After over 25 years in the entertainment business there’s nothing Johnny Depp hasn’t done. He’s played almost every role under the sun and he continues to stun audiences with his character choices. This weekend, he’ll star in what seems like his umpteenth Tim Burton production entitled, Alice in Wonderland. The actor plays The Mad Hatter, the highly unconventional, and topically crazy confidant of Alice.
When Depp appeared at the Alice in Wonderland press conference, his presence was very calming but in the back of your mind you knew there was a major star in the room. For someone who’s had his kind of career, he manages to come off as humble, sweet, and oddly funny in a way that only Depp can. He discussed his interest in The Mad Hatter as a tragic character, the evolution of his career, and whether or not he’d star in a motion capture film like Avatar. The actor is truly one of a kind and after seeing and hearing to him in person, you can tell his degree of success is a natural progression because he’s more than just a pretty face.
Depp discussed the first time he read Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland as a boy and his interpretation of the story. He was particularly drawn to the characters, and to this day he feels like they stick out more than anything else in the story.
I do remember vaguely, maybe when I was roughly 5 years old, reading versions of Alice in Wonderland, but the thing is the characters. You always know the characters. Everyone knows the characters, and they’re very well-defined characters — which I always thought was so fascinating. Most people who haven’t read the book definitely know the characters and reference them. For me, I went back — ironically, it was only maybe a year prior to Tim calling — and I had re-read Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, and what I took away from it was all these very strange, little cryptic nuggets that he’d thrown in there, and I was really intrigued by them and became fascinated by them because they were asking questions that couldn’t be answered almost, or were making statements that you couldn’t quite understand, like “I’m investigating things that begin with the letter ‘M.’” That took me through a whole stratosphere of possibilities, and then doing a little research and discovering that the M is mercury. And then, “Why is a raven like a writing desk?” Those things just became so important to the character. You realize it the more you read the book. If I read the book again today, I’d find a hundred other things that I missed the last time, so it’s constantly changing, the book.
Alice in Wonderland isn’t the first time Depp has taken on literature from back in the day. He also starred in Finding Neverland as J.M. Barrie, the man behind the popular tale of Peter Pan. It seems that the actor has an affinity for material from that time period.
I just adore it. From certainly J.M. Barrie and the wonderful characters he created to Lewis Carroll, but even French literature. When you read Baudelaire, or over in the States, Poe. It’s like Tim said about Lewis Carroll, you open those books, or you open the Flowers of Evil, and you begin to read, and if it were written today, you’d be absolutely stupefied by the work. It’s this incredible period where the work is timeless, ageless. So yes, I love all those guys. It’s my deep passion, you know, those great 19th century writers.
The actor has collaborated with director Tim Burton for two decades and their professional and personal relationship has steadily grown throughout the years. He talked about how the two creators approach a project and the pressure he always puts on himself to get Tim’s roles right.
Each time out of the gate with Tim, the initial thing for me is to obviously come up with a character. But then, there’s a certain amount of pressure where I go, ‘Jesus, will this be the one where I disappoint him?’ You know what I mean? So, I try really hard, especially early on, to come up with something that’s very different, that he hasn’t experienced before and that we haven’t experienced together before, and that will stimulate and inspire him to make choices based on that character. I try not to embarrass him, basically.
Being that they have such a trusting relationship, we were interested in knowing the reaction the actor had when the character of The Mad Hatter was brought to him. Depp’s no stranger to playing eccentric roles on screen,( i.e. Ed Wood, Jack Sparrow), and he attacked this part with the same kind of enthusiasm.
To be honest, he could have said Alice and I would have said yes. [Laughs] I would have done whatever character Tim wanted. But, certainly, the fact that it was the Mad Hatter was a bonus because of the great challenge to try to find this guy and not just be a rubber ball that you heave into an empty room and watch it bounce all over the place, but just to find that part of the character but also a little bit more of the history or gravity to the guy.
The one thing Depp manages to do that’s been rarely seen in any interpretation of the Alice in story is explore the tragedy of The Mad Hatter. He’s essentially insane, sad, and confused about the world around him. The actor constantly plays up that internal conflict throughout the film because of the character’s background.
There’s the whole Hatter’s dilemma, really, which is where the term, “Mad as a Hatter,” came from. The amount of mercury that they used in the glue to make the hats and everything was damaging. So, in terms of the Hatter, looking from that perspective as this guy who is literally physically and emotionally damaged goods and a little obtuse, I took that and decided that, as opposed to just this hyper-nutty guy, he should explore all sides of the personality at an extreme level. So he could go, from one second, being very highfalutin with a lot of levity, and then straight into some kind of dangerous potential rage, and then tragedy. It was interesting trying to map it out, it was really interesting.
Since the majority of the characters on his resume could be classified as “off the wall”, you might wonder how he keeps them all straight. The actor discussed how he keeps himself in check when doing accents and personas for certain parts.
You definitely have to, I mean, at a certain point, especially if you’re dealing with — I’ve played English a number of times, and used an English accent a number of times, so it becomes a little bit of an obstacle course to go, “Oh, that’s teetering into Captain Jackville,” or “This one is teetering over into Chocolat or Wonka.” You’ve got to really pay attention to the places you’ve been. But hopefully, also, that’s part of it. That’s the great challenge. You may get it wrong. There’s a very good possibility that you can fall flat on your face, but again I think that’s a healthy thing for an actor.
In Alice in Wonderland, The Mad Hatter has a signature dance called Futterwacking and it’s very hard to replicate. It’s referred to as his “happy dance,” one that he’ll only unveil once the evil Red Queen has been defeated. Depp talked about the origin of the dance and how it was created onscreen.
The happy dance was something that Tim was really — he had a very curious vision for the happy dance. And then, I can futterwack with the best of them. We had to treat that like a stunt.
This year, there has been so much talk about Avatar and motion captured performances as compared to real live actors. Depp spoke about whether or not he would get involved in that type of film and wear a blue spandex suit for a particular role in the future.
I don’t know. What color is the suit? It’s black? Well it matches my eyes. I suppose. I don’t care. I mean, I’ll put anything on. It doesn’t matter to me, obviously. [Laughs] Look at me.[Laughs] No, I don’t mind.
Out of all the characters and films he’s worked on, the actor divulged which one his own children connect to the most.
It’s funny because they’ve seen it, but they have a difficult time watching it because it’s their dad and they make that connection. Edward Scissorhands is, by far, my kiddies’ favorite. They connect with the character, and also I think they see their dad feeling that isolation and loneliness. He’s a tragic character, so it’s hard for them. They bawl when they see that.
Depp has had a successful acting career that’s spanned over two decades, with his first major role being Glen in A Nightmare on Elm Street (Yeah, that was him). When he started in the business he had no idea that he would still be acting over 20 years later. His success surprises him more than it does anybody else.
My whole experience on the ride since day one has been pretty surreal in this business and defies logic. I’m still completely shocked that I still get jobs and am still around. But I guess, more than anything, it has been kind of a wonderland. I’m been very lucky. I had no idea where anything was going. But you can’t — it’s almost impossible to predict anything like that.
I had no idea. I felt after I had done Crybaby with John Waters and Edward Scissorhands with Tim that they were going to cut me off right then. You know what I mean? I felt, at that point, I was on solid ground and I knew where I was going and where I wanted to go. I was sure that they would nix me out of the gig. But, luckily, I’m still here.
Alice in Wonderland hits theaters on March 5, 2010.