Who in the world is Johnny Depp? And where is his head? No matter which of his films you watch, you’ll be left wondering how the man can be so believable in such unbelievable circumstances.
Whether stumbling on board a rickety ship as a drunken pirate or creating an honorable, sympathetic character out of a man with scissors for hands, Johnny Depp has an impressively bizarre acting oeuvre. While he has been criticized for straying from his dramatic roots, becoming increasingly comfortable with the Jack Sparrow-esque characters, his much ballyhooed return to form as real-life Boston gangster “Whitey” Bulger in Black Mass should silence his naysayers, but even a ‘normal’ role for Depp means he’s wearing a bald-cap, slathering his face in make-up, and sticking blue contact lenses into his eyeballs.
Regardless, it takes remarkable chutzpah to commit to a characterization like Johnny Depp does. To any production that will have him, he’s worth his weight in gold.
Here are the 10 Most Eccentric Johnny Depp Performances:
Edward Scissorhands (1990)
The man most responsible for Johnny Depp’s wacky career trajectory is Tim Burton. When Depp was still a teenage heartthrob, Burton saw something unique inside of him. Despite 20th Century Fox’s recommendation of Tom Cruise for the title role, Burton convinced the studio to hire the relatively untested Depp for Edward Scissorhands. This wasn’t simply a genre departure, or a move from playing the romantic lead to something more sinister.
In tackling the role of Edward Scissorhands, Depp completely eschewed his sex symbol status (earned from being a heart-throb on TV’s 21 Jump Street) and became something pure and innocent, yet inescapably violent. He studied a slew of silent films in order to learn how to use stillness and quietude as a means of emoting. Edward is Pinocchio gone wrong – the unfinished product of a scientist’s design, forced to live life as a mistake. Cursed with massive scissors for hands, Edward can seldom fulfill his best intentions without cutting or slicing.
He is always guilty despite his inherent innocence, a paradox that Depp plumbed to its very depths, creating a tragic and empathetic character that would pave the way for a career full of exciting, interesting roles.
Jack Sparrow – Pirates of the Caribbean (2003 -)
As the adage goes, we all have one good story in us. If Johnny Depp had just one story, it would likely be Jack Sparrow’s. No one created the stumbling, drunken pirate more than Depp himself, whose performance was inspired by death-defying Rolling Stone guitarist Keith Richards. Out of the caverns of his own imagination, Depp saw parallels between 18th century pirates and 20th century rock stars, with their commanding energy, their flamboyant dress, and their predilection for mind-altering substances.
What Depp devised was so unique and unexpected that Disney execs Bob Iger and Michael Eisner almost fired him from the production, terrified that his off-beat take on the pirate’s life would lose their core audience. But letting Johnny Depp do his thing proved to be one of the wisest business decisions in Disney history. Jack Sparrow has also proved to be a favorite among audiences. Depp is set to star in the next Pirates film in 2017.
Raoul Duke – Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas (1998)
Hunter S. Thompson embodied gonzo journalism. The man dedicated his life to the party, to the observation of human existence through an inebriated lens. Thompson likely spent more of his life under the influence of some ungodly substance than he did in a state of sobriety, so when he personally tapped Johnny Depp to play the role of Raoul Duke in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Thompson must have recognized a kindred spirit.
Indeed, what Depp brings to Terry Gilliam’s movie is a kind of bonkers performance that seems closer to the world of a Looney Tunes animation then to real life. To prepare for the role, Depp stayed at Thompson’s Owl Farm and observed the journalist’s every movement to better understand his psyche and physicality. Without making allegations, it is highly unlikely that this is all Mr. Depp did while in the company of the man who once said, “I hate to advocate drugs, alcohol, violence, or insanity to anyone, but they’ve always worked for me.”
Willy Wonka – Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005)
Gene Wilder gave us a memorable take on Roald Dahl’s famous candy-man, but under the tutelage of Tim Burton, Johnny Depp created an entirely different beast. With the pallor of Michael Jackson and the neuroses of a stoned caveman recently freed from cryosleep, Depp’s Willy Wonka finds the beating heart of a misanthrope and stores it deep behind the glove-wearing, crimson-gowned milk chocolate mogul.
Despite his golden ticket incentives, Depp’s Wonka despises children, reveling in their often tragic ends throughout his factory. Unlike Wilder’s incarnation of the candy king, Depp’s version has a backstory to explain Wonka’s depression, giving Depp the opportunity to explore the true misery of growing up with a dentist father who disavowed the enjoyment of candy. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is a sweet movie, and Johnny Depp’s latex-like character, replete with immaculate, creepy chompers, plays a lot of notes at once.
The Mad Hatter – Alice in Wonderland (2010)
Back, once again, with Tim Burton, Johnny Depp is tasked with turning literally mad character into more than a caricature. That’s his specialty. As Lewis Carroll’s Mad Hatter (gracefully named Tarrant Hightopp in the film), Depp constructed the character as a human mood ring, whose skin would shift and shine according to his emotional state. With Carrot Top hair, representative of hatters who commonly experienced mercury poisoning in their jobs (hence the expression, “mad as a hatter”), Depp’s Tarrant Hightopp was the victim of a toxic event.
