Corpse Bride - Interview with Johnny Depp

Corpse Bride - Interview with Johnny Depp
Special report from the Toronto Film Festival - speaking with Johnny Depp, the Corpse's bridegroom.
Updated: 09-13-2005

Q: Had you wanted to do an animated film, and why this one?


Depp: It was something I wanted to do, kind of always wanted to do especially since having my first child. I’ve been watching nothing but animated films now. So I’ve really developed a respect and love for them. But more than anything, what drew me to this was Tim. We were just commencing Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and he said, ‘Hey, I’ve got this other thing, Corpse Bride, maybe take a look at it.’ So I read it and loved it, but it somehow didn’t occur to me that we were going to be doing it at the same time. I thought it was going to be like months down the road so I would have some time later to prepare for the character. So you could imagine my surprise when, as I was very, very focused on Wonka, Tim arrives on set and says, ‘Hey, you know, maybe tonight we’ll go and record some of Corpse Bride.’ I was like sure, ’course we can. I have no character. I didn’t know what the guy was going to sound like or anything. Good fun though.


Q: How did you create the voice?


Depp: Well, everything for Corpse Bride happened very quick. It all happened in about 15-20 minutes literally because I had to finish the day as Wonka. And then right after work, Tim and I would go on over to the studio for the session. So the process lasted about the length of the walk from the soundstage to the recording studio which was pretty quick, where I just grilled him. I said, ‘Okay, where is he from? What do you want him to sound like?’ He was born in that little bit of time and I didn’t hear him for the first time until he gave me the nod that they were recording. So the preparation for this, I was remiss basically. I should be flogged.


Q: Do your kids think it’s cooler that you’re a cartoon or a pirate?


Depp: I don’t know. I’ll ask them. The funny thing is with my kids, my daughter’s six and my boy is three. My daughter, she’s quite calm and ladylike and princessy so she can sit there and watch a movie and not get real antsy. Normally, my boy will watch for about three and a half seconds, then sprint as fast as he can across the room to go and break something. With this film, we watched Corpse Bride together, my boy sat on my lap and watched the entire film, just didn’t move, just riveted. Loved it. Which says a lot. It’s pretty full, this movie.


Q: Was he scared?


Depp: No, he loved it. I mean, there are certainly moments where you get that kind of jolt, but so did I.


Q: How do you bring a Johnny Depp-ness to a character?


Depp: I think with any character, it all comes from somewhere in there. It starts from some place of truth within you and then I don’t know. It’s weird. When I read a script, I get these sort of images and stuff as we’ve talked about before, ideas come to me. And then sometimes the image of people come to me, like with Sleepy Hollow I kept seeing a Roddy McDowell/Angela Lansbury kind of thing. So that became the inspiration. Captain Jack, Keith became the inspiration because I started thinking of pirates as rock stars of the time, the idea that their legend arrived months, maybe years before they did. So you just start taking little tidbits of things and storing them up to use later.


Q: Does it come from media for you?


Depp: Not necessarily media, but for example, one of the primary responsibilities of an actor is to — and luxuries is the art of observation, being able to watch people and watch their behavior. Which is fascinating because people are really nuts. I’ve really enjoyed that over the years, just stealing little bits from people, incorporating them into characters.


Q: Do you apply Keith Richards’ idea that there’s one big song in the sky he’s reaching for?


Depp: As long as I can observe people, I feel like I’m always going to be able to store these little tidbits and gems that people give me, or that I steal. But there was a moment years back when I was sitting having a conversation with good old Marlon Brando, bless him, and he said, ‘How many movies do you do a year?’ And I said, ‘I don’t know, sometimes two, sometimes three.’ And he said, ‘Watch yourself.’ I said, ‘Why is that?’ He said because we only have so many faces in our pockets. After all this time later, I’m starting to realize how right he was. He was very, very wise.


Q: What was your first reaction when you saw your animated character?


Depp: I was very lucky in that I got to meet Victor the puppet just before the session. So just as I was finding out who he might be, I walked into the recording studio and there he was in his glory, and there was the Corpse Bride and everyone, so that was very helpful. The amazing thing is, and people have said it, there is some degree of resemblance. But the funny thing is they came up with those designs a year before.


Q: Did you have any creative input?


Depp: No. They were locked in.


Q: You were great.


Depp: Oh, thanks a lot. And it’s such a great — what a great opportunity with this cast. Helena Bonham Carter, Albert Finney, Emily Watson.


Q: Is it more difficult acting without the camera?


Depp: I wouldn’t say that it’s more difficult, but I did go in there thinking, ‘Yeah, this doesn’t seem like it would be so difficult. You’ve got a piece of paper, you read the thing, a guy records it and then you’re done.’ It’s not that at all. It’s much more like you’re doing scenes with people you’ve never met and they’re not there, and you’re reading, your job is to pull these words off the paper, salt and pepper them, just layer them with stuff and then send it out there in a very non-organic environment. So I wouldn’t say it’s as difficult as filmmaking/moviemaking but it wasn’t so easy either.


Q: Describe dynamic with Tim Burton. Do you bring out the best in each other?


Depp: I just think he’s a genius. And that’s not a word that you can throw around very easily. I think Tim is so special, so unique. Our working relationship is, as you can imagine, weird. Because there is a sort of emotional shorthand there. There’s this language that even crew guys have come up to me and said, ‘I just watched you and Tim discussing the scene and had no idea what you were saying. I didn’t understand a word.’ But there is some kind of connection that I don’t know how to explain, but most of the time, at least for me, all I’m trying to do is make him laugh. Even in the scene, you can have all these motivations and objectives as an actor and stuff, and then when I get in the ring, it basically all goes out the window and I’m just trying to make Tim laugh. I just want to see in my peripheral vision, I want to see his sort of hunched over giggle where he’s trying to not make noise.


