Johnny Deppth

The soulful-eyed star tells why he played Ichabod Crane as a "fragile young girl" in "Sleepy Hollow."

Topics: Directors, Tim burton, Johnny Depp,

Seguing from lightweight TV-series star to deep-dish actor has
become increasingly commonplace (cf. Rick Schroder, Lisa Kudrow). But in the
10 years since he made his leap from Fox-TV’s “21 Jump Street,”
Johnny Depp
has managed the transition in a manner worthy of the Guinness Book of World
Records — or the Alec Guinness School of Screen Chameleons. In his major
roles he’s been a shape-changer, going from the conscience-ravaged FBI agent
of “Donnie Brasco” to the conscience-free Hunter S. Thompson surrogate
(“Raoul Duke”) of “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas”
without missing a beat or losing an ounce of conviction.

Now he’s taken on an American icon, Ichabod Crane, in Tim Burton’s
exquisitely phantasmagoric adaptation of Washington Irving’s “The Legend of
Sleepy Hollow,” titled, simply, “Sleepy Hollow.” He’s given it his usual
(that is, unusual) Depp charge. He transforms the icon into a complicated
modern figure while staying true — in some mysterious, intangible fashion —
to its post-revolutionary America sardonic grotesquerie. (Irving set his
fable in the 1790s and published it in 1820; the movie takes place
specifically in 1799.)

The Crane of Irving’s story is a Connecticut schoolteacher who
ventures into the haunted rural New York spot called Sleepy Hollow in search
of a well-off wife with a well-set table. What he gets is a terrifying
confrontation with a spectral Hessian trooper known as the Headless Horseman.

Crane becomes, in Burton’s movie, a progressive policeman exiled from
New York City and ordered to test his theories of deduction on a series of
horrific beheadings. The Headless Horseman is the obvious culprit, but Crane
suspects a human of manipulating the monster for his or her own gain. This is
still the tale of an outsider obtruding on the customs of a close-knit
hamlet, with harrowing results. But in the film, Crane’s main characteristics
are rational intellect and swooning effeminacy — not, as in Irving’s story,
petty pedantry in the classroom and over-eagerness to please outside of it.



“One of the original images in my mind was a character who lives in
his head versus a character with no head,” Burton writes in his introduction
to “The Art of Sleepy Hollow” (Pocket Books, 1999). But Burton and Depp’s
Ichabod wants to break through his solipsistic mind-set and arrive at the
truth, even if it blasts his preconceptions. That’s part of the reason why,
for all their camping, Burton and Depp succeed in making Crane come off as a
good marital catch. In the story Crane is a ladies’ man only in comparison to
country bumpkins; he merely dreams of wooing comely farmer’s daughter Katrina
Van Tassel. In the movie he wins pretty Katrina (Christina Ricci)
fair and square.

Surprisingly, as Depp told the press last week at a conference to
promote the movie, he initially envisioned Ichabod along the lines of
Irving’s story or the old Disney cartoon. When he first thought of playing
the lead in a Tim Burton version of the Sleepy Hollow story, he says, “I
started sort of doing Snoopy dances thinking, ‘Yeah, I get to wear a long
snipe nose.’”

“Long snipe nose” is not a phrase you expect to pop out of a
contemporary movie star. But as Depp says, “In the classic Ichabod Crane from
the book, Washington Irving’s description is really beautifully written. And
it is, in fact, a long snipe nose and huge ears, and it talks about his hands
being very far away from his body, and long feet.” (Depp’s memory is spot-on:
“The cognomen of Crane,” writes Irving, “was not inapplicable to his person.
He was tall, but exceedingly lank, with narrow shoulders, long arms and legs,
hands that dangled a mile out of his sleeves, feet that might have served for
shovels, and his whole frame most loosely hung together. His head was small,
and flat at top, with huge ears, large green glassy eyes, and a long snipe
nose, so that it looked like a weathercock, perched upon his spindle neck, to
tell which way the wind blew.”)

Depp admits, “There was a fairly hefty silence when the upper echelons
found out” that he wanted to create a crane-like Crane. So instead he molded
himself into a male ingenue, mixing the aura of a tortured poet with the
unisex glamour of late Carnaby Street.

How, I wonder, would the earlier look have fit Crane’s actions in the
film anyway? After all, in Burton’s version, Crane may not be conventionally
romantic (“I hope not!” Depp interjects), but he does still get the girl.

“There were stages,” Depp explains, somewhat obliquely. “The initial
script was very good, very solid, but Tim and I talked about this early on —
we knew we were going to throw in as much humor as possible. There were
opportunities that had been missed.” Screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker
(“Seven,” “The Game”) hit the comedy “on a couple of notes, here and there,”
but in general was more somber than Burton. It was playwright Tom Stoppard’s
uncredited polish (he did similar, credited work for “Shakespeare in Love”)
and Depp’s collaboration with Burton (his third, after “Edward Scissorhands”
and “Ed Wood”) that caused the black comedy to bloom.

