, and there are movie stars, and there are those rare few who are both. Johnny Depp has never shied away from disguising himself for a role, messing about with his features in pursuit of a character, be it swashbuckling dandy Jack Sparrow in ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ or the maddest Hatter imaginable in Tim Burton’s new take on ‘Alice in Wonderland’. Thoughtful, reflective, with a wry sense of humour and a sensitive, gentle manner, in the flesh Depp has lost none of his youthful verve and looks as effortlessly cool as ever.
Some people tend to think of ‘Alice in Wonderland’ as quaint and cutesy because of the 1951 Disney cartoon, yet Lewis Carroll’s book is dark, surreal and disturbing. Perfect material, in fact, for Tim Burton…
‘There’s an absurdist, circus kind of atmosphere. There’s a profound kind of darkness and element of danger. There’s hilarity and it’s incredibly poetic. All those things, I think, are the main ingredients that make Tim Burton Tim Burton. Dark, edgy, unique, funny. Those words can describe not only this book and this movie, but Tim.’
Were you a fan of the book already?
‘Who isn’t? “Alice in Wonderland” is one of the top 25 books of all time. I always loved the book and I always loved the various characters, the psychedelic nature of it and kind-of odd allegorical stories inside stories. I always thought it was beautiful.’
How did you approach the role?
‘I had re-read the book not all that long before and there were lines that I was pretty fascinated by, that I thought were clues to the character, little morsels. The Mad Hatter makes a statement: “I am investigating things that begin with the letter M,” and it’s never dealt with for the rest of the book. It’s because of the mercury. He couldn’t quite remember. He remembered the M. That’s as far as he got [laughs]. And, of course, you think Hatter, “mad as a hatter”, that whole thing comes from mercury poisoning, because they used mercury in the hatting process back then, and guys would start going weird.’
You’ve said the idea for the Hatter’s appearance arrived very quickly.
‘It was almost in an instant. I mean, I had a pretty strong idea of what he should look like and, of course, spoke to Tim about it and wanted to make sure he was okay. When Tim and I got together, I pulled out my little watercolours and Tim pulled out his drawings and they weren’t all that dissimilar. Tim said, “I like the orange hair.” He liked the multicoloured, watercoloury face – like a weird clown, I suppose.’
Do your characters always come together so fast?
‘There have been a couple that have arrived pretty quick; then others you find. That’s really a weird one, when they arrive a few weeks after you’ve already been playing them and you go, “Shit! Can I go back and reshoot stuff?” And I have gone back and reshot stuff. But the Hatter came very quick. As did Captain Jack.’
Is it true you based the Hatter on someone you know?
‘There’s one person, in particular, who is the main ingredient for the Hatter and if I said who it was they’d probably be upset. It’s someone I came into contact with and was fascinated by the way this person spoke. And I knew then, when I met the person, that I was going to sponge off them as much as I could, and use them one day as a character. And I did.’
I read an interview with your partner Vanessa Paradis in which she claimed you stole the idea for the gap in the Hatter’s teeth from her!
‘[Laughs] Well, maybe on some level… The French call the teeth with the gap in the middle “les dents de bonheur” – “the teeth of happiness”. They’re like good-luck teeth, you know? You know what I had in my head initially? I’m so used to her teeth – I think they’re so sweet and everything – but I was actually thinking of Terry-Thomas. I had that kind of Terry-Thomas thing in my head.’
Sometimes your Hatter speaks with a Scottish accent, other times English. Was the Scottish accent based on anyone in particular?
‘I did eastern Scottish, like Aberdeen, in “Finding Neverland” and I was sort-of always interested in Glaswegian because there’s a real danger to it.’
How do you think Carroll purists are going to react to the film?
‘Don’t go see the movie, man! A Roald Dahl purist definitely shouldn’t watch my Wonka. But if you’re a purist, don’t watch Gene Wilder’s Wonka because Roald Dahl wasn’t particularly enthusiastic about that. It’s such a separate entity. We’ve taken these characters from the book and taken a couple of flips and turns.’
You’ve worked with Burton on seven films. What is it about him that keeps you coming back?
‘He leaves you such room to play, to mess around. That’s the opportunity you dream of as an actor, to say, “I’d like to try something. It might be absolute crap, but I’d like to try it and see if it works.” If you set out to do something and you don’t try to push a little harder, what’s the point, especially with a character like the Hatter. Tim allows you that room, that flexibility.’
After Alice, you went to Puerto Rico to star in ‘The Rum Diary’, an adaptation of Hunter S Thompson’s novel, for ‘Withnail & I’ director Bruce Robinson, who hasn’t made a film since ‘Jennifer Eight’ in 1992. How was he?
‘Yeah, man, he was out, Christ almighty, 17 years or something. He just wasn’t having it. I think the last thing he went through was the studio system and he found it so vile that he just didn’t want to attempt it again. So he just wrote, and hung out, and did what he did.’
You’re due to star in a fourth ‘Pirates…’ this summer, as well as playing Tonto in ‘The Lone Ranger’, and reunite with Burton for ‘Dark Shadows’, but first you're shooting ‘The Tourist’ with Angelina Jolie. What’s it like?
‘ “The Tourist” is something that kind-of arrived with Angelina Jolie attached and it seems good. It seems like something different for me. If it’s related to anything genre-wise it’s got a “North by Northwest” feel to it that I like. I’ve seen her in a couple of things and she seems awfully great, you know: seems like a good girl. Loves her family, loves her man, loves the work.’
‘Alice in Wonderland’ opens on Friday
Author: Mark Salisbury
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