IN CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE
FACTORY, THE MASTER ACTOR GETS DEEP INTO THE
CHARACTER OF WILLIE WONKA
By Brad Balfour
All rights reserved. Posted: July 16, 2005.
Though often nominated as one
of the world's best looking men as well as for various Oscars [Finding
Neverland, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl],
the 40-something Johnny Depp inspires
fascination. But it's not for his looks or love life but for his
attraction to the offbeat roles that he does that play against his star
qualities. And when he works with director Tim Burton, Depp delves further
into his truly deviant side. The two were particularly inspired with
Charlie and The Chocolate Factory-their collaboration on a cinematic
version of the Roald Dahl children's book that's much closer to the spirit
of the original than the 1971 movie starring Gene Wilder, Willie Wonka
and the Chocolate Factory.
Why are you both drawn to such quirky characters?
One thing that Tim and I share is a kind of fascination with the human
animal. I think that we also share the idea that most people in life,
especially the ones who are considered super normal, if you really take a
step back and observe them a bit, you'll realize that they're actually
completely out of their minds. Most people are really nuts and that's
fascinating to me. I think Tim feels the same way. I just love and respect
Tim so much that I would do anything with him. The thing that I most enjoy
about our relationship, our friendship, is that there's a lot of trust.
One minute he and I are talking very deeply about Captain Kangaroo and
then the next thing I know, we're doing impersonations of Sammy Davis Jr.
and Charles Nelson Reilly. We can go anywhere.
Who was the model for your version of Willie Wonka?
There wasn't specifically one or two guys that were models for the
character. But there were memories that I have as a little kid watching
children's shows and children show hosts. I distinctly remember, even at
that age, thinking that their speech pattern and the kind of musical
quality of the way they were speaking to the camera and to the children
that I thought was really strange. Guys that I watched like Captain
Kangaroo and Mr. Rogers and all of these guys became the main part of the
ingredient. Then also game show hosts that I remember seeing and watching
and thinking, "My God, they can't be like that at home. They can't
actually be like that." That led me to believe that they put on a mask in
a way, that all-important positive smile. That was the other side of Wonka.
Then doing stuff for the look of Wonka was incredibly important. It was
important to put that costume on and click those veneers into my mouth for
the teeth that actually changed the shape of my face a little bit.
What was the appeal of playing Willy Wonka? Were you a Gene Wilder fan?
Well, I was definitely a Gene Wilder fan, but that's not what drove me
to this. Initially the material, even though I love [the late author] Roald Dahl's works, was one of the seductive elements certainly.
than anything it was the fact that was Tim asking me to do it. As luck
would have it, this material and that character was a great opportunity
and I knew that as soon as he mentioned it and as soon as I could say I'm
in, I knew that there great risks involved. I could have very easily blown
it. But again, it's exciting for an actor. It's a challenge.
What kind of risks are you talking about? Were you thinking about the
The fans of the book, the fans of the 1971 film. It's a very well-loved character, both fans of the book and Gene Wilder's brilliant
performance in the film. I knew that I would have to take it somewhere
far away from Gene Wilder and the area that he had stomped.
amazing material by Dahl and taking that and trying to interpret what he
might have liked to seen in terms of cinema. What kind of character would
he have liked? There's such dark and light in that story in such a
subversive kind of undertone and a twisted perverted kind of side to the
character that I ran into the direction that seemed right to me.
Speaking of perversion, did you think of Michael Jackson when you were
shooting the film?
It actually never crossed my mind, oddly enough. Michael Jackson was
not an ingredient or inspiration for the character at all. A few people
have mentioned it but it kind of took me by surprise because I really
didn't expect that. I guess on some level I can understand it. There's a
little bit of a look, but you can easily think of some other recluse like
Howard Hughes as well; and also Roald Dahl wrote this book and this
character and it was published in 1964. Michael Jackson was a wee lad
then, so I don't he was inspired by him either.
