Johnny Depp was playing to small houses of grateful fans of his oddball characters like Edward Scissorhands and Ed Wood. Then he played Captain Jack Sparrow and became a mega star. His latest character is the vampire Barnabas Collins in the film Dark Shadows, based on the television soap opera form the 1970s. It also reunites him with director Tim Burton.
Now even Johnny Depp’s interviews are well attended. We got to join Depp’s press conference for the film, where it was clear Depp not only had fun playing the vampire, he also had fun with some journalists’ questions too.
Q: Johnny, was a Dark Shadows movie your idea?
JD: Just as a fan of the show, our initial conversation about the thing I think was during Sweeney Todd where I think I just blurted out in mid-conversation, “God, Maybe we should do a vampire movie together where you actually have a vampire that looks like a vampire.” Dark Shadows was kind of looming on the periphery, and then Tim and I started talking about it, and then when Tim and I got together and started figuring out how it should be shaped, [screenwriter] Seth [Grahame-Smith] came on board and the three of us just riffed really. One thing led to another and it basically dictated to us what it wanted to be in a sense, certainly with Tim at the forefront of leading the troops.
Q: You were a great fan of Dark Shadows, but what would you say to critics who’d say no one wants another movie made out of an old TV show?
JD: I think Warner Brothers went into it hoping that it was unwanted. I mean, I think everybody should probably approach a film that it’s another unwanted thing. That’s going to be seared onto my brain for the rest of my life. Thank you for that.
Q: How does Barnabas fit in your gallery of very weird, offbeat characters that you’ve played and what did you find is the key to playing him?
JD: What I wanted to come across and what I wanted Barnabas to come across as was the idea of this very elegant, upper echelon, well schooled gentleman who’s cursed in the 18th century and is brought back to probably the most surreal era of our time, the 1970s, 1972. How he’d react to things, how radically different things were, not just through the technology and automobiles and such, but actual items of enjoyment for people like pet rocks and fake flowers and plastic fruit and troll dolls and lava lamps. Oh yeah, the macramé owls. My favorite.
Q: Where were you in 1972?
JD: ’72, the memory is lime green leisure suits and macramé owls, earth shoes, just weird things that didn’t make sense then and still don’t.
Q: What’s more annoying, the white makeup or long frilly sleeves?
JD: Let’s see. You do a movie, depending on the character, there’s some degree of makeup involved, especially when you’re playing a vampire and you’re all white and kind of dead. Sleeves, regarding costumes, there are generally sleeves, which I appreciate. I think we all do. I’m wearing sleeves today. Colleen Atwood and her amazing eye and her incredible taste, she has a real magic whereas as soon as I don that kind of armor that Colleen has created, the character starts to come alive so it’s almost like working from the outside in in a sense. You’ve put on this suit or whatever that makes you stand or walk a certain way. The cane was one of the leftover things from the series. Then there’s the sleeves, we can keep talking about that. How many with sleeves today? Anybody? See, we’re doing all right.
Q: Is it the same cane design as the original?
JD: It’s pretty much the same design, slightly altered but pretty much the same design. It’s not a silver tipped cane because my hand would’ve burst into flames, which would have lit my sleeves on fire. So we couldn’t go there.
Q: For Mr. Depp.
JD: Mr. Depp is my father.
Q: How do you still look so young? Or do you have a deal with the devil?
JD: You’re missing the point. I am the devil. I am Satan. And I’ve been sleeping under your couch for months.
Q: If you had the option of staying as one of your characters for the rest of your life, who would that be?
JD: Wow. Probably the Earl of Rochester.
Q: Chris Sarandon, who played the vampire in Fright Night, said the long vampire nails were difficult, especially going to the bathroom. He felt sorry for you. Did you have troubles?
JD: Someone felt sorry for me with the nails. There are many more reasons to feel sorry for me. We can go through them now, or we can just cuddle after. Big group cuddle. Just all get greasy and weird. Yeah, in every film that I’ve been lucky enough to do with Tim, there’s always some form of torture, and the nails were Tim’s idea. They were the length of the fingers and stuff, but it was okay because I had a troop of people who would help me go to the bathroom. They had to have treatment afterwards but they’re okay now. That is true.
Q: What is the continuing appeal of vampires?
JD: It’s a strange thing, because as a child, you have this fascination. I certainly had this fascination with monsters and vampires as did Tim and whatever this darkness, this mystery, this intrigue. And then, as you get older, you recognize the erotic nature of the vampire and the idea of the undead. What was most interesting in terms of Barnabas was the idea of the combination. It was a real challenge, probably more for Tim than me is to make that guy, that vampire clearly a vampire fit back into this odd society and this dysfunctional family. I think he did it rather seamlessly.
Q: What was your first bite like as a vampire?
JD: Yeah. We’ll go back to the erotic bullsh*t about vampires. I felt as though I was biting one of the Village People, the cop. When you had the fangs in, you wanted to be a little bit careful that you didn’t actually pierce the jugular, kind of like my experience shaving Alan Rickman, which by the way neither of us want to do again, especially Alan.
Q: When you were coming up with the physicality of Barnabas, how much of it came from Jonathan Frid on the TV show and was there some Nosferatu in the way that you worked the hands?
JD: Approaching Barnabas, even in the early days of trying to explore the possibilities of the character, no matter where you went in your head, if you tried to veer away from the original Jonathan Frid character, it was apparent to both Tim and myself that it had to be rooted in Jonathan Frid’s character of Barnabas. It just had to be. It was so classic and this sort of classic monster, like Fangoria magazine or that kind of thing. So, in terms of that, Jonathan did have, when he was playing Barnabas, there was a kind of rigidity to him, that pole up the back, this elegance that was always there. And yeah, I did believe, Tim and I talked early on, a vampire should look like a vampire and it was a kind of rebellion against vampires that look like underwear models. There was a bit of Nosferatu in there.
Q: What about the day the original cast came to set? What was their reaction to your characters?
JD: Well, it was great and I thought great of Tim to bring them into the fold. Our way of saluting them and Jonathan was terrific. He had already written me a letter a couple years before and signed a photograph to me sort of passing the baton to Barnabas which I thought was very sweet. He had his cane with him, his original Barnabas cane and I wasn’t sure when he actually saw me if he was going to attack me with it, but he didn’t so.
Q: What was it like being directed by Paul McCartney for his “My Valentine” video?
JD: The McCartney thing, I’ve known him on and off over the years and ran into him and then he gave me a call and asked if I would be interested in being in his video. “Certainly.” “Well let’s do it.” It was a gas. I had to learn sign language. I think sign language is apparently very interpretive. It’s not rote and it’s all kind of different, and apparently instead of “love,” I think I might have said “murder.” But I was only copying what the guy showed me, so track him down.