GONE are the days when Tim Burton had to fight to cast Johnny Depp. For "Edward Scissorhands," the studio wanted Tom Cruise; for "Sleepy Hollow" the name in the frame was Brad Pitt. The turning point came when "Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl" went mega, earning Depp not only an Oscar nomination for lead actor but also a place on the A list. When it came time for Burton to cast Willy Wonka in "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," the studio had a suggestion -- what did he think of Johnny Depp?
"Most of the times we've worked together he's had to go into great big battles to get them to hire me," Depp says. "I feel so lucky to be along for the ride, more than a couple few times. For a lot of reasons. No. 1, Tim is a filmmaker I admire, but he's much, much more than that. Without embarrassing him, he's a true artist, which is something I wasn't sure was possible in today's cinema. But he's the real thing. He's a visionary, an auteur, totally uncompromising."
From their first meeting in an L.A. coffee shop back in the late '80s when Burton was casting "Edward Scissorhands" and Depp, a reluctant TV heartthrob desperate to break from the show "21 Jump Street," the pair simply connected over a love of pop culture, old-time horror movies, resin grapes and poo jokes.
"The first time I met him on 'Scissorhands,' didn't know the guy at all, but just could tell . . .," begins Burton. "You don't get that many times in your life where you just connect with somebody and it's really simple . . . it's just there. You can't look to the future, what's going to happen, but he had an artistic integrity."
When it came to "Sweeney," Burton and Depp were in complete agreement about the direction they wanted to go for the character, a turn that landed Depp a lead actor nomination.
"From day one, we've talked about people like Lon Chaney," says Burton, who equates Depp to a silent movie star. "He is Lon Chaney. And that's what always got me into movies, that kind of actor, that kind of person, that's the DNA and the energy of making films. We've always weirdly connected on things."
Depp, he says, is an actor who doesn't care how he looks, who doesn't like looking at himself and is not interested in reviewing his performance during the filming process.
"You're not having to sit there and go through the angst of somebody looking at the monitor. I love the fact that he doesn't like watching himself. . . . Keeps things moving, grooving, it's great."
For his part, Depp says Burton offers a safe environment for experimentation.
"He provides an atmosphere that you can try anything," he says. "It's so liberating . . . which is the most important thing for an actor. To have that possibility where you might make an absolute ass of yourself and, you know what, if I fall flat on my face, there's something to cushion that, there's safety here."
-- Mark Salisbury