“There already has been,” Johnny Depp tells SFR when asked if he worried about possible repercussions from his portrayal of Tonto on the big screen—a move some might consider a red version of blackface.
“It’s OK,” he continues. “I expected it. I still expect it, but as long as I know that I have done no harm and represented—at the very least the Comanche Nation—in a proper light…people can critique and dissect and do what they want; I know that I approached it in the right way.”
He pauses, saying “everybody’s got an opinion,” and quotes author Christopher Hitchens: “Everyone has a book inside them, and that’s exactly where it should stay.”
Depp, along with producer Jerry Bruckheimer, director Gore Verbinski and co-stars Armie Hammer (the Ranger), Ruth Wilson (the damsel in distress) and William Fichtner (the bad guy), took over Bishop’s Lodge for an international media blitz in support of Disney’s The Lone Ranger, opening July 3.
Citizen Kane it ain’t, but the popcorn movie, shot mainly in New Mexico, is nothing short of spectacular. Depp elevates the time-tested sidekick role to lead while Helena Bonham Carter rocks a leg prosthesis/gun combo; there are explosions and runaway trains, and then there’s the theme song—which you totally forget about until it creeps up on you, sounding more rousing, glorious and heroic than ever.
Locally, at least, most of the attention has been on Depp’s role.
Created so the Lone Ranger would have someone to interact with, Tonto was first played by Shakespearean actor John Todd in the 1930s in the popular WXYZ radio serial. Two decades later, the character made its television splash with Canadian Mohawk Jay Silverheels helming the part.
Depp recalls growing up on reruns and “being perturbed” by the notion that Tonto was the sidekick.
The actor’s natural curiosity guided his process. “I’m intrigued by everything, really,” he says. “It doesn’t take much; I’m a pretty cheap date.”
Depp’s approach includes a dead raven on his head, hints of pidgin, an apparent bump on his nose for that sought-after Chief Wahoo look and mumbled chanting.
“My hope was to try to—almost in a weird way—embrace the cliché so that it’s recognized by people who have been conditioned to how a Native American has been represented in film,” he says. “So it was kind of a trick to suck them in and then switch it around.”
He cites a lesson he learned from “mentor, father, friend” Marlon Brando: “In the history of cinema, the Native American has been portrayed as a ‘savage’ or as something lesser-than,” Depp says. “It was important to me to at least take a good shot at erasing that.”
It was Brando who notoriously sent activist Sacheen Littlefeather on his behalf to accept the best actor Oscar for The Godfather in 1973 in protest of Hollywood’s depiction of Native Americans.
Depp, who quipped that he “smoked the peace pipe as often as possible” during filming because he “loves peace,” said he also sought inspiration from memories of his great-grandmother for the portrayal of Tonto in his later years.
“She apparently had quite a bit of Indian blood and wore the braids and had tobacco down her bosom,” he says.
Still, he’s vague about his own purported Native lineage.
“I was told I was Cherokee as a kid; I was told I was Creek…Chickasaw, so many different things,” he says.
In May of this year, Depp was adopted into the Comanche Nation. He has since found in the group, he says, an unprecedented level of acceptance.
“It has given me so much in my life,” he muses. “I’m not a particularly spiritual person myself, but the only church I’ve ever seen that makes sense to me is a sweat lodge.”
Later in the press conference, Depp is asked if, like his character, he could gain something of great value by trade, what that would be. “A used bar of soap,” he jokes. Pressed for a more sincere answer, one perhaps involving his privacy, his answer is swift: “That’s been long dead. I’m used to living like a fugitive now.”
“I like my life,” he then reflects. “I don’t wanna trade nothing.”
SFR’s interaction with Depp ends on a lighter note. Given that he’s pulled off what is sure to be another hugely successful franchise: Who would win in a WrestleMania-style cage fight to the end, Tonto or Captain Jack Sparrow?
“It’s all over for Tonto,” he says with a laugh. “Captain Jack is far too dark—it wouldn’t take long, and it would be unpleasant.”