Everybody loves Johnny. That, I’ve learned, is an undeniable universal truth.
For two weeks before I left for London to meet the cast and creative team behind the film adaptation of the stage musical Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, everything that anyone said to me was Johnny Depp-related. I would text message a friend about dinner plans and the reply would read: “Please swipe Johnny’s water bottle for me. Want his DNA for Christmas”.
I arrived at the immigration counter at Heathrow and was interrogated by an officer with a face so crumpled and grumpy, you’d think a flock of angry sheep had fallen out of her dreams and thumped her on the head.
“What is the purpose of this visit?” she growled at me as if I had left her broken-hearted at the altar last Valentine’s, and was back to take custody of our dog. I informed her politely that I had made the trip to England to interview Johnny Depp.
I swear the previously cantankerous woman giggled like a schoolgirl, professed her undying love for Johnny, and merrily stamped my passport.
SUFFER THE LITTLE PEOPLE
In Sweeney Todd — Depp’s first musical — he plays a murderous barber whose victims end up as pie-filling. The gruesome role is far from loveable, unlike his iconic takes on Captain Jack Sparrow or Edward Scissorhands, but it will do little to quell the public’s adoration for the one-time teen idol.
Sitting in a function room at the very fancy Claridge’s Hotel in swanky Mayfair, it was clear the cosy gathering of the world’s press had also braved turbulence and Nazi airport security just for Depp.
“I can’t believe we have to sit through all the interviews with all these people just to talk to Johnny Depp at the end,” I overheard an Asian journalist complain with a pout.
“These people” included celebrated composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim (Sweeney Todd, West Side Story, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum), legendary film producer Robert Zanuck (Jaws, Driving Miss Daisy, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), the wonderful Alan Rickman (Harry Potter’s Severus Snape) and a very pregnant Helena Bonham Carter (Howard’s End, Fight Club and mother of director Tim Burton’s children).
It was hardly a group to snub one’s nose at, and the journalist was being highly disrespectful. At least I pretended to listen to those people talk. Never forget your manners — even when you’re being dismissive.
First, it was Sondheim’s turn to talk. The composer speaks with his eyes almost completely closed, as if he’s constantly squinting at the world. This is what happens when you read musical sheets all the time — they should totally use bigger paper.
Oscar-nominated costume designer Colleen Atwood talked about her inspiration for the clothes, but I was too distracted by her scuffed suede shoes to pay attention.
The two young actors who play lovebirds in the film — Jayne Wisener and Jamie Campbell Bower — popped in for a chat. I asked them how they set about playing love-struck innocents without being terribly irritating.
Wisener asked if I thought they were annoying on screen. I laughed and said: “Of course not!”
I hated their performances the way I detest fava beans. Rickman was taller and larger than I had imagined he would be, and he has a way of speaking that makes any drivel that comes out of his mouth sound utterly intelligent. Bonham Carter wore frightful miniature doilies in her frizzy hair.
A VERY DEPP CONVERSATION
Finally, after an entire morning of chatting to people who didn’t star in 21 Jump Street, Johnny Depp appeared, accompanied by director Tim Burton. The actor was swathed in a mountain of clothing. He had on a thick tweed jacket over a long-sleeved denim shirt, which was in turn over another shirt. He finished his look with a thick scarf, a great big hat and a large haul of necklaces. It turned out the actor was keeping himself warm because he was nursing a bad flu. “I go through bouts of, like, shivering and then just sweating,” he said to his handlers. But that didn’t explain why he had on more necklaces than Mr T at Mardi Gras.
The notoriously private Depp is soft-spoken and rather shy. He’s not unfriendly. On the contrary, he was cracking jokes and speaking candidly. He sounded thoughtful and philosophical — if only I could understand what he was saying.
The 44-year-old mumbles at a decibel lower than that of most vibrating devices. It doesn’t help that his American accent is now hooded by a strange European slur. Imagine an eccentric old man drunk on grappa and you wouldn’t be too far off the mark.
THE GREATEST LOVE OF ALL
During the rare moments when Depp was audible, he showed a palpable rapport with Burton — a director he has worked with six times.
When asked why he chooses quirky film roles like an all-singing murderous barber in Sweeney Todd, he answered: “I think it’s probably a combination or something in between being hard-headed and ignorant in terms of taking the road I’ve taken … And for something like Sweeney Todd, Tim comes in the picture before all of that, and anything he would ask me to do I would jump at the opportunity.”
“Except ballet,” teased Burton.
“No, I actually would! I would try,” said Depp with a laugh.
The men continued to sing each other’s praises.
“Since the first second that we met all those years ago in a café in Los Angeles, for me, there was an instant connection on a lot of different levels. He had a weird fascination and understanding of the absurdity of things … like macramé owls and fake fruit on the kitchen table,” said Depp, who is the godfather of Burton and Bonham Carter’s three-year-old son, Billy.
“Ever since then, I have only wanted, as an actor, to give him as close to what he wants as possible … With Tim, before I think about what I feel for the character, I’m just hoping that I won’t let him down. He comes first.”
According to Depp, even filming a movie as dark and macabre as Sweeney Todd was fun together.
“Filming was like a laugh riot. We were constantly laughing. It was a great time,” he said.
Burton, 49, returned the compliment: “Johnny tries anything … He’s just willing to go out there. It’s an artistic pleasure to watch somebody try different things and actually achieve it beyond your expectations.”
Yes, everybody loves Johnny.
But nobody, it seems, more than Tim Burton.
By Phin Wong for Channel News Asia