Q: Do you think you might be someone’s inspiration someday?


That’s dangerous territory. I don’t know. I don’t know that I’m in a position to inspire to inspire anyone but I don’t know how to answer that. I honestly don’t. I really don’t know how to answer it. You got me.


Q: How has your collaboration with Tim evolved? Will you grow old together?


Depp: I sure hope so but that’s up to you guys because when you see Tim, you have to force him to give me another job. It’s funny, the process itself hasn’t changed at all since Edward Scissorhands. Even on Scissorhands when we were just getting to know one another and feeling one another out and building that foundation, that all important foundation of trust, it was still the same. He would come in and say this is where I think we should go and this is this and that. But at the same time, what do you think? So I’d add my two cents which would give him another idea and it would mount up into this insanity which somehow there was this trust before we knew that we could trust one another. So the process is exactly the same. It’s a very — he includes you in almost every single level of the production. It’s pretty amazing.


Q: What’s it like making Pirates 2 and making two movies at the same time?


Depp: Well, I just discovered that — it occurs to me that Jack Sparrow can be funny. So I’m going to try that this time. I’m just going to try and be funny. No, I don’t know. Selfishly, the whole idea of sequels and stuff like that, it’s a very odd notion because  


Q: So… more sequels?


Depp: I never quite understood the idea of doing sequels and stuff like that until as an actor you think, ‘I’ve played this character for months and months and I really got to know the guy, I really got to love the guy.’ And then the clock starts ticking and you know the end is coming. You go, ‘Jesus, I’ll never see him again. I’ll never see him, I’ll never feel this again.’ So you start to get depressed and all that. And with Jack Sparrow, I had the sneaking suspicion that I might see him again. So I’m saying selfishly, I was so excited to come back and do two and three because I just wanted to meet up with him again. I just wanted to be him again.


Q: What’s special about him?


Depp: I wouldn’t say there’s anything particularly special about him. It’s just that it’s someone that I’ve gotten to know. And you do end up with these weird — it’s a very strange situation where as a grown man, you start having separation anxiety with an imaginary character. It’s worrisome because you know it’s not normal but you can’t stop yourself. I just like the guy. He’s a pal.


Q: Will you be going back to Don Quixote?


Depp: Oh, I’d love to. If there’s any way to avoid the curse, that would be better.


Q: Have you talked to Terry about it?


Depp: Yeah, every time I see him he threatens to. In fact I saw him last night. Yeah, I’d love to do it again. Well, do it again. I don’t want to do that again. I’d love to do the film if at all possible. And I stress that if at all possible, because it was going to be good. That was the thing we all felt and was really sad. It was going to be really good. It was like the best of Terry Gilliam. I felt really good about my character. The good news is, if he wants to go back and do that, I know the character so I have less homework to do.


Q: Is it true you weren’t able to prepare for Victor? It only took you a few minutes?


Depp: I was able, but I didn’t. Only because I — well, there’s no excuse. I thought we were going to do it later.


Q: How did you read the character, how did you feel about Victor?


Depp: Well, he felt like a guy that I knew. When I read it, he felt like — he didn’t feel all that dissimilar from other characters that I’ve played for time. It was just the base emotional feeling. Yeah, along the lines of Scissorhands is what I felt. I didn’t know — the funny thing is I didn’t expect to get to a point where I as a reader or I as a viewer would step outside of the actor in me and go, ‘Well, man, he should stay with the corpse bride.’ I really found myself in that dilemma which helped a lot when we were recording it because I really did, even in reading it, I felt, ‘Man, I know Victoria Everglot is fantastic and everything and thank God they fell in love, but the Corpse Bride is so magnificent.’ I mean, have you ever looked at a corpse and thought, ‘Wow, she’s really sexy.’ She is wildly sexy and beautiful.


Q: What is your view of the afterlife?


Depp: It’s a complete mystery to me. I think it would be great if you one day just went to sleep and woke up and it was 1920s Paris. That would be excellent. But I don’t know, because there could be just dirt and worms. I don’t know. I certainly hope so. That’s a pretty snazzy place that Tim dreamed up for the land of the dead. I don’t know. Is it heaven, is it hell, is it purgatory? Maybe this is the land of the dead. We may not know it.


Q: What is it about 1920s Paris that appeals to you?


Depp: It seemed a more innocent, wholesome time. There were possibilities. People were having a ball, feeling sort of liberated. I don’t know, it’s just a time and a place I’ve always been attracted to.


Q: How has it changed your life to be a blockbuster star?


Depp: I mean, it hasn’t changed my — here’s an oxymoron for you — work ethic. It hasn’t changed my approach to the work. It hasn’t changed my outlook to the work. I’ve been very, very lucky in my life that I have worn many hats, literally. And I’d love to show them all to you. I mean, I’ve done everything from sold ink pens over the telephone to screen printed T-shirts, worked construction, was a musician for a number of years. I was a busboy. I’ve done a lot of different things and I’ve had a great deal of luck in this business. So I’m somewhat together enough to know that if the ride is going smooth and fun and well and everything is peachy keen this week, then all that could evaporate next week and then I’m once again that weird guy that does art films. Which is okay. So I mean, I always said I’ve never had any allergy to the idea of commercial success. It was just how you got there that was important.


Q: What’s after Pirates 2?


Depp: No idea. Sleep.


Q: What’s the story of Pirates 2?


I think you’ll like it. It’s pretty out there.




= = =

Toronto Film Festival, 9/11/05

Staci Layne Wilson Reporting



Read the interview with Helena Bonham-Carter here

Read the interview with Tim Burton here

Read the interview with Danny Elfman and Mike Johnson here


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