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article imageThe Johnny Depp Interview: On Dillinger, Mad Hatter & Capt Jack Special

By Earl Dittman     Jul 4, 2009 in Entertainment
In Public Enemies, Michael Mann's new biopic about mobster John Dillinger, Johnny Depp portrays the notorious gangster. The box office star discusses Dillinger and his future roles in Alice In Wonderland, Dark Shadows, Lone Ranger, Quixote and Pirates 4.
What is it about outlaws like Jesse James and John Dillinger? What's the fascination? “Well, they get away with things that we don’t get away with, especially Jesse James back in that era. He was the sort of precursor to John Dillinger in a way. John Dillinger in 1933, when the banks were the enemies and the government were… I mean J. Edgar Hoover was teetering on criminal himself. So John Dillinger, as the common man, stood up and said, ‘No, no, I’m not gonna take it. I’m gonna get what I believe is mine.’ Am I done? (laughs) I don’t know? Should I say anything else?”
Dillinger was once of the most wanted men (by the FBI) of his time. Since you are one of the most wanted actors in the world, if you had the opportunity to go aware without being noticed, where would you go? “Ooohh wow! God, that’s a very good question. I mean, off the top of my head, where I could walk and be completely anonymous? I’d walk through Disneyland with my kids. That’s what I’d do. I’d go in every ride and I’d walk through Disneyland with my kids and let them experience all the those most kids do. They don’t get to with daddy. When daddy walks through Disneyland with them, things get weird.” (laughs)
In the Michael Mann-directed Public Enemies, Dillinger seems very comfortable with all the attention he gets from the public and the press. Have you come to terms with fame? Are you finally comfortable with being a celebrity? “I’m not. The thing I’m infinitely more comfortable with is the process and the effort of making the character and the collaborative process in making the movie, basically. Then there’s this other stuff that goes along with it that I don’t think I will ever understand, but I do appreciate as a part of the gig, which is certain amount of attention that, I suppose, goes along with it. I mean, the alternative is the drag. The real drag is that if there’s no attention, well then the job goes away, doesn’t it?”
Have you ever fantasized about being a Robin Hood kind of person -- taking from the rich and giving to the poor? “That’s what I’ve been doing for the past twenty-five years. (laughs) I mean, it’s true. I started out printing silk screened t-shirts, I sold ink pens, I worked construction, I worked at a gas station and pumped gas, I was a mechanic for a little bit and I went down into sewer lines. I had a lot of somewhat unpleasant gigs for a time there. And ever since, I suppose somewhere in 1986, I started to take from the rich.” (laughs)
Why do you think Dillinger liked the attention and the spotlight so much? “John Dillinger, I think, just like any red-blooded American, was handed the ball and he ran with it. And that’s not any different than what happened to me a very long time ago. You’re handed the ball, and you go as far as you can go until somebody says, ‘All right, kid, you’re done. Get off the ride,’ and I think that’s what Dillinger was doing. Although Dillinger, obviously … the clock … he knew that the clock was ticking. His situation was infinitely more grave than mine. He knew he had a very short period of time to deal with and he had made peace with that. So, that’s what he was doing. He was kind of the ultimate existentialist, figuratively -- he’d move forward constantly and never went back.”
You seem very comfortable in the era of John Dillinger. Do you think that, conversely, you would be alright in this day and age or a duck out of water? “Oh, I think I’d probably run screaming. (laughs) I truly do. I mean, we’ve gone so… it’s so wide a world now, and I’m shocked at things that I see. I’m shocked at things that are available on the internet. I’m shocked at what technology is promising in the next couple of years.”
In your next film, Alice In Wonderland, which is being directed by your good pal Tim Burton, you play the Mad Hatter. What kind of influence did you bring to your character? Did you go straight to the book in order to create him or did you bring any external work and your own signature to the character? “Well, certainly the book. The book has a basis for everything. There are little mysteries, little clues in the book that I found fascinating, that were keys to at least my understanding of the Mad Hatter, like him saying, ‘I’m investigating things that begin with the letter M.’ That was huge for me, because when you do a little digging, you realize you’re talking about a hatter, a man who made hats, and you go back and look at some of the history. ‘Hatters’ — there’s the term that this guy or that guy is ‘mad as a hatter.’ There was reason for that, and the reason for that was mercury poisoning. They got mercury poisoning because there was mercury in the glue. So they start to go a little sideways.” (laughs) So I found out what the ‘M’ was and why they went nuts. So that became a huge thing.”