Who was your inspiration for this character?
When Tim and I talked about doing it, there was no script at all at
the time. There was only the book, which in a lot of ways was a great gift
because I was able to just use Dahl's work for my notes. What I started to
see when I was thinking about it in my early research, I had these
memories of children show's hosts like when I was a kid; when I was like
or six years old watching guys like Captain Kangaroo and
Neighborhood and local guys like Uncle Al and Mr. Greenjeans. I
remembered thinking even then it's really how odd it was the way they
spoke; that kind of bizarre musical rhythm cadence to their speech pattern
and that "Good Morning children, and now today we're going..." and I took
that speech pattern and made that one of the main ingredients for Wonka
and stretched it out a bit. [I] was also thinking about game show hosts
that I remembered on television growing up and that kind of perpetual sort
of grimace on their face. I kept thinking that it's certainly not like
that at home... I hope it's not. (Laughs) You feel like they go on stage
and put a mask on and do their thing and take it off. It's almost like a
clown or something. Those two things became the basis for this version of Wonka.
What about that Prince Valiant haircut?
That is something that came to me early on when I was making little
sketches; little drawings of what might be right for the character and
that was it. I just did this strange, almost a Brian Jones [the Rolling
Stones' late guitarist] kind of bob and super short bangs because I was
thinking about the guy in terms of... obviously he's lived in this
self-induced isolation. He's removed himself from the modern world so
therefore his line of reference would be very dated. He would be in the
back somewhere so I thought that maybe he had locked himself in a room with
a stack of Herman's Hermits records or something. And also that became part
of his speech. His speech pattern would be very, very dated. He talks jive
to one of the kids.
Do you think kids will find your Wonka too dark?
It's funny because on Wonka, when I'm by myself going through the
script, I would be mortified if I found myself reading and being the
character. I could never forgive myself for that so what I did with Wonka,
I tested him on my daughter, Lily Rose, to see if I was going in the right
Did you show her the costume?
No, just the sound of his voice.
Because a lot of times what happens is
that you come up with these ideas and you never get to try them really
until maybe a read-through of the thing, even if you are not ready to
expose the guy yet. Like with the read-through for Wonka, I read like
this; just like me. So you don't even know the guy until you have been the
guy. So you don't know him until Tim says 'Action". So what I did with
Lily Rose, I just, I was talking to her one day, and many times we play
Barbie and she says "Daddy, don't use that voice. Just talk regular." This
one particular time, I started to do the Wonka voice and she kind of lit
up a little bit and gave me this "Where's that coming from?" and I said
that I think I'm on the right track.
Do you allow yourself to stay in character?
No. I've never bought into that. What kills me is the image that
sticks in my head of a guy who's playing Henry the VIII for example,
walking over to the craft services table, the snack table, grabbing a handful of Fritos instead of some big chicken leg. It's that kind of thing.
Once you have got the character and have known the guy, at least for me,
it's pretty simple to slide in and out.
How was it working with the kids in Wonka?
Freddie [Highmore] is pretty impressive. The first thing that struck
me about Freddie when I met him on Finding Neverland was his eyes. It
wasn't just because they're these piercing beautiful blue eyes, but
there's a purity in Freddie that's astonishing. It's mesmerizing and it is
like he's incapable of lying or telling a lie. Then you get to work with
him and you see what his abilities are as an actor, which are endless.
Beyond all of the great things that Freddie is, he wants to play football.
He goes on vacations with his family and he plays games and he's just a
really normal, very well grounded kid.
How did the kids in the film react to you?
They were great about it. So for about the first ten days, you get
these kinds of looks [demonstrates a facial expression] and they sort of
check each other out. They weren't quite sure how to deal with it and but
then they caught on and started to enjoy it. I remember one scene where I
was speaking jive to little Jordan, who played Mike TV and I had this idea
that you should speak jive so I came up with thing that "It's in the
fridge Daddy-O" and we were doing a rehearsal and I walked up to him and
put my hand on him and said "Slide me some skin Daddy-O" and he tilted in
a backwards angle looking at me saying 'That's not in the script." It
killed me [laughs]. I just burst into hysterical laughter.
