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Johnny Depp’s new movie, Mortdecai, opens today. If you live in a highly populated area, you’ve probably seen the posters; with binoculars, I can see one from my apartment, where I stay plugged into pop culture by Rear Window–ing neighboring billboards. Whoever masterminded Mortdecai’s ad campaign preferred the minimalist approach: Each of the film’s four character posters features the face of one of its stars, above the release date and below a sentence that explains the pictured character’s relation to Mortdecai. (“Johnny Depp is Mortdecai,” the Depp one declares.) Why we should care about Mortdecai, whether we should pronounce the “t,”1 and why Paul Bettany can’t get a poster for playing Mortdecai’s butler, “Jock Strapp,” are mysteries that Mortdecai’s marketers left unsolved, betting — wisely, it would seem — that withholding information would be the best way to build up the audience’s appetite.
Mercifully, it’s silent.
I’m here not to persuade you to see Depp play a part twee enough to make up for his missed connection with Wes Anderson, but rather to discuss his previous roles.2 Although the poster points it out, no one could miss the Mortdecai-Depp connection. Underneath his moustache and cravat — not to mention his English accent and a purely-for-appearances cane — Mortdecai’s face is undeniably Depp’s, looking unfairly youthful for 51. It’s ironic, then, that Mortdecai makes its star’s role so explicit: Unlike many Depp movies, this one doesn’t have to remind us we’re watching Depp, in the way that an equally accommodating version of Alice in Wonderland would.
And neither, apparently, is anybody else.
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Depp’s screen persona, kneaded and stretched by visually inventive directors like Tim Burton and Terry Gilliam, is as amorphous as a Faceless Man’s. According to IMDb’s infallible film-notoriety weighting system,3 he’s best known for his roles in Edward Scissorhands, Sweeney Todd, Alice in Wonderland, and the first in a series of endlessly multiplying Pirates of the Caribbean movies.4 In all of those movies, his appearance is altered almost beyond recognition; it might be more accurate to say that Johnny Depp is best known for not looking like Johnny Depp. Some actors hit the same note often enough to become archetypes or caricatures: Ryan Gosling is the “Hey girl” guy; George Clooney is the debonair playboy; Tom Cruise sprints and rides motorcycles. Depp resists classification: He’s as blurry as Mitch Hedberg’s Bigfoot, an out-of-focus movie star roaming the cinematic countryside.
“Paul Newman … You know, the guy from Cars.”
Which, like some other movies in which a deeply disguised Depp stars, were produced and distributed by Disney, the company that pays me to perform my current role as “Grantland writer.”
Mortdecai will be the first shot fired in a yearlong fusillade of Depp transformations. In June, he’ll don a beret, bushy eyebrows, and an uneven nose to reprise his role as French Canadian detective Guy Lapointe5 in Kevin Smith’s Tusk spinoff, Yoga Hosers, before wearing a bald cap and bad teeth to play Whitey Bulger in Black Mass in September. And lest you think all of Depp’s upcoming roles are grounded in reality, Hollywood’s sequel assembly line ensures that there’s always more Jack Sparrow and Mad Hatter ahead.
Not to be confused with French Canadian Canadien Guy Lapointe.
Depp’s body of work lends itself to listicles: times when he played someone weird; times when he played someone surprisingly normal; times when he wore hats. This post is like those listicles, except that it’s semi-interactive, concerns every role, and includes an overly complicated rating system. It’s not enough to distinguish between Pure Depp and Altered Depp: There are degrees of Depp alteration, ranging from easily identifiable to completely unrecognizable. We can separate the former from the latter by assessing each role’s scores in the following five categories:
• Makeup: Every actor wears makeup, except when searching for flattering light in which to take courageous makeup-free Instagram selfies. Usually, though, it’s the kind of makeup that’s not supposed to be noticed, which rates a zero on this scale. Depp’s makeup is noticeable enough to carry its own SAG card.
• Props/Prosthetics: Any hidden face- or form-altering feature, or character accoutrement: a mask, a sword, a pocket watch, whatever.
