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September 2005
TIM BURTON’S CORPSE BRIDE: An Interview with Johnny Depp

TIM BURTON’S CORPSE BRIDE: An Interview with Director Johnny Depp

By Julian Roman

Johnny Depp is on a roll. The last few years have been the most storied of his twenty year career. He’s churned out huge blockbusters while earning critical praise in smaller films. He continues to have great success working with Tim Burton. “Corpse Bride” was recorded while both were filming “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” last year. The film is a jewel, the best dark fairy tale I’ve seen in a long time and the pinnacle of Stop Motion animation. Johnny walks into the room decked out in gold teeth, shaggy hair, and enough jewelry to look like a fortune teller. He’s currently filming the sequels to “Pirates of the Caribbean” and obviously relishes the part.

Is it hard to get into character for an animated film?

JD: I guess under normal circumstances you would, but I was somewhat remiss. I was so focused on “Charlie”, so focused on the “Wonka” character. Somehow, I thought we’d do Corpse Bride in a couple of months. Suddenly, one day on set, Tim comes to me and says tonight we’re going to record. I had no character. I sat him down and grilled him for fifteen minutes. That’s how I found the guy.

Did looking at the puppet help?

JD: Oh yeah, when I arrived to do the recording for the sessions, Victor was standing there. (laughs) So I got to meet the puppets. They were beautiful, really inspiring.

Were you thinking of anyone in particular when shaping Victor?

JD: No, not particularly, I was just trying to save my own ass for being ill-prepared. Tim was so helpful, as he always is. The character is not so far away from other characters I’ve played in the past for Tim, like Scissorhands; the outsider, bumbling, deeply insecure, nervous, a lot like me.

Was there a theme that drew you to the film?

JD: The feeling of failure, inept, unable to be understood. That’s a pretty consistent theme in many people’s lives. Victor kind of represented, the same way that Edward Scissorhands did, that emotion of not feeling comfortable.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory turned out to be a huge worldwide hit. What’s your reaction to that? Were you surprised the film did so well?

JD: I’ve learned to condition myself to not have expectations in terms of box office. As you know, that kind of thing escaped me for many, many years. It’s a relatively new experience to have more than a few people see my films. It’s very exciting. That whole part of the process is foreign to me. I literally, two or three weeks ago, called my agent Tracy to ask if Charlie was doing okay. She was like, “Yes! It looks like it will cross the 200 million mark domestically.” I didn’t know what that meant. It’s good I suppose.

You’re riding this crest of personal popularity in the last few years. How do you feel about that?

JD: I’ve noticed a bit of a change. I’ve noticed a change in the attitude towards me from the upper echelon of the industry. Which is pretty interesting.

Does that mean everybody wants you in their movie?

JD: I don’t know about that. For example, every time Tim wanted to cast me in his films. He had to fight like a bastard with the studio to cast me. He was telling me that the Warner’s people came to see him in London to talk about casting. Then they go, what do you think of Johnny? The fact that they brought it up was pretty astonishing to him. It surprised him.

What brings you and Tim together so often? Do you have other films planned?

JD: I hope so. It’s all up to him if he gives me the job. Working with Tim, I’ve said it before, but it’s the only analogy that works. It’s like going home to this place that’s very comfortable, even with the knowledge that a lot of risks have to be taken. There’s great comfort and great safety there.

Are you Tim’s muse?

JD: No, I see myself as just a very lucky boy. Whose been drafted to come along for the ride. The fact that he’s chosen me these five times to interpret these characters is either great luck or a huge mistake on his part. We’re good friends. We understand each other and have a similar sense of humor. We have similar backgrounds and fascinations. I feel real lucky. I felt lucky after Scissorhands.

Is it a relationship where he always approaches you, or do you bring projects to him?