Which of the children in the movie are your children most like?
I think that they'd both be closer to Charlie and his personality.
Luckily the kids are pretty well balanced and not monsters at all.
How were you as a child?
I'd like to think that I was like Charlie, but I don't think I was, as
my mom uses a term, "a hellion." I wasn't obnoxious or precocious, but I
was curious. There were a lot of practical jokes and things like that. I
got on her nerves basically. I pissed her off quite frequently.
Did you get to know the Oompa-Loompa man himself, Deep Roy?
He's a ball and a real force to be reckoned with. I started calling
him the hardest working man in show business. I'd see him on a Tuesday,
Deep Roy and he'd be in his red outfit and then on the Wednesday he'd be
in his blue outfit and then on Thursday the white one and then on Friday
he's dressed up as like this 80's metal star. He was all over the place
and just incredible.
The flashbacks Wonka has of his memories of his father were not in the
original novel, how did they deepen the character?
The first thing that I thought was that it was very brave of
[screenwriter] John August and Tim to make that decision but still be able
to keep it in the spirit of Roald Dahl's intent. That was no small
undertaking and in terms of cinema that's a great tool. It's a beautiful
luxury that you have as an actor because it explains a lot of where Wonka
comes from. But for an audience it gives you a little bit more insight to
what this guy is and how he's become what he's become.
As an actor, do you appreciate the fact Tim Burton did not use so much
CGI but a lot with the set?
It makes all the difference in the world. The difference between
standing in the room of blue screen; it makes all the difference in the
world because everything was there. For me, it's amazing, it's a great
gift, especially for kids. A couple of them had never been on a movie set
before; to have all stuff available to you; to see, to touch, in a case of
the chocolate river, to actually smell. It smelled bad. After a couple of
weeks, it really got funky. Ask Tim about it. He has a great analogy for
the smell. I appreciate that old style. That's how movies were done a long
time ago and that's how movies should still be done. I also appreciate the
fact that there are time when you must use CGI and it works as an
Did you enjoy playing a character with no social skills?
Yes, I did enjoy playing someone with slightly twisted social skills.
It's a bit fun playing characters, that for whatever reasons, these
characters [Willie Wonka, Captain Jack Sparrow], characters that can do things
that I would never dream of doing or speak to people in a way I couldn't
bring myself ever to do, so there's great fun in that; great safety in
playing those parts. Once you have learned to talk like them or be them I
guess, there's great safety in it.
Did you talk about the script with Tim and how'd he come up with stuff
Yeah, Tim is very good about stuff like that. Tim and John August, the
screenwriter, were great about it as well. It's some kind of illness. I
can't help myself. I need to do it; otherwise I'd feel like I'm held
captive or something. There are times when you know that you are doing it
too much and you can stop yourself, but there are times when I feel
strongly about something and adding something, and the trick is that you
can always try anything; do a take of anything and then go back to the
page. Tim was great about it and always has been.
Did you have the same freedom as Captain Jack?
Oh yeah, and those guys would... Ted and Terry, the guys wrote Pirates
1 were so gracious because there I was at that time, first read through,
sitting down and going "I'd like this, this, this and I'd like to say
this, this, this, and they were so sweet about it and now on Pirates 2 &
3, they have been incredible open to my suggestions and line changes and
stuff. So yeah, it's been fun. It's been a great process.
How is it, shooting two films at the same time?
Well, it's a lengthy process. It's going to take us a while.
Over nine months?
Are you shooting the films back to back?
As much as we can, we are doing two, and every now and then, you may have
to slot something in from Pirates 3, but the majority of what we
have done so far have been 2 and then we will start moving into 3
after the hiatus. It's been great fun so far.
