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Career Watch: Can Depp Transcend His Rep for Onscreen Quirk?

Career Watch: Can Depp Transcend His Rep for Onscreen Quirk?

For most actors, playing a cyber-age Dr. Frankenstein whose consciousness is converted into an artificial-intelligence experiment that threatens humankind would be considered a rather unusual role. But casting Johnny Depp as a mad scientist in the just-opened sci-fi thriller “Transcendence”? It barely registers a ripple on his scale of bizarre characters. 

Even critics who bemoaned his mystical twist on Tonto in “The Lone Ranger” and his campy take on Barnabas Collins in “Dark Shadows” are dissing this toned-down version of Depp – to the point that “Transcendence”’s 20% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes ranks among the star’s lowest ever. Richard Corliss of Time speaks for many as he describes Depp’s performance as “subdued to the point of entropy,” while adding, “If he can’t overplay, he doesn’t play at all.”

Signature line: “Savvy?” – Capt. Jack Sparrow in “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl” (2003)

Career peaks: Depp’s resume is split into two distinct periods – before “Pirates of the Caribbean” and after. The Kentucky-born high-school dropout originally wanted to be a rock musician but broke into movies opposite Freddy Krueger (Depp’s sinkhole-style bedroom death scene is a classic) in 1984’s “A Nightmare on Elm Street.” He acquired unwanted teen-idol attention on the Fox crime series “21 Jump Street,” which premiered in 1987 and ran for four seasons.  In the first of their eight collaborations, director and creative soul mate Tim Burton rescued Depp from his fate as a TV heartthrob and redefined him as a lonely outcast with cutlery for hands and a craving for companionship in 1990’s “Edward Scissorhands.” 

In his struggling artist phase, the actor would quickly rack up a string of eccentric misfit roles with varying degrees of box-office success, most notably in “Benny & Joon” (1993), “Ed Wood” (1994), “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” (1998) and “Sleepy Hollow” (1999) . Depp even slipped in a few more grounded characters, earning praise for his undercover FBI agent in “Donnie Brasco” (1997). As Burton once said of his favorite star’s mercurial nature, “He’s more like Lon Chaney than a leading man.”

Depp’s popularity as a mainstream attraction would soar to a new heights as high-seas scalawag Jack Sparrow, his loopy rum-soaked, gold-toothed and bandana-bedecked buccaneer who has steered the “Pirates” franchise (No. 5 is expected in 2016) to a worldwide gross of over $3.7 billion in a little more a decade. While the actor has since impressed in the occasional dramatic challenge, including Peter Pan creator James M. Barrie in “Neverland” (2004) and as gangster John Dillinger in “Public Enemies” (2009), he continues to be drawn to colorful offbeat outsiders such as the throat-slashing barber in “Sweeney Todd” (2007) and the daft yet dapper Mad Hatter in “Alice in Wonderland” (2010).

Biggest assets: In civilian life, he might dress like a boho street urchin with his fedoras, byzantine tattoos and nerdy specs. But though he is about to turn 51 in June,  Depp can’t disguise the fact he still is drop-dead gorgeous and a pretty cool dude, too, even if he is verging on whimsy fatigue professionally.  As a performer, he’s never been afraid to take a risk –  Willy Wonka’s potentially off-putting horsey dental work and fey accent in 2005’s “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” did nothing to dampen its ticket sales. And, despite his predilection for kooks, the actor can be surprisingly versatile at times. As he has said, “I am doing things that are true to me. The only thing I have a problem with is being labeled.” He is the rare actor in this day and age who can confidently be described as one of a kind. 

Awards attention: Not only did the first “Pirates” movie raise his asking-price sails considerably, it also led to Depp’s first Academy Award nomination for his supporting role. He was later nominated in the best actor Oscar category for both “Neverland” and “Sweeney Todd.”  He has also collected 10 Golden Globe nods and won once, for “Sweeney Todd.”

Latest misfire: A reunion with veteran “Pirates” director Gore Verbinski that paired Depp with Armie Hammer, hot off of “The Social Network,” in a re-invention of a long-branded cowboy hero. What could possibly have gone wrong with last summer’s “The Lone Ranger”? Plenty, kemosabe.  At least one box-office analyst labeled the Old West adventure as being “the kind of bomb that people discuss for years to come,” considering the expectations raised by the talent involved. The film did gross $260 million worldwide, but that amount did little to offset estimates that the movie cost $225 million to make and at least $150 million to market. Depp would be nominated for his first and only Razzie for his efforts.   

Biggest problem: He has fans of all ages and many adore him. But Depp is in danger of becoming a cliché – which is not easy to do when you are so unique. By taking on every nut-job role that comes along and always straining to be original, the actor is losing his ability to surprise his fans and to be taken seriously.

Gossip fodder:  Enough to fill a sizable landfill. After a short early marriage ended in divorce in 1985, there were serial engagements to actresses Jennifer Grey, Sherilyn Fenn and his “Edward Scissorhands” love interest Winona Ryder. A tempestuous relationship with supermodel Kate Moss in the mid-‘90s was marked by Depp’s trashing of an New York hotel room in 1994. He then entered into a long-term union with his “Ninth Gate” co-star Vanessa Paradis. The couple had two children before splitting in 2012. He became engaged to actress Amber Heard, his cast mate in both 2011’s “The Rum Diary” and the upcoming “London Fields,” on Christmas day last year. 

Career advice: We are not one to suggest that anyone act his age. Nor do we want to discourage a non-conformist chameleon like Depp – who actually gave voice to such a reptile with much success in the animated western “Rango” in 2011 – from doing what comes naturally. But a little more gravitas in his efforts would not be a bad thing. Certainly, he was able to combine mirthful macabre and heightened emotions to grand effect in “Sweeney Todd.”  As the “Pirates” franchise sails on, Depp can afford to shed some of his affectations without fear and to avoid devolving into a parody of himself.  We expect him to go gonzo.  Why not surprise us and head  in the opposite direction.  But stay away from films whose overreaching concept overshadows everything else — ie. “Transcendence.”

Next step: Depp has a rather full slate of future projects, much of it promising (with reservations), including the Wolf in the Sondheim fairy-tale musical “Into the Woods” due Dec. 25 and  a reprise of the Mad Hatter in 2016’s “Through the Looking Glass.” But the role that offers the best chance for Depp to dig deeper is as convicted Boston mob boss Whitey Bulger in “Black Mass,” directed by Scott Cooper (“Out of the Furnace,” “Crazy Heart”) and due in 2015.

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