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There’s a new Alice in Wonderland coming to movie theaters, but the title character and the fantasy land she visits take a backseat to another creature of Hollywood fantasy. Johnny Depp plays the film’s Mad Hatter. In Lewis Carroll’s book, the Hatter is just one of the many surreal characters the young heroine meets when she falls down the rabbit hole. When Depp plays the character, he cannot help but take the spotlight. 


Die hard Depp fans have known about the actor’s talents for 20-some years. After playing some generic teen roles, like the boyfriend in A Nightmare on Elm Street, a soldier in Platoon and an undercover cop in high school on TV’s 21 Jump Street, Depp chose movie roles that defied any traditional leading man typecasting.


Johnny Depp

He’s played a man with scissors for hands, a lover who re-enacts silent film scenes or a lothario from classic literature, an oddball filmmaker and a real life author, a singing murderous barber and of course that heat-stroke addled pirate. It seems like he’s visited wonderland in every job before this.


“My whole ride, the experience on the ride, since day one, has been pretty surreal in this business, and defies logic,” Depp told Dish in L.A. recently. “I’m still completely shocked that I still get jobs and am still around. But, more than anything, it has been a kind of wonderland. I’ve been very lucky.”


Becoming a Hollywood player, able to guarantee a film millions of dollars in ticket sales, was never part of the plan. Depp was happy playing quirky eccentrics to small art house crowds. In fact, he never even thought he’d get away with that for as long as he has.


Alice In Wonderland

“I had no idea where anything was going,” he said. “But, it’s almost impossible to predict anything like that. I had no idea. I had hope. I felt like after I had done Cry-baby with John Waters and Edward Scissorhands with Tim [Burton], that they were going to cut me off right then. I felt, at that point, I was on solid ground and I knew where I was going, where I wanted to go, and I was sure that they would nix me out of the gig. But, luckily, I’m still here.”


In person, Depp looks like a character that Johnny Depp might play. He wears lavish outfits, layered with scarves and necklaces and jackets, and a beige beret that still doesn’t keep strands of hair from falling over his face. It definitely passes for cool and hip. The Mad Hatter’s bushy red hair, pale face paint and macabre headwear only have a place in a surreal wonderland. 


“I would done whatever character Tim wanted,” Depp said. “Certainly, the fact that it was the Mad Hatter was a bonus. Each time out of the gate with Tim, the initial thing for me is to obviously come up with a character. Then, there’s a certain amount of pressure where I go, ‘Jesus, will this be the one where I disappoint him?’ So, I try really hard, especially early on, to come up with something that’s very different, that he hasn’t experienced before, we haven’t experienced together before, and that would stimulate him and inspire him to make choices based on that character. I try not to embarrass him, basically.”


In researching madness and the hat business for the film, Depp found that the term “mad as a hatter” came from a historical trend. Hat makers would use mercury glue to make their product, and actually go insane from the fumes. That guided the levels of madness he played, from innocent to dangerous. 


“Looking at it from that perspective of this guy who literally is damaged goods, physically damaged, emotionally a little obtuse and taking that and deciding that he should be, as opposed to just this hyper, nutty guy, he should explore all sides of the personality at an extreme level.” 


Helena Bohnam

That level of analysis is what makes us believe Depp’s characters, as opposed to someone just putting on an act. Burton appreciates more than just the depth of Depp’s work. “Look, I’ve always loved working with Johnny from Scissorhands on, for many reasons,” Burton said. “He likes to play characters, be different things. He doesn’t like watching himself, which I love because that makes it a lot easier for me. Which is great and each time you do something, he’s always trying to do something different, surprises. It’s great when you know somebody and they keep surprising you.”


Surprising a director, and audiences, becomes more difficult when you’ve already played 20 crazy characters before. After deciding to give the Hatter a British accent, Depp had to be careful he didn’t sound too much like Captian Jack Sparrow, or Roux from Chocolat. “You’ve got to really pay attention to the places you’ve been,” Depp said. “That’s the great challenge. You may get it wrong. There’s a very good possibility that you can fall flat on your face, but I think that’s a healthy thing for an actor.”


