Detective Tom Hanson (21 Jump Street)
The look that launched 1000 hearts beating is by far the easiest. Banking on his movie star good looks and smoldering sex appeal, producers didn’t want to change much about Johnny for 21 Jump Street. The premise of the series is that all of the officers have such youthful appearances that they’re able to do undercover work in high schools or colleges, where they investigate drug abuse or hate crimes.
As Depp’s’ first role, he even introduced a odd character quirk--the character’s obsession with peanut butter. While it didn’t make it into the TV show, the movie producers were more than happy to oblige.
Edward Scissorhands (Edward Scissorhands)
In the first of their legacy of collaborations, Tim Burton and Johnny Depp teamed up to bring this character to life that has scissors for hands. The studio wanted Gary Oldman or Tom Hanks (both turned down the role), which is lucky for audiences and Burton, who saw Depp connect with the character both personally and emotionally. Depp studied Charlie Chaplin films in order to create sympathy without dialogue.
The character is based on a drawing from a teenaged Tim Burton that reflected his feelings of isolation. Perhaps the most telling of all was the intensity of the physical transformation--makeup took a little over 2 hours with 2 artists working daily. The scissor hands were a mash up of different techniques until they figured them out and then proceeded to make them into prosthetics. Costuming presented a challenge as much of the costume is pulled from the 19th century with old bits and pieces of vinyl and leather. In the end, they only had 2 costumes because materials were limited.
Sam (Benny and Joon)
In his portrayal of an illiterate, eccentric fellow who falls in love with a schizophrenic girl, Depp invoked the ghost of Buster Keaton to create the character of Sam. If you don’t know what that is, Google it and make sure you watch. Depp takes the physical comedy to a 12 on a scale of one to ten.
Depp intensely studied the films of Buster Keaton, from his arrival on a train to the manner of speech that he uses. While the film is largely out of circulation now, it's still worth watching to enjoy the physical, often silent, comedy that Depp embodies. Also, he looks adorable in the porkpie hat.
Gilbert Grape (What's Eating Gilbert Grape?)
What's Eating Gilbert Grape is one of those movies that surprised us all with its heart and made us all sob uncontrollably. The story of a family mourning their dad, dealing with their brother's handicap, and trying to earn enough money even though their mother can't leave the house, ends up completely destroying us all. “It was a hard time for me, that film, for some reason. I don’t know why,” Depp said.
When it came to his relationship with co-star 19-year-old Leonardo DiCaprio, Depp said, “I tortured him.” Depp also admitted to having a difficult time saying ugly things to actress Darlene Cates and apologized after each take.
Ed Wood (Ed Wood)
In this masterpiece by Tim Burton, Depp took on the real-life role of the world’s most terrible film director. Johnny Depp shows that his greatest gift was a perpetually sunny indifference to the plain facts of real life. Depp plays Wood as a man deliriously happy to be making movies. He rarely makes two takes of the same shot because the first one always looks great to him.
Depp earned his first Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor thanks to the role. Depp said that to capture the voice of Wood, he tried to merge Ronald Reagan’s “blind optimism” with the “vocal attack” of Casey Kasem, the long-serving disc jockey who voiced Shaggy on the original Scooby-Doo cartoon series. Further inspiration was drawn from Jack Haley’s performance as the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz.
Donnie Brasco (Donnie Brasco)
Based on the 1988 book by Joseph Pistone about his time embedded with the Bonnano crime family, Depp embraces undercover agent Donnie Brasco. Playing opposite Al Pacino, Depp created a sharp, clever character that both embraced and overturned the genre expectations.
Critic Roger Ebert said,“Donnie Brasco was rare in exploring "two men who grow to love each other, within the framework of a teacher-student relationship.” Depp’s adept portrayal of a man who lives a double life that blurs with every additional scene was mesmerizing. For his role, Depp worked extensively with Pistone about his undercover experience and the tics that made the character famous
Ichabod Crane (Sleepy Hollow)
Tim Burton ended up helming this delicious remake of a well-known fable, and with Johnny as his muse, things evolved. As with most movies that Depp makes, he had his own version of the character written in his head. "I always thought of Ichabod as a very delicate, fragile person who was maybe a little too in touch with his feminine side, like a frightened little girl," Depp explained.