Depp as the Mad Hatter in Alice In Wonderland
Depp as the Mad Hatter in Alice In Wonderland
What’s so special about your relationship with Tim Burton? It seems as though Tim likes to do whatever you please. “The most special things that he, very luckily, has given me are about seven jobs. That’s the most amazing thing. I’m looking forward to the eighth and the ninth. I don’t know — there’s no real definition other than we have a — there is some kind of connection, some sort of understanding that Tim and I have that is, at most times, unspoken. Most people, when they hear Tim giving me direction while we’re talking about the characters or something on the set, people are baffled, completely befuddled. They don’t know what we’re talking about. A guy actually came to me one time after watching Tim and I talk for ten minutes and said, ‘I didn’t understand a word you guys were saying.’ So, yeah, it’s one of those things you don’t question, but I sure love him, you know.”
What’s the status with the big screen version of Dark Shadows that you’ve been planning to do for years? “Well, Dark Shadows is happening. Tim is working on Alice In Wonderland, at the moment, which is obviously quite a large piece of work there. So when Tim is done with Alice and we get the script, the script is very, very close, we get the script in order, we’ll probably attack it next year which is exciting, very exciting. Like a lifelong dream for me.”
You’ve really have been fascinated with Dark Shadows all of your life? “I loved the show when I was a kid. I was obsessed with Barnabas Collins, and I have like photographs of me holding Barnabas Collins posters when I was five or six or something. (laughs) I’m very excited to do it.”
It's so rare we see an A-list actor to play the same part four times like Captain Jack Sparrow in the Pirates Of The Caribbean film franchise. "Call me a glutton.” (laughs)
So, is Pirates Of The Caribbean 4 ever going to see the light of day? “It’s looking very good. What we’re trying to do is just get the script in order, make sure that it’s the right thing to do. If we get a great script, it would be a ball...I think, for me, because I love the character so much, and I enjoy playing the character so much and people seem to like it, if there's an opportunity to try again, you know, it's like going up to bat. You want to get back out there and try and try and try and see what you can do. I enjoy playing Captain Jack very much.”
Fans of the series love Captain Jack so much it really doesn't matter what the story is. “Well, at this point, what I'm trying to do is change it into a Beckett play. (laughs) I don't know? It could be anything now at this point. Jack Sparrow could be some geisha clothing. I don't know? We could explore other possibilities.”
The other day, Megan Fox told me that she wants to be your wife in the next Pirates movie. “Oh, really? (laughs) Where is she? That’s very sweet. That’s very sweet.”
Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow from Pirates
Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow from Pirates
Looking ahead, what are you looking to do with The Lone Ranger?The Lone Ranger… We're still in the super-beginning stages, so there's all kind of possibilities, but I feel like I have some good ideas for the characters that are interesting, that I don't think have been done before. There's someone else. Another character. Oh, Pirates.”
Your old friend, (director) Terry Gilliam is talking about remounting the Don Quixote film project that the two of you attempted to make a couple of years ago. Has he talked to you about it? Are you interested? “Yeah. We've talked about it. I love Terry and I'd do, personally, anything the guy wants to do. The thing is, with Quixote, first, you know, my dance card is pretty nutty for the next couple of years, so I'd hate to have to put him in a position or ask him to be in a position to wait for me. That would be wrong. But, also, in a way, I feel like we went there and we tried something and whatever it was, the elements and all the things that got up underneath us were there and happened and were documented well and were documented well in the (documentary) film Lost in La Mancha, so I don't know if it's, I hope it's right for me to go back there. I don't know if it's right for Terry to do again, but if he wants to, I’ll be there.”
You portrayed John Dillinger as a man with a sense of humor. Was it written in the script that he was really a funny guy or is that something that you added? “Well, he definitely was a man with a sense of humor, and I just happened to be a sucker for humor. So anywhere I can sneak in something that I find potentially interesting or funny… it goes fair with this little brownie automatic camera, hands it to a cop and says, ‘Would you take my girlfriend a nice photograph?’ (laughs) That’s a guy with a sense of humor. (laughs) And he was also a guy who at the same time has some sort of great, wonderful outlook. Like I said, he knew the clock was ticking, he knew his time was up, he knew there wasn’t much more to go and he was gonna make the best of it in any case. Pretty amazing.”
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