Q&A with Johnny Depp – Tonto in The Lone Ranger


From producer Jerry Bruckheimer and director Gore Verbinski, the filmmaking team behind the blockbuster “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise, comes Disney/Jerry Bruckheimer Films’ “The Lone Ranger,” a thrilling adventure infused with action and humor, in which the famed masked hero is brought to life through new eyes.  Native American warrior Tonto (Johnny Depp) recounts the untold tales that transformed John Reid (Armie Hammer), a man of the law, into a legend of justice—taking the audience on a runaway train of epic surprises and humorous friction as the two unlikely heroes must learn to work together and fight against greed and corruption.

“The Lone Ranger” also stars Tom Wilkinson, William Fichtner, Barry Pepper, James Badge Dale, Ruth Wilson and Helena Bonham Carter.

A Disney/Jerry Bruckheimer Films presentation, “The Lone Ranger” is directed by Gore Verbinski and produced by Jerry Bruckheimer and Gore Verbinski, with screen story by Ted Elliott & Terry Rossio and Justin Haythe and screenplay by Justin Haythe and Ted Elliott & Terry Rossio. “The Lone Ranger” releases in U.S. theaters on July 3, 2013.

Q:        You came in on “The Lone Ranger” very early. Did you originate the project?

A: No, I think there had been talk of “The Lone Ranger” and that Jerry (Bruckheimer) was going to do it. 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. 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.

Q:        Has the look of Tonto stayed broadly similar to that first image you created, inspired by the painting of the warrior?

A: Yeah, it’s exactly that, although I didn’t have the wardrobe at the time, I was shirtless with stuff hanging off of me. On those first photographs the makeup is the same. The only thing that Joel changed was that he added the texture to the white paint so that it was kind of like mud, like clay, that was put on his face.

Q:        And what about the bird on Tonto’s head? Where did that come from?

A: In the painting the warrior had stripes down his face, slightly different from the ones we used for Tonto, but he had stripes down his face and what caught me in terms of that image was that it was like seeing four sections of the man dissected and in the painting, just behind him, there was a crow flying, and at first glance I thought the crow was on his head. It wasn’t but I decided that the best thing to do was to take a dead bird and put it on top of my head as my spirit guide. Everyone should try it by the way—it really is something (laughs). But that was it—the bird became his spirit guide.

Q:        It’s all part of the process of building up the character?

A: Yes. Once you start to replace your own skin with that of the character, especially with Tonto, you build the character. It was important to see that this man has been through a lot.

Q:        How long did it take in makeup?

A: I was in makeup a couple of hours a day. Sometimes I decided to wear it at home to save time in the morning (laughs). It wasn’t comfortable and it looked funny but it was worth it, I think.

Q:        I remember you talked before about how Jack Sparrow came fully formed to you. It sounds like it was the same with Tonto?

A: He was pretty close to fully formed. And once you start messing around with ideas, making drawings and things of that nature, ideas come to you as they do when you’re on set—there’s another little trinket that you can add to a scene or a funny moment that happens on the day. But, yes, he was pretty much there.

Q:        Did you watch “The Lone Ranger” as a kid?

A: Yeah, I did. I remember seeing “The Lone Ranger”—it was one of those regular things that you would see on television as a kid. I watched it and I always identified with Tonto. 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, although my great grandmother on my mother’s side had quite the look with the braids and everything. She was a wonderful, beautiful woman and she lived until she was 102 and chewed tobacco until the day she died. She was an amazing woman. 

Q:        What was her name?

A: Her name was Mae Sloan.

Q:        Was she the one who told you about your heritage?

A: Yeah. We had heard about it as kids so then I guess from that I wanted to learn about more Native Americans and also wanted to find out as much as I could about our heritage and our ancestry. And you watch cowboy movies and the Indians were always portrayed as these savages, as the bad guys, which didn’t sit right with me. So when I played Cowboys and Indians as a five-, six-year-old boy, I wanted to be the Indian. And now, all these years later, I’m playing Tonto, which is great. And the only way I could it do it, for myself and for the Native Americans, was to play Tonto with great dignity and integrity and at the same time a sense of humor about the white man and all the things that they do. This is my little salute to them. It was my way of trying to give back and redress the balance of the way they have been mistreated in cinema down the years.

Q:        There’s a nice symmetry to you playing it that way, isn’t there?

A: Yes, I hope so. I haven’t seen the film but I know what I did and I know Gore and from the first time that we had script meetings with Justin Haythe [co-screenwriter] the main thing was “are we doing right by the Indian? Are we doing this right? Let’s not make any mistakes here.” For me the idea was to give something back to them.

Q:        Your creation of Tonto is very different from the incarnations we’ve seen before on the TV show. Can you tell us how you made your Tonto relevant to today?

A: I think he is relevant because, for me, however long cinema has been around the Native American has been treated very poorly by Hollywood for the most part. And 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.

