Twenty years ago, a frustrated young TV star and a wild-haired filmmaker met at a hotel off the Sunset Strip, drank coffee, and talked. To an outside observer, Johnny Depp and Tim Burton would have seemed an unlikely pair: one, a reluctant teen idol; the other, a shy, rumpled director with a penchant for the macabre. But from that meeting sprang a creative partnership that has produced some of the most memorable oddball characters in recent movie history: An alienated teenage Frankenstein with scissors for hands. A cross-dressing Z-movie director. A demented candy maker. A murderous barber.
On a warm winter afternoon, Depp, 46, and Burton, 51 — the duo behind Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and Sweeney Todd, among others — sit on a balcony at another L.A. hotel, just days away from the March 5 opening of their seventh film together: an eye-popping new 3-D Alice in Wonderland. This PG-rated big-screen take on the Lewis Carroll classic stars Depp as the Mad Hatter alongside newcomer Mia Wasikowska as Alice, Helena Bonham Carter as the Red Queen, and Anne Hathaway as the White Queen. Between Depp’s whacked-out spin on the Hatter and Burton’s flair for imagery, Alice is poised to capitalize on the growing appetite for 3-D extravaganzas stoked by Avatar, which, perhaps surprisingly, neither of them has seen (”I hear it’s good,” Burton says with a shrug). Then again, the film also faces a looming glut of 3-D movies, plus a threatened boycott of the film by theater chains upset over Disney’s decision to move Alice‘s DVD release up by a month. Today, though, the two old friends — both now fathers of two — sip iced tea and look back on their long, strange trip down Hollywood’s rabbit hole.
EW: Alice in Wonderland has been adapted in one form or another hundreds of times. What inspired you to take a crack at it?
Tim Burton Disney came to me with the idea of doing Alice in Wonderland in 3-D, and that seemed intriguing. I’d never really read the Lewis Carroll books. I knew Alice through music and other illustrators and things. The images were always strong, but the movie versions I’d seen, to me, were always just, like, a little brat wandering around a bunch of weirdos. [Laughs] It was fun to try to make the characters not just weird — I mean they are weird, but we wanted to get deeper into those characters.
EW: Johnny, how did you approach the role of the Mad Hatter?
Johnny Depp Oddly enough, I had reread both Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass not long before. I started looking up things on hatters and where that whole term ”mad as a hatter” came from. It was actually due to mercury poisoning, because when they were putting together the hats, they used this really vile substance that — it’s like huffing — it makes you go sideways. So I just started to get these images in my head. That’s where the orange hair came from.
EW: When you did Pirates of the Caribbean, the executives at Disney famously panicked at first over how you were playing Jack Sparrow. Was there any concern this time about portraying the Mad Hatter as a sort of pale-skinned, green-eyed, orange-haired freak?
Depp When we first went in to do the camera tests, I was thinking, ”They’re going to lose their minds.” But Tim fully supported it. It was a couple of solid hours in the makeup chair every day, but it really helped. You start to understand who the guy is through all that weird kind of Carrot Top Kabuki.
Burton From Edward Scissorhands on, Johnny has always wanted to cover himself up and hide. [Laughs] I get it.
Depp I still do. Absolutely.
Burton It’s fascinating to see Johnny work up to a character, though. In the past, we’ve done some studio read-throughs of the script and the executives will come up to me afterward, like, [in a nervous whisper] ”He’s not going to do that in the movie, is he?” I remember on Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, we did a read-through of the script early on and Johnny was holding a pencil and pretending to smoke it like a pipe. And this studio executive said to me, ”He’s not going to smoke a pipe in the movie, is he?”
Depp The subtext underneath that question is so funny. It’s like [with mock outrage], ”Are you kidding me? He’s smoking a pipe?!”
Burton ”The character isn’t wearing any socks? He’s got ripped jeans? Oh my God, don’t do anything to embarrass us!” It’s funny, because the thing that worries people most is often the thing that makes it work.
EW: And to prove it, there are now people standing out on Hollywood Boulevard dressed as Jack Sparrow.
