In Charlie & the Chocolate Factory, The Master Actor Gets Deep Into the Role of Willie Wonka
by Brad Balfour
Though often nominated as one of the world’s best looking men as well as for various Oscars [Finding Neverland, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl], the 40-something Johnny Depp inspires fascination. But it’s not for his looks or love life but for his attraction to the offbeat roles that he does that play against his star qualities. And when he works with director Tim Burton, Depp delves further into his truly deviant side. The two were particularly inspired with Charlie and The Chocolate Factory-their collaboration on a cinematic version of the Roald Dahl children’s book that’s much closer to the spirit of the original than the 1971 movie starring Gene Wilder, Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.
Why are you both drawn to such quirky characters?
One thing that Tim and I share is a kind of fascination with the human animal. I think that we also share the idea that most people in life, especially the ones who are considered super normal, if you really take a step back and observe them a bit, you’ll realize that they’re actually completely out of their minds. Most people are really nuts and that’s fascinating to me. I think Tim feels the same way. I just love and respect Tim so much that I would do anything with him. The thing that I most enjoy about our relationship, our friendship, is that there’s a lot of trust. One minute he and I are talking very deeply about Captain Kangaroo and then the next thing I know, we’re doing impersonations of Sammy Davis Jr. and Charles Nelson Reilly. We can go anywhere.
Who was the model for your version of Willie Wonka?
There wasn’t specifically one or two guys that were models for the character. But there were memories that I have as a little kid watching children’s shows and children show hosts. I distinctly remember, even at that age, thinking that their speech pattern and the kind of musical quality of the way they were speaking to the camera and to the children that I thought was really strange. Guys that I watched like Captain Kangaroo and Mr. Rogers and all of these guys became the main part of the ingredient. Then also game show hosts that I remember seeing and watching and thinking, “My God, they can’t be like that at home. They can’t actually be like that.” That led me to believe that they put on a mask in a way, that all-important positive smile. That was the other side of Wonka. Then doing stuff for the look of Wonka was incredibly important. It was important to put that costume on and click those veneers into my mouth for the teeth that actually changed the shape of my face a little bit.
What was the appeal of playing Willy Wonka? Were you a Gene Wilder fan?
Well, I was definitely a Gene Wilder fan, but that’s not what drove me to this. Initially the material, even though I love [the late author] Roald Dahl’s works, was one of the seductive elements certainly. But more than anything it was the fact that was Tim asking me to do it. As luck would have it, this material and that character was a great opportunity and I knew that as soon as he mentioned it and as soon as I could say I’m in, I knew that there great risks involved. I could have very easily blown it. But again, it’s exciting for an actor. It’s a challenge.
What kind of risks are you talking about? Were you thinking about the fans?
The fans of the book, the fans of the 1971 film. It’s a very well-loved character, both fans of the book and Gene Wilder’s brilliant performance in the film. I knew that I would have to take it somewhere far away from Gene Wilder and the area that he had stomped. Having that amazing material by Dahl and taking that and trying to interpret what he might have liked to seen in terms of cinema. What kind of character would he have liked? There’s such dark and light in that story in such a subversive kind of undertone and a twisted perverted kind of side to the character that I ran into the direction that seemed right to me.
Speaking of perversion, did you think of Michael Jackson when you were shooting the film?
It actually never crossed my mind, oddly enough. Michael Jackson was not an ingredient or inspiration for the character at all. A few people have mentioned it but it kind of took me by surprise because I really didn’t expect that. I guess on some level I can understand it. There’s a little bit of a look, but you can easily think of some other recluse like Howard Hughes as well; and also Roald Dahl wrote this book and this character and it was published in 1964. Michael Jackson was a wee lad then, so I don’t he was inspired by him either.
Who was your inspiration for this character?
