If Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn are the ringleaders of Hollywood's "frat pack," then Johnny Depp and Tim Burton head up another of Tinseltown U's cliques: the artsy, quiet intellectual types that can be seen digging through the racks at the local secondhand shop while sipping javas.
Where Vaughn and Wilson's team cornered the market on blockbuster, slapstick comedies, Depp and Burton have mastered the modern cult film--starting with 1991's Edward Scissorhands and leaving their marks on the last 15 years of cinema with films like Ed Wood, Sleepy Hollow and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Now, they have unveiled Corpse Bride, an homage to Burton's 1993 film, The Nightmare Before Christmas.
"It was very exciting," commented Depp of his experience in voice-over. "It's all very new to me, you know? It's an interesting and fascinating process. There's something very pure about it being from the page, into the air, and onto the recording machine. You have that and you combine that with doing scenes where they're going to mesh these voices together, but you're doing a scene with people you've never even met before, which is slightly absurd but kinda great."
For Corpse Bride, Burton and Depp worked to create Victor, a character much in the vein of Jack Skellington of Nightmare, who lives in a very dark and drab, somewhat British city in the 19th century. Upon meeting his arranged bride-to-be, his love at first sight combines with his anxiety over marriage to create a disastrous wedding rehearsal, from which he escapes after setting his future mother-in-law on fire.
Determined to make the real event run more smoothly, he wanders along a wooded path, reciting his lines and rehearsing his motions for the ceremony. After accidentally placing a wedding ring on a skeletal finger protruding from the earthy path, he finds himself married to The Corpse Bride, swept into the Underworld where he learns about the jazzy, colorful existence that is eternity. Now he must decide between his drab, rigid existence in life and the party of the Great Beyond, and between his "legal wife" and Victoria, his betrothed and true love.
The basis for the tale was born from a Russian folk tale about an unfortunate man who married a deceased bride, a tale that captured the imagination of writer/director Burton, who worked for 10 years to bring it to the big screen as a stop-motion, animated film.
"Each time I've worked with Johnny, he's something different," explains Burton of his choice of leads. "He's interested in being a character and not necessarily interested in his persona, and I find it very exciting to work with actors like that. He's really willing to take risks that don't have to do with image or money. And each time is just different and better. It's great to find people like that you can communicate with on an almost subconscious level."
Finding his character posed an interesting challenge for Depp, who shot the voice of Victor while creating and filming Willy Wonka for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, but feels that Burton's direction helped him bring the character to life.
"The funny thing is, I was so focused on Charlie and Tim came up to me on the set one day and said, 'You know, maybe if you're up to it tonight, we can go record some stuff for Corpse Bride. And I went, 'Oh sure,' but then kinda thought, 'Ohhhh.' So on the way there, I said to Tim, 'Let's talk about Victor,' tried to rill him and find out what he wanted to see and hear, and that's how I found him. It was literally minutes before we started recording that I heard Victor for the first time."
Perhaps the two really do share a subconscious communication, or perhaps simply a coming together of talent. However, the two also surround themselves with a group of other talents that play recurring roles in their films, from screen writer John August (Big Fish, Charlie, Corpse Bride) to Helena Bonham Carter (Charlie, Corpse Bride) to Danny Elfman (Edward Scissorhands, Sleepy Hollow) who is marking his 12th film with Burton. Still, a reserved Depp isn't ready to take all the credit.
"The secret code is Tim," explains Depp modestly. "He's just an amazing guy and filmmaker. He's just so pure and unrelenting and not capable of compromise in terms of his vision. I don't know, we have such a strange language."
"Pretty much all I had was tapes that I would get early on, so that I could hear the other charaters, just as a reference, and then when I went into the studio there was an actor or an actress working opposite me, but we couldn't see each other. It was, sort of very strange, but good fun."
Up next for Depp are two familiar roles. He's in production for the second and third chapters of the Pirates of the Caribbean saga, while working on his own project, The Rum Diary, where he will again take on the persona of his close friend Hunter S. Thompson.
Going back into the role of Sparrow "was great. It was like you just took a break for like a week, you know? Like you had a long weekend or Christmas break and you came back and you're right back in the deal again," says the actor.
As an actor, Depp feels that his success is his ability to read a screenplay critically and carefully. "When I open up a screenplay, I want to be like an audience member. You want to feel like you're going into a world that hasn't been milked to death."
The other factor that contributes to his film selection is his love of his children, however, he feels that it has not only been his recent films, since his children were born, that were influenced by his emphasis on legacy. "I honestly believe that my kids, before they arrived, were influencing me. At a certain point in my work I decided that I'm only going to do the things I like and feel good about, regardless of whether this thing they call a career works or not, because I kept thinking of the day I evaporate and my kiddies are stuck with all this stuff to look at, and I want to be proud of at least ... one period ... of my life."
If there is one thing Depp is proud of, it is his strong fan base. Unlike many celebrities, he has a strong sense of humility when dealing with hoards of screaming girls that follow him right to the door of the interview suite. How does he deal with the attention?
"You stop and say 'hi,' and shake some hands. I'm very thankful for it, because we--as actors--owe everything to them. They're our employers, you know?"