Brooding Johnny muses on his motley career and reinventing Ichabod Crane for Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow
Contractual obligation is the only thing that has spirited Johnny Depp away from his 6-month-old daughter today. Thousands of miles from the European home he shares with French model-actress-singer (and now mother) Vanessa Paradis, he’s in San Francisco to talk about his role as a skittish police constable revamping of Ichabod Crane in Sleepy Hollow, an inventive reinterpretation of Washington Irving’s classic spook story and his latest macabre-comedy collaboration with director Tim Burton.
But foremost in his mind is his baby girl, Lily-Rose Melody. “I was away from her once for 10 days, and I was clawing my eyes out. It was horrible.”
Dressed unpretentiously in a blue denim shirt and black pants, and sporting a wide, leather and rivets bracelet that almost—but not quite—matches his lighter, more tattered belt, Depp doesn’t look as much like a movie star as a guy who might be mistaken for a movie star. His face is leaner than it looks on screen and he’s only about 160 pounds.
He’s handsome, sure, but in the flesh he’s not quite the brooding stud that later emerges from the developing fluid when I look at the pictures I’ll take of him this afternoon. He probably hears “Did anyone ever tell you that you look like Johnny Depp?” at least as often as he’s actually asked for his autograph.
“Anyone totally afraid of poison?” he asks politely before pulling out a pouch of tobacco and meticulously rolling a tight cigarette in brown paper and lighting up. Apparently unaware that smoking statues are state-wide now, he adds “I’m taking advantage of the fact that I’m not in Los Angeles at the moment. It’s a lost art, smoking.”
It’s not surprising to discover that Johnny Depp is somewhat portentous and peculiar—especially when looking at him through the roles he’s drawn to. This is the man who became the most endearing movie mooncalf since the hunch of Notre Dame in Edward Scissorhands, and he clearly relished playing a maniacal, cross-dressing Hollywood hack as the star of Ed Wood—working under Burton on both occasions. Playing Raoul Duke in Terry Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, he perfectly fulfilled ever Hunter S. Thompson fan’s indelible mental image of the gonzo journalist’s alter ego. And as he sits in a conference room of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, obligingly doing station promos for a local radio interviewer, there’s an oddly unencumbering darkness that envelops the actor.
When Lily-Rose is mentioned he lights up like a kid on Christmas morning. So enamored he is of his offspring that he doesn’t even keep pictures in his wallet for fear of wrinkling them. But as we talk about Sleepy Hollow, he doesn’t laugh or even smile—even when he cracks a joke. Occasionally a hint of a mischievous smirk crosses his face—he can loosen up when he wants to. But Depp is a thinker. Everything he says rolls around in his head for a few seconds before traveling to his mouth—except, perhaps, for these radio station promos.
“This is Johnny Depp, Ichabod Crane from Sleepy Hollow, and you’re listening to . . .” he drones in a slightly lunatic voice that is immediately familiar.
That sounded like Raoul Duke.
Yeah. [Smirking] He rears his ugly head every now and again.
You on the five-year detox plan from that guy?
Oh, I’m not sure five years is enough. I’m not sure any of them ever go away, any of the characters. It’s nice. I can remember when I finished Edward Scissorhands, looking in a mirror as the girl was doing my makeup for the last time, putting on the appliances and the prosthetics—this was like the 90th day or the 89th day of shooting—and looking and going, “Wow. This is it. I’m saying goodbye to this guy. I’m saying goodbye to Edward Scissorhands.” It was funny, I was kind of sad. But in fact, I think they’re all still in there.
You must have been in that makeup chair nine hours a day.
It started out as about three, three and a half hours for makeup and hair. But we got it down to a very fast hour, hour and a half. We knew towards the end it would be exactly one can of AquaNet that would go on the hair and by the end I was helping the makeup artist apply the scars and stuff. We had it down.
Is it true you wanted initially to have elaborate prosthetic makeup for Ichabod Crane? Something that would bring you closer to the traditional guy in the story?
Yeah, it is true. I was sort of doing Snoopy dances thinking I was going to get to wear a long nose and big ears. The classic Ichabod Crane from the book—Washington Irving’s description is really beautifully written—(included) a long, sliding nose, huge ears; and (Irving) talks about his hands being very far away from his body, and long feet. So, yeah. I did want to do that. (But) there was a fairly hefty silence from the upper echelon at Paramount.