On the new Pirates sets, is there pressure since you are following up
such a big hit?
What was weird was that we didn't quite know what to expect before we
went back into Pirates. A lot of things had happened. Orlando [Bloom]
had some big movies and Keira [Knightley] had some big stuff too. Everyone
was all over the map and we didn't quite know what to expect. [Director]
Gore [Verbinski] obviously has been working like a demon. But honestly we
stepped on the set for the first day and for me jumping back into the skin
of Captain Jack felt like we'd had just a week off from the first one.
It's been a really great time. Everything has been super good and fun. I
think that it's going to be good, knock wood.
Why did you choose to revisit the role of Captain Jack?
For me, there was one reason and one reason only.
It was Captain Jack.
It was selfishly to have the opportunity to play Captain Jack again. Some
people can look at it and say, "Depp sold out." I don't believe that
I have. It certainly wasn't my intention to sell out but I wanted to play
him again because I think he's so much fun to play and I there's so much
more to explore with that character that I would keep going. If they
wanted me to do Pirate 7 –
What will we see this time around?
In Pirates 2 & 3, you will get to see a couple of new layers to
Captain Jack. You will get to see him in new situations; situations that
he is unable to talk his way out of. There's a lot of fun stuff.
Will Keith Richards be in the film?
It's looking very good. I've talked to Keith about it and he's been
super sweet and keen to do it and it's looking very good. We are just
hoping that we can work out the dates with the Stones tour and everything
but if that happens, you talk about a dream come true. Get to be a pirate
with Keith Richards? Does it get better than that?
I heard that on the day that Hunter S. Thompson took his own life, you
powered through and kept working.
On the day that Hunter made his exit, I found out about an hour or two
after it actually happened. It was and is devastating. Even though on one
hand I understand that a guy who lived his life exactly the way that he
wanted to live it, so he made his exit in the same way, but it doesn't
make it hurt any less. He was a great hero and a great pal, a great
friend. He was a father and a grandfather. He was so many things to so
many people. I'll miss him everyday. I think about that bastard everyday.
You've gotten Oscar nominations two years in a row, would you like to
get another for this film?
It's not something that I think about everyday because I try not to
think about that kind of stuff. I'm really flattered and honored that I've
been able to get the nominations and various awards that I ended up
getting. That was like totally unexpected and shocking to me. In fact
that's sort of enough for me. The nominations are fine. I don't need more.
I don't really want to go up in front of all those people and say thanks.
That just scares the shit out of me. It would be nice, but I don't need
This was the first film from Brad Pitt's production company Plan B. Did
you interact with him in making this movie?
No, oddly. I knew that Brad Grey was involved... I'm so out of it. I don't
know what's going on anywhere at anytime. It was a while before I found
that Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston were part of Plan B. I didn't know;
although I met them all individually and they are nice people. Brad, I've
known for many years and Brad Grey is a terrific guy. Sharp cookie.
Will you be producing your own movies now?
Well, there are a couple things... My sister and I have this little
company and we've made some recent acquisitions that are pretty exciting.
Will you be starring in and producing them?
Some of them [I plan] to be in and some of them just to see that they get
made. Some pretty special stuff we are excited about like the latest Nick
Hornby novel called "A Long Way Down." That's very exciting and [I
am working making a film based on] a great book from Australian
writer Gregory David Roberts called Shantaram, which is a beautiful
Will you be in Shantaram?
Shantaram – I
think I will. It feels like the right thing to do. I spent some time with
Greg and I think it's the right thing to do. It's an area that I haven't
really explored as an actor so I'd like to try it.
It's been a long time since you made a contemporary film-well, there
was Secret Window.
I don't know. Yes.
What about Libertine?
Yes, Libertine. That's restoration. That's the time of old King
Charles II, which I think is coming out sometime this year, in November or
December or something like that.
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