Johnny Depp and director Gore Verbinski reunite for their second Western as actor and director with The Lone Ranger from Walt Disney Pictures. Completely different in every way from their first jaunt into the genre (Rango), this new version of The Lone Ranger finds Tonto as the brains behind the duo. With a dead crow on his head and packing a truckload of emotional baggage, Depp's Tonto not only rescues John Reid (Armie Hammer) but also gives him his nickname as well that iconic mask.
Participating in a press conference in support of the film's July 3, 2013 release, Depp talked about why he's wanted to play Tonto for years.
Johnny, the story begins with you as an old man. What was it like to see yourself in that makeup and how close do you think they got to how you'll look when you're elderly?
Johnny Depp: "For the old man, I saw my great-grandmother who she did apparently have quite a bit of Indian blood and wore the braids and had the tobacco down her bosom, you know, so yeah, that was the sort of idea was just to sculpt me into my great grandmother. And Joel Harlow, the magnificent makeup technician, killed it, just killed it."
Why has the idea of playing a Native American interested you for so long?
Johnny Depp: "You know, I've always felt I learned more about this through the great mentor-father-friend that I had in Marlon Brando that in the history of cinema the Native American has been portrayed as a savage or as something lesser than.... It was important to me to at least take a good shot at erasing that and we all approached it that way."
Are you an outdoor person? And, did you smoke the peace pipe?
Johnny Depp: "I do smoke the peace pipe, as often as possible because I like peace. I won't give you the symbol because I don't believe in that horrible gesture. No, I mean, the culture for example, the Comanche, I mean being not merely even welcomed as a part of the nation, but just really being adopted in what that means, and what it's meant since that day had given me so much in my life, not a particularly spiritual person myself. But the only church I've ever seen that makes sense to me is a sweat lodge. So I think they've been on the right track for a long time, we just all missed it."
What kind of message are you trying to convey to a younger audience who probably isn't familiar with The Lone Ranger and isn't all that familiar with Westerns? And what's your favorite Western and why?
Johnny Depp: "Wow, that is a tough one. There's so many great Westerns. I will admit to not seeing the film, but I feel somehow that Jim Jarmusch made a great and amazing - and sort of epic poem of a Western - with Dead Man. Haven't seen the film but I love Jim and I know what he's capable of, and from what I've heard - and I did read the script by the way, and it was wonderful.
The other part, my hope was to try to almost in a weird way, embrace the cliché so that it's recognized by people who have been conditioned to how a Native American has been represented in film. It was a kind of a trick in a weird way to sort of suck them in, and then switch them around and take them on a different path. So in a way, I had to embrace what is deemed as cliché for Tonto, you know, in terms of speech pattern or whatever, but it was trickery on my part. I wanted to convey that the Native Americans were only deemed savages when Christopher Columbus hit the wrong f***ing place and decided that he'd hit India. That's our history. He thought he hit India and called the people Indians. That's our history. I mean, that's pretty f***ing weird, seriously."
What is your history with the Lone Ranger source material and what did you love so much about Tonto?
Johnny Depp: "Well, I can remember very well as a little kid, you know, of seeing the series on TV - the black and white series with Clayton Moore and the great Jay Silverheels. And as a very young child, I was always perturbed by the idea of Tonto being a sidekick. That just didn't register properly in my head. I felt, no disrespect to anybody at all, certainly not Jay Silverheels, but I just thought it was potentially an opportunity to right the wrong, you know? I think it's great that Tonto makes the Lone Ranger. I think it's a very poetic way that he creates the Lone Ranger, and I think it's right, finally."
You met with Native Americans and learned about their culture. What is the one thing you learned from them that stood out?
Johnny Depp: "What I learned from them is just after everything that generation after generation after generation of what their ancestors have been through, that they've come out of it with - yes, some have fallen along the way - but the majority, the elders, some of the kids, are trying to hold onto that heritage and the language and keep it alive. What I learned is that they are warriors. They are warriors still, even if you lose your way now and again [you are] still a warrior. And they are. They've made it this far. It's incredible."
What are you still intrigued by?
Johnny Depp: "I'm intrigued by everything, really. I mean, it doesn't take much for me. I'm a pretty cheap date. I can be intrigued by the carpet. In fact, I am intrigued by the carpet. I've been staring at it for a while now, and it's still the same. So, I learned that much...but I mean if you lose curiosity in life, if you lose the basic sort of idea of becoming fascinated with whatever or interested in whatever, you keep your curiosity alive, I think it keeps you young beyond numbers, you know? Thank you. I'm 60."
Who wold win in a death match in a cage: Captain Jack Sparrow or Tonto?
Johnny Depp: "It's over for Tonto. Yeah, it's over for Tonto. Captain Jack is far too dark. It wouldn't take long and it would be unpleasant."
Were you worried that some might perceive this Tonto to be red version of Black Face?
Johnny Depp: "Was there fear with the idea of some kind of repercussion ? There already has been and it's okay. I expected it. I still expect it but as long as I know that I have done no harm and represented, at the very least, the Comanche Nation in a proper light, there's always going to be naysayers. Everybody's got an opinion, man, you know? There's a great Christopher Hitchens quote that he said that everyone in the world has a book inside them, and that's exactly where it should stay. So I mean people can critique and dissect and do what they want, I know that I approached it in the right way and that's all I can do."
Can you explain the portrait of the Wild West and that particular period in America you were trying to convey?
Johnny Depp: "The period was a horrific period, I mean in terms of the indigenous peoples of America. They had been forced like prisoners, westward. And they were forced to become, let's say ,Christians or Catholics and abandon their culture, abandon their beliefs, abandon their religion. So it was a very insane time for those people.
What I loved about the idea of Tonto was that one of the things that Gore and I talked about early on is that he's a band apart. He feels that he's done like a horrible act upon his people, therefore shame. And he goes out on his own to avenge that. It's the only thing to be able to try to show these people as warriors, which is what they are, even in the face of some hideous corporal smacking them around or shooting them in the foot, or raping their women. I mean you know, this is a whole lot of history there."
(Photo © Walt Disney Pictures)