But the dark comedy they liked.
Tim and I knew, because of how we work together, we were going to throw in as much humor as possible. There were opportunities that had been missed in the script, so we went nuts throwing in as much as possible.
You seem to enjoy projects where you get to do highly stylized acting, like Sleepy Hollow, Ed Wood, Fear and Loathing and Edward Scissorhands. What’s the appeal? Is it more fun than method acting or just playing it straight?
It’s much more fun. I mean it’s fun to try to invent a character from the ground up—obviously using the basis of Washington Irving’s character—but build him from the ground up. Make him interesting, different, and push him as far as you can go where you’re just on the verge of believable and not so believable. Or even, quite possibly, almost bad acting. [There’s that smirk again.]
You’ve said you patterned the character after Roddy McDowell and Angela Lansbury in Death on the Nile and the old Sherlock Holmes. How did you use those influences to create Ichabod?
It’s funny, because what happens to me when I read a script, when something grabs hold of me, I start getting these flashes of people or places or things or images . . . With Sleepy Hollow, I was (after) the kind of drive that Basil Rathbone had as Sherlock Holmes, but what’s going on behind that is total and utter confusion. Basil Rathbone knew exactly what he was talking about. He hit it on every note. Ichabod would (seem to) hit it, but he would miss it, in fact.
With Roddy . . . he had this very ethereal quality (I wanted), and (with) Angela Lansbury (it was) the energy, the sort of righteousness that she had. I haven’t even seen Death on the Nile since I was very young, but she was this force, she was this presence. So those are the ingredients and you just sort of mash them all together and see what you come up with. It’s always dangerous when you try that stuff. With Ed Wood, it was this sort of blending of Ronald Reagan, the Tin Man from The Wizard of Oz and Casey Kasem.
The thing is, even if you’re playing sort of a heightened character and playing inside sort of a heightened reality, you can still apply your own truths to those characters.
So what’s fun for you is to get at the heart of these exaggerated, stylized characters.
I’ll tell you, what’s fun is to try something that maybe hasn’t been beaten to death. To try and do something a little bit different. I mean, what’s the risk? The risk is you fall flat on your face, or you make an ass of yourself, or you get fired. But there’s always other things. So yes, it’s fun. With characters like this Ichabod Crane, or with Raoul Duke from Fear and Loathing or with Edward Scissorhands, you know it’s only going to happen one time, this opportunity to do this. So you just take your best shot. Somebody hands you the ball and you run as fast as you can.
Speaking of handing you the ball, is it true you wanted to be the first white Globetrotter when you were a kid?
Absolutely true. I went through various stages in my childhood, as we all do, various stages of obsessions with people and things. And I did. I wanted to be the first white Harlem Globetrotter.
Did you have skills on the court?
I sort of thought I did. I would spin the ball on my finger, and I would make it go through my arms, and I would dribble it very close to the ground like Curly Neal used to do. I went through that phase. But then I wanted to be Evel Knievel, but I was going to change my name to Awful Knawful. I wanted to be Bruce Lee. I’ve been through it all.
I get the impression you and Tim Burton are almost kindred spirits. How did you two end up so much on the same wavelength?
I think that for the very uncomfortable first second I met Tim in a coffee shop in, I think it was 1989, there was something instant. There was an instant connection. It was a kind of understanding, a non-understanding, an appreciation for life and human behavior, for what is considered normal and what is not considered normal. There was a connection even in a deeper sense of (both of us) having felt pretty outside growing up, and freakish, and a little bit weird. Also, Tim at a very young age was sort of obsessed with horror movies, monster movies and found—as I had—great sanctuary in those dark places.
Why was it an uncomfortable first moment?
Because, to be honest with you, when I met Tim it was for Edward Scissorhands, and at the time I was doing a television series (21 Jump Street) and I was just convinced he would never, ever see me in the role. Even though I knew that I knew that guy. I knew Edward Scissorhands. I knew that emotion so well. I had read the script and obviously thought it was very, very special and beautiful and funny and I just thought there was no way he was going to see me as that, and I just thought, this is embarrassing, and I was very uncomfortable at first.
So what happened?
Tim and I, during that meeting, probably drank three or four pots of coffee each. And I was literally gnawing on my coffee spoon. I left the meeting still with my coffee spoon [gritting his teeth tightly as he speaks]. I was wired beyond belief. Then at the end of the meeting, it felt great, it felt great, it felt great. (And I had to tell myself), “Get the thought out of your head, you are not going to be Edward Scissorhands.” But I got the part.