When Tim and I talked about doing it, there was no script at all at the time. There was only the book, which in a lot of ways was a great gift because I was able to just use Dahl’s work for my notes. What I started to see when I was thinking about it in my early research, I had these memories of children show’s hosts like when I was a kid; when I was like five or six years old watching guys like Captain Kangaroo and Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood and local guys like Uncle Al and Mr. Greenjeans. I remembered thinking even then it’s really how odd it was the way they spoke; that kind of bizarre musical rhythm cadence to their speech pattern and that “Good Morning children, and now today we’re going…” and I took that speech pattern and made that one of the main ingredients for Wonka and stretched it out a bit. [I] was also thinking about game show hosts that I remembered on television growing up and that kind of perpetual sort of grimace on their face. I kept thinking that it’s certainly not like that at home… I hope it’s not. (Laughs) You feel like they go on stage and put a mask on and do their thing and take it off. It’s almost like a clown or something. Those two things became the basis for this version of Wonka.
What about that Prince Valiant haircut?
That is something that came to me early on when I was making little sketches; little drawings of what might be right for the character and that was it. I just did this strange, almost a Brian Jones [the Rolling Stones’ late guitarist] kind of bob and super short bangs because I was thinking about the guy in terms of… obviously he’s lived in this self-induced isolation. He’s removed himself from the modern world so therefore his line of reference would be very dated. He would be in the back somewhere so I thought that maybe he had locked himself in a room with a stack of Herman’s Hermits records or something. And also that became part of his speech. His speech pattern would be very, very dated. He talks jive to one of the kids.
Do you think kids will find your Wonka too dark?
It’s funny because on Wonka, when I’m by myself going through the script, I would be mortified if I found myself reading and being the character. I could never forgive myself for that so what I did with Wonka, I tested him on my daughter, Lily Rose, to see if I was going in the right direction.
Did you show her the costume?
No, just the sound of his voice. Because a lot of times what happens is that you come up with these ideas and you never get to try them really until maybe a read-through of the thing, even if you are not ready to expose the guy yet. Like with the read-through for Wonka, I read like this; just like me. So you don’t even know the guy until you have been the guy. So you don’t know him until Tim says ‘Action”. So what I did with Lily Rose, I just, I was talking to her one day, and many times we play Barbie and she says “Daddy, don’t use that voice. Just talk regular.” This one particular time, I started to do the Wonka voice and she kind of lit up a little bit and gave me this “Where’s that coming from?” and I said that I think I’m on the right track.
Do you allow yourself to stay in character?
No. I’ve never bought into that. What kills me is the image that sticks in my head of a guy who’s playing Henry the VIII for example, walking over to the craft services table, the snack table, grabbing a handful of Fritos instead of some big chicken leg. It’s that kind of thing. Once you have got the character and have known the guy, at least for me, it’s pretty simple to slide in and out.
How was it working with the kids in Wonka?
Freddie [Highmore] is pretty impressive. The first thing that struck me about Freddie when I met him on Finding Neverland was his eyes. It wasn’t just because they’re these piercing beautiful blue eyes, but there’s a purity in Freddie that’s astonishing. It’s mesmerizing and it is like he’s incapable of lying or telling a lie. Then you get to work with him and you see what his abilities are as an actor, which are endless. Beyond all of the great things that Freddie is, he wants to play football. He goes on vacations with his family and he plays games and he’s just a really normal, very well grounded kid.
How did the kids in the film react to you?
They were great about it. So for about the first ten days, you get these kinds of looks [demonstrates a facial expression] and they sort of check each other out. They weren’t quite sure how to deal with it and but then they caught on and started to enjoy it. I remember one scene where I was speaking jive to little Jordan, who played Mike TV and I had this idea that you should speak jive so I came up with thing that “It’s in the fridge Daddy-O” and we were doing a rehearsal and I walked up to him and put my hand on him and said “Slide me some skin Daddy-O” and he tilted in a backwards angle looking at me saying ‘That’s not in the script.” It killed me [laughs]. I just burst into hysterical laughter.
Which of the children in the movie are your children most like?
