Johnny Depp: Oddball with a monstrous talent

To capture Willy Wonka's voice he practised on his daughter Lily, the aim being to intrigue without scaring her
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The Independent Online

It's hard to think of any actor with a CV that has managed to be as versatile and, at the same time, as downright weird as his. If Edward Scissorhands marked him out as a study in melancholic fragility, what was one to make of his undercover FBI agent in Donnie Brasco, all macho brashness and brooding? If Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, in which he did not so much play Hunter S Thompson as inhabit him, suggested he was a brilliant student of real-life characters, what was one to make of his doomed existential anti-hero in Jim Jarmusch's hallucinogenic western Dead Man, or his turn as the fantastical Ichabod Crane in Sleepy Hollow?

None of these performances could be described as grabbing the popular consciousness exactly. At the big Hollywood studios, he was habitually described as "box-office poison", making it difficult if not impossible for directors to argue the case for casting him. Not only did that keep him firmly off the A-list of actors but it also made it entirely conceivable that many, if not most, of the people who had heard of him had never actually watched him act on the big screen.

And that has been all to the good. Nobody now working in film has been as distinguished as Depp while also being as invisible.

Depp has had his share of magazine covers, of course, thanks to his much-vaunted physical beauty, his habit during his 20s and 30s of dating glamorous models and actresses, and the intrusion of a couple of eye-catching wild-boy incidents (trashing a hotel room with Kate Moss, coming to blows with paparazzi, running with a fast crowd at The Viper Room in Hollywood, where River Phoenix was out carousing the night he died).

Compared with Tom Cruise or Leonardo DiCaprio, though, he has been left in comparative peace. Since hooking up with Vanessa Paradis, the French singer and actress with whom he has two children, he has spent at least half of his year in a small village in the south of France, neglecting the big media capitals of New York, London and Los Angeles to such an extent that he has been known to remark he doesn't even know who the power-brokers are any more.

But invisibility is not a luxury he can really enjoy any longer. Since his hilarious turn as Captain Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean two years ago - generating more box-office dollars than his previous 10 or 15 movies put together - his talents have finally come to the attention of the big money-men and the broader Hollywood establishment. He earned his first Oscar nomination for that part and he was nominated again last year for playing J M Barrie in Finding Neverland.

And now comes his most visible role yet, as Willy Wonka in Tim Burton's adaptation of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory - a big-budget spectacular complete with chocolate waterfalls, naughty children bloating and turning into giant blueberries, and some intriguingly mischievous - and well-choreographed - nut-cracking squirrels. The film took $55m on its opening weekend in the United States and, as it opens in Britain, shows every sign of becoming one of the enduring box-office hits of an otherwise indifferent film-going summer.

The good news - or the bad, from the viewpoint of those who like their blockbusters bland and predictable - is that Depp is as inventive and audacious as ever. He has a habit of drawing on the most unlikely of sources to breathe life into his characters. Ronald Reagan's head bobble was a key influence on his playing of Ed Wood, the most reliably untalented film director in Hollywood history who was the subject of another Tim Burton film in 1994. For Ichabod Crane, he drew inspiration from Angela Lansbury, of all people.

And now, as he dons the gaudy clothes and black top hat of Willy Wonka, he comes across as nothing so much as a Michael Jackson-like creature - gloved, pale-faced, with neatly groomed straight black hair, reedy-voiced, phobic and utterly unpredictable.

To call his performance a risk would be an understatement (although Depp himself says he didn't have Michael Jackson specifically in mind). In a film that otherwise holds out the promise of tremendous popular appeal, his performance has deeply divided American critics.

Some find it baffling or even disturbing. Others think he simply tried too hard and failed. Only a handful credit him with what he set out to achieve - a picture of eccentric adulthood that inspires curiosity, wonder and just a little fear in children's imaginations. The part, admittedly, carries with it a lot of baggage. Many critics have fond memories of Gene Wilder's drastically different interpretation in the 1971 film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and resent Depp's effort to take the character in a different direction. Wilder himself has added fuel to the fire by dismissing the entire movie (before he had seen it) as an artistically needless remake.

