Cutting edge of hell-razor Johnny Depp

Emma Lee Johnny Depp is out for revenge in his bloodiest role yet – Sweeney Todd: the Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Emma Lee hears more from the Golden Globe-winning film’s leading players and its visionary director Tim Burton.

Emma Lee

As a rule, journalists are a cynical bunch. Cool, calm and collected and unimpressed by celebrities. Until, that is, you put Johnny Depp in front of them. Then out come the camera phones and they act like starstruck teenagers. And I'm unashamed to admit that I am one of them.

I've been lucky enough to see Johnny in the flesh twice - talk about a perk of the job. The first occasion was the press junket for Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest at the super-posh Claridges hotel. An audible “oooh” rippled around the room as he arrived, wearing a trilby and sunglasses, charismatic enough to carry off continuing to wear them even though he was indoors. Questions were politely asked and politely answered. Then