I think that they’d both be closer to Charlie and his personality. Luckily the kids are pretty well balanced and not monsters at all.
How were you as a child?
I’d like to think that I was like Charlie, but I don’t think I was, as my mom uses a term, “a hellion.” I wasn’t obnoxious or precocious, but I was curious. There were a lot of practical jokes and things like that. I got on her nerves basically. I pissed her off quite frequently.
Did you get to know the Oompa-Loompa man himself, Deep Roy?
He’s a ball and a real force to be reckoned with. I started calling him the hardest working man in show business. I’d see him on a Tuesday, Deep Roy and he’d be in his red outfit and then on the Wednesday he’d be in his blue outfit and then on Thursday the white one and then on Friday he’s dressed up as like this 80’s metal star. He was all over the place and just incredible.
The flashbacks Wonka has of his memories of his father were not in the original novel, how did they deepen the character?
The first thing that I thought was that it was very brave of [screenwriter] John August and Tim to make that decision but still be able to keep it in the spirit of Roald Dahl’s intent. That was no small undertaking and in terms of cinema that’s a great tool. It’s a beautiful luxury that you have as an actor because it explains a lot of where Wonka comes from. But for an audience it gives you a little bit more insight to what this guy is and how he’s become what he’s become.
As an actor, do you appreciate the fact Tim Burton did not use so much CGI but a lot with the set?
It makes all the difference in the world. The difference between standing in the room of blue screen; it makes all the difference in the world because everything was there. For me, it’s amazing, it’s a great gift, especially for kids. A couple of them had never been on a movie set before; to have all stuff available to you; to see, to touch, in a case of the chocolate river, to actually smell. It smelled bad. After a couple of weeks, it really got funky. Ask Tim about it. He has a great analogy for the smell. I appreciate that old style. That’s how movies were done a long time ago and that’s how movies should still be done. I also appreciate the fact that there are time when you must use CGI and it works as an effect.
Did you enjoy playing a character with no social skills?
Yes, I did enjoy playing someone with slightly twisted social skills. It’s a bit fun playing characters, that for whatever reasons, these characters [Willie Wonka, Captain Jack Sparrow], characters that can do things that I would never dream of doing or speak to people in a way I couldn’t bring myself ever to do, so there’s great fun in that; great safety in playing those parts. Once you have learned to talk like them or be them I guess, there’s great safety in it.
Did you talk about the script with Tim and how’d he come up with stuff like that?
Yeah, Tim is very good about stuff like that. Tim and John August, the screenwriter, were great about it as well. It’s some kind of illness. I can’t help myself. I need to do it; otherwise I’d feel like I’m held captive or something. There are times when you know that you are doing it too much and you can stop yourself, but there are times when I feel strongly about something and adding something, and the trick is that you can always try anything; do a take of anything and then go back to the page. Tim was great about it and always has been.
Did you have the same freedom as Captain Jack?
Oh yeah, and those guys would… Ted and Terry, the guys wrote Pirates 1 were so gracious because there I was at that time, first read through, sitting down and going “I’d like this, this, this and I’d like to say this, this, this, and they were so sweet about it and now on Pirates 2 & 3, they have been incredible open to my suggestions and line changes and stuff. So yeah, it’s been fun. It’s been a great process.
How is it, shooting two films at the same time?
Well, it’s a lengthy process. It’s going to take us a while.
Over nine months?
Are you shooting the films back to back?
As much as we can, we are doing two, and every now and then, you may have to slot something in from Pirates 3, but the majority of what we have done so far have been 2 and then we will start moving into 3 after the hiatus. It’s been great fun so far.
On the new Pirates sets, is there pressure since you are following up such a big hit?
What was weird was that we didn’t quite know what to expect before we went back into Pirates. A lot of things had happened. Orlando [Bloom] had some big movies and Keira [Knightley] had some big stuff too. Everyone was all over the map and we didn’t quite know what to expect. [Director] Gore [Verbinski] obviously has been working like a demon. But honestly we stepped on the set for the first day and for me jumping back into the skin of Captain Jack felt like we’d had just a week off from the first one. It’s been a really great time. Everything has been super good and fun. I think that it’s going to be good, knock wood.
