Johnny Depp is back, and this time as Tonto in The Lone Ranger

With The Lone Ranger ready for release on July 5, Johnny Depp talks about how the project originated and his role in the movie. Excerpts from an interview.

You came in on The Lone Ranger very early. Did you originate the project?

No, I think there had been talks about The Lone Ranger and that Jerry (Bruckheimer) was going to do it. I was doing The Rum Diary with Bruce (Robinson) in Puerto Rico, and I had found a painting of a Native American warrior with stripes down his face. I asked my makeup artist, Joel Harlow, to help me put something together. So we did the makeup and I asked photographer, Peter Mountain, to take some shots. We went out into these filthy weeds and started taking photographs and Peter printed them out and showed me and I said, ‘Yeah, I think we’ve found him and now he needs to be brought to life.’ When I went back to Los Angeles I handed Jerry some photographs and Jerry said, ‘He’s fantastic. Who is he?’ And I said, ‘It’s me!’ I also showed them to Dick Cook (former chairman of Walt Disney Studios) and the responses were all very positive. . Everybody got excited about it, including me, and then I went after Gore (Verbinski) to direct it.

Has the look of Tonto (your character) stayed broadly similar to that first image you created, inspired by the painting of the warrior?

Yeah, it’s exactly like that, although I didn’t have the wardrobe at the time. On those first photographs the makeup is the same. The only thing that Joel changed was that he added the texture to the white paint so it was like mud, that was put on the face.

How long were you in that makeup?

I was in makeup a couple of hours a day. Sometimes I decided to wear it at home to save time in the morning (laughs). It wasn’t comfortable and it looked funny but it was worth it, I think.

Did you watch The Lone Ranger as a kid?

It was one of those regular things that you would see on television as a kid. I watched it and I always identified with Tonto. And even as a kid I wondered why the Indian was the sidekick. And it wasn’t that the Lone Ranger was overtly disrespectful in the way he treated Tonto but I just thought, ‘Why is he the guy that has to go and do this and that? Why isn’t he the hero?’ So that was something that was always on my mind. And I was told at a very young age that we have some Indian blood in our family…who knows how much — maybe very little, I don’t know, although my great grandmother on my mother’s side had quite the look with the braids and everything. She was a wonderful, beautiful woman. She lived until she was 102 and chewed tobacco until the day she died.

Your creation of Tonto is very different from the incarnations we’ve seen before on the TV show. Can you tell us how you made your Tonto relevant to today?

I think he is relevant because, for me, the Native American has been treated very poorly by Hollywood for the most part. What I wanted to do was play this character not as the sidekick to the Lone Ranger. I wanted to play him as a warrior and as a man with great integrity and dignity. It’s my sliver of contribution to try and right the wrongs that have been committed in the past.

You’ve talked before about how there have been key people in your work — Tim Burton, Jerry Bruckheimer, Keith Richards, Bruce Robinson — who you have connected to on a deeper level. I’m assuming that Gore Verbinski is one of those guys?

A: Absolutely.

You have got to have that element of trust with someone you work with on that level. I’ve been fortunate enough to gain the trust of these men that I would describe as great friends and teachers, from Hunter S. Thompson to Marlon Brando to Bruce Robinson to Tim and Gore. When I’m in script meetings with Gore we start riffing and suddenly you’ve got this really interesting situation and that becomes a major factor in the film. Because we know each other so well he can guess a direction that I’m going in.

You’re going back to playing Jack Sparrow. Is there a character out there that you would love to play?

There are things that I would love to experience in terms of playing characters but I’ve kind of done the ones that I wanted to do — nothing is really out there screaming at me.

And you’ve been making a documentary on Keith Richards. When might we see that?

Oh man, it’s going to be so much work. We have so much footage, maybe sixty hours of footage. It’s fascinating but we’ve got some work to do before it’s ready to go out there.