Modeling the personality of Ichabod on Basil Rathbone in Sherlock Holmes, Depp took Ichabod to the next level in terms of creating a seemingly sympathetic character. The star of the show, however, was the stunning set and cinematography. The set and exteriors ended up being created and shot at Leavensden Film Studios in London, due to the need for Dutch colonial housing. Once again, the film garnered award nominations for art direction, cinematography, and costume design.
In only 17 minutes onscreen, audiences fell in love with the devastatingly handsome river gypsy Roux. Depp created Roux as a gypsy used to living on the water, taking his home with him wherever he goes. Johnny chose to play guitar because of his fascination and interest in playing at age 12.
Deppaholics will note that this version is probably the earliest version of a ‘pirate’, where Depp sported his own long hair and affinity for beautiful women. And women everywhere were dying to replace Juliette Binoche’s Vianne Rocher. His sexy ponytail/braid made him seem all at once both exotic and stylish. And while this role was a tiny one for Depp, it left an indelible mark on the audience. And when one has both chocolate and a delicious leading man, one has a great movie.
George Jung (Blow)
When playing a real-life person, Depp takes the role more seriously and tries to portray them with as much honesty and sincerity as possible. This is evident in his role as George Jung, cocaine smuggler extraordinaire. Jung’s career was based solely on the importation of cocaine from the jungles and cartels of Bolivia. Ironically, Depp’s career at one point was in a nosedive at the time due to partying and drug usage, which he cleaned up with the birth of his daughter Lily-Rose.
True to form, Johnny dove into the role and immediately visited Jung in prison to get a feel for his life, attitude, and observations. Depp notes, “Jung was doing what he knew best. He learned from his upbringing to be a greedy person. I wanted to turn him into a real man that you could relate to.” Depp succeeded in giving the character depth and sincerity. On a sad note, George Jung passed away at the age of 78 in May 2021.
Captain Jack Sparrow (Pirates of the Caribbean)
Much has been written about Depp’s character and the methodology to his approach as Captain Jack Sparrow, one of the most iconic roles of his career. You would think that being one of the nine pirate lords of the Seven Seas of the Brethren Court would be a rather fancy thing to dress, but you’d be dead wrong. The initial sketches of Depp’s character had him a rather plain looking, understated pirate.
However, Johnny envisioned something entirely different, borrowing from research about nomads (use of kohl around his eyes), adding gold teeth, and of course Keith Richards swagger and habit of collecting souvenirs on his travels. Depp also wanted the dreadlocks as pirates don’t bathe and insisted on a tricorne for a hat. Sadly, none of the official costumes from the original movie survived. The weapons were genuine 18th century pieces and Depp included 2 of his personal rings in costuming. Depp also created a backstory for every single thing he wore--embracing the character quite personally.
J.M. Barrie (Finding Neverland)
With an all-star cast that included Kate Winslet, Julie Christie, and Dustin Hoffman, Depp had competition for screen time. However, Johnny earned another Best Actor nomination for his portrayal of the man who created Peter Pan. Because of his youth at the time, Rolling Stone said, “it’s not too early to call him [Depp] a great actor”. Depp felt drawn to the role because of the author’s insistence on staying in touch with his childlike imagination. Depp notes, “children don’t have an agenda”.
It’s also interesting to note that screenwriter David Magee wrote the role specifically with Johnny in mind and noted that he possessed “a strong degree of underlying sadness” that imbued the character with such poise and grace. Buttoned up Depp has never looked so good.
Willy Wonka (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory)
You have to have pretty big stones to take on one of the most beloved children’s characters in cinematic history, and Johnny Depp rose to the occasion. In his fourth collaboration with Tim Burton, Depp signed on without reading the script, intentionally believing that his take on the character would be the polar opposite from Gene Wilder in the original film. Depp found his inspiration in thinking about what a stoned George Bush might do, a somewhat bizarre but lasting impression.
For his famous hairstyle, he turned to Vogue magazine editor Anna Wintour. Depp’s Wonka, however, wasn’t a fan of kids--drawing more heavily on Howard Hughes, who was reclusive and controlling. Depp’s Wonka was dapper, yet freaky with his high voice.
