Johnny Depp taps his inner lizard in Rango

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      LOS ANGELES—Could the main character in the animated feature Rango have been inspired by Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean? That’s Johnny Depp’s theory.

      Since his days of early fame as a heartthrob on the Vancouver-shot TV series 21 Jump Street (which, incidentally, is being made into a film), Depp has eschewed the typical leading-man career path. Instead, he’s pursued quirky roles, ranging from an artificial man with scissors for hands (Edward Scissorhands) to iconic, eccentric figures from children’s literature (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Alice in Wonderland).

      Watch the trailer for Rango.

      But he suspects that his discussions with director Gore Verbinski on the set of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies influenced his latest character. In Rango (which opens on Friday [March 4]), Depp provides the voice for a pet chameleon with thespian aspirations that, after getting accidentally getting stranded in the desert, discovers a town full of animal characters suffering through a drought.

      “When we were doing Pirates 1, 2, and 3”¦when Jack Sparrow had to run, there was this very specific run I wanted,” Depp says at a Beverly Hills news conference. “I saw this footage of a lizard running across the water and it was the strangest thing I’ve ever seen, so I said, ”˜Gore, he’s gotta be the lizard running across the water,’ and he’s like, ”˜Oh, yeah, absolutely.’”¦So I actually think that Rango was somehow planted in Gore’s brain from that lizard run. And when he actually called me and said, ”˜I want you to play a lizard,’ I thought, ”˜Well, God, I’m halfway there.’ ”

      To create the reptilian character whose tall tales both ingratiate him with others and get him into trouble, Depp raised his voice several notches.

      “We talked about [how] people in life, when they have a tendency to exaggerate or lie or whatever, you always sort of notice that their voice goes up quite high. It goes to another completely different register,” he says. “Whereas if I’m talking to you and speaking and babbling nonstop and then suddenly [switching to a high voice] I’m really nervous about telling you the truth, [switching back to his regular voice] but I’m lying, that’s kinda where it came from. You imagine the character to be”¦really like a nervous wreck.”

      Industrial Light & Magic animation director Hal Hickel adds that his department infused the visual representation of Rango with “a healthy dose of Don Knotts [from The Shakiest Gun in the West] and Hunter S. Thompson. It’s a pretty strange mix.”

      For most animated features, actors perform their vocal work in isolated recording booths, but Verbinski had the actors perform their scenes together on a stage set and shot the proceedings as reference for the animators. Even Depp found the whole approach peculiar.

      “This sort of atmosphere that Gore created was really, truly ludicrous, just ridiculous,” he says amid laughter. “It was like regional theatre at its worst. And somehow because—not the idea of motion capture but emotion capture—certain gestures, body language, movement, something you might have done with your eyes, all these animators took and put it in there. So it was very strange. For [actor] Harry Dean Stanton to walk up to me one afternoon”¦[and say] ”˜This is a weird gig, man.’ And I went, ”˜Oh, yeah. You just started. You just wait.’ ”

      The unconventional shoot notwithstanding, Depp says he does have a great deal of respect for Verbinski’s attitude toward creative experimentation and risk-taking.

      “Working with Gore—three Pirates films and Rango—there are no limits to the possibilities. He allows you to try all kinds of things that sometimes fail miserably, and other times”¦you just arrive at some place that no one’s ever been to before and he welcomes it and creates an atmosphere that allows you to just go essentially ape. And it’s a blast. That’s really a fun part of the process.”