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Rango – Johnny Depp and his affinity for lizards

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Rango - Johnny Depp
Rango (Johnny Depp) © 2011 Paramount Pictures

The motion capture, animated feature, Rango, marks the fourth collaboration between writer/director Gore Verbinski and actor Johnny Depp, who worked on three Pirates of the Caribbean movies together.

This comedy-adventure follows the transformative journey of Rango (voiced by Depp), a sheltered chameleon living as an ordinary pet, until he gets left behind in the middle of the desert. When he ends up in the gritty, gun-slinging town of Dirt, the less-than-courageous lizard suddenly finds that for the first time in his life he stands out, and the townspeople make him their sheriff. Now Rango has to live up to the hero they all expect him to be.

Unlike most animated films, Gore Verbinski decided to have all his actors together on a soundstage and had them act out the entire script. At the press day for the movie, Johnny Depp spoke of that experience and what his children thought of him playing a lizard.

You’ve said in the past that you’ve always chosen characters that you had a personal connection with. What is your connection with Rango?

Rango - Johnny Depp
Rango (Johnny Depp) © 2011 Paramount Pictures

I don’t know. I’ve always had an affinity for lizards; I’ve always felt somewhat close to them. They’re reptiles, and I feel somewhat reptilian myself at times!

When we were doing Pirates of the Caribbean at times when Jack Sparrow had to run, there was this very specific run that I wanted to do. And it was from seeing footage of a lizard running across the water. It was the strangest thing I’ve ever seen. And so I said, ‘Gore, he’s got to be the lizard running,’ and he’s like, ‘Oh, yeah, absolutely.’ So I had to get in touch with the lizard [in me].

I think that Rango was somehow planted in Gore’s brain from that lizard run. And when he actually called me and said, ‘I want you to play a lizard,’ I thought, ‘Well, God, I’m halfway there!’

How did you get into character for Rango?

Rango - Johnny Depp
Rango (Johnny Depp) © 2011 Paramount Pictures

Early on, [Gore and I talked about the character], two middle-aged men discussing the possibility of one of them being a lizard!  So it starts off on a surreal kind of note anyway. But we talked about finding the voice of the character, and when people have a tendency to exaggerate or lie, you always notice that their voice goes up quite high. It goes to a completely different register. So that’s where the voice comes from, you imagine the character to be a nervous wreck.

You’ve worked with Gore quite a bit in the last few years, what is it about him that you like?

Working with Gore in three Pirates of the Caribbean movies and Rango, there are no limits to the possibilities, he allows you to try all kinds of things that sometimes fail miserably.  And other times you’ve just arrived at some place that you know one’s never been to before. And he welcomes it, and he creates an atmosphere that allows you to just go essentially ape. And it’s a blast, that’s really a fun part of the process.

The process of doing this movie was different than the other animated films you’ve done, where you were in a booth. You actually acted this out with the other actors on a soundstage. Did that help you?

Rango - Voice artists Alex Manugian, Johnny Depp, John Cothran, and Blake Clark
Spoons (Alex Manugian), Rango (Johnny Depp), Elgin (John Cothran), and Buford (Blake Clark) © 2011 Paramount Pictures

I’m lazy, and I’d sort of rather just sit in front of a microphone and do the thing! The process that Gore created, this sort of atmosphere that was truly ludicrous, just ridiculous; it was like regional theatre at its worst. (he laughs) And somehow, not the idea of motion capture, but emotion capture, certain gestures, body language, movement, something you might have done with your eyes, are taken by the animators and put in [the movie].

It was very strange. Harry Dean Stanton walked up to me one afternoon, and I’ve known him for a million years, and he said, ‘This is a weird gig, man!’ I went, ‘Oh, yeah. You’ve just started. You just wait.’ But ultimately, it was the right thing to do. And that was Gore’s vision, and we saw it through.

What’s the best western you’ve ever seen?

I was always a fan of the great old spaghetti westerns, the Sergio Leone films. But the one that always sticks with me, that I just thought was brilliant and perfect is Cat Ballou. Lee Marvin in Cat Ballou reinvented some form of acting there.

How do your children feel about the fact that you’re playing a lizard?

Justin Bieber talks with Judy Sloane
Justin Bieber talks with Judy Sloane at the Rango press conference

The actually call me the Lizard King. I’ve forced them to address me like that since they were tykes. (he laughs)  No, it was an odd sort of thing. ‘Where are you going, Daddy?’ ‘Ah, I gotta go to work.’ I’d drop them off at school, give them a kiss and it was, ‘Now I’m gonna go be a lizard.’

They’re far more interested in Family Guy or Justin Bieber.

Are you a Belieber?

Wow, I’ve actually never heard that one! Yes, I am a Belieber. (NOTE: watch spotlighted video, to see what happened at the end of the press conference!)

In the movie, Rango tells lies to the people of the town, could you share a lie you’ve told during your life?

Rango - Johnny Depp
Rango (Johnny Depp), and Mr Timms © 2011 Paramount Pictures

I actually tell lies for a living. That’s what acting is.

I have had horrific guilt for many years [lying to my kids] and playing along with the Santa Claus thing. I’m waiting for that moment to arrive where they say, ‘Hey, you’ve been telling me a lie for my entire life. What are you prepared to do about that?’ We’re now kind of just on the outskirts of that, so I feel okay.

How do you handle all the attention that surrounds your career?

The attention is a strange thing. It’s always nice that someone appreciates your work. But I’ve never quite understood any of the other bits, where you’ve been voted something for a magazine. It’s a complete mystery to me. I wake up and I have to look at that head when I brush my teeth every morning. It’s weird, and it’s unpleasant at times.