• Hair: Technically a prosthetic at times, but natural (and notable) often enough that it deserves a separate category. Points depend on variations in color or style: Long and thick or short and receding; exceedingly tousled or strictly slicked-back; moustache or goatee; blond or black (or orange).
• Clothes: Anything out of the ordinary (which is ordinary for Depp). Period dress, crazy colors, patchwork patterns. The more distracting and body-obscuring, the higher the score.
• Mannerisms: Character tics and traits, including (but not limited to) affected intonation, accents, exaggerated gestures, and weird walks.
With judgment as unerring as IMDb’s algorithm, I’ve assigned each role up to four points in each category, for a maximum of 20 points per role. The higher the total, the more Depp’s appearance and/or performance diverges from his natural state, which also fluctuates wildly between public appearances.
The chart below lists my impossible-to-quibble-with scores for every feature film or recurring TV role on Depp’s IMDb page, with the exception of his voice work in two animated movies (Rango and Corpse Bride), his cameo as himself in Jack and Jill, and his rumored cameo in the upcoming London Fields.
Each rectangle corresponds to a role; the color bars (see the key toward the top) display the point distributions. Mouse over each rectangle to see the movie title and year of release; click on each rectangle to see a detailed points breakdown, character name, and image or GIF of Depp’s appearance in the film.6
I’m assuming the next incarnations of The Mad Hatter and Jack Sparrow, which we haven’t yet seen, won’t differ much from the earlier models.
Some Depp characters flit from one end of the spectrum to the other within the same film — Will Caster from Transcendence, for instance, starts out as Pure Depp, transitions into a pasty-faced scientist with Brainiac diodes, and then becomes a computer — so the ratings are averages that reflect each role as a whole.
Sources: Depp movies I’ve seen; online images and trailers; and YouTube tribute videos, which have taught me that the only way to honor a director’s creative vision is to strip out the soundtrack and dialogue and put a Coldplay song in their place.
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0 Points (The Rum Diary): Depp isn’t always undercover. By my count, we’ve seen completely unadorned Depp seven times in 53 opportunities. Unadorned means seemingly natural hair color, no facial hair, no false speech pattern, no eye-catching clothes. Depp established himself au naturel on A Nightmare on Elm Street and 21 Jump Street (the show), but subsequent Pure Depp parts have been forgettable. The most recent example, The Rum Diary, may have led to love — Depp romanced his future (and former?) fiancée Amber Heard on set, which would have been harder if he needed to spend hours sequestered in the makeup room — but it didn’t lead to critical acclaim or box office success.
If we graph Depp’s point totals over time, an obvious trend emerges:
As Depp has aged, his filmic field trips have taken him ever further from himself. The apotheosis of Altered Depp, Edward Scissorhands, came early in his career. After Edward, almost a decade went by before Depp played a part that pushed him more than halfway toward the “Altered” side of the spectrum. The first Pirates movie — which earned almost triple the lifetime take of any of Depp’s previous films (in unadjusted dollars) — proved that Depp could cash in by pairing a kooky personality with kooky costumes, and he’s chased that cheddar ever since. Depp’s 17 roles over the last decade (2005–14) have averaged 10.4 points, up from 4.2 points in 19 roles (including a 15 for Black Pearl) from 1995 to 2004.
10 Points (21 Jump Street): Offscreen, Depp accessorizes with flair, showing off his tattoos and adorning himself with blue-tinted glasses, fedoras, big bracelets, and more neckwear than an athlete who’s into titanium necklaces. Gradually, Depp’s real-world mystique — his cryptic pronouncements and pursuit of privacy, his proclivity for playing unusual parts, and his fetish for disguise — has crossed over into his onscreen roles. In Jack and Jill, a movie in which accomplished actors inexplicably agreed to appear, Depp plays himself in full midlife regalia, eluding recognition by a Staples Center crowd even after appearing on the scoreboard with both his primary and secondary scarves on display. In an earlier cameo, on Life’s Too Short, he’s researching a role as a dwarf. And in his second (and final) turn as Tom Hanson on 21 Jump Street, he covers himself in prosthetics, even though a pair of sunglasses suffices for his partner.