Alice in Wonderland

That possibility of getting things wrong harkens back to Depp’s earlier comments about his fears of getting run out of Hollywood. Burton offers Depp a safe place to try things.  “The most special things that he, very luckily, has given me are about seven jobs,” Depp said. “That’s the most amazing thing. I’m looking forward to the eighth and the ninth.”


Together, Burton and Depp have their own creative language that yields the results we see on screen. “There’s no real definition other than there is some kind of connection, some sort of understanding that Tim and I have that is, at most times, unspoken,” Depp said. “Most people, when they hear Tim giving me direction while we’re talking about the characters or something on the set, are baffled, completely befuddled. They don’t know what we’re talking about. A guy actually came to me one time after watching Tim and I talk for ten minutes and said, ‘I didn’t understand a word you guys were saying.’ So, yeah, it’s one of those things you don’t question, but I sure love him, you know.”


Alice in Wonderland also follows a line of roles that come from 19th century fantasy literature. Depp played Ichabod Crane in Sleepy Hollow, and Peter Pan author J.M. Barrie in Finding Neverland. Lewis Carroll’s Alice stories also come from an era that inspires Depp.


“I just adore it, from certainly J.M. Barrie and the wonderful characters he created, Lewis Carroll, even French literature, like Baudelaire or over in the states, Poe. You open those books, you open The Flowers of Evil and begin to read. If it were written today, you’d be absolutely stupefied by the work. It’s this incredible period where the work is timeless, ageless. So yeah, I just love all those guys. It’s my deep passion for those great 1

9th century writers.”


Tim Burton

Alice in Wonderland specifically had entered Depp’s life at different ages. “I do vaguely remember roughly being five years old, reading versions of Alice in Wonderland, but the thing is the characters. You always know the characters. Everyone knows the characters, and they’re very well-defined characters, which I always thought was fascinating. Most people who haven’t read the book definitely know the characters and reference them.”


As an adult, Depp would continue reading the works of Carroll for his own enjoyment, let alone for work. “Ironically, it was only maybe a year prior to Tim calling, I had re-read Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, and what I took away from it was these very strange, little cryptic nuggets that he’d thrown in there. I was really intrigued by them, became fascinated by them, because they were asking questions that couldn’t be answered almost, or were making statements that you couldn’t quite understand. ‘Why is a raven like a writing desk?’ Those things just became so important to the character. You realize that the more you read it, if I read the book again today, I’d find 100 other things that I missed last time. It’s a constantly changing book.”


Alice in Wonderland

Burton claims he never read Alice in Wonderland as a child. He only knew the Walt Disney animated feature and other pop culture adaptations. “Well, I’m from Burbank so we never heard about Alice in Wonderland except for the Disney cartoon, Tom Petty video, Jefferson Airplane,” Burton said. “It was interesting because that’s what made me realize the power of it, is that I got my introduction to it much more from other illustrators and music and culture and writers. The imagery would come up in work. Then when you start to delve into it and realize just how powerful that is. It’s why it sort of remains that way.”


The film uses state-of-the-art visual effects for a 3-D immersion into Burton’s surreal vision. Don’t worry about the technology. It’s just another way to get lost in a story. “I never try to focus too much on the technology,” Burton added. “The fun of it for us is the artistic thing of it and feeling like making a movie and stuff, and not get too overly involved, in love with technology.”


Kids in school may still read Lewis Carroll’s original fiction, or perhaps they’ll download it to their kindle. Many more will experience childhood fantasy through the world Burton has created and the characters Depp has. Even his own children go back to an early performance that remains one of Depp’s most original and touching. 

“My children’s favorite, and it’s funny because they’ve seen it but they have a difficult time watching it because it’s their dad and they make that connection, but Edward Scissorhands is, by far my kids’ favorite,” Depp said. “They just connect with the character, and they see their dad feeling that isolation, that loneliness. He’s a tragic character, so I think it’s hard for them. They bawl when they see that.”


Alice in Wonderland opens worldwide March 5. Don’t miss it! / Issue 117 - September 7124
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