If you thought Pirates of the Caribbean’s Capt. Jack Sparrow was strange, just wait until you see Johnny Depp’s next movie. As Sweeney Todd, in Tim Burton’s adaptation of the Stephen Sondheim musical (opening Dec. 21), the actor summons all sorts of dark energy to play a singing, murderous London barber. “He makes Sid Vicious look like the innocent paper boy,” Depp says. “He’s beyond dark. He’s already dead. He’s been dead for years.” EW caught up with the star to talk about the role, what it was like performing opposite Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen, why he hates watching himself on screen, and—aaaargh!—how it feels to be an attraction at Disneyland.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: This Sweeney dude—he is messed up! You are going to freak out a lot of pre-pubescent girls with this character.
JOHNNY DEPP: Ah, finally! It’s a radical left turn, that’s for sure. The difficulty and the challenge [was] taking a character like that and attempting to make people feel for him, at the same time that he’s slashing people up. Not easy. But I certainly hope it came across that way.
Musical lovers and Stephen Sondheim fanatics know Sweeney Todd really well. What about the general public?
Somebody sent me this thing from online. Somebody said, after they saw the trailer, “I don’t understand why in the middle of that trailer Depp broke into a song.” Like, “Whoa—What is he doing?”
Singers say Sondheim’s melodies can be incredibly tough. Why?
It’s real obtuse stuff. When you start to take those pieces apart, melody line by melody line, it’s a lot of half-steps, which is not real easy to do. Kind of go G to A-flat to A to B-flat. It’s super, ultra complicated, these notes that shouldn’t work together at times. But he made them so.
Did Sondheim have any good advice for you?
He said to me early on, it was much more about the acting work than the singing. He felt the singing was secondary to hitting the notes emotionally. I didn’t believe him. [Laughs] I think he was probably saying that to make me feel better about what I was about to attempt.
And what did that feel like?
Frightening. Really frightening! When Tim asked if I’d be into it, he said, “Do you think you can sing?” And I said, “Honestly, I don’t know.” I’m not tone deaf, so I knew I could stay in key to some degree. But I didn’t know if I could sustain a note, or belt one out.
You were in a number of rock and roll bands before you became an actor. Didn’t you do any singing in those?
Virtually none. Just backup.
And yet Sondheim approved you without an audition.
Sondheim, bless him, had barely heard me talk. So when he said, “He’ll be fine,” it was a real shock.
What did Tim Burton say to you after he finally heard your singing voice?
He couldn’t have been sweeter about it. He was really supportive, and said he really liked it. It was the reaction I was praying for.
How did you first start practicing?
When I was finishing Pirates of the Caribbean, the third one, I had a good two-hour drive to work and a good two-hour drive back home, and that was what I did every day. I would listen to [the score] nonstop, just constantly. Various versions. And then just a musical version without any vocals. I saturated my noggin with it.
But you didn’t undergo any formal training?
I was talking to people and they were saying, “Well of course you’re going to get a singing teacher.” And I said, “Oh, yeah—Yeah! Of course I will, yeah.” But the closer I got to knowing the music, and to knowing the character, the further away I got from that whole thing.
I just didn’t see the character developing with me doing scales in front of a piano, with a vocal teacher going, “No, no—bring it up from the bollocks.” That kind of thing would have been a disaster. I would still be rehearsing right now. Or I’d have been fired. Singing couldn’t be more foreign to me in a lot of ways, but at the same time, I need to incorporate my own process to find it, to see where I land.
So you went into a West Hollywood recording studio with Bruce Witkin, who used to play in that band The Kids with you in the early ‘80s, and now is a recording engineer.
It was just myself in a booth and Bruce at the controls. Just the two of us. I was in there singing and he was in there pushing buttons, recording stuff. This guy is someone I’ve known for 30 years. He’s a brother. We worked in bands together, we were on the road together. We lived together when we were teenagers. His mom was basically my second mom. It was an enormous help and comfort. It meant everything in finding Sweeney. I’m so pleased that he was there, that the first dive was with him.
What’s with Sweeney’s big shock of white hair?
The idea was that he’d had this hideous trauma, from being sent away, locked away. That streak of white hair became the shock of that rage. It represented his rage over what had happened. It’s certainly not the first time anyone’s used it. But it’s effective. It tells a story all by itself. My brother had a white spot growing up, and his son has this kind of shock of white in his hair.
What else went into your preparation?
In those early meetings, what started to go into the look, before the white streak and any of that, was the eyes. As with any character, the history is there. It sounds really stupid, but I thought they needed to be far away and very close at the same time. They needed to have experienced too much, you know. That’s where the darkness came around them. These heavy rings around his eyes of purple and brown, this kind of awful fatigue and rage. It’s like he’s never slept.
Were you conscious of what previous actors had done as Sweeney?
Tim and I early on said, “We’ve got one shot. I don’t think we need to go where Len Cariou went or Michael Cerveris went. We should go somewhere else. This could be the punk-rock Sweeney, you know. The alternative Sweeney.”
So who did you look to for inspiration?
I’d say if there was someone hanging around the back of my mind, it had to have been Peter Lorre from Mad Love. He was kind of my ghost for it.
Why him, and why that movie?
He’s unbelievably disturbing. Broken and haunting and sweet. Way ahead of its time, that film and performance. The other sort of God for me is Lon Chaney Sr. Aside from Peter Lorre, he would be the other enormous inspiration. Did you ever see his film The Penalty? It’s shocking. He plays an amputee who’s had his legs cut off at the knee. And he walks around on crutches. What he did was he trained himself to be able to pull his legs behind his back and fold them, and then harness them to his back and he could only stay like that for like 20 minutes at a time or something. It was already beyond Cirque du Soleil. His performance is so heightened and gorgeous. I highly recommend that one.