12 Points (Black Mass): Despite his occasionally unflattering onscreen appearances, Depp is a good-looking guy — the best-looking guy, according to some sources. He’s twice been recognized for unparalleled sexiness by the sexiness scientists at People, his cheekbones inspire supercuts, and teams of professional moviemakers have to labor for hours to hide his hotness. That’s what makes Depp’s costumes compelling: If he looked like Andy Serkis, it wouldn’t be so surprising to see him shape-shift.
Actors are often willing to add or drop weight for Serious Roles. Like brawling anchormen, though, they prefer not to tamper with their faces and hair: How else will the Academy know where to send the Oscar? Clooney, for one, grew a belly and a Bill James beard for Syriana, but he balked at shaving his head. Depp does the opposite. Aside from some natural, age-induced thickening, he’s had almost the same frame in every role. But as the stills from the Black Mass and Yoga Hosers sets suggest, he’s not afraid to look like a regular person (or worse).
With some exceptions (Christian Bale in American Hustle), leading men mess with their moneymakers only under controlled conditions: Brad Pitt played Benjamin Button, but he got to look like himself for part of the film, and no one could have confused the elder Button’s appearance with Pitt’s. In other cases — Colin Farrell in Horrible Bosses, Tom Cruise in Tropic Thunder, Rob Lowe in his DirecTV campaign — prosthetics are played for laughs, with the handsome actor’s temporary unsightliness only accentuating his sex-symbol status. Depp, though, doesn’t give a damn. He’s made much of his fortune behind an unfamiliar face, so there’s little to dissuade him from doing a whole movie looking like a genetic jumble of Jack Nicholson and Gerald Ford.
15 Points (Pirates of the Caribbean): Depp’s more elaborate characters are complex, pack-rat productions that he helps assemble by borrowing elements from pop culture and previous roles. Consequently, casting Depp, while almost always expensive and prone to prolonged negotiations, is a surefire way to pad out a Blu-ray extras section. The closer a part comes to the Altered Depp extreme, the more material there is for the making-of featurette.
20 Points (Edward Scissorhands): Most people use cosmetics to add color and conceal indicators of age — in essence, to make death appear further away. Depp — who has married makeup artists in both the personal and professional senses — often uses them to look as lifeless as possible. I excluded Rango and Corpse Bride from consideration on the grounds that flesh-and-blood against animation would be an unfair fight, but no character could have scored higher than Scissorhands.
If you enjoy Johnny Depp, his constant re-skinning is a sign of his skill. He takes chances! He’s a chameleon who disappears into roles!7 He acts without ego! If you dislike Depp, he’s the acting equivalent of a prop comic, relying on larger-than-life exteriors as a crutch. Should we rebuke him for stealing roles that could be played by less beautiful people? Or admire him for not coasting by on his bone structure? Either way, it’s a stretch to commend him on his dedication to his craft, given how lucrative and repetitive that craft has become. Attach yourself to a tricorn hat, and you risk being dismissed as a sellout; develop a reputation as someone who always experiments in a similar way, and your adventurousness starts to seem like a different kind of convention.
Such as the one where he plays a chameleon.
Depp’s affinity for offbeat roles has made him more likely to bomb, and less likely to Oscar, than some of his more risk-averse (or more discerning) A-list contemporaries. He has three Best Actor nominations but no wins; his last movie with a 90 percent Rotten Tomatoes rating was Ed Wood. Whatever its artistic merits, though, Depp’s résumé sets him apart from other actors (past and present) with leading-man looks. And the successful formula he’s found might make him more future-proof than the typical heartthrob his age. “As you get older you can just … wear anything you want,” Depp said in 2013.8 In the land of Botox and face-lifts, Depp may have stumbled upon a nonsurgical solution to graceful aging in the public eye: The less certain we are what he looks like, the less likely we are to notice when his sexiness slips.
Not that youth ever stopped him.
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Thanks to Nick Wheatley-Schaller for his assistance with video editing and the interactive table.