With or without elaborate makeup, Depp was determined “to invent the
character from the ground up, obviously using the basis of Washington
Irving’s character, and trying to make him interesting and different, and
push him as far as you can go. Where you’re just on the verge of ‘believable’
and ‘not-so-believable,’ and quite possibly almost bad acting.”

This “fun” approach is rooted in Depp’s love for the extravagant thespian displays of
the Universal horror classics with Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff and the
Hammer studio’s British remakes with Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing.
(Director Tod Browning, who made “Freaks” and Lugosi’s “Dracula” as well as
several of Lon Chaney’s silent milestones, is one of Depp’s favorite
filmmakers. Depp refers to Chaney himself, “The Man of a Thousand Faces,” as
“one of my heroes.”)

Yet Depp’s primal approach to character goes beneath and beyond
follow-the-dot connections. “When I read a script and it’s something that
grabs hold of me immediately, I start getting these flashes of people or
places or things or images. For ‘Scissorhands,’ for instance, I kept thinking
of dogs I had as a child, you know, and newborn babies. With ‘Sleepy Hollow’
it was the sort of drive that Basil Rathbone had as Sherlock Holmes — to take
that and use that, but what’s going on behind that is total and utter
confusion. Whereas Basil Rathbone knew exactly what he was talking about —
he hit every note — Ichabod would hit it but would, in fact, miss it.”

Depp says he added the “ethereal quality” of his late friend Roddy
McDowall and the “energy and righteousness” of, yes, Angela Lansbury. Depp
remembers registering Lansbury as “this force” in “Death on the Nile,” but I
suspect he means another Agatha Christie mystery, “The Mirror Crack’d,” in
which Lansbury played the sleuth Miss Marple (the inspiration for Lansbury’s
heroine in the TV series “Murder, She Wrote” –”energetic and righteous” indeed, not riotously depraved like Lansbury’s washed-up writer in “Nile”). “So these were the
ingredients,” says Depp. “You just mash them all together and see what you
come up with.”

Depp acknowledges that the Ichabod Crane of “Sleepy Hollow” is
“keenly in touch with his feminine side.” Indeed, Depp thinks of him as “a
fragile young girl.” And to Depp, this point of attack was “dangerous” — as
risky as his goal in “Ed Wood” to blend Ronald Reagan, the Tin Man from “The
Wizard of Oz” and disc jockey Casey Kasem. “In the first few weeks,” he
says, “you’re actually positive you’re going to be fired.” But in “Sleepy
Hollow,” Depp brings to his bizarre concoction an authority and humor that
command respect. He knows that “even if you’re playing a heightened character
and living inside a heightened reality, you can still apply your own truths
to those characters.”

Burton once said, “There’s a sadness about Johnny I just respond to
– and I find it kind of funny.” Accordingly, in “Sleepy Hollow,” Burton
hands Depp’s Crane an astonishing childhood trauma that returns to the grown
man in a dream. It suffuses Crane’s attitudes toward logic, magic, love and
virtue with a melancholy that’s palpable yet also funnily fantastical.

“You do something a little bit different — and what’s the risk?”
asks Depp. “You fall flat on your face or make an ass of yourself or you get
fired.” He’ll take those risks to toil on a subject “that hasn’t been beaten
to death” or that may only reach the screen “just this one time.”

From the moment Depp met Burton (in 1989) to convince the director
to cast him in “Edward Scissorhands,” Depp felt they had a mutual
“appreciation for life, human behavior — what is considered normal and what
is not considered normal.” They also shared “a connection in a deeper sense
of having felt pretty ‘outside’ growing up, freakish, you know, weird.” Like
Burton, Depp “had been obsessed, at a very young age, with horror movies and
monster movies — I found great sanctuary in those dark places, like
‘Dracula.’”

In the introduction to “Burton on Burton” (Faber & Faber, 1995),
Depp wrote about how uncomfortable he was, as the star of the teen-oriented
Fox television series “21 Jump Street,” to talk to Burton about “Edward
Scissorhands”: “I was TV boy. No director in his right mind would hire me to
play this character.”

But no one has mistaken Burton’s right mind for anyone else’s. Depp
can’t help recapitulating for his interviewers how this pair of misfits drank
three or four pots of coffee each at their initial meeting, with the actor
gnawing on his coffee spoon and finding it still in his hand when he went
back to his hotel. The resulting partnership has endured through a trio of
movies. “If Tim wanted to remake ‘The Lonely Lady,’” quips Depp, “I would
play the Lonely Lady with pleasure.” On “Sleepy Hollow” they’ve achieved
their most voluptuous, least sentimental work.