Why did you choose to revisit the role of Captain Jack?
For me, there was one reason and one reason only. It was Captain Jack. It was selfishly to have the opportunity to play Captain Jack again. Some people can look at it and say, “Depp sold out.” I don’t believe that I have. It certainly wasn’t my intention to sell out but I wanted to play him again because I think he’s so much fun to play and I there’s so much more to explore with that character that I would keep going. If they wanted me to do Pirate 7 – why not?
What will we see this time around?
In Pirates 2 & 3, you will get to see a couple of new layers to Captain Jack. You will get to see him in new situations; situations that he is unable to talk his way out of. There’s a lot of fun stuff.
Will Keith Richards be in the film?
It’s looking very good. I’ve talked to Keith about it and he’s been super sweet and keen to do it and it’s looking very good. We are just hoping that we can work out the dates with the Stones tour and everything but if that happens, you talk about a dream come true. Get to be a pirate with Keith Richards? Does it get better than that?
I heard that on the day that Hunter S. Thompson took his own life, you powered through and kept working.
On the day that Hunter made his exit, I found out about an hour or two after it actually happened. It was and is devastating. Even though on one hand I understand that a guy who lived his life exactly the way that he wanted to live it, so he made his exit in the same way, but it doesn’t make it hurt any less. He was a great hero and a great pal, a great friend. He was a father and a grandfather. He was so many things to so many people. I’ll miss him everyday. I think about that bastard everyday.
You’ve gotten Oscar nominations two years in a row, would you like to get another for this film?
It’s not something that I think about everyday because I try not to think about that kind of stuff. I’m really flattered and honored that I’ve been able to get the nominations and various awards that I ended up getting. That was like totally unexpected and shocking to me. In fact that’s sort of enough for me. The nominations are fine. I don’t need more. I don’t really want to go up in front of all those people and say thanks. That just scares the shit out of me. It would be nice, but I don’t need it.
This was the first film from Brad Pitt’s production company Plan B. Did you interact with him in making this movie?
No, oddly. I knew that Brad Grey was involved… I’m so out of it. I don’t know what’s going on anywhere at anytime. It was a while before I found that Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston were part of Plan B. I didn’t know; although I met them all individually and they are nice people. Brad, I’ve known for many years and Brad Grey is a terrific guy. Sharp cookie.
Will you be producing your own movies now?
Well, there are a couple things… My sister and I have this little company and we’ve made some recent acquisitions that are pretty exciting.
Will you be starring in and producing them?
Some of them [I plan] to be in and some of them just to see that they get made. Some pretty special stuff we are excited about like the latest Nick Hornby novel called “A Long Way Down.” That’s very exciting and [I am working making a film based on] a great book from Australian writer Gregory David Roberts called Shantaram, which is a beautiful book.
Will you be in Shantaram?
Shantaram – I think I will. It feels like the right thing to do. I spent some time with Greg and I think it’s the right thing to do. It’s an area that I haven’t really explored as an actor so I’d like to try it.
It’s been a long time since you made a contemporary film-well, there was Secret Window.
I don’t know. Yes.
What about Libertine?
Yes, Libertine. That’s restoration. That’s the time of old King Charles II, which I think is coming out sometime this year, in November or December or something like that.
Copyright ©2005 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: July 16, 2005.
#1 © 2005 Courtesy of Warner Brothers Pictures. All rights reserved.
#2 © 2005 Courtesy of Warner Brothers Pictures. All rights reserved.
#3 © 2005 Courtesy of Warner Brothers Pictures. All rights reserved.
#4 © 2005 Courtesy of Warner Brothers Pictures. All rights reserved.
#5 © 2005 Courtesy of Warner Brothers Pictures. All rights reserved.