Q:        In one sense, The Lone Ranger is a buddy movie and it’s essential that you and Armie Hammer clicked on screen. How did that work out?

A: Armie’s fantastic. First and foremost, Armie is a great guy; 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.

Q:        You’ve talked before about how there have been key people in your work—Tim Burton, Jerry Bruckheimer, Keith Richards, Bruce Robinson—that you have connected to on a deeper level. I’m assuming that Gore Verbinski is one of those guys?

A: Absolutely.

Q:        What is that Gore brings that makes him such a great collaborator for you?

A: You have got to have that element of trust with someone you work with on that level. And for me, it’s the be-all and end-all really. And that’s not something that comes easy, you have to earn it, and earn it. I’ve been fortunate enough to gain the trust of these men that I would describe as great friends, great teachers—mentors really—from Hunter S. Thompson to Marlon Brando to Bruce Robinson to Tim and Gore. You form these special bonds where you just get each other, where you can take minimal ingredients and turn it into something that hasn’t been done to death. When I’m in script meetings with Gore we start riffing and suddenly you’ve got this really interesting situation and that becomes a major factor in the film. Because we know each other so well he can guess a direction that I’m going. I’ll throw in something left field just to get his reaction (laughs).

Q:        And where does Jerry Bruckheimer fit in? Because you have the whole “Pirates of the Caribbean” history with Jerry and Gore.

A: Jerry is one of those people, like Dick Zanuck, bless him, who we lost. Richard was wonderful and he was the great protector for Tim (Burton) and Jerry is the same. It’s a Jerry Bruckheimer Production and when you see that on screen you know what that means because he produces and protects and serves the story and he serves the film. He serves the artists behind the project and he’s always there—one hundred per cent, one thousand per cent. He’s always on set and he’s always got a great opinion. If you sit in a script meeting with Jerry Bruckheimer, man, he’s as sharp as a tack. He comes up with funny things—really funny things at times—and he’s a real treat. He’s a special one that Jerry.

Q:        I know you’ve ridden horses before but did you have to prepare specifically for this role?

A: A bit. I’ve ridden before for a few movies and I’ve always been pretty good. I’m not bad on horses. And the accident was just one of those things—it happens.

Q:        Could you tell us about the accident?

A: I’m not sure it was an accident—the horse had it in for me (laughs). We’d been running the horses pretty hot that day and went down a couple of paths and that all worked out fine and we changed paths in order to get closer to the camera car and the horses were still running real hot, they wanted to run. And Scout decided to jump over a couple of obstacles and yeah, user error, I don’t know what happened but it happened very fast and very slow. And the weird thing was it wasn’t like you would expect—you’d expect to be riddled with fear or adrenaline but it all just sort of happened and I saw everything very clearly, which was the horse’s very muscular front legs moving at a very dangerous speed and I was still holding on to the mane like an idiot trying to get back up and at a certain point you have to make a decision, do I go down and hit the deck on my own? Or do I wait for the hoof to split my face in two? So I decided to go down on my own and then, incredibly, the horse lifted its front legs and he missed me and he could have crushed me in seconds. I was very lucky that the horse’s instincts were very good.

Q:        What did it mean to you to be adopted into the Comanche nation?

A: It was such a great honor that was bestowed upon me. It’s incredible. I couldn’t ever have dreamed anything like that would ever happen and they have been so great and now I have a new family. This woman, Ladonna (Harris) is my peer, as they say in Comanche. She’s my peer and my Mom and she calls me ‘son.’ And when they welcome you in, they really welcome you in and that was a high point for me.

Q:        There’s symmetry to that bearing in mind what we’ve talked about regarding your ancestry.

A: Yes, there is and I love that. I still can’t believe that they chose me. The production was blessed by the Navajo and the Comanche and we were treated so incredibly [well] by these wonderful, generous people and we all ended up having great relationships with these people. LaDonna decided she wanted to adopt me into her family and into the Comanche nation and that will probably be the greatest honor I’ve ever been given.

Q:        Let’s talk about the future a little. You’re playing Tonto and you’re going back to playing Jack Sparrow. Is there a character out there that you would love to play?

A: There are things that I would love to experience in terms of playing characters but I’ve kind of done the ones that I wanted to do—nothing is really out there screaming at me.

Q:        You clearly like to keep busy—acting, the music, and now publishing. What’s the ethos behind your publishing venture Infinitum Nihil?

A: I am working on that now with a friend of mine. I have a little imprint deal with Harper-Collins. We published Woody Guthrie’s lost novel [“House of Earth”]; that was our first one out of the gate, and it’s great because it means that people are re-reading or discovering Woody Guthrie for the first time. It’s amazing. It’s a great book and something that he wrote in the late 1940s and put in a box.

Q:        And you’ve been making a documentary on Keith Richards. When might we see that?

A: Oh man, it’s going to be so much work. We have so much footage, I have probably I don’t know, maybe in the neighborhood of sixty hours of footage. It’s fascinating but we’ve got some work to do before it’s ready to go out there.

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