Sleepy Hollow is highly stylized horror. Edward Scissorhands has elements of horror. In Ed Wood you were a cheesy horror director. You found sanctuary in horror movies as a kid. So what’s your favorite horror movie?
One film that really scared me and I found very disturbing was not so much a horror film, but a Nicholas Roeg film, Don’t Look Now (a 1973 psychological thriller about a couple’s tense trip to Venice after their child drowns). That film really disturbed me. That’s the only film I think I’ve ever watched where some kind of horrible, involuntary noise flew out of my body. I was like, oh-ho! At one point in the movie, it was like, ahh-hahhh! It was one of these unexplainable noises.
But do I have a favorite? Well, Dracula, Tod Browning’s Dracula is, I think, so beautiful, even for all its clumsiness of that era, the way they made films in that era. That’s a beautiful film. Freaks, another Tod Browning thing. I love all that old stuff. I love Lon Chaney. Lon Chaney is one of my heroes. The ones in the ‘50s were really cool, I think. And the Hammer horror films with Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. It’s a different style.
They were more mood-oriented. More based on atmosphere.
Do you remember a show in the late ‘60s called Dark Shadows? Barnabas Collins (the main character and a vampire) was a huge obsession of mine. I loved Barnabas Collins more than I loved the Harlem Globetrotters. I wanted to be Barnabas Collins so much that I found a ring, it was probably one of my mother’s rings, and I wore it on this finger, and I tried to comb my hair like Barnabas Collins, and I was trying to figure out how I could get fangs. It really had a heavy impact on me, a heavy influence on me.
So after Sleepy Hollow and your next film, the supernatural, Roman Polanski thriller The Ninth Gate, do you believe in the spirit world? Ghosts, demons and the supernatural?
Yeah. I would love to. Do I? Yeah. Would I love to know that it’s really real? Yeah. But I do. Of course I do. I do. I’d like to think that there is—I don’t know, what do you call it?—another plane, another place, another life or something else going on around us. It would be interesting to think that we’re all sitting here in the flesh and that in fact we’re surrounded by many, many spirits just whirling around between us. It’s an interesting idea. I’ve always thought, in fact, that someone, somewhere, must have been steering the boat that I’m on, because I’ve been unbelievably lucky, unbelievably blessed, just to still get jobs I guess, with the things that I’ve done. [Smirks.] It’s a blessing that I still get work.
Are you saying you’re not a fan of Johnny Depp?
I don’t buy into him. He’s over-rated! No, no [Actually laughs this time]. But if I walked into the movie theater and I saw the movie and I left there and went, “Boy, I really nailed it!” If I was completely and totally over the moon about my work and I was satisfied. I would get out of the business immediately. I would leave this work behind. Because I think, for me as an actor, if you get to a place where you’re satisfied, you’re happy with it, then you’re dead. It’s over. You’re not hungry anymore. You won’t try things anymore.
What do you think of yourself in Sleepy Hollow?
I haven’t seen it yet.
Really? Is that a conscious decision? I mean, do you plan on seeing it?
I was given the opportunity to see it, but I decided not to. I just figure—for me because I get a little uncomfortable when I see the movies (I’m in)—I condition myself to believe that once the scene is done, once the movie is done, my job is done, and whatever happens after that is none of my business.
Yet I’m sure you have to attend the premiere.
Well, that’s the thing. You are obligated to go to the premiere.
So you walk down the carpet, then sneak out the back?
I have done that before! I don’t think I can do that with this one. But in fact, I’m excited to see this one, even though I know I will be ill. But I’m excited to see it. Regardless of what I think of my work, it’s great to watch Tim’s work. My feeling is that Washington Irving, who wrote this story in the early 18th Century, wrote it for Tim to direct. I really do. When I got the call about this thing and that Tim was going to be doing it, it was just so perfect.
Is Tim Burton enough to get you to sign on to a film?
You bet. If Tim wanted to remake The Lonely Lady (a lascivious movie biz bomb from the ‘80s starring sexpot-of-the-moment Pia Zadora), I would play the Lonely Lady with pleasure. When I got the call for this one, the reason I said yes was because of Tim. Obviously the material was great. But it was all about Tim.
(Some questions in this interview came from other journalists present for the Q&A.)