As a kid, Johnny Depp watched reruns of the classic 1950s TV series The Lone Ranger, on which the high-minded hero gallops across the Wild West with his sidekick Tonto, striking fear in the hearts of two-bit crooks and corrupt officials alike. The Ranger may have been the star, but Depp says he identified with the slow-talking but quick-witted Native American instead — and hated the fact that Tonto was always on the sidelines. ”I couldn’t help but feel he was getting shortchanged somehow,” the actor writes in an email to EW. ”That was something I was keen to remedy. To set the record straight, if you will. Tonto is nobody’s sidekick. Tonto is a proud warrior.”
The character finally takes the lead this summer, when Depp turns Tonto into the edgy, buff, bird-hat-wearing star attraction of Disney’s The Lone Ranger, costarring Armie Hammer (Mirror Mirror) as the titular masked vigilante. Directed by Gore Verbinski and produced by Jerry Bruckheimer (both of whom worked with Depp on the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise), the movie cherry-picks plot points from Lone Ranger history — he debuted with a radio serial in 1933 — to make a 21st-century-friendly package that Hammer describes as ”a big-ass comedy-Western rock opera.” Sans musical numbers, obviously.
This time around, the Ranger is John Reid, a country-born, city-educated lawyer who arrives in a small town in 1869 Texas hoping to civilize it with his highfalutin ideals. An ambush by the villainous Cavendish gang changes everything: John’s ranger brother (James Badge Dale) is killed, while John is rescued by the mysterious Native American guide Tonto, who becomes his partner in seeking revenge. And unlike previous Ranger iterations, the whole tale is told from the perspective of Tonto — a character as idiosyncratic as any on Depp’s résumé — who may not be the most reliable narrator. ”Tonto is something of a lost soul. Ostracized from his tribe, most likely by his own design, out of guilt,” Depp explains. ”But yeah, he’s damaged. He’s just looking to get back on track. His own particular brand of eccentricity stems from all that. He’s searching for a resolution, in his own, warrior way.”
The movie’s origin story is almost as fraught. Initially slated for a December 2012 release, The Lone Ranger was halted in the midst of preproduction in August 2011 when Disney decided that its budget — a reported $250 million — was too high. After months of stalemate, the filmmakers reportedly brought the price tag down to a slightly less astronomical $215 million — enough to start filming again on Feb. 28, 2012. According to Bruckheimer, it was all just business as usual. ”Pirates was canceled three times — no different from this one,” he says. ”The budget the studio would like and the budget that actually comes back from the filmmakers never coincide, so somehow you have to meet in the middle.”
Once The Lone Ranger was in the saddle, though, the production was a smooth ride — aided by the bond Depp and Verbinski had forged during three Pirates movies and the animated Rango. ”Johnny trusts Gore’s storytelling ability, and as far as how he films something, he trusts that [Gore] is going to make him look great,” says Bruckheimer. ”And Gore knows that Johnny is going to come up with unique ideas that he can incorporate into the movie.” In fact, Depp is so famously spur-of-the-moment on set that Verbinski offered Hammer a deadpan warning about working with the star. ”Gore told me not to put my fingers near Johnny’s mouth,” Hammer says wryly. ”He might try to bite you — who knows?”