Back to IndieWire

5 Ways Johnny Depp Can Get His Career Back On Track Post-‘Mortdecai’

5 Ways Johnny Depp Can Get His Career Back On Track Post-'Mortdecai'

“He’s a role model for me. He has integrity and makes choices that are brave and unusual. [He’s] always telling me ‘don’t go for the money. Follow your heart.’” If you are under 30, it may come as a surprise that that quote, via Orlando Bloom in 2005, refers to Johnny Depp and would probably have had us nodding our heads at the time. But maybe quoting Bloom is a questionable tactic, so how about Marlon Brando’s oft-repeated assertion that Depp “is the most talented actor of his generation”?

Or why don’t we take it from the horse’s mouth, back when he was but a foal, when Depp himself would say things like, “I want to do interesting work. I’m the exact opposite of what a film star is supposed to be and I’m just trying to …  make good movies that one day I can be proud of” and “I could earn a lot more, but I refuse to do dumb comedies or slick Hollywood garbage.”

It’s mean, isn’t it, to highlight past quotes about integrity and artistry the weekend after “Mortdecai” has opened and stunk multiplexes up, not just with murderously bad reviews (a current 11% Rotten Tomato score and a dismal 28 on Metacritic make it Depp’s most critically savaged film ever, and that’s no mean feat, with our own C-grade take being relatively gentle) but with dire box office. But believe us, we’re coming from a place of love, albeit the tough kind, because we do remember the Johnny Depp of old. We do remember the time when he was one of the most exciting, uncompromising, quasi-rock ’n’ roll presences in Hollywood. We remember how much more we swooned over him for being so clearly uncomfortable at being swooned over. Instead, he was trying to prove his talent — likely to himself as much as to the audience — and for a long period in the ’90s, he succeeded.

We want that guy back. Or we’d at least like the older, wiser, inevitably less idealist version of that guy to show up — anything to take the place of the artificial, gimmicky cartoon character who has taken over. And so this is not a rending of clothes, “Oh, Johnny, where did it all go wrong?” piece; there are enough of those already. Instead, our intention is to achieve what the the critical and commercial failure of “Mortdecai” should, we hope, be prompting Depp himself to do — taking a long, coolheaded look at where he is, and putting forth five solid suggestions for how he can claw his way back to where we believe in our hearts he should be.

1. Ditch the Fancy Dress
Some point to “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl” (i.e. the first one) as the moment it all started to go wrong. It certainly marked an undeniable turning point in Depp’s career towards commerciality, yet he surprised everyone by turning in a performance that was a delight. Garnering one of his three Oscar nominations and spicing up what could’ve been a bland, obvious Disney spectacle with a performance that bordered on the transgressive, we’d be loathe to expunge the original ‘Pirates’ from Depp’s CV.

In fact, the destructive perception that “Depp + tacky costume + wacky hair/accent = box office gold” didn’t really bite for a few years — the real knell tolled in 2005 with “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” Not only did that film mark the beginning of a creatively moribund string of collaborations with Tim Burton, who sadly chose this moment to forget how to direct live-action (his amnesia arguably lifted briefly for “Sweeney Todd” but descended quickly again), it also showcased the worst excesses of Depp’s worrisome tendency to conflate “bravery” in performance with grotesque exaggeration. If acting is supposed to be about revealing, Depp’s latter-day Burton collaborations and his other make-up-heavy roles bespeak concealment — the burial of any recognizable human behavior under an avalanche of tics, grimaces, funny voices and wacky headgear. Two-time Depp director Rob Marshall said of the star admiringly, “he disappears into these roles,” but that’s just not true. He disappears under them.