Part of the American response to Depp's performance, one suspects, is tied with a tendency to mistrust Roald Dahl's peculiar authorial sensibility. The whole film, including Depp's contribution, is much closer to the spirit of the book than the 1971 version, revelling in Dahl's gleeful portrayal of children as squirming balls of perversity who stand a chance of being civilised only if handled appropriately by sensitive and far-sighted adults.

Mainstream American culture, by contrast, tends to view children quite differently - as angelic expressions of human innocence buffeted by an uncomprehending world - which can lead to a certain cloying sentimentality in film entertainment aimed at younger audiences. That was the pitfall of the 1971 Chocolate Factory, which was never as popular in Europe as it was in the United States. Conversely, the new version may well go down much better on this side of the Atlantic.

Part of what makes Depp such a consistently surprising actor is the fact he is also a highly instinctual one. He has described how he knows within a few pages of a shooting script whether it is for him or not; how, even on the first reading, he scribbles down ideas and images which almost always form the core of how he ends up playing the part.

Reading Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, he thought of nothing so much as the goofy hosts of television shows from his youth - characters such as Captain Kangaroo and Mr Rogers - who made him wonder, even at a tender age, if they could possibly be so strange in the confines of their own homes. To capture Willy Wonka's voice, he practised on his daughter Lily, now six, the aim being to intrigue her without scaring her.

Such instinctual decision-making has informed much of Depp's life. He was born in Kentucky to itinerant parents who spent most of his formative years in Florida. He was, by turns, a high school drop-out, a budding rock musician who once opened for Iggy Pop, and scrimping odd-job man. (He was once employed as a ballpoint-pen salesman.)

His entrée to acting came about by accident. As a new arrival to Los Angeles in the early 1980s, he ran into Nicolas Cage, who in turn introduced him to his agent. He auditioned for a part in the horror film Nightmare on Elm Street, and to his astonishment got it.

In 1987, he got his first big break in the television series 21 Jump Street, in which he played an undercover cop. For the first time in his life, he was not living from hand to mouth. The series also gave him a visibility that eased his eventual transition into feature films.

From the start, he was attracted to quirky artistic projects rather than the Hollywood mainstream. Depp has told interviewers he imagined, even then, that he would one day want to tell his children they could be proud of the choices he made. And so he eschewed the part eventually awarded to Brad Pitt in Thelma and Louise and opted instead for John Waters' Cry Baby and then, in his break-out part, Tim Burton's on-screen alter-ego in Edward Scissorhands.

His performances since then have been frequently memorable, and never less than intriguing. Burton has cast him no fewer than five times - and has featured him as one of the voices in his forthcoming stop-motion animation film, The Corpse Bride. In Donnie Brasco (1997), directed by Mike Newell, he not only proved himself the equal of his co-star, Al Pacino, he also stole the show outright in a scene in which he demonstrates to his FBI handlers the multiple meanings of the wiseguy expression "fuggeddaboutit".

Having become so glaringly visible, Depp is now taking charge of his career as never before through his production company, Infinitum Nihil, which has a slew of adaptations up for consideration including one of Nick Hornby's latest novels, A Long Way Down. He has a clutch of films coming out in the next year of so - two Pirates of the Caribbean sequels, a period piece called The Libertine, a Hunter S Thompson adaptation called The Rum Diary and a Bombay-set adventure story, Shantaram. For an oddball outsider, he is certainly keeping busy - proof that, even in Hollywood, there is no suppressing a monstrous talent like his.

A Life in Brief

BORN John Christopher Depp II in Owensboro, Kentucky, on 9 June 1963.

FAMILY A daughter and a son with Vanessa Paradis.

CAREER After dabbling in rock music, made film debut in Nightmare on Elm Street (1984). Landed the lead in the television series 21 Jump Street, then quickly attracted the attentions of notable directors John Waters (Cry Baby, 1989), Tim Burton (Edward Scissorhands, 1990), Emir Kusturica (Arizona Dream, 1993) and many others. Prolific output also includes Dead Man (1996), Donnie Brasco (1997), Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998), Pirates of the Caribbean (2002) and Finding Neverland (2003).

HE SAYS "I am going to do this. I am going to do it on my terms. If I am going to fail, I am going to fail on my own terms."

THEY SAY "Johnny is at the pinnacle of his career. He is the most versatile actor in the industry. He is a leading man, a character actor, and he has the courage of his convictions." Harvey Weinstein