Alice in Wonderland marks the seventh collaboration between director Tim Burton and superstar Johnny Depp. With such memorable characters as Edward Scissorhands, Sweeney Todd and Willy Wonka, Burton has given the actor some of his most challenging roles, with the Mad Hatter joining that array of unique performances.
Of course, being a Tim Burton movie, you wouldn’t expect it to be the traditional Lewis Carroll tale. In his version, Alice (Mia Wasikowska) is a 19 year old who only vaguely remembers her trip to Wonderland when she was a child. When she sees the White Rabbit running across the lawn, she follows it and once again falls down the Rabblt Hole into Underland (yes, she misheard the country’s name when she was younger). Reunited with her friends, Tweedledee and Tweedledum, the Dormouse, the Caterpillar, the Cheshire Cat, and of course The Mad Hatter, she embarks on a journey to dethrone the Red Queen, who is terrorizing her subjects.
Johnny Depp spoke about his relationship with Tim Burton and the secrets behind the Mad Hatter last weekend at the Renaissance Hotel in Hollywood.
You and Tim Burton have worked together quite a bit. Is this the seventh film you have done together?
I think so, somewhere around there.
When he came to you and said, ‘The Mad Hatter,’ what was your reaction?
To be honest, he could’ve said Alice and I would’ve said [yes]. I would’ve done whatever character Tim wanted, but yeah, certainly the fact that it was The Mad Hatter was a bonus. It was because of the great challenge to try and find this guy and not to just sort of be rubber ball heaved into an empty room and watch it bounce all over the place. So (I wanted) to find that part of that character, but also a little more history or gravity to the guy.
There’s kind of a tragic nature to the Mad Hatter’s background in this that I’ve never seen before in an Alice in Wonderland, can you talk about that?
There’s the whole Hatter’s dilemma really, which is where the term ‘mad as a hatter’ came from; the amount of mercury that they used in the glue to make the hats and everything was damaging. So in terms of The Hatter, looking at him from that perspective, it’s this guy who’s literally damaged goods. He’s physically damaged. He’s emotionally a little obtuse.
It was kind of taking that and deciding that he, as opposed to just this hyper and nutty guy, should explore all sides of the personality at an extreme level. So he could go from one second being very highfalutin and with a lot of levity and then straight into some kind of dangerous potential rage and then tragedy. So, yeah, trying to map it out was really interesting.
Was there ever a time in your career where you felt like you were ‘Johnny in Wonderland’?
My whole ride and experience on the ride since day one has/ been pretty surreal in this business and it defies logic. Why I’m still here? I’m still completely shocked that I still get jobs and still am around. But I guess more than anything it has been a kind of Wonderland. I’ve been very lucky.
Did you think that it was going to be that way when you started?
No, not at all. I had no idea where anything was going but you can’t. It’s almost impossible to predict anything like that. I had no idea. I felt like after I’d done Cry Baby with John Waters and Edward Scissorhands with Tim that they were going to cut me off right then. I felt at that point that I was on solid ground and I knew where I was going or where I wanted to go and I was sure that they would nix me out of the gate. But I’m luckily still here.
You and Tim have collaborated on so many projects. Tim said that each time he works with you that you surprise him, do you feel the same way?
Yeah, each time out of the gate with Tim the initial thing for me is to obviously come up with a character, but then you start thinking that there’s a certain amount of pressure where you go, ‘Jesus, will this be the one where I disappoint him?’ I try really hard, especially early on, to just come up with something that’s very different that we haven’t experienced together before and that I think will stimulate him and inspire him to make choices based on that character. So I basically try not to embarrass him.
You’ve created so many wonderful characters that we all remember, when you start something new like the Mad Hatter, do you have to look back at your own work and go,’ Well, this might be too much Edward Scissorhands, and this might be too much Captain Jack?’
I’ve played English a number of times, have used an English accent. so it becomes a little bit of an obstacle course to go, ‘Oh, that’s teetering into Captain Jackville,’ or ‘This one is kind of teetering over into Chocolat or Wonka.’ So you’ve got to really pay attention to the places that you’ve been. But that’s also part of it. That’s the great challenge, that you might get it wrong. There’s a very good possibility that you can fall flat on your face, but again, I think that’s a healthy thing for an actor.
If the next project was motion capture for you, would you don a suit like they did in Avatar?
I don’t know. What color is the suit?
Black? It matches my eyes. I suppose. Look, I’ll put anything on. It doesn’t matter to me, obviously. Look at me. I don’t mind.
Of all the characters and movies that you’ve worked on with Tim, which of them has been your children’s favorite?
My children’s favorite, and it’s funny because they’ve seen it but they have a difficult time watching it because it’s their dad and they make that connection, but it’s Edward Scissorhands. That’s by far my kid’s favorite.
Why is that?
They just connect with the character and also they see their dad feeling that isolation, feeling that loneliness. He’s a tragic character and so I think it’s hard for them. They bawl when they see that movie.
When did the original book enter your life for the first time and how did it influence you?
I do remember vaguely that I was roughly five years old and reading versions of Alice in Wonderland, but the thing is the characters. You always know the characters. Everyone always knows the characters and they’re very well defined characters which I thought was fascinating. Even most people who haven’t read the book, they definitely know the characters and can reference them.
I went back, and ironically this was maybe only a year prior to Tim calling me, and I had reread Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass.
What I took away from it was all these very strange little cryptic nuggets that he had thrown in there. I was really intrigued by them and became fascinated with them, because they were asking questions that couldn’t be answered almost or made statements that he 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 finally doing a little research finding that the M is mercury. Then, ‘Why is a raven like a writing desk?’
Those things just became so important to the character, and you realize if I read the book again today I’d find a hundred things that I missed last time. It’s constantly changing, the book.