On screen, actor Johnny Depp has brought dozens of eccentric, dynamic and frankly bizarre characters to life—most of whom--despite their craziness--ultimately appear someone genuine and human.
Captain Jack Sparrow. Willy Wonka. Mad Hatter. Edward Scissorhands, to name a few.
Off screen, Depp could be considered a character all on his own, a classification he probably would take issue with. In his words, he does not want to be seen as a “novelty.”
He’s cautious went he speaks, careful to process his thoughts and articulate his words. He admittedly stammers, sometimes, a byproduct of his thinking. But, what comes out appears genuine, far from politically correct (ask someone about the skunk-smelling “stage prop” he pulled out) and a little profound.
On Saturday evening, Depp sat beside ASU professor and theoretical physicist Dr. Lawrence Krauss at ASU Gammage for an intimate conversation on madness and how Depp uses that madness to invent his characters.
Depp even gave a few impressions of some of his more iconic characters. Watch them in the player above. Continue reading to learn about the influences behind his characters.
“I became an actor by mistake. It just sort of happened and it happened out of absolute need to pay the rent,” said Depp.
He told the audience that he does not see actors as artists, although he wishes he could. Instead, he sees the people behind the camera—the ones who make the audience feel an emotion--as the true artists.
When it comes to his craft, he’s hyper-focused on breaking the rules. Avoiding expectations, he said.
“I feel the experience. I’m happy with the process. [The process] is what I’m interested in. The process of exploring, the process of breaking formula, the process of dropping the bottom out of a scene because people can get stale,” said Depp.
He’ll read through a movie script once paying attention to the stage directions and planned choreography. After that, his focus is solely on the words.
“I need to find what the character believes in, what the character needs to do. I don’t like the idea of any choreographed or staged or fraudulent…expression."
A DIFFICULT UPBRINGING
Depp grew up in Kentucky.
His childhood was tough—sometimes violent, he said. It was growing up, he knew something was different about him.
“I felt a great need to occupy my brain…to distract from the circus," he said. He locked himself in his room and taught himself to play the guitar—his “first love,’ he called it--at 12. He would also draw.
At 15, he dropped out of school and focused on music, sometimes being snuck into clubs to play a set, since he was underage.
He recalled a story of digging a tunnel from his closet to the backyard so he could sneak out of the house. Obviously is parents were not to keen on the remodel, but to a kid, Depp said, it was great.
It’s those childhood moments that help Depp create his characters. Albeit, a painful process at times forcing him to dig through the unpleasant memories of growing up.
“If you’re aware of it [the madness], it can be quite painful. It you’re not aware of it, what a gas,” he said.
On set, Depp said he listens to music to keep himself in character and to avoid the distractions of a constantly moving set.
“Music is the fastest most efficient way to memory, old memories that you apply to the work and if I have that music in my head, I can stay there,” said Depp.
DEPP ON THE INFLUENCES BEHIND HIS CHARACTERS
Depp also gave the audience some insight into the influences—“ingredients” he called them--behind some of his characters.
Willy Wonka: Depp didn’t want to redo Gene Wilder’s famous 1971 version. Instead, he reinvented the character honing the personalities of children’s TV hosts, the kind
“that scared me,” he said. “The other ingredient,” he said, was President George W. Bush “if he were incredibly stoned.”
Mad Hatter: The influence behind the Mad Hatter was Depp’s kids’ tutor, Katherine. She was a proper-speaking English woman, but it was how she spoke to people that Depp held on to.
“It’s not that they advert their eyes, they actually close their eyes when they’re looking at you,” he said to the audiences’ laughter. “Right. You guys have felt that before. It’s weird.”
Ed Woods: Depp said Ed Woods was a combination of the Tin Man from The Wizard of Oz, the “vocal attack” of Casey Kasem, and the “blind optimism” of Ronald Reagan.
Edward Scissorhands: Depp said Edward Scissorhands was about trying to imitate a child’s fascination with things that are relatively mundane. In a bizarre story, he possibly was telling for the first, Depp said he took a hallucinogenic drug, put on the “giant scissors” and tried to complete household tasks, like using the TV remote and making coffee.
Donald Trump: Trump is Depp’s most recent adventure. He played Trump in a false biopic for FunnyorDie.com on the Republican presidential candidate. “He was difficult. How do you approach that?” said Depp. In the end, he called Trump “a brat” and played him as such.
“If you think of yourself, as I must, as a chest of drawers, they’re all in there and all accessible…I’m not sure that’s healthy,” said Depp, speaking about his character impressions.
THE TAKE AWAY?
The takeaway was best summed up by Depp in a fifteen minute media briefing with reporters ahead of the event:
“I hope that people will, if they do have that tendency, that they can find a way to embrace it and use it to..use it in a creative sense, if you can…use it to find your way to be able to stand on solid ground.”
In the words of Depp, accept crazy and embrace it.
Outside of the creative realm, if you think or know someone dealing with a mental health crisis, there are resources available. Visit azdhs.gov for more.