Sweeney Todd (Sweeney Todd)
As you might imagine in this Tim Burton remake, Depp was the first one cast, even before he sang a note. Depp got his inspiration for his performance as Sweeney Todd from Peter Lorre, Boris Karloff, Anthony Newley, and Iggy Pop. Depp won a Golden Globe for his portrayal of Sweeney Todd and nabbed an Oscar nomination as well.
Depp was deeply involved with the look and feel of his character. Heavy purple and brown make-up was applied around his eyes to suggest fatigue and rage, as if "he's never slept". Depp said of the character, "He makes Sid Vicious look like the innocent paper boy. He's beyond dark. He's already dead. He's been dead for years." Depp had difficulty handling real razors so the prop department created a mechanical one for him that he could open with a press of a button.
The Mad Hatter (Alice in Wonderland)
Burton explained that Depp "tried to find a grounding to the character ... as opposed to just being mad. [Depp's] goal was to try and bring out a human side to the strangeness of the character." Depp’s orange hair color was carefully considered as an allusion to mercury poisoning, suffered by milliners who used mercury to cure felt; Depp believes that the character "was poisoned".
The other unique thing about Depp’s portrayal was both the gap tooth grin as well as the thrift-store costumes, which changed according to his emotions throughout the film. People keyed in on the accent, which seemed both indulgent and lazy at the same time. Still, the lingering image of a nut in an orange wig with outlandish costumes remain.
Tonto (The Lone Ranger)
In the Disney adaptation of The Lone Ranger, Depp took on an old character that he was familiar with from his childhood. "But even at the ripe old age of 5 or 6 or 7, watching that on TV, I had the very distinct feeling that there was something very wrong," he said. Depp wanted to play Tonto as the Lone Ranger's equal partner. "In my own small way, it was my attempt to right the wrongs of what had been done with regards to the representation of Native Americans in cinema."
Depp played Tonto as a deadpan spirit warrior instead of the ‘dumb’ sidekick that audiences had seen. However, the media was dissatisfied because the role didn’t go to a person of Native American heritage--regardless of the months that both Depp and Disney courted the Navajo nation. Depp, for his look, took it from a painting by artist Kirby Sattler, which featured a bird flying behind the warrior’s head. However, in true Depp fashion, the bird became part of the warrior Tonto himself.
The Big Bad Wolf (Into the Woods)
In his portrayal of the Big Bad Wolf, Johnny could only see himself wearing a zoot suit from the Tex Avery cartoons. Depp’s inspiration was decidedly less Grimm’s Red Riding Hood and more 50s animation edge, wanting “a hip, big, bad wolf with a fedora and a monochrome suit and a cat chain,” he said, "And the second I mentioned my idea to Colleen she got very excited.”
His longtime costume collaborator, Colleen Atwood, rationalized the look, which strays slightly from the rest of the costume aesthetic by figuring, “The idea with the Wolf is that he is the Wolf of Little Red Riding Hood’s imagination, so we didn’t want to put Johnny in a wolf suit or give him a fur collar.” The overall effect is that the Wolf seems more of a menacing humanistic villain than the furry predator of our imaginations, a theme that Atwood employed down to Depp’s very fingernails, gluing them to gloves rather than using a prosthetic.
Gellert Grindelwald (Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them)
In portraying one of the most powerful and dangerous dark wizards of all time, Johnny Depp took on the Harry Potter fandom. Grindelwald was a complex figure, highly idealistic and talented, dedicated to achieving his ends at any cost, and Depp wasted no time creating a menacing, yet mesmerizing character. Depp helped design Grindelwald’s unique look (a pasty-faced, platinum-haired vision of fascistic extremism).
Depp explains: “To me, there’s something almost childlike in [Grindelwald]. His dream is for the wizard world to stand tall and above. It’s a fascistic element, and there’s nothing more dangerous than somebody who is a dreamer with a specific vision that’s very strong and very dangerous and he can make it happen.” Depp also realized the seriousness of the character: “The Potter fans are like scholars of this stuff which I find incredibly impressive. They know that world inside and out. I hope to give them something they haven’t seen before.”