Still sporting a gold tooth from shooting The Man Who Cried, his next flick (which also stars Sleepy Hollow’s Christina Ricci), actor Johnny Depp settled down in front of our microphones to talk about scary movies past and present and his ongoing working relationship with director Tim Burton. Sleepy Hollow is their third collaboration, with Ed Wood and Edward Scissorhands preceding this one. While Ed Wood was based on a real person, many of us totally illiterate film types have an image of Ichabod Crane seared into our memories by the animated flick that Disney did years ago. Not Depp, who didn’t bring up the “D” word even once . . .
Johnny Depp: I lived with the creation of Washington Irving, first. I thought I’d wear a prosthetic nose but the Paramount people, bless their cotton socks, weren’t very enthusiastic about that [Laughs]. My approach was to take the Ichabod Crane that existed and elasticize him a little bit. I kind of thought of Ichabod as being maybe a little too in touch with his feminine side. Maybe like a nine year old girl trapped in a grown man’s body.
CrankyCritic: Which explains a scene where he jumps at the sight of a spider?
I don’t recall that being in the script, but we jumped at every opportunity for me to be a complete ham and kind of a glutton for twisted humor. I did my best to throw in things like that at every opportunity. Tim, also, would find places for these things to happen and he was real good about it.
Tim is comfortable with you going improv?
I always like doing that. I think that it’s important for an actor to understand that nothing is set in stone and you don’t really know what’s going to happen until you’re on the set. More important, you don’t really know what’s going to happen until the camera starts rolling. You leave a lot of things open for the possibility of chance. Mistakes, accidents, things like that. Sometimes those are the greatest things in the film. I remember one particular instance in this film: young Maspeth and I were walking towards the crone’s cave and we’re approaching the cave gingerly. Ichabod reaches for his gun and puts his arm around young Maspeth in a protective way. During the take it happened that I put my arm around the kid and I pushed him in front of me as a shield [Laughs]. It just seemed like the right thing to do. Tim liked it and we laughed like fiends. We kept it in.
Is it that you really like working with Tim Burton or did you lose a big poker bet to him and are now indebted to him for life?
[Laughs] It’s just amazing. For me going back to work with Tim is like returning home after war. It just feels so comfortable. Aside from the fact that he’s one of the great visionary filmmakers of all time, he’s a dream for an actor. He’s not particularly rigid in the sense that you have no room to move or you have no opportunity to try things. He inspires you to go out there and do whatever you feel like doing. He trusts you, which the most important thing. If you go too far, as some of us have the tendency to do sometimes, he pulls you back in to the area where you need to be. That’s an actor’s dream.
Let’s talk horror films . . .
I can remember being totally fascinated with Bela Lugosi and the Dracula films when I was five years old. I can remember sitting in class in first grade getting in trouble for drawing pictures of Dracula and Frankenstein. I remember it like yesterday. When I was 5 or 6 years old, I was totally, utterly obsessed with a television show called Dark Shadows. I wanted to be Barnabas Collins. I wanted the cane with the wolf’s head on it. I’m sure that, for my parents, that must have been a really scary thing. [Laughs]
So it must have been a blast working with Christopher Lee in Sleepy Hollow.
Oh yeah. What a presence that guy has.
Did you have a big exposure to the Hammer films?
I knew quite a bit of the Hammer stuff and dove into more when we got there. Tim turned me on to a lot of the more obscure films. Yeah, Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, unbelievable guys.
Then, of the vampires: Bela Lugosi, Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Jonathan Frid, the best vampire is . . .
Well, there’s also Jack Palance. [Pause] and George Hamilton [Everybody laughs, loudly] I think they’re all different in their own ways. Lugosi is always going to be . . . that beautiful, dark Tod Browning film is shining in my memory. But Christopher Lee was a great Dracula. When you’re doing a scene with this guy and he’s staring down at you and just about to jump down your throat; screaming at you, it’s frightening. You’re thinking “My god, that’s Dracula!” He’s amazing!
Every actor has an idea of how he wants his character to look on the screen. When you first watched Sleepy Hollow . . .
I haven’t seen it yet.
I’m a total masochist. I wait until the last second because I get ill. I can’t watch myself.
Do you not go back and watch your older movies?
Oh, no. It’s just very uncomfortable. I don’t know. I’ve a tendency like most people to think “Oh, I should’ve done that . . .” and nitpick. I kind of conditioned myself over the years to believe that once my job is done, once you’ve done a scene, that scene is dead. You have to move on. Once my job is done what happens after that is somehow none of my business. What the director does with the cutting; you give it to him and hopefully the performance is good.
Then to the future. Is there any particular role you’d love to play?
Fortunately I’ve played everything I’ve wanted so far. In terms of historical figures, Rasputin.
Do you feel lucky to have gotten every role that you’ve wanted?
Blessed. Yeah, really really lucky.
Are you going to keep the gold tooth?
The process of taking them off is a little bit violent and I do my best to avoid any trip to the dentist.