Johnny Depp has gone from being a flash-in-the-pan teen actor to an indie film darling to a major star: a career path as surprising to him as it was to his fans. His starring role on 21 Jump Street seemed like a professional dead end, until a little help from Tim Burton and John Waters helped him shed his boy-toy image. He seemed content to work with their likes on interesting projects without a lot of popular appeal… until Pirates of the Caribbean made him a household name overnight. This week, he re-teams with Pirates helmer Gore Verbinski for The Lone Ranger, an updating of the classic Western hero featuring Depp as Tonto. The casting comes with its share of raised eyebrows, a fact that Depp addressed during a recent press conference for the film.
Question: The big question on everyone’s mind is your choice to play Tonto here. Can you talk about what led you to it?
Johnny Depp: I had a great mentor-father-friend in Marlon Brando, and he was pretty keen on this issue. Throughout the history of cinema, the Native American has been portrayed as a savage or as something lesser than whites. It was important to me to at least take a good shot at erasing that. I remember watching the black-and-white Lone Ranger series as a kid, with Clayton Moore and the great Jay Silverheels. And as a very young child, I was always bothered by the idea of Tonto being a sidekick. That just didn't register properly in my head. That’s no disrespect to anybody at all, certainly not Jay Silverheels, but I just thought this project was potentially an opportunity to right the wrong. I think it’s great that Tonto makes the Lone Ranger. It feels right, finally.
Q: You do that in a way that’s uniquely you in this film, the same way you approached pirates with Jack Sparrow.
JD: My hope was to almost embrace the cliché, so that it’s recognized by people who have been conditioned to how Native Americans have been represented in film. And then, having done that, to kind of turn it on its ear. Suck them in, and then switch them around, and then take them on a different path. So in a way, I had to embrace what is deemed as cliché for Tonto. It was tricky, because you have that speech pattern, which is awful and hurtful to so many people. And then you find a way to explode it and reveal it for the sham that it is. That’s what I tried to do and what I hope we accomplish here.
The Native Americans in this country are pretty extraordinary. After everything they’ve been through – after generation after generation after generation of what their ancestors have been through – they have come out of it still holding onto their heritage and their culture. And they work to keep it alive: that heritage, their language, their traditions. They are warriors in the truest sense of the word.
Q: How do you address concerns that it’s not appropriate for you to play Tonto… that it’s essentially black face?
JD: There was always that fear, and there’s going to be that criticism. And it’s okay. I expected it. But as long as I know that I have done no harm, and represented – at the very least – the Comanche Nation in a proper light, I’m satisfied. There’s always gonna be naysayers. Everybody’s got an opinion, man. I know that I approached it in the right way, and that’s all I can do, you know?
One of the things that Gore and I talked about early on is that Tonto is a band apart. He’s dealing with a lot of shame; he feels like he’s visited a terrible evil upon his people. And he goes out on his own to avenge that… and in the process try to heal that pain: a pain that could, in many ways, never be healed. It’s a monumental task. It can never really be accomplished. But out he goes, like Don Quixote, to get it done. It makes him very interesting to play.
Q: Can you give us any hints at the next Pirates movie? What are your thoughts on working with Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg?
JD: I met the fellas, and they have a pretty good understanding of the rules that Gore set forth. They understand the importance for absolute and total irreverence and irresponsibility on my part. That’s what I liked about them, and I hope what will make for a good movie.