JD: No, I haven’t done that yet. It’s always been, apart from Scissorhands which was like a general meeting, you get these mysterious phone calls out of nowhere for months, years. He’ll say, “What are you doing?” I’m just hanging around. “Can you meet me for dinner in New York next week?” Okay, sure…I’ll see you then. There’s no subject, no topic, it’s just okay, I’m seeing Tim in a week. It’s always been like that.

The last movies before this, Pirates and Charlie, have involved great physical transformations. Now you’re a puppet. Are you longing to play very different characters from yourself?

JD: It’s better being a puppet. (laughs) It’s easier. Any actor, who has any semblance of sanity or maybe insanity, that’s our biggest fear; to go anywhere near who you really are. It’s okay to use certain truths. I’ve touched on it here and there, like with “The Libertine” coming up. It is a great challenge. I’m interested in exploring one area, and saying that’s territory covered. Let’s see what happens next. Where can I go next? The voice of Marlon [Brando] reverberates. One time he said to me [in a spot on Brando impersonation], “How many movies do you do a year?” I said two or three. He says you better watch yourself. Why is that? Because we only have so many faces in your pocket. Then you get to a certain point and you think, my God, he really was right.

What’s the most important validation for you? Is it the work, the fans, your peers?

JD: The thing for me, which is most touching, is the couple of people that have been with me from the early days. One being my agent Tracy Jacobs, who really believed in me, here comes the violin, when nobody else did. They wouldn’t even look at me. I didn’t believe in me, but she did. But more than anything, it’s those kids. I don’t like the word fan. I never refer to anyone in a fan. It’s the kids outside the movie theater, the kids who have stuck with me down this long, strange, bumpy road. That’s what means the most. They’re the people that keep me employed. I kind of look at them as my boss.

What do your children think of your acting? Do they understand it?

JD: Jack was real little when Pirates came out. He was in the Neanderthal stage. Lilly Rose was there and she loved it. They would come on the stage and were used to seeing Papa as this weird pirate guy. They knew I was going to be playing Willy Wonka. They were very excited. They had seen the original film with Gene Wilder. They came to visit me on the set. I was decked out in the make-up, the Prince Valiant hairdo, the cha cha hair, the eyes, rubber gloves. The just froze and stared at me for what felt like an eternity. Then they got over it and wanted to play with everything. I was so scared when I took them to see Charlie. Way more than the idea of being reviewed by critics, I was in fear that my kids wouldn’t react well to the film. My son, three years old, looks up at me and quotes Wonka, “You’re really weird!” (laughs) I felt liberated.

Did they like this film?

JD: They did. That was another amazing experience. Lilly Rose was sort of ready for this kind of thing and loved it. My boy, three years old, the attention span is quite short. He wants to go break something, run. He sat on my lap for the entire film and was glued, just riveted. Loved it, reacted well to the music, quoting lines.

What is it about Captain Jack that makes you want to do another two Pirates films?

JD: With every character, once you click in and really know the guy, you become very close. You love him, you enjoy playing him. It’s always difficult at the end, the week to ten days before wrap. You can feel and hear the clock ticking. You then go through this really nasty, odd depression afterwards. There’s a separation anxiety. You’ve been this person for a pretty good length of time. Then he’s gone. For me, with Captain Jack, I had a sneaking suspicion that I’d see him again. When they said they’d like to do two and three together, I was all for it. Selfishly, I wanted top be the guy again, to play him.

What do you think is your best work? Do you look back and cringe at any roles?

JD: I cringe at all of them. That’s a subject that’s so far away from me. I’m not a particularly good judge of my own work. I honestly do my best to avoid seeing things. With all due respect to the filmmakers, and the writers, technicians, and artists involved, I just can’t stand seeing myself up there. You start to second guess. You start thinking about yourself and that’s where you don’t want to be, because you’re playing a character. I have a tendency to take the experience with me and that’s plenty. Once they’ve wrapped me, it’s none of my business anymore.

Do you make movies for children, or are there parts meant only for grown-ups?

JD: The Libertine, which I did last year before Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, is a film that I think my kids will see when they’re forty.


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