LOS ANGELES–When you’re as famous as Johnny Depp, you would do anything to jump through a rabbit hole. The star of the new adaptation of Alice in Wonderland, opening Friday, wishes there was such an escape hatch for him.
“If I could walk into anywhere without being noticed, I’d walk through Disneyland with my kids. That’s what I’d do,” Depp says. “I’d go on every ride. Twice. Then I’d just walk with my kids and let them experience what they don’t get to do with Daddy. The truth is when Daddy walks through a crowded park with them, things get really weird.”
For Depp, such anonymity would be more than a trip behind the looking glass. It would be his Wonderland.
Not that he’s really complaining. His type of fame means he gets to take beloved literature, team up for the seventh time with his pal Tim Burton and create their latest film fantasy world in Alice in Wonderland, based on Lewis Carroll’s books.
The film is a trippy new universe where even the hairs on the back of a caterpillar’s back take on a hallucinatory quality.
“It’s the kind of piece that just had Tim Burton’s name all over it,” Depp says.
Burton cast Depp as the Mad Hatter. Making him a little more “mad” is mass of fluffy orange hair, red cheeks and bright green eyes. Burton also used special effects to make Depp’s eyes bigger, which made him even stranger looking in this brand new world.
Meanwhile, Stephen Fry plays the Cheshire Cat, Michael Sheen is the voice of the White Rabbit, and Alan Rickman is the hookah-smoking caterpillar who tells Alice that her stay needs to including killing the Red Queen’s Jabberwock (Christopher Lee). Helena Bonham Carter plays the Red Queen (her head enlarged three times with a receding hairline) and Anne Hathaway is the White Queen. Young Australian actress Mia Wasikowska plays Alice and Matt Lucas plays Tweedledum and Tweedledee. (Burton based them on the scary twins from Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining.)
To prepare for the Mad Hatter role, Depp’s first step was to immerse himself in the Carroll stories and the period.
“I really did become a student of Victorian times,” Depp says. “I could just play the Mad Hatter as some kind of crazy man in a crazy world. I had to dig a little deeper to find out what made him that way.”
Depp says it was all on the page. “The book has a basis for everything,” he says. “There are little mysteries and little clues in the book that I found fascinating.
“That was huge for me because when you do a little digging, you realize you’re talking about a hatter—a man who literally made hats. Then you go back and look at some of the history,” he says. “Hatters were called mad hatters and did strange things because of mercury poisoning.
“There was mercury in the glue they used to make the hats. The mercury also came through their hair and skin, which is why some hatters looked very strange. Put it all together and that’s why most hatters started to go a little bit sideways.”
Depp, who was clearly nuts for this character, went beyond for the role. “I really thought about what the guy should look like and I made my weird little drawings,” he says. “I did a bunch of watercolors and brought them to Tim. He brought me his weird little drawings and they were not dissimilar.”
Depp lives in France with his partner, French singer-actress Vanessa Paradis and their children, Lily-Rose, 10, and Jack, 7.
He says that Edward Scissorhands is his children’s favorite Johnny Depp film.
“It’s funny because they’ve seen it, but they have a difficult time watching it because it’s their dad. They just want to see the character and not me looking back at them,” he says. “Plus, I play such a sad guy and my kids cry when they see me looking that sad.”
Depp isn’t a bit sad about his lot in life. He says his career even stuns him.
“I started out printing silk-screened T-shirts,” he says. “I sold ink pens. I worked construction. I even worked at a gas station. I was a mechanic for a little bit and went into the sewer lines.
“I had a lot of unpleasant gigs for a time here,” he says.
“This whole ride, my whole ride and experience on the ride, since day one has been pretty surreal in this business,” he says.
“I’m shocked that I still get jobs and am still around. I guess more than anything it has been a kind of Wonderland for me.”