Consistently hailed as the best actor of his generation, 42-year-old Johnny Depp continues to ring the changes in his career. From playing a paranoid author in Secret Window, to a CIA hitman in Once upon a Time in Mexico, Peter Pan author J. M. Barrie in Finding Neverland, and portraying a transvestite prison visitor in Before Night Falls, Depp rarely repeats himself. Except, of course, for the role of Captain Jack Sparrow in the back-to-back sequels to Pirates of the Caribbean which he is currently shooting. His latest venture Charlie and the Chocolate Factory marks his fourth collaboration with Tim Burton in the past 15 years.
Tim Burton says the dark films you’ve made together have been a form of therapy. Would you agree?
I guess it is kind of therapeutic to go in and make an ass of yourself and get paid for it. There’s something to be said for that. As an actor, with any character you play, you have to bring as much of your own truth to the character as possible. And then you make an ass of yourself.
How easy was it getting into the character of Willy Wonka?
Well, obviously we’re all very lucky to have the book as our source material. Using Roald Dahl’s work was an amazing help in building the character. And then it was really just down to conversations with Tim. We talked about various things like memories of growing up, of children’s show hosts. That strange cadence with which they spoke to children, “Hello kiddies;” and game show hosts, with that kind of mask they put on, like a perpetual grimace. We went from there.
Did you draw on any one person?
There was this guy called Captain Kangaroo. Even then it was strange, but if you go back now and watch it, it’s really out there. He had his pal Mr. Green Jeans and Bunny Rabbit. So it was memories of watching those guys as a child, the game show guys who were always smiling. But no one specific.
What about the resemblance between Willy Wonka and Michael Jackson?
Honestly, when we were doing the film it never dawned on me that there would be any comparisons made. I don’t know what more I can say about that.
What else did you do to develop the character?
For me, when I’m reading a script I start getting images, you know—ideas start coming into my head, so I write everything down. The hairdo I saw early on, but it took a long time before I could see or hear Wonka. I don’t know, that’s pretty much it. You build layer upon layer as you find him. Even when we started shooting, it probably took me about ten days to really feel like I clicked with the guy. The false teeth were very helpful.
Have your children seen all your films?
Some of them, yeah. I’m not sure my kids are ready for all of them. They saw Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which made me nervous because I was scared they were going to come home and just go, “Nah, Dad, better luck next time.” But they came home quoting it, which was really nice.
If you were as poor as Charlie Bucket is in the film, do you think you could be happy?
When I was growing up we weren’t particularly overflowing with money. I never expected to last so long in this racket, to be honest. I always expected to go back to playing guitar and pumping gas or whatever. And it still could happen. As long as you have the ability to breathe, and life for your kids and your girl, you just keep moving forward.
So what’s next for you?
Well, at the moment I’m on hiatus from shooting Pirates 2 and 3. That’s going well so far—I haven’t been fired, which is good. And I made a film last year called The Libertine which is coming out next in December, I think. That’s pretty much it at the moment.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is released in UK cinemas on Friday 29th July 2005.