When a reporter asks whether he’d ever participate in a “21 Jump
Street” reunion, Depp replies, “It depends on the director.” With the right
person Depp feels it could be funny, surreal, strange, with undercover cops
turned into plainclothes Norma Desmonds, “still trying to look like high
school students — loads of pancake makeup, plastic surgery. You’d have to
get David Lynch or Harmony Korine,
someone with a real solid sense of humor.”

The mention of Lynch reminds me that, watching “Sleepy Hollow,” I
thought of it as an 18th century “Twin Peaks,” and Depp’s Crane as a fey
ancestor of Kyle MacLachlan’s Agent Cooper. Like “Twin Peaks,” “Sleepy
Hollow” accepts the irrational and uses rational, Sherlock Holmesian means to
explore it. But Depp sees constable Crane more like vampire-hunter Van
Helsing in the Dracula movies.

“It is exactly the formulaic structure of that
type of movie. We’re twisting it here, bending it there, pushing it around
and bullying it a bit. We’re trying to take it a step further but at the same
time not being disrespectful to that structure and formula and saluting the
people who have done good work in it.” Among those he counts Christopher Lee,
who plays Crane’s law-and-order boss, the Burgomaster. Depp says he found it
“frightening” to act with Lee. “You are looking into the eyes of Dracula and
he’s about to jump down your throat, and it’s real, and it’s scary.”

Depp treasures the memory of his collaboration and friendship with
another mainstay of movie horror, Vincent Price, on Price’s final movie,
“Edward Scissorhands”; the aged actor, like his young friend a Gemini, sent
Depp a birthday card every year. The last time Depp saw him was shortly after
the death of Lillian Gish. “We lost Lillian this week,” Price said. “I’m the
only one left.” But when Depp told him, “I’ve got a feeling you’re going to
outlast us all,” Price’s eyes widened and he exclaimed, “Oh, shit!” “He was
tired,” Depp says. “He wanted to go somewhere else. But he was amazing.”

However, Depp balances his reverence for the ghosts of movies past
with a taste for the cutting edge (Nicolas Roeg’s avant-garde terror flick
“Don’t Look Now” reduced him to making “some horrible involuntary noise”) and
for outright kitsch (he cites Barnabas Collins, the vampire hero of the
’60s vampire soap “Dark Shadows,” as a major childhood obsession).

And he does keep looking for outside stimulation. Although he’s directed a film
himself (“The Brave” — which I, like most people, haven’t seen), he’s not
the kind of star who wants to direct his directors. John Travolta walked off
a Roman Polanski film, “The Double,” and effectively scuttled it, reportedly
because he wouldn’t take Polanski’s direction. Depp, on the other hand, leapt
at the chance to star in Polanski’s forthcoming “The Ninth Gate”: “Polanski
made some of the most close-to-perfect films that I’d ever seen, like
‘Chinatown’ and ‘The Tenant’ and ‘Repulsion’ and that stuff. It was a long
time ago but it can’t go away; it’s got to be there somewhere, and I think it
is. I just thought it would be a great experience to get into the ring with
him and see what it was like. And it was interesting. No shit.”

The actor jokes that he’s not a fan of Johnny Depp’s: “I don’t buy
into him; he’s overrated.” He’s petrified of complacency: “I think that, as
an actor, if you get to a place where you’re satisfied and happy with it,
you’re dead, it’s over, you’re not hungry anymore, you won’t try things any more.”

When asked to name a scene he’d love to play, he says, “My brain is
making a connection between two things. You can see how my sick mind works.
Did you ever see ‘The Execution of Private Slovik’? It’s unbelievable, with a
really beautiful performance from Martin Sheen. The last couple of minutes of
the film has Slovik walking toward his execution, saying, ‘Hail Mary, full of
grace.’” What Depp would like to do is apply the workings of that scene to
the last moments of an entirely different character — Rasputin, imperial
Russia’s mad, seemingly unkillable monk, who defied diverse modes of
assassination (guns, poison, bludgeons) before being dumped in a river and
drowned. What interests Depp would be playing Rasputin “beating death for
all that time” and charting “what his thoughts might have been during the
last moments of his life, kind of what Martin Sheen was doing” for Slovik.

Throughout the “Sleepy Hollow” press conference, Depp politely asked younger reporters
if they understood his references. Depp may still have a way to go before his
presence infiltrates the movie mainstream, but he’s elastic enough to bridge
generation gaps. I called the director of “The Execution of Private Slovik,”
Lamont Johnson, to pass on Depp’s good words; I wondered whether Johnson, a
staggeringly vital 77-year-old who has helped launch performers as varied as
Jeff Bridges and Molly Ringwald, had formed an opinion of Depp’s acting. This
director had to admit that he knew Depp mostly from reviews and reputation.
“Johnny Depp?” he laughed good-naturedly. “He’s been praised to me by my
granddaughters.”

Michael Sragow's column about moviemakers appears every Thursday in Salon. For more columns by Sragow, visit his archive.

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