By Susan E. James
He’s the Wizard of Odd on the road less traveled. Among movie clones and conformers, actor Johnny Depp has blazed his own trail. Some of his films have succeeded beyond wildest studio expectations. Some have crashed and burned and have never been heard from again. But freakish or tender, profound or peculiar, Johnny Depp is ever-changing, an actor endlessly exploring the ramifications of the strange and the wonderful, a voyager going where few have gone before.
A glance at his beginnings did not indicate thespian promise. Born in the provincial wilderness of Owensboro, Kentucky, and raised in Florida, Depp dropped out of school at 15 to follow that all-American dream of growing up to be a rock star. A chance meeting with actor Nicolas Cage led to a few small film roles and a recurring part on a popular television series, 21 Jump Street, which turned him into a teen-age heartthrob. But Depp’s willingness to take a chance on peculiar roles led to his breakout part in 1990 as the digitally-challenged Edward Scissorhands for director Tim Burton, the first in a continuing collaboration between actor and director. Ed Wood in 1994 saw Depp dressed in women’s angora sweaters as he directed a depressed Bela Lugosi (played by Martin Landau) in a series of truly awful vampire movies. Five years later, in Sleepy Hollow, Depp put on a characteristic Burtonian eccentricity to play Ichabod Crane going “mano y mano” with the Headless Horseman. In 2005, the dangerous duo riffed on the joys of necrophilia in The Corpse Bride and then took author Roald Dahl’s children’s classic, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory out for a ride, losing themselves in a steaming swamp of acid colors and geisha girl coyness. They’re now filming Sweeney Todd, a character construct of the demon barber of Fleet Street, who in nineteenth-century London turned his customers into meat pies. The partnership of Depp and Burton, sign-posted by a notice “beware all who enter here,” continues to flourish.
In Edward Scissorhands, Depp pioneered the persona that he has honed over 17 years and nearly 40 movies, that of the weak or frail or flawed outsider who has difficulty dealing with unimaginative reality. Where television tried to turn him into a teen-age hunk, movies have allowed him to become an eccentric character actor playing leading man parts. Even in films where he plays the silent type, such as What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (1993), Depp projects a profound vulnerability, a nearly neurotic shyness that hides behind floppy hair, eccentric hats and a seductive personality. Mix odd, unique, bizarre, whimsical and outlandish with profound, sensitive, gentle and soulful, add a scoop of The Wizard of Oz, a soupçon of Peter Pan and a dash of Romeo and Juliet and you get Depp at his best. Nominated in 2005 for a Best Actor Oscar for his tender, complex and remarkably buttoned down performance as Peter Pan author James M. Barrie in Finding Neverland, Depp had a key scene playing pirates with a small boy. Ironically, it has been a pirate who has propelled the actor to international stardom and box office riches — a pirate named Captain Jack Sparrow.
Ironic as it seems and having spent most of his career hiding behind the mask of eccentric characters in small productions, Depp is now king of the world on his own pirate ship. The final installment of the trilogy, Pirates of the Caribbean: At the World’s End, with a host of international stars — Orlando Bloom, Keira Knightley, Yun-Fat Chow, Bill Nighy, Geoffrey Rush, Jonathan Pryce and Stellan Skarsgard, with a special appearance by Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards as Captain Jack’s father — is due to open in May. But good as they are, none of these actors captain this particular pirate ship. Ask the lines at the box office who they want to see — the hand at the helm is a shy and retiring character actor named Johnny Depp.
Yo ho, me hearties, and see you at the movies!