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Citizen Cane

by Sean Smith
Photographs by Peter Mountain
Newsweek Magazine
July 4, 2005

In Charlie and the Chocolate Factory Depp Meets His Eccentric Match

Johnny Depp, Hollywood’s hottest eccentric, meets his match playing Willy Wonka in Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. How sweet is that?

Playing Willy Wonka is not for the timid. It requires courage, imagination and flawless fashion sense. "I like these heels," Johnny Depp says, pulling up his pant cuff to reveal a sleek boot emblazoned with a swirly W. "I wanted Wonka to be this long, string-beany kind of figure, and give him these unbelievable cha-cha heels." It's late September, on a soundstage outside London, and Depp is taking a break in the inventing room of Wonka's factory. Nearby, director Tim Burton sets up for the scene in which gum-smacking Violet Beauregarde will meet a violet end. "This is our fourth movie together," Depp says. "I'm so honored that he asked me to play Wonka. I just hope I'm in the right arena here. My first concern is always, 'Jesus, I don't want to let Tim down.'" Or the rest of the world, for that matter.

"Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" is a movie that divides people even before they've seen it. Stand in any theater lobby near the film's poster—with Depp in his merlot velvet coat and top hat—and the passing comments soon take on a consistent rhythm. For every person who cheers "I can't wait!" another jeers "How dare they?" The 1971 film version of Roald Dahl's classic children's book, starring Gene Wilder, was not a box-office hit, but through television and video it has become a Gen-X fave. On the other hand, the Wilder movie was not quite faithful to Dahl's book, which has sold more than 13 million copies worldwide, and it was made on the cheap by a food company eager to use it as a tool to sell candy bars. "People want to pit the two movies against each other and turn this into 'Celebrity Deathmatch'," says an exasperated Burton. "Like we're wiping out three generations of childhood memories. It's not like we're burning DVDs of the old movie. Anybody who loves it can watch it."

Dahl himself, who died in 1990, did not love the old movie. There were changes to his screenplay that he didn't approve of, but mainly, says his widow, Liccy Dahl, "there was a falling-out over the casting. Roald was desperate for Wonka to be played by an English comedian named Spike Milligan. You may not be old enough to know who Spike Milligan was, but he was an amazing, incredible man." The filmmakers humored Dahl—" 'lip service' I think you call it in L.A.," Liccy says—and auditioned Milligan, but cast Wilder instead. The author never quite forgave that slight. After Dahl's death, Liccy took over his estate, and has exercised exacting control over film adaptations of his work. When Warner Bros. first approached her eight or nine years ago about making a new film version of "Charlie," she turned them down. "I'm always a little bit worried about remakes," Liccy says. "I wasn't convinced it was the right thing to do." Armed with script, director and star approval, she put the studio through its paces for years. For the uninitiated, "Charlie" is the story of Charlie Bucket—a boy with a loving family so poor that they live on cabbage soup—who, along with four other kids, wins a tour of a chocolate factory belonging to the famed, reclusive genius Willy Wonka. Inside is a wondrous new world, with a chocolate river and mysterious little people called Oompa-Loompas. That's not to say that life is sweet. The four other children—Augustus Gloop, Veruca Salt, Violet and Mike Teavee—are punished in thrillingly bizarre ways for (respectively) gluttony, greed, gum-chewing and obsessive TV-watching. Charlie, meanwhile, is not handsome or rich or smart, but simply honorable. "The whole point of Charlie is that he's not really that special," Burton says. "He's like most of us, who no one would remember from school."

Burton is a visionary in the plain, old dictionary definition of the word: he actually has a vision. His movies—BatmanEdward Scissorhands and Sleepy Hollow, among them—are utterly distinctive, not just because they're often paeans to eccentric, deeply sensitive loners, but because they're so visually rich and minutely imagined. When Burton took Charlie on, he wanted to remain as faithful to Dahl's book as possible (with a few tweaks, of course), and ordered up a new screenplay from John August, who'd just written his film Big Fish. "I have always been obsessed by Charlie," August says. "In the third grade I actually wrote a fan letter to Dahl, and I got a postcard back from him. I still have it."

Now all Team Charlie needed was a star. Depp had met Liccy Dahl years earlier at a fund-raising dinner held at the country home of British Prime Minister Tony Blair. (Depp had been invited at the last minute by a Warner Bros. executive. "We twisted some arms to get his security check done in two days," says Liccy. "Actually, I wasn't certain they would let him in. He had a slight reputation, you know.") Liccy had also been intrigued by the thought of casting Daniel Day-Lewis or Kevin Spacey. But Depp had a long history with Burton and, after years of being a critical darling but a box-office deadbeat, had suddenly become bankable after Pirates of the Caribbean. "It was the first time I didn't have to talk a studio into him," Burton says. "It was like he'd landed on the planet for the first time! He's been doing fucking great work for years, but . . . whatever. I guess it's all box office for them." To offer Depp the part, Burton invited him to dinner without telling him why. "I think I let him finish half a sentence," Depp says, laughing, "and I just went, 'I'm in. I'm there.' I hadn't even seen a script."

No matter what one thinks of the 1971 film, Wilder played the candy man with an avuncular weirdness and a real warmth. Depp, never one to imitate, had to take a different path. First, he and Burton chose to give Wonka a backstory, making him the son of a dentist, who—because he never got to eat sweets—became estranged from his father and obsessed with candy. Over the years, Wonka has become not just reclusive, but almost autistic in his inability to connect with others. "He's not a father figure—he's a mess," Burton says. "There are lots of people who are geniuses in one area, but have complete deficiencies in other areas of their lives."

