The Man Behind The Make-Up

2nd August 2013

Johnny Depp returns in Disney blockbuster The Lone Ranger – a fitting choice of title, perhaps, given that he’s recently split from long-term partner Vanessa Paradis and describes himself as ‘a single man’.
Al Gordon finds out more

Johnny Depp may be the world's highest-paid movie star but as a teenager in Florida, working part-time in construction or as a gas station attendant, all he wanted to do was play his guitar. Money didn’t matter to him then, but today he earns $20 million per film, with a personal fortune estimated at over 10 times that. He could easily afford not to work, and rumours about possible retirement abound… but more of that later. You can’t meet the man and immediately ask when he’s giving up. Propriety requires at least a modicum of attention to his new film, the $225 million Disney blockbuster The Lone Ranger, directed by Gore Verbinski, with whom he previously worked on the Pirates films. Johnny plays Tonto, the native American Comanche warrior in this revisionist retelling of the original TV serial.

“What I like about Tonto,” Depp says, “is the idea that this character is thought of as ‘the sidekick’ and that’s the thing that always bugged me about The Lone Ranger – ‘Well, why the hell is the Indian the sidekick? Why does he have to be the number two guy? So my approach to Tonto is that there’s this 'crazy like a fox' stoicism to him, and that he probably believes that The Lone Ranger is his slave, his sidekick.” This certainly adds a different dimension to the story. …‘So it’s like if the Lone Ranger tells Tonto, ‘Go get me the thing’, Tonto now replies, ‘No, no, no – you go get it. You’re the one dressed in the funny outfit, you go do it.’”

Tonto’s own look, in fact, is so striking to be almost fearful. I wonder if Depp was startled when the make-up was applied for the first time, but it transpires that much of the idea was his own. “I saw a painting by an artist named Kirby Sattler,” he says, “and looked at the face of this native American warrior and thought ‘that’s it’. Looking at the stripes down the sides of his face and across the eyes struck me in a way that you were looking at different sides of the man. It was like one side of his face was angry and full or rage and the other was wise and understanding.”

Taking the make-up in that painting as my inspiration, Depp got make-up artist Joel Harlow to create the mix for him and then took it to producer Jerry Bruckheimer for approval. It got it, although the time spent preparing for each day’s filming as a result of its complexity may have made Depp regret his ideas. “Getting ready each day was a fairly detailed and long process. A lot of times I would sleep with the make-up on just to avoid having to go through the application process in the morning. I did scare myself on a few mornings when I looked in the mirror, but the worst part was waking up and seeing that your pillow was smeared with black and white make-up. And it's not too pleasant covered in the stuff when it’s 45 degrees outside… but Tonto is a fighter!”

Away from the character, we find the superstar actor looking at least ten years younger than his half century. With his hair cut relatively short and wearing his familiar tinted Tom Ford sunglasses, taking a casual puff on a cigarette, Johnny appears more relaxed and at ease with himself than at any other time in his career.

“People ask me how it feels to turn fifty, and honestly, it's great. I don't feel any different at fifty – it's like forty, or thirty. I don't wake up in the morning in pain or say to myself, ‘God, my back is killing me.’ I feel pretty good. It's one more decade behind me. So I say, fifty, why not?

Despite recent upheavals in his private life, he’s remarkably upbeat. “Any day you wake up and get out of bed is a good day. I have so much to be happy for in life and as long as I can take a deep breath and exhale and inhale it's a good thing.

He doesn’t shy away from references to his relationships, but he doesn’t give away too much detail, either. “I’m a single man, too. That has taken a bit of getting used to, but the adjustment is really about making sure your kids are okay and that they understand the situation and that there is no reason for people to hate each other. You spend fourteen beautiful years together and it's a win-win... Vanessa is a wonderful mother and we're on great terms now.”

Depp shares custody of his two children, Lily-Rose, 14, and Jack, 11, and is reportedly dating his Rum Diary co-star Amber Heard; the two were seen at a Rolling Stones concert earlier this year, and out in London for dinner after the premiere of The Lone Ranger just last week.

The film hasn’t found favour with the critics, but whether it's his Keith Richards-inspired turn as Captain Jack in the Pirates of the Caribbean films, or his various eccentric roles in Tim Burton films like Alice in Wonderland or Dark Shadows, Depp never ceases to charm audiences with his surrealist sensibility. If Man Ray or Salvador Dali were to be reborn as filmmakers, there is no doubt that Johnny would be their fetish star.

“I'm drawn to toying with character,” he explains. “I put a lot of my creativity into that process and coming up with something distinct and a little bit magical if I'm lucky. I'm just glad that I have had people I've worked with who have been willing to listen and accept most of my harebrained ideas over the years.

Depp adds that he finds it easy to enter a child’s world and their way of thinking, which has clearly given him an individual approach to some of his work. “I trust kids far more than I do adults. Their perspective on the world is pure. It’s not filtered by all the manipulation and distortion we adults accumulate as we go through life. That’s why having my own children opened up the world to me again on so many levels and made me re-experience the world in a very beautiful way.”

Now that Depp’s hit the big five-oh, is there any credence to the rumours about his retirement?

“I don't know,” he offers. “Maybe in 10 years. I really enjoy the process and the camaraderie from working with pretty much the same film crew, as I have done for the last 13 years. But at some point I would like to explore the world more and wander a bit. I would like to experience some degree of anonymity somewhere…”

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