Johnny Depp is Tonto in The Lone Ranger

A few years ago Johnny Depp decided that it was time to kick start a project that had been on his mind for a while.

Producer Jerry Bruckheimer—a frequent collaborator who made the hugely successful “Pirates of the Caribbean” films in which Depp stars as the lovable rogue Jack Sparrow —had been intrigued with the idea of making a contemporary, big screen version of “The Lone Ranger,” the classic 1950s TV series about the masked cowboy crime fighter and his partner, Tonto, but the project was still languishing in development—until Depp, in his own inimitable way, stepped in.

Depp, in typical fashion, figured that the best way to get the ball rolling would be to get into character as Tonto. He enlisted the help of two close friends—makeup artist Joel Harlow and photographer Peter Mountain—and set about creating his distinctive version of how Tonto would look in the hope that it would convince Bruckheimer and the studio, Disney, to give it the green light.

Depp is, of course, a master of disguise and a brilliant character actor as well as one of Hollywood’s best-loved leading men. He based his ‘look’ for Tonto on a painting he’d seen of a Native American warrior and added his own, unique, flourishes.

The result was spectacular and it convinced Bruckheimer—and indeed Disney Studios— that it was time for “The Lone Ranger” and Tonto to ride back onto the screen.

“I was doing ‘The Rum Diary’ with Bruce (Robinson) in Puerto Rico, and I had already found a painting of a Native American warrior with these stripes down his face,” Depp explains.

“I asked my makeup artist, Joel Harlow, who is a wizard, to help me put something together. So we did the makeup and I asked the photographer, Peter Mountain, to take some shots.

“We went out into these filthy weeds and started taking some photographs and Peter printed them out and showed me and I was like, ‘Yeah, I think we’ve found him and now he needs to be brought to life.’ I called up Jerry and said, ‘Look, when I’m back in LA, I’d love to sit down with you.’

“And so we met up and I handed him five or six photographs and Jerry said, ‘He’s fantastic. Who is that?’ And I said, ‘It’s me!’ And Jerry said, ‘Jesus! Can I take these with me?’ And I said, ‘ Yeah, sure, show them to the boys.’

“And I also showed them to Dick Cook [former chairman of Walt Disney Studios] and the responses were all very positive because for them, I think there was some element of Captain Jack Sparrow, a Captain Jack–type character. And everybody got excited about it, including me, and then I went after Gore (Verbinski) to direct it.”

The director immediately said ‘yes’ and that meant that the creative team behind the fabulously successful “Pirates of the Caribbean” films—Depp, Bruckheimer and Verbinski, who helmed the first three—were back together.

Fast-rising, young star Armie Hammer (“The Social Network,” “J. Edgar”) plays John Reid in an origins story that reveals how he transforms into the Lone Ranger and unites with a Native American warrior to fight injustice.

“First and foremost, Armie is a great guy,” says Depp. “He’s very smart, very quick and clever with a great wit and he’s super talented. He committed to playing the Lone Ranger as an earnest, naïve, ‘white man’—and that’s exactly right.

“Armie is a young actor coming up the ranks and he looks like a classic movie star and what’s more, he has the chops to back it up. So he fully committed to this role—he played it perfectly, he got the humor, and he didn’t want to play it as the ‘cool guy’ as it were. I found him a dream to work with and I feel like I’ve made a really good friend in Armie.”

“The Lone Ranger” began its journey into popular American culture as a radio show back in 1933 and quickly became a national phenomenon. The TV show, starring Clayton Moore as the masked lawman and Jay Silverheels as Tonto, first aired in 1949 and ran until 1957.

Depp remembers watching repeats of the TV show when he was a boy. The actor promises that his Tonto will be an equal partner—and certainly not a sidekick—to the Lone Ranger and honor the noble, warrior tradition of his Native American heritage.

“‘The Lone Ranger’ was just one of those sort of regular things that you would see on television as a kid. I watched it and I always identified with Tonto,” he says. “And even as a kid I wondered why the Indian was the sidekick.

“And it wasn’t that ‘The Lone Ranger’ was overtly disrespectful in the way he treated Tonto but I just thought, ‘why is he the guy that has to go and do this and that? Why isn’t he the hero?’ So that was something that was always on my mind. And I was told at a very young age that we have some Indian blood in our family…who knows how much – maybe very little, I don’t know.

“So what I wanted to do was play this character not as the sidekick to the Lone Ranger. I wanted to play him as a warrior and as a man with great integrity and dignity. It’s my small sliver of a contribution to try and right the wrongs that have been committed in the past.”

Depp was born in Kentucky and grew up in Florida where he developed an early interest in music, which is still a passion today—some of his closest friends are musicians and he is a talented guitarist. His band, The Kids, enjoyed some success and led to Depp moving to Los Angeles. After the band broke up, Depp decided to try his hand at acting.

His early film work includes “Nightmare on Elm Street” and later “Platoon.” He enjoyed huge popular success as undercover detective Tom Hanson on the TV show “21 Jump Street” and starred in four seasons before leaving to pursue film work, notably with director John Walters on “Cry Baby.”

Depp has proven himself to be one of the most versatile and mesmerizing actors of his generation. He has worked frequently with Tim Burton on such films as “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” “Alice in Wonderland” and “Dark Shadows.”

He has enjoyed phenomenal success, and won millions of fans in the process, playing Captain Jack Sparrow in four “Pirates of the Caribbean” films and his other credits include “Edward Scissorhands,” “Ed Wood” (both with Burton), “Chocolat,” “Blow,” “The Libertine,” “Public Enemies,” “Finding  Neverland” and “The Rum Diary.”

*Stay tuned for an interview with Johnny Depp on the site starting tomorrow*

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