Depp Explains Bizarre ‘Tonto’ Look

by | April 25, 2012 at 9:12 PM | Celebrity, Movies

(Walt Disney Pictures)

Johnny Depp looks completely transformed in his role as Native American Tonto in the upcoming movie “The Lone Ranger,” and speculation has surfaced about how he developed the look — with some even claiming he’s mimicking Marilyn Manson.

However, Depp apparently created the bizarre makeup montage on his own, and he says that a particular artist was the inspiration behind it.

“I looked at the face of this warrior and thought: That’s it,” Depp recalls, referring to a painting by artist Kirby Sattler. “The stripes down the face and across the eyes… it seemed to me like you could almost see the separate sections of the individual, if you know what I mean.”

Take a look at the painting here.

Depp says the lines of paint on the Native American’s face made him think of the cross-section of a man’s emotional life. “There’s this very wise quarter, a very tortured and hurt section, an angry and rageful section, and a very understanding and unique side. I saw these parts, almost like dissecting a brain, these slivers of the individual. That makeup inspired me.”

The painting also inspired Tonto’s headdress. “It just so happened Sattler had painted a bird flying directly behind the warrior’s head. It looked to me like it was sitting on top,” Depp said, which led him to another eureka moment. “I thought: Tonto’s got a bird on his head. It’s his spirit guide in a way. It’s dead to others, but it’s not dead to him. It’s very much alive.”

The artist Sattler, who says his work is a blend of history and fiction, licensed the look of his painting to the filmmakers. “The portraits I paint are composites created from a variety of visual references coupled with my imagination,” he says. “While being broadly based in a historical context, my paintings are not intended to be viewed as historically accurate. I used the combination of face paint and  headdress as an artistic expression to symbolize the subject’s essence and his affinity to the Crow.”

In “The Lone Ranger,” Tonto is technically a full-blooded Comanche, but Sattler’s original work is titled “I Am Crow,” which is a reference to the Crow peoples native to the northern part of the American Midwest. The Tonto character is proving to be a blend of various cultures and influences, rather than being historically specific.

The American Indian community has been divided over Depp’s adaptation of Tonto. Leaders from the Navajo Nation expressed support after they visited the set. Dana Lone Hill, a writer who identifies as part Lakota, wrote an essay saying she would give Depp the benefit of the doubt. On the other hand, blogger Adrienne K. expressed disappointment, saying there are few too many authentic portrayals of Native people in pop culture to embrace such a fanciful and exaggerated performance.

“The whole reason I wanted to play Tonto is to try to [mess] around with the stereotype of the American Indian that has been laid out through history, or the history of cinema at the very least — especially Tonto as the sidekick, The Lone Ranger’s assistant,” Depp told EW. “As you’ll see, it’s most definitely not that.”

“The Lone Ranger,” directed by the original “Pirates of the Caribbean” filmmaker Gore Verbinski and produced by Walt Disney Studios, opens May 13, 2013.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.