Of course, Depp’s propensity for dress-up predates Jack Sparrow by a long time — his first major post-“21 Jump Street” role was in John Waters’ “Cry-Baby” as the leader of a leather-jacketed greaser gang with a teardrop tattoo. And his breakout role was his lovely performance in “Edward Scissorhands,” before he went on to cross dress as Ed Wood in “Ed Wood,” and to affect a Chaplin-esque demeanor in “Benny and Joon.” But crucially, these roles worked because, as well as being better-written movies (and being alternated with less heavily disguised roles), those layers of costuming revealed. Depp related to those characters because they were hiding, just as the actor himself, tortured by the pin-up image he was first stuck with, wanted to hide. The fifty-one-year-old Depp is still a very handsome man, but he has not been viewed as a teen heartthrob for many years now; he can afford to come out of hiding.

Ironically, he’s been guilty, with his substituting-costume-and-quirk-for-character choices recently, of exactly the same thing he was so wary of falling victim to in his youth — mistaking the packaging for the person.

2. Fewer Blockbusters, More Indies; Less Loyalty, More Experimentation
The Rum Diary” was by no means flawless, but it was heaps better than the before-and-after of ‘Pirates 4‘ and “Dark Shadows.” While just before “Alice in Wonderland,” Depp had us nearly back on board with his charismatic turn as Dillinger in Michael Mann’s “Public Enemies,” even if that film is far from vintage Mann. Which brings us, of course, to directors. While the extent to which Depp was actually attached to “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” is unclear, despite the story of that casting being widely circulated at the time, there are certain parallels that can be drawn between Wes Anderson’s film and “Mortdecai” — the caperish tone, the Anglophilia, the stolen paintings and cavorting around Europe. But the key difference is ‘Grand Budapest’ is a Wes Anderson film from a Wes Anderson script; “Mortdecai” is a David Koepp film from an Eric Aronson script, a writer whose only other credit is the 2001 film “On the Line” starring Lance Bass from NSYNC. Also worth pointing out: Anderson’s film had a budget of around $30m; “Mortdecai” was twice that.

But even if the case was as clear-cut as Depp flat-out choosing “Mortdecai” over the Oscar-nominated ‘Grand Budapest,’ it would not have been a choice without precedent. Koepp, a successful screenwriter, helmed Depp’s sleeper horror “Secret Window” (and is reportedly on board to write another caper comedy for Depp with “The Thin Man” remake), and if there’s one thing Depp’s known for these days outside of millinery, it’s loyalty. Which is very touching and makes us think he’s probably a really swell guy, but is it doing his career any good when it leads to a string of lazy, ugly Tim Burton pictures, a public barney with a studio over-retaining Gore Verbinski on “The Lone Ranger” which would go on to flop disastrously, and now this?

Even discounting ‘Grand Budapest,’ with a rare window of shooting time between studio commitments, Depp could have chosen from any number of indie productions that would have eaten their own heads to get a star of his clout on board. Instead, he made “Mortdecai.” 

3. Take A Break From Movies

Well, this isn’t going to happen if Depp’s packed upcoming slate is anything to go by, but he could take a look at the career paths of recent Lazarus men Matthew McConaughey, Michael Keaton and possibly Keanu Reeves (though it remains to be seen if the Reevesnaissance, or “the Kea-nu wave,” as I like to call it, will really take). Intentionally or not, each had a hiatus period of at least a year or so prior to their comebacks, during which time they were largely absent from the big screen.

It may just be a trick of timing, but that’s a pretty consistent pattern, suggesting that a pause gives them a chance to regroup and willfully change course, while also giving the fickle audience a chance to miss them. By contrast, Depp has had at least one would-be blockbuster out every year since 2009, not to mention smaller films, cameos, supporting turns, music videos, voice roles etc. So we haven’t really had the opportunity for absence to make our hearts grow fonder. Of course, with “Alice In Wonderland: Through The Looking Glass” and “Pirates Of The Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales” coming unstoppably in 2016 and 2017 respectively, it’s not likely to happen soon. But it’s food for thought.