To build the character, Depp began thinking about the kind of folks who host game shows and children's TV programs. "Not like Captain Kangaroo, but like that guy on the local cable station in Podunk, Idaho," Depp says. "Wonka had sheltered himself from the outside world, and television would have been a good friend to him." Depp also decided to make Wonka a perfectionist and a germ-a-phobe. As for his look, that flawless pale skin, perfect pageboy and slightly feminine air have had some people wondering whether Depp found inspiration in Michael Jackson. "That never crossed my mind," he says. "I never thought about it once, honestly. But it's interesting, people's perceptions."

The trailers for Charlie have already given audiences a sense that Depp's Wonka may be a love-it-or-hate-it proposition. That should please Depp, an actor who's beloved precisely because he's a sworn enemy of the obvious and expected (interview). But will audiences be able to warm to a character who, by design, doesn't really warm to anyone? "I remember getting notes on the script that said, 'We have to find a connection between Charlie and Willy Wonka'," Burton says. "No, that's the whole point. Willy Wonka doesn't like children or parents—or people." He laughs. "His journey is from disconnection to connection."

Warner Bros. is betting about $150 million that that journey will connect with families. There's no doubt that the movie's got plenty of eye candy to keep everyone entertained—the first 30 minutes of the film alone are as gorgeous, pointedly funny and transporting as anything Burton's directed. Liccy Dahl is thrilled with the film and says her late husband "would have adored it." She's happy with Depp's performance, too, although she admits she doesn't quite understand the actor's sex appeal. "Women just adore him, don't they?" she says. "I have to be honest, I think he's a little too pretty. Terribly nice, but he's no Robert Mitchum."

In the end, kids will decide the film's fate. If Freddie Highmore, who plays Charlie, is any indication, they'll have no trouble selling tickets. "People say 'Do you like chocolate?' and I say 'It's fantastic!' " says the 13-year-old, who also starred with Depp in Finding Neverland. "But I think Johnny's even more fantastic than chocolate."

Johnny holds forth on Wonka, Bugs Bunny and why being weird works.

For years he seemed dead set on being anything other than a movie star, playing so many offbeat characters in so many offbeat movies that he practically became his own genre. Between 1989 and 1998, not a single Johnny Depp film grossed more than $55 million domestically. But two summers ago, Pirates of the Caribbean plundered $652 million worldwide, and Depp suddenly became Hollywood's hottest "new" leading man. He spoke to Newsweek’s Sean Smith.

You've been in the Bahamas shooting two sequels to Pirates of the Caribbean. How's that going?

You know, quite a bit of traveling and a lot of swashbuckling. But it's good for a man to buckle his swash every now and then.

When you made the first Pirates, your performance worried studio executives. That happened again when Warner Bros. first saw you as Willy Wonka. What gives?

At the beginning of the shoot we weren't getting phone calls from the studio that said, "We're freaked out." And that freaked me out. It's important to try something new each time out of the gate. So I'm kind of glad they were freaked out.

What was the hardest part about figuring out how you were going to play such an iconic character?

Early on, the hardest part was trying to erase any memory I had of the 1971 film with Gene Wilder. And then you go, "Christ, I can't erase it, so I'll just have to make a very, very sharp left turn."

You and director Tim Burton have made several movies together. Did you assume he'd ask you to play Wonka?

I was stunned. Tim and I have had this long relationship, and he's fought some brave and noble battles [to cast Depp in his movies], but I didn't think they would ever come to me for a project this size. I was ecstatic, man. I was doing Snoopy dances.

But after the success of Pirates, why wouldn't the studio want you for this?

That didn't even cross my mind. I just don't think in those terms, you know? I'm so used to living the way I've been living—I do what I do, and people get it or they don't. All the little films I've done that were perceived by Hollywood as these obscure, weird things, I always thought could appeal to a larger audience. I mean, box office is such a mystery to me that I can't . . . you know . . . I have enough —trouble doing my own gig.

Still, it must have felt good to have your work seen and loved by so many people.

I had never experienced anything like that—where you meet a 75-year-old woman who had seen Pirates and somehow related to the character, and then five minutes later you meet a 6-year-old who says, "Oh, you're Captain Jack!" What a rush. What a gift. That's the challenge with Wonka, too—to be, in a sense, like Bugs Bunny. I find it magical that a 3-year-old can be mesmerized by Bugs, but so can a 40-year-old or an 80-year-old. It's a great challenge to see if you can appeal to that huge an age range.

Years ago, when you first became famous on the TV show 21 Jump Street, Hollywood wanted to make you into the next pretty-boy star, and you rebelled.

I was not a dummy. That show put me on the map, and I realized the opportunity that I had been given, but I couldn't . . . I just couldn't be what they wanted me to be. It ran against every cell in my body. It was killing me. I had to say, "Fuck it. I'm going to go in this direction, and if I fail, I fail."

Since you and Tim have been friends for so many years, I'd imagine that the two of you must be able to complete each other's sentences.

Oh, yeah. Tim will say, "And then we went, and there was that, you know, whatever, so what could I do?" And I go, "Yeah, I know exactly what you mean." [Laughs]

When you're working together, do you ever think, "This is too weird, even for us"?

Definitely. Things get weirder and weirder, then one of you says, "Let's try that!" And then you look at each other and go, "I don't know, man, maybe not."

Did your kids come to the Charlie set?

They went crazy. They tried on the hat and the glasses and wanted to play with the candy cane. They loved seeing the giant chocolate waterfall. Every day it felt like walking onto the set of The Wizard of Oz.

Has the studio talked to you about doing Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator?

No, but it should be done. There's a lot more fun stuff in there, and I'm certainly game.

-- donated by DeepinDepp