LOS ANGELES — Whether it's the Native American garb and war paint he sported for "The Lone Ranger" or the Gothic look he took on for "Edward Scissorhands," the most memorable Johnny Depp performances have featured a dramatic physical transformation by the actor. He often spends months before filming starts perfecting the look for a character.
Depp's made such transformations so often, he now finds it harder to play a character that looks normal, such as in his latest film, "Transcendence." He portrays a brilliant scientist who has the contents of his brain downloaded into a computer. There's no odd costume or weird makeup needed for the role.
"It's always more difficult — slightly more exposing — to play something that's close to yourself," Depp says during an interview at the Four Seasons Hotel. "I always try to hide because I can't stand the way I look.
"I think it's important to change every time and be as interesting as you can. It depends on what the screenplay is asking of me and my responsibility to playing the character. You have the author's intent, the filmmaker's vision and you have your own wants and needs to play the character. It's collaborative."
He adds that as soon as he read the script for "Transcendence" he knew there was no need for him to put on "pink hair and a clown nose with Ronald McDonald shoes" to play the character. And, that made him more nervous.
Even the normal looking Depp has a few quirks. He wears a beat-up Fedora hat, purchased at a thrift store that has several holes where the hat peaks.
"Transcendence" co-star Morgan Freeman kids him for wearing a hat that looks like it should be in a trash bin.
Depp doesn't just hide behind a facade for his movies. The soft-spoken actor never misses an opportunity when talking about his latest project to make a joke.
At one point, he describes his character in "Transcendence" as if he had been the star of "Noah." Depp laughingly says that it was him playing Russell Crowe. He later makes a similar joke, saying it was really him playing Brad Pitt in "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button."
There's a method to his visual madness. Depp never sees a character as sharp contrasts of good or evil, but as a mixture. He wants to make sure that the mix is just right.
That's why work on a role starts — whether he's playing a part that is close to himself or requires a visual transformation — with lots of planning.
In the case of his "Transcendence" role, he wanted to make sure the character didn't come across as good or evil.
"It should be a little vague. Is he losing it? Is there something lying dormant in a man waiting to be trumped up by that kind of power? Does it reveal him? Don't know. Does it change him? Don't know," Depp says.
He is starting another film, "Black Mass," where he will play organized-crime figure Whitey Bulger, a character that doesn't require a big physical change. It will be darker than any role Depp's played and that's why he's looking forward to it, despite not having the safety net of an exaggerated look.
Those films where Depp has worked so hard to change his appearance have made him a cinema superstar around the globe. He recently traveled to China — one of the places seeing growth in film distribution — where he got royal treatment.
"It was amazing," Depp says. "On a cultural level, there's something new, interesting, different no matter where you look. I found a real warmth from the people. They are very sweet, very welcoming. It was quite a turnout for us."