“To be honest, he could have said ‘Alice’ and I’d have said yes.”
That is how much Johnny Depp likes working with Tim Burton. Would Alice in Wonderland still be quite as exciting with Depp wearing the blue dress and chasing rabbits around in Lewis Carroll’s fantasy world? Well, it’d certainly be a completely different tone, but not exactly a first for him – he did have a fondness for angora sweaters in Ed Wood, after all.
But no, Depp instead suited up in brightly colored regalia (“I couldn’t really look at him during the shooting because he looked like a scary clown and I’m scared of clowns,” Burton joked about the costume) to take on the role of The Mad Hatter. “I would have done whatever character Tim wanted,” he said, “but certainly the fact that it was the Mad Hatter was a bonus because of the great challenge to try to find this guy, and not just sort of be a rubber ball that you heave into an empty room and watch it bounce all over the place. To find that part of the character, but also a little bit more history or gravity to the guy.”
Depp indeed found some gravity, despite the erratic bubbly attitude the Hatter sports throughout most of the film. “There’s the whole Hatter’s dilemma – where the term ‘mad as a hatter’ came from, the amount of mercury that they used in the glue to make the hats was damaging. So in terms of the Hatter, looking at it from that perspective, this guy is literally damaged goods, physically damaged, emotionally a little obtuse. Taking that and deciding that he should be, as opposed to just this hyper, nutty guy, he should explore all sides of the personality at an extreme level. So he could go from one second being very highfalutin and a lot of levity and then straight into some kind of dangerous potential rage and tragedy. Trying to map it out was really interesting.”
Don’t fret too much about this movie getting too heavy, though. “It being a Disney movie,” Burton joked, “we decided not to focus too much on the mercury poisoning aspect. It didn’t translate well to 3-D.”
Depp, however, has no shortage of insight into what makes Carroll’s story so enduring. “Even though you can’t quite place when the book or the story came into your life – I do remember vaguely, roughly five years old, reading versions of Alice in Wonderland – but you always know the characters. Everyone knows the characters. They’re very well-defined characters, which I thought was fascinating. If most people haven’t read the book, they definitely know the characters and reference them. Ironically, it was maybe a year prior to Tim calling that I had reread Alice in Wonderland and Through The Looking Glass, and what I took away from it were all these very strange, cryptic nuggets that he’d thrown in there. I was really intrigued by them and became fascinated by them because they were asking questions that couldn’t be answered or making statements that you couldn’t quite understand, like ‘I’m investigating things that begin with the letter M.’ That took me through a whole stratosphere of possibilities and then, doing a little research, discovering that the M is mercury. Then ‘why is a raven like a writing desk?’ Those things just became so important to the character. If I read the book again today, I’d find a hundred other things that I missed last time. It’s constantly changing the book.”
Despite his passion, though, and despite the fact that he’s worked with Burton several times before, Depp still felt nervous coming into the project. “Each time out of the gate with Tim,” he explained, “the initial thing for me is to come up with the character, but there’s a certain amount of pressure where you go ‘Jesus, will this be the one where I disappoint him?’ You know what I mean? I try really hard, especially early on, to come up with something that’s very different – something he hasn’t experienced before, something we haven’t experienced together before and that would stimulate and inspire him to make choices based on that character. I try not to embarrass him, basically.”
He’s also careful not to repeat himself, even if he’s repeating with directors. “I’ve played English a number of times, I’ve used an English accent a number of times, so it becomes a little bit of an obstacle course to go ‘oh, that’s teetering into Captain Jackville and this one’s kind of teetering into Chocolat or Wonka or something.’ So you’ve really got to pay attention to the places you’ve been. That’s part of it, the great challenge is that you may get it wrong. There’s a very good possibility that you can fall flat on your face, but I think that’s a healthy thing for an actor.”
Considering that he’s likely the healthiest actor working today, you can take those words as gospel.