Or why not seek out a TV show, like McConaughey with “True Detective,” or Clive Owen with “The Knick,” or even Kevin Spacey with “House of Cards“? A meaty role on the small screen can immediately re-vitalize a career. And if there’s nothing out there that is up to snuff, he could start developing something. Which leads us to…

4. Produce More

Surprisingly, given his profile, Depp only has six producing credits — not a huge number for such a big star. Compared to the impressive work that Brad Pitt’s Plan B has done in championing new talent, or to Leonardo diCaprio’s Appian Way slate, let alone Tom Cruise’s Cruise/Wagner operation, or George Clooney’s Section 8/Smokehouse endeavors, Depp’s Infinitum Nihil shingle seems pretty small potatoes. There’s definite room for it to expand, and Depp, who spoke not so long ago of retiring from acting altogether, could devote more time to development if he chose.

If anything, Depp should hold more sway in Hollywood than any of those guys — he’s the only actor to be able to boast three films that have broken the billion-dollar barrier worldwide. And while he gives off a scraggily bohemian air in his public appearances, make no mistake: Depp is loaded. He may have spoken before of how little money means to him, but no one gets paid $75m in one year, and thereby holds the Guinness World Record for Highest Paid Actor, by accident. Whether he wishes to admit it or not, Depp has proven adept in the only area that Hollywood, which he once purported to despise, gives a shit about: making money. Which is a pretty neat talent for a producer.

The bright spot on the horizon here is this year’s “Black Mass,” which Infinitum Nihil is producing, that looks to give Depp his best role in years as Boston crime boss Whitey Bulger. It surrounds him with a stellar supporting cast and will be directed by Scott Cooper, whose”Crazy Heart” we really liked. It’s a smaller production based in a non-fantasy realm, for a filmmaker with whom Depp has, as far as we can tell, no prior affiliation, which makes us think that for once he may have chosen this project on the strength of the material. Hopefully if this turns out well, it will encourage Depp to be more adventurous in the filmmakers he works with, and in backing the projects he feels are deserving.

5. Practise What He Preaches, aka: Realize He Has Already Answered His Own Questions
We’re not sure we can actually put it better than Depp used to in interviews, like the one we quoted in the intro. In fact, even in his more recent interviews, he’s saying all the right words — it’s just that the disconnect between those words and the films he’s talking about has become ever greater.

For example, in a recent, staunchly defensive Details article, Depp says “”what is really satisfying is, like Marlon [Brando], getting to that place where he just didn’t give a fuck… First, I reached a point where I cared so much and was so diligent in terms of approaching the work. Then you get to where you care so fucking much that it gets goddamn beleaguering, you know? But then a great thing happens. Suddenly, you care enough to not give a fuck, because not giving a fuck, that’s the total liberation. Being game to try anything.”

There is no part of that quote we can disagree with, but there’s also no part of that quote that adds up to “Mortdecai” or “Dark Shadows” or “Pirates of the Caribbean: Yarrr.” If he’s truly “game to try anything,” why does he keep trying the same thing over and over again?

Depp quotes Brando a great deal, but where is his “On the Waterfront,” or his “Godfather,” and is it even wise to continually refer to “The Island of Dr Moreau“-era Brando for career guidance? Hopefully, “Black Mass,” will really land (we’re a little wary of the upcoming “London Fields” and Kevin Smith‘s “Yoga Hosers,” but at least they’re small productions). Then Depp has ‘Alice 2‘ and ‘Pirates 5‘ coming up right after.

But he also has many more in the pipeline (21 projects by IMDB’s count), none of which, as far as we can tell, involve Tim Burton, and many of which sound promising at this early stage. So maybe the slide stops here — it’s hard to see how much lower he could go than “Mortdecai,” which thankfully doesn’t even seem likely to make the kind of coin that has salved the critical drubbing of previous outings (seriously, China, if you make this thing a hit, I will be so mad). And perhaps in the future, we will look at this past decade or so as the anomaly — “hey, remember that stretch in the middle of his career when revered actor/producer Johnny Depp took a temporary hiatus from making good films? That was weird, eh?” And the twenty-eight-year-old you’re talking to will have no idea what you mean.

This Article is related to: Features and tagged , , ,