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Burton on Burton

by Johnny Depp
September 1994


In the winter of 1989, I was in Vancouver, British Columbia, doing a television series. It was a very difficult situation: bound by a contract doing assembly-line stuff that, to me, was borderline Fascist, (cops in school . . . Christ!). My fate, it seemed, lay somewhere between Chips and Joanie Loves Chachi. There were only a limited number of choices for me: (1) get through it as best I could with minimal abrasion; (2) get fired as fast as I could with slightly more abrasion; (3) quit and be sued for not only any money I had, but also the money of my children and my children’s children (which, I imagine, would have caused severe chafing and possible shingles for the rest of my natural days and on through the next few generations of Depps to come). Like I said, this was truly a dilemma. Choice (3) was out of the question, thanks to extremely sound advice from my attorney. As for (2), well, I tried and they just wouldn’t bite. Finally, I settled on (1): I would get by as best I could.

The minimal abrasion soon became potential self-destruction. I was not feeling good about myself or this self-induced/out-of-control jail term that an ex-agent had prescribed as good medicine for unemployment. I was stuck, filling up space between commercials. Babbling incoherently some writer’s words that I couldn’t bring myself to read (thus having no knowledge of what poison the scripts might have contained). Dumb-founded, lost, shoved down the gullets of America as a young Republican. TV boy, heart-throb, teen idol, teen hunk. Plastered, postered, postured, patented, painted, plastic!!! Stapled to a box of cereal with wheels, doing 200 mph on a one-way collision course bound for Thermos and lunch-box antiquity. Novelty boy, franchise boy. Fucked and plucked with no escape from this nightmare.

And then, one day, I was sent a script by my new agent, a godsend. It was the story of a boy with scissors for hands—an innocent outcast in suburbia. I read the script instantly and wept like a newborn. Shocked that someone was brilliant enough to conceive and then actually write this story, I read it again right away. I was so affected and moved by it that strong waves of images flooded my brain—dogs I’d had as a kid, feeling freakish and obtuse when I was growing up, the unconditional love that only infants and dogs are evolved enough to have. I felt so attached to this story that I was completely obsessed. I read every children’s story, fairy tale, child-psychology book, Gray’s Anatomy, anything, everything . . . and then, reality set in. I was TV boy. No director in his right mind would hire me to play this character. I had done nothing work-wise to show that I could handle this kind of role. How could I convince this director that I was Edward, that I knew him inside and out? In my eyes, it was impossible.

A meeting was set up. I was to see the director, Tim Burton. I prepared by watching his other films—Beetlejuice, Batman, Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure. Blown away by the obvious gifted wizardry this guy possessed, I was even more sure that he would never see me in the role. I was embarrassed to consider myself as Edward. After several knock-down-drag-’em-outs with my agent (thank you, Tracey), she forced me to have the meeting.

I flew to Los Angeles and went straight to the coffee-shop of the Bel Age Hotel, where I was to meet Tim and his producer, Denise Di Novi. I walked in, chain-smoking, nervously looking for the potential genius in the room (I had never seen what he looked like) and BANG! I saw him sitting at a booth behind a row of potted plants, drinking a cup of coffee. We said hello, I sat down and we talked . . . sort of—I’ll explain later.

A pale, frail-looking, sad-eyed man with hair that expressed much more than last night’s pillow struggle. A comb with legs would have outrun Jesse Owens, given one look at this guy’s locks. A clump to the east, four sprigs to the west, a swirl, and the rest of this unruliness to all points north and south. I remember the first thing I thought was, ‘Get some sleep,’ but I couldn’t say that, of course. And then it hit me like a two-ton sledgehammer square in the middle of my forehead. The hands—the way he waves them around in the air almost uncontrollably, nervously tapping on the table, stilted speech (a trait we both share), eyes wide and glaring out of nowhere, curious, eyes that have seen much but still devour all. This hypersensitive madman is Edward Scissorhands.

