In 1966, a new daytime soap opera called Dark Shadows premiered. It was unlike anything anyone had ever seen before, spotlighting vampires, werewolves, ghosts and witches. It soon developed a cult following, especially in 1967 when a new character was introduced, a vampire named Barnabas Collins, played by Jonathan Frid.
Now, over forty years later, the incomparable team of Tim Burton and Johnny Depp are bringing the franchise back to the big screen. In their movie Dark Shadows, Depp portrays Barnabas, a vampire who after 200 years has inadvertently been freed from his tomb into the world of 1972, ready to assist his dysfunctional family in restoring his family name to its former glory.
We spoke with Johnny Depp about the new movie, and his continuing relationship with director Tim Burton at the press day for the film.
What was it about the original series of Dark Shadows that you liked so much?
There was nothing like it, certainly not in the daytime, with its vampires and ghost and witches. I’ve always been attracted to that genre, even as a very young kid, so when I got a hold of Dark Shadows, I didn’t let go.
My initial conversation with Tim about this [began] during Sweeny Todd, where I just blurted out in mid-conversation, ‘God, we should do a vampire movie together. Where you actually have a vampire that looks like a vampire.’
Dark Shadows was kind of looming on the periphery, and then Tim and I started talking about it and figuring it out how it should be shaped. Then Seth (Grahame-Smith, the screenwriter) came on board and the three of us just riffed. One thing led to another and it basically dictated to us what it wanted to be, with Tim at the forefront leading the troops.
Why is the movie set in 1972?
It sparked a whole series of ideas. The thought of this very elegant man of the 1700s, having been cursed and locked away for 200 years, coming back to 1972, maybe the worst time, aesthetically, in human existence, where people accepted everything from ugly little troll dolls to macramé jewelry and [plastic] grapes to lava lamps.
We thought what a great way to incorporate this vampire, being the eyes that we never had back then, the eyes that can see the absurdity in those things.
In coming up with the physicality of Barnabas, how much of it came from Jonathan Frid’s performance?
Approaching Barnabas, even in the early days of trying to explore the possibilities of the character, no matter where you went in your head, it was apparent to both Tim and myself that it had to be rooted in Jonathan’s character of Barnabas, it just had to be. It was so classic.
Jonathan had when he was playing Barnabas, a kind of rigidity to him, that pole-up-the-back, that elegance that was always there. Tim and I talked early on, a vampire should look like a vampire. It was a rebellion against vampires that look like underwear models!
Jonathan did something striking with that character, so my Barnabas is largely based on his, with a few other ingredients thrown in and slightly more flowery language… a little more of a vocal style in terms of enunciation.
Barnabas has very long and sharp nails in this, I almost felt sorry for you. How hard were they to manage during the shooting?
There are many more reasons to feel sorry for me. We can go through them now, or we can just cuddle after! In every film that I’ve been lucky enough to do with Tim, there’s always some form of torture, and the nails were Tim’s idea. But it was okay because I had a troop of people who would help me go to the bathroom. They had to have treatment afterwards, but they’re okay now!
What do you think it is about vampires that fascinates people so much?
It’s a strange thing, as a child I had a fascination with monsters and vampires, as did Tim. As you get older you recognize the erotic nature of the vampire and the idea of the undead.
What was most interesting in terms of Barnabas was the idea of the combination – it was a real challenge, probably more for Tim than me, to make that guy, clearly a vampire, fit back into this odd society and this dysfunctional family, and I think he did it rather seamlessly.
What was your first screen bite as a vampire like to do?
Going back to the erotic nature of vampires, I felt as though I was biting one of the Village People! When I had the fangs, [I wanted] to be a little bit careful that I didn’t pierce the jugular. It was kind of like my experience shaving Alan Rickman in Sweeney Todd which, by the way, neither of us want to do again, especially Alan.
You did Paul McCartney’s music video My Valentine, can you talk about how that came about?
I’ve known him on and off over the years, and I ran into him and then he gave me a call and asked if I would be interested in being in his video. It was a yes.
I had to learn the sign language, which is not rote and it’s all different. And apparently instead of saying love, I think I might have said murder! But I was only copying what the guy showed me, so track him down!
Jonathan Frid, and a few other members of the original cast of Dark Shadows, visited the set, doing cameos in the movie. I asked Johnny what it was like to meet him. Click below to listen to his reply.