Depp I was driving down Hollywood Boulevard one day and stopped at a light, looked to my left, and saw Willy Wonka having a conversation with Jack Sparrow. It was so cool, man. [Laughs]
EW: Johnny, you’ve said you don’t like watching yourself on screen. What is it like to see yourself in 3-D in Alice?
Depp I’m actually unable to see 3-D. I’ve got a weird thing where I don’t see properly out of my left eye, so I truly can’t see 3-D. So I have an excuse [not to watch myself] this time. [Laughs]
EW: It’s been 20 years since you two first met at a hotel to talk about Edward Scissorhands. Tim, what do you remember about that meeting?
Burton All I remember is coffee — a lot of coffee. In fact, I think I’m still coming down the walls from that. I’d never seen [Depp’s cop show] 21 Jump Street, but meeting Johnny, I could sense that this thing was probably not why he got into acting or where he wanted to go. My impression was that he had something inside of him, but because of the show he was on, people thought of him in a certain way that wasn’t accurate. There’s a painful quality when you grow up and you’re not perceived correctly and that’s what the character of Edward Scissorhands was about. It was an instinctual thing, but I could see that Johnny was that character.
EW: Johnny, did you have the feeling you’d won the role in that meeting?
Depp I was convinced there was no way I’d get it. Everyone in this town wanted to play that role — including Michael Jackson. [Laughs] I’d had a great meeting with Tim and left zipping on coffee and chewing on a spoon, but then I didn’t really hear much for a few weeks. When I got the call saying ”You’re Edward Scissorhands,” I was just elated. I knew how important it would be. It was a big risk for Tim to take on some TV actor. With 21 Jump Street, they were trying to make me this thing, this product, and I couldn’t deal with it. When Scissorhands came, I knew even if immediately afterwards I was booted out of Hollywood and was pumping gas or working construction again, at least I was on solid ground. I was exactly where I needed to be. And even if that was all I’d done, I was fine. I knew what road I wanted to go on, but Tim pushed me onto that road.
Burton And within weeks he was vomiting behind a bush in Florida.
Depp [Laughs] I was covered head to toe in leather on that movie, shooting in Tampa or wherever it was, and it wasn’t long before I was in full heatstroke. I remember there was one scene where I’m running from the cops. I’d done it, like, six times already and I was dying. Tim was like, ”How are you doing? You got one more take in you?” I was like, ”Yeah, sure.” I ran down the street, heard ”Cut,” didn’t stop running — and ran on to the side of someone’s house and just hurled into a bush.
Burton By the way, how come they haven’t made a movie out of 21 Jump Street?
Depp They’re going to. I’m hoping they’ll let me do a cameo. Someone will say, ”What ever happened to Tom Hanson?” and they’ll find me somewhere hoarding jars of peanut butter and shaking in my underpants. [Laughs]
EW: Four years later, you guys reunited for Ed Wood. Johnny, what were you feeling about your career at that point?
Depp In terms of Hollywood, people were still wondering, ”Why won’t he carry a gun and f— the girl?” That’s all they wanted me to do: carry a gun and nail some broad, you know. I’m not opposed to that, but I thought there might have been other things to investigate.
Burton You should have just said to them [in a thick, Tony Montana accent], ”I leave the guns and broads at home. I come to work for fantasy.” [Laughs] As an outsider, I always felt like you kept your integrity. If you had done the parts they asked you to do, you would have made a lot more money a lot sooner and all that s—. But you picked things that you wanted to do.
Depp Yeah, luckily. It was more out of ignorance than anything else. I was just like, Well, shouldn’t I just do the things I want to do? Isn’t that right? But apparently Hollywood didn’t work that way. When I did Pirates, I felt like I’d infiltrated the enemy camp. I’d never been welcomed in before. Nobody had ever asked me. Not only that — they’d been adamantly against me. Most times, Tim had to fight, fight, fight to get me in these movies.
Burton Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was the first time the studio brought Johnny’s name up first.
EW: Johnny, what’s the scariest thing Tim ever asked you to do in a movie?