After sharing approximately three to four pots of coffee together, stumbling our way through each other’s unfinished sentences but somehow still understanding one another, we ended the meeting with a handshake and a ‘nice to meet you.’ I left that coffee-shop jacked up on caffeine, chewing insanely on my coffee spoon like a wild, rabid dog. I now officially felt even worse about things because of the honest connection I felt we had had during the meeting. Mutually understanding the perverse beauty of a milkcow creamer, the bright-eyed fascination with resin grapes, the complexities and raw power that one can find in a velvet Elvis painting—seeing way beyond the novelty, the profound respect for ‘those who are not others.’ I was sure we could work well together and I was positive, if given the chance, I could carry out his artistic vision for Edward Scissorhands. My chances were, at best, slim—if that. Better-known people than me were not only being considered for the role but were battling, fighting, kicking, screaming, begging for it. Only one director had really stuck his neck out for me and that was John Waters, a great outlaw film-maker, a man both Tim and I had huge respect and admiration for. John had taken a chance on me to spoof my ‘given’ image in Cry-Baby. But would Tim see something in me that would make him take the risk? I hoped so.

I waited for weeks, not hearing a thing in my favour. All the while, I was still researching the part. It was now not something I merely wanted to do, but something I had to do. Not for any ambitious, greedy, actory, box-office-draw reason, but because this story had now taken residence in the middle of my heart and refused to be evicted. What could I do? At the point when I was just about to resign myself to the fact that I would always be TV boy, the phone rang.

‘Hello?’ I picked up.
‘Johnny . . . you are Edward Scissorhands,’ a voice said simply.
‘What?’ flew out of my mouth.
‘You are Edward Scissorhands.’

I put the phone down and mumbled those words to myself. And then mumbled them to anyone else I came in contact with. I couldn’t fucking believe it. He was willing to risk everything on me in the role. Head-butting the studio’s wishes, hopes and dreams for a big star with established box-office draw, he chose me. I became instantly religious, positive that divine intervention had taken place. This role for me was not a career move. This role was freedom. Freedom to create, experiment, learn and exorcize something in me. Rescued from the world of mass-product, bang-’em out TV death by this odd, brilliant young guy who had spent his youth drawing strange pictures, stomping around the soup-bowl of Burbank, feeling quite freakish himself (I would learn later). I felt like Nelson Mandela. Resuscitated from my jaded views of ‘Hollyweird’ and what it’s like to not have any control of what you really want for yourself.

In essence, I owe the majority of whatever success I’ve been lucky enough to have to that one weird, wired meeting with Tim. Because if it weren’t for him, I think I would have gone ahead and opted for choice (3) and quit that fucking show while I still had some semblance of integrity left. And I also believe that because of Tim’s belief in me, Hollywood opened its doors, playing a strange follow-the-leader game.

I have since worked with Tim again on Ed Wood. This was an idea he talked to me about, sitting at the bar of the Formosa Cafe in Hollywood. Within ten minutes I was committed to doing it. To me, it almost doesn’t matter what Tim wants to film—I’ll do it, I’m there. Because I trust him implicitly—his vision, his taste, his sense of humour, his heart and his brain. He is, to me, a true genius and I wouldn’t use that word with too many people, believe me. You can’t label what he does. It’s not magic, because that would imply some sort of trickery. It’s not just skill, because that seems like it’s learned. What he has is a very special gift that we don’t see every day. It’s not enough to call him a film-maker. The rare title of ‘genius’ is a better fit—in not just film, but drawings, photographs, thought, insight and ideas.

When I was asked to write the foreword to this book, I chose to tell it from the perspective of what I honestly felt at the time he rescued me: a loser, an outcast, just another piece of expendable Hollywood meat.

It’s very hard to write about someone you care for and respect on such a high level of friendship. It’s equally difficult to explain the working relationship between actor and director. I can only say that, for me, Tim need do nothing more than say a few disconnected words, tilt his head, squint his eyes or look at me a certain way and I know exactly what he wants from the scene. And I have always done my best to deliver that to him. So, for me to say what I feel about Tim, it would have to be on paper, because if I said it to his face he would most probably cackle like a banshee and then punch me in the eye.

He is an artist, a genius, an oddball, an insane, brilliant, brave, hysterically funny, loyal, nonconformist, honest friend. I owe him a tremendous debt and respect him more than I could ever express on paper. He is him and that is all. And he is, without a doubt, the finest Sammy Davis Jr. impersonator on the planet.

I have never seen someone so obviously out of place fit right in. His way.

Johnny Depp
New York City
September 1994

-- donated by Joni

-- photos added by Zone editors