Most people probably know him as Captain Jack Sparrow, the quirky yet enchantingly charismatic pirate and captain of the legendary ship, the Black Pearl. But Pirates of the Caribbean (2003, 06, 07, 11), though one of his greatest achievements, is far from being Johnny Depp’s best film. For having both the courage to act insane (though brilliant) characters, and the talent to capture their depth, Depp is one of my favorite actors.
Born in 1963, Depp did not enjoy a peaceful childhood. By the age of 17 his family already lived at 20 different locations. His parents divorced when he was 15, and his mother remarried to a man whom Depp saw as an inspiration. Even before he turned to acting Depp played guitar in several bands, and continued to indulge his love for music throughout his career.
After his first wife introduced him to Nicolas Cage, who urged him to pursue an acting career, Depp acted in several TV shows, including 21 Jump Street (1987). The success of the show turned him a teen idol, which made Depp reconsider the direction of his career and to only take the role of characters that felt right for him.
Depp’s sincere love for the art of film is evident in every film he made. Some good examples are the small role in Platoon (1986), or Ichabod Crane in Sleepy Hollow (1999). More significant roles were not late to come and in 1990 he played the leading role of Edward in Edward Scissorhands. This oddly intriguing film granted Depp the status of a leading Hollywood star, and in 1993 he took the mature and complex role of Gilbert in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (with another star on the rise – Leonardo DiCaprio).
My ultimate favorite Depp’s performance is in Donnie Brasco (1997), where he played alongside Al Pacino (yet another great actor). The film is based on true events of an FBI agent who infiltrates the Mafia by becoming friends with one of the mob members. Depp undertook significant research that included spending time with Joe Pistone (the real FBI agent). His hard work payed off and Donnie’s character was incredibly moving and authentic, and was (together with Pacino) the reason for the film’s acclaimed success. In later years it seems that Depp was leaning towards more peculiar parts, like Raoul Duke from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998), Tony in The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009), Willy Wonka from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005), and, one that I find most endearing, the voice over of Rango, a chameleon who becomes sheriff in the 2011 film, Rango.
Depp’s success won him both fame and awards, including the Golden Globe and the Screen Actors Guild awards. Like successful actors often do, after conquering the big screen Depp turned to explore the world of production. In 2004 he established his production company, Infinitum Nihil, and has since produced several films, one of which was directed by Tim Burton (continuing the long cooperation of the two).
It is hard to explain what is it exactly that makes Depp the great actor that he is. I guess the main thing for me is what seems to be a deep and sincere understanding of his characters. I believe that he is never acting as a character but that he is that character. And this is what, to me, makes him great.