How messy was it filming Sweeney’s really bloody scenes?
I remember everyone except me being covered in plastic trash bags. There’d be a countdown. Three, two, one . . . action! And then blammo, you know? The great deluge. The process we shot in called for a slightly over-the-top kind of color. They were going to desaturate it later, so they had to bring the color up on the set. It was kind of orangeish. A very unnatural-looking color.
What does all that fake blood smell and taste like?
It tasted kind of like a Karo-syrupy sort of thing. It was oily. And it was dangerous. Slippery. You’d see these big English grips, tiptoeing through the swamp of blood. Very surreal.
Sacha Baron Cohen plays another barber in Sweeney Todd. What’s he like when he’s not Borat or Bruno or Ali G?
He’s not what I expected. I didn’t look at those characters and think, This will be the sweetest guy in the world. He’s incredibly nice. A real gentleman, kind of elegant. I was impressed with him. He’s kind of today’s equivalent of Peter Sellers.
You have a scene with Helena Bonham Carter as Mrs. Lovett, set to the song “My Friends,” where you never once look at her—she’s out of focus behind you. It’s right for the character, but did that freak her out on the set?
She was terrific about it, Helena. We did that entire piece and I don’t think we made eye contact at all. It seemed like the right thing to do. I thought the only time he’d have real intense eye contact would be with his wife when they were younger, or with Judge Turpin. I really tried to stick to that. It wasn’t always possible, but we came close.
You and your partner, Vanessa Paradis, have socialized with Tim and Helena [who are a couple in real life] for a long time now.
I’m one of [their son] Billy’s godfathers, yeah.
Do you ever get cranky with Tim after six movies?
We’ve never had an argument. The process [on Sweeney] has been as smooth as since way back when. Obviously, you want to come up with a character that you are not going to be embarrassed about. With Tim, I just don’t want to let him down. Because, you know, he’s a brother. He’s my family. So that’s one of the scariest sorts of things initially. Just making sure I haven’t disappointed Tim. Once we get through that then I can kind of make sure I’m okay with it.
You talked about always worrying if you let Tim down. Did he like what you were doing as Sweeney?
After certain takes, Tim would just howl with laughter and go, “I think this is my favorite character.” [Laughs] Because he just answers people with grunting: Uhhhhhhhh.
Back in March, reports appeared that your daughter Lily-Rose, who was 7 at the time, had been hospitalized in London with a very serious illness. Where were you in making Sweeney Todd?
We were about 3 weeks into shooting.
How bad did things get?
To say it was the darkest moment, that’s nothing. It doesn’t come close to describing it. Words are so small. But knowing that those people, Tim and the crew, shut down and stood by and waited . . . I didn’t know if I was coming back. I remember talking with Tim, saying, “Maybe you need to recast.”
But your daughter is fine now?
You bet. Now every single millisecond is a mini-celebration, man. Every time we get to breathe in and exhale is a huge victory. She pulled through beautifully, perfectly, with no lasting anything. Once we were given the all clear, I had to dive back into the work, and I had to get back in there for Tim.
Did you let your family in on your Sweeney singing practice?
When I was doing the demos in Los Angeles, I came home and played it for Vanessa. That was one of the more frightening moments. You go, I’m gonna fall flat on my face.
What did the family make of it?
They said, “Is that you?”
Do they often weigh in on your performances?
After Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, [my family] went to see it. I hadn’t seen it. I was waiting at home, and they came back. And my daughter came up and went, “You’re really weird.” And I knew then, Okay. I’m okay. I’m all right.
So have you seen Charlie since then?
I still haven’t. I find it so difficult to watch anything I’m in. I don’t like to be aware of myself in that way. I love discovering moments on the set. But I can’t stand the idea that I have to see it later. I truly feel like it’s none of my business. There’s always that moment of, Well why did I do that? What the fuck were you thinking? It’s horrible, seeing myself. Once they say, “You’re wrapped,” you just walk away. Walk away and keep walkin’.
So are you saying you will never sit down and watch Sweeney Todd?
I may see bits. There are definitely things I’d like to see. Unfortunately, I’m involved in them.
Was it hard to shake the Sweeney character once you wrapped?
It’s a couple of weeks, where you’re getting the rest of that skin off, you know, the residue. But . . . it was good to be done. It wasn’t like with other characters, like with [Pirates of the Caribbean’s] Captain Jack.
You’re fond of Captain Jack. What about seeing yourself as an animatronic Jack at Disneyland?
The idea of my character being put into the ride forever and ever, and that my grandchildren will go there and see that—that’ll spin you out. That was a hard one to deal with. It was so absurd, the notion that this character is now in Disneyland. It was to me as absurd as seeing any other character that I’d happened to play, like Raoul Duke or any of them.
Are you sick of seeing Captain Jack at this point?
It was all so strange. You know, when you see yourself on cereal boxes and stuff like that, you had to embrace it. It was so bizarre that you had to be proud of it.
What’s going on with the movie of Shantaram? [Gregory David Roberts’ autobiographical novel about an ex-heroin addict and escaped convict who flees to Bombay and sets up a health clinic.]
Mira Nair is going to direct. We start sometime in January or February, I think in India. [I’ve] been talking about this one for going on three years now, and it will be nice to see it come alive. I’m just starting to prepare for it.
And what about talk that you’d like to do a Dark Shadows feature, from Dan Curtis’ old occult soap-opera TV series?
If that comes to fruition, that’s a dream come true, man. Barnabas Collins—when I was a kid I wanted to be Barnabas.
Why him? Why a vampire?
I think a lot of kids did. He was super-mysterious, with that really weird hairdo and the wolf’s-head cane. Good stuff.