Depp Singing in Sweeney Todd.
Burton No question about it.
Depp The thing is, I dumbly thought that once I’d gotten through singing the demos and going through the recording process in the studio, I was home free. I thought I’d get on the set and just lip-synch. I didn’t realize that you’ve got to sing it live on the set. Me and Helena [Bonham Carter] were, like, belting it out with the whole crew watching. It was just mortifying.
EW: How would you describe the sensibility you two share?
Depp There’s a similar respect for the absurd and things slightly left of center. I’ve just always understood what Tim’s looking for, and he trusts me to go out there and do the stupid s— I do.
Burton Like dress up as a scary clown. [Laughs] Over the years we’ve learned that we have similar tastes. We both like old horror movies. We talk about TV performers that scared us as children. There’s a lot of common ground.
Depp There are directors I’ve worked with that I’ve had a grand old time with: Terry Gilliam, Gore Verbinski, the Hughes brothers, a number of guys. But the collaborative process of making a film with Tim — that energy is like riding some kind of enormous wave. There’s this connection, this shorthand. It sounds corny, but it’s truly home for me, where you can try absolutely anything and you might be afraid to fall flat on your face but that’s what makes it worth it.
EW: Still, there must be times you disagree, right?
Burton It’s hard for me to even think of something. We always work it out. There’s never been a big issue.
Depp Not even on Sleepy Hollow when Tim strapped me to a strange piece of metal behind two gaseous horses after they’d had some curry and dragged me through the mud. [Laughs]
EW: Your lives have obviously changed a lot over the years you’ve known each other, and now you’re both family men with two kids. Has that changed the kinds of things you talk about together?
Depp Well, we’ve discovered the Wiggles. That’s one thing I can always be proud of: I gave Tim his first set of Wiggles DVDs.
Burton [Groans] You try to maneuver your way through the least offensive children’s programming, but it’s hard. I keep trying to show my son [the psychedelic 1970s kids’ show] H.R. Pufnstuf but he’s not going there. Oh, well.
Depp He will.
EW: There’s been talk of you two adapting the 1960s vampire TV series Dark Shadows. Will that be next?
Burton For now we’re still basking in the glow of Alice. But we’re working on Dark Shadows. When you work with someone like Johnny, it’s always about, Are you excited about this? Do you see something here?
Depp I still just wait for that call from Tim — ”Did he call?” [Laughs] I sit at home and just stare at the f—ing phone.
A glimpse at Depp and Burton’s collaborations, backward through time
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Despite never having sung on screen before, Depp earned a Best Actor nod for his turn as the vengeful barber Sweeney Todd in the director’s bloody adaptation of the Stephen Sondheim musical
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
Stepping into the role played by Gene Wilder in the 1971 adaptation of Roald Dahl’s classic, Depp gave candy maker Willy Wonka his own eccentric, androgynous spin
Depp lent his voice to Burton’s ghoulish, Oscar-nominated stop-motion-animation film about a timid man who unwittingly marries a dead woman (voiced by Bonham Carter)
Depp played Ichabod Crane, and Burton received some of his best reviews ever for his grisly take on Washington Irving’s tale of the headless horseman
Burton and Depp joined forces with this offbeat and darkly funny black-and-white biopic about the legendarily inept but passionately enthusiastic director Ed Wood
Taking a gamble on a largely untested TV actor, Burton cast Depp as a sweetly innocent teen Frankenstein in a surreal fable that drew on Burton’s own feelings of alienation
Other Great Depp Roles
What’s Eating Gilbert Grape
Depp gave one of his most understated and soulful performances as a small-town teenager trying to hold together his dysfunctional family
Starring opposite Al Pacino, Depp earned stellar reviews as an undercover FBI agent infiltrating a New York Mafia family
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
Depp captured the gonzo spirit of his friend Hunter S. Thompson in Terry Gilliam’s surreal take on Thompson’s drug-fueled autobiographical novel
Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl
Depp’s quirky turn as Capt. Jack Sparrow worried Disney execs at first but landed him an Oscar nomination for Best Actor