Depp puts literal meaning into the figurative expression “mercurial,” causing the Hatter’s internal feelings to always be right there on the surface. This Hatter is a feeler, giving Depp ample room to burst into spontaneous highs and the crumble to crushing lows. While still very much in the same waters of weirdness as Depp explored through Jack Sparrow and Willy Wonka, he still managed to make The Mad Hatter unique through his emotional volatility.
Some acting coaches will tell their students: “Know your ‘type’ and understand how people see you. Then break away from it.” As a teenage heartthrob and sex symbol, Johnny Depp needed an evasive maneuver to avoid being type-cast for the rest of his career. Cry-Baby was the answer.
Replete with the Dany Zuko biker jacket, slick-backed hair and lady-killer moves, Cry-Baby makes Johnny Depp look like cinema’s most timeless “bad boy.” But this film, and Depp’s self-effacing performance, are part-homage/part-parody to the romanticized teen dramas of the 1950s. Depp does an about-face on his sex symbol stature. His face-licking, gyrating and mean-mugging reveal an endearingly self-deprecating side to the actor.
Ed Wood (1994)
As life imitates art, Johnny Depp found an outlet to do the reverse, by portraying the life and times of cult director Ed Wood. Tim Burton stuck with his go-to man for the part, offering Depp the opportunity to channel his real-life Hollywood malaise into a project about a man who so desperately wanted to crack into the industry. With its black and white palette, 1940s scene transitions and vintage camera movements, Ed Wood feels like a relic of an era gone by, with Johnny Depp creating a portrait of a man so desperate to be a contender that in the hopes of booking a directing gig from a film producer, he even reveals his penchant for cross-dressing.
With his clenched jaw and precise vocals, Ed Wood is pure salesman, and in his preparation for the part, Depp turned to Ronald Reagan speeches and Mickey Rooney movies to capture that old-school sound. His work in Ed Wood is truly captivating, slightly disturbing and thoroughly engaging.
Sam – Benny and Joon (1993)
Jeremiah Chechik’s sweet, independent comedy is a romance of the old order, and Johnny Depp’s performance completely sells it. With the amount of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton-esque physical comedy in the movie, Benny and Joon could almost be considered a silent film. Depp excels with his prop handling and physical humor, breezily executing a variety of vintage stunts from the 1930 comedies that inspired the film.
Chechik’s 1993 film confirmed Depp’s place as a scene-stealer. Put him in a movie and he will change the tone of it entirely. Benny and Joon has an innocent sounding title, but Depp’s work in it is a force of nature. He’s the tornado that comes through town before the meteorologists can even sound the sirens. That’s how easily Depp dances about the movie, often without a word, playing our emotions as if they were keys on a piano.
Tonto – The Lone Ranger (2013)
Director Gore Verbinski (Pirates of the Caribbean) got Johnny Depp back in the saddle for The Lone Ranger, playing the sidekick role of Tonto. While the film failed to take flight, the box office results had little to do with the fact that Depp had a dead bird on his head. His eccentricity is particularly dead pan in The Lone Ranger, as Depp uses his signature beady eyes and relaxed voice to convey his emotions.
Armie Hammer’s Ranger is the more gung-ho “high-ho, Silver!” of the two, allowing Depp to consolidate his more frantic outbursts in the film and provide a more stoic presence than he shows in his other movies. When being interviewed about the film, Depp expressed an interest in unpacking some of the “savage” mythology that surrounds Native Americans in film, but he also caught flack for his spurious claims to Native American ancestry, suggesting that maybe this role was a little too “eccentric,” even for him.
John Wilmot – The Libertine
“You will not like me.” So begins The Libertine, with that line of dialogue coming straight from the mouth of one of the most eminently likable actors in cinema. When Johnny Depp breaks the fourth wall to tell the audience he doesn’t care what they think, you know you’re in for a treat.
As John Wilmot, the Second Earl of Rochester, Depp plays a sexual egotist with an intangible libido. He is truly the eponymous hero of the story, an emotionally bankrupt hedonist with little control over his desires. As he has his way with countless women in bedrooms, hallways and stagecoaches, Wilmot contracts syphilis and steadily loses his pretty boy visage. Forced to wear a mask to shield the world from his incarnate wantonness (syphilis took his nose), he is bedridden at the age of 33, prepared to die for his countless indiscretions.
Depp shows great command in this role and a bravery in literally begging the audience to dislike him. For an actor and a celebrity with such clout, his cavalier flouting of convention and pop culture consensus is perhaps his most prized trait.
Honorable Mention: Mortdecai
With shades of Peter Sellers and Monty Python, Depp’s latest screwball character took shape in David Koepp’s Mortdecai. Replete with a “sympathetic gag reflex” and a mustache that’s all form and no function, poor Mortdecai was laughed off the screen after only a few weeks in theaters. Critics were baffled by his existence, obviously too jaded to recognize the simple genius of such a character and the actor who played him.
Does Mortdecai not deserve our praise? Does Mortdecai not deserve our accolades? Our unconditional love?
Perhaps it is we who do not deserve him. Forgive us, Mortdecai, we know not what we do.
Whither art thou, Mortdecai? Return to us (preferably in Mortdecai: I Mustache You 2 Boogaloo)!
There you have it! What Johnny Depp role do you find most eccentric? Let us know in the comments below?
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