By Cotton Delo
From pirate to Willy Wonka, Johnny Depp’s ability to reinvent himself helps explain the 44-year-old actor’s enduring appeal.
A chameleon who got his big break on the ’80s TV series “21 Jump Street,” Depp defies comparisons with any other actor. Shifting seamlessly from a dreamy Buster Keaton imitator in “Benny & Joon” to a hard-boiled undercover cop in “Donnie Brasco” to his late friend Hunter Thompson’s alter ego in “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” he was widely considered box office poison in the 1990s despite his matinee idol good looks.
While his offbeat choices exhibit a reluctant approach toward stardom, he’s had a fruitful collaboration with director Tim Burton, who cast him in the title roles in “Edward Scissorhands” and “Ed Wood,” as Ichabod Crane in “Sleepy Hollow,” and as Willy Wonka in “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” Scheduled for release on Dec. 25, “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” is the sixth movie they’ve made together.
Adapted from Stephen Sondheim’s Tony Award-winning musical, “Sweeney Todd” is the dark story of an ex-con barber in 19th-century London who sets out to avenge himself by luring enemies to his shop for a shave and cutting their throats. His neighbor, Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter), obligingly disposes of the evidence by using his victims for her meat pies, and Todd ultimately begins choosing victims arbitrarily.
The film version is still a musical, and in a surprising turn even for an actor known for his risk-taking, Depp sings.
Though the critical buzz surrounding “Sweeney Todd” is positioning it to be a smash hit, its twisted perspective and bloodthirsty protagonists signify a return to Depp’s edgier roots. Relationships with Winona Ryder and Kate Moss and bad-boy behavior once kept him on tabloid covers before he settled into a quieter rhythm with girlfriend Vanessa Paradis and their two children, but it’s only recently that the public warmed to his movies.
After years of lending his talents to little-seen films, he burst into the mainstream with the 2003 blockbuster “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl,” in which he modeled his performance of the seemingly stoned swashbuckler Captain Jack Sparrow on Keith Richards. The critically-acclaimed film garnered Depp his first Academy Award nomination for Best Actor, grossed $654 million worldwide and has led to two sequels.
He followed up Capt. Sparrow with another Oscar-nominated turn as “Peter Pan” author J.M. Barrie in “Finding Neverland,” further signifying his absorption into Hollywood’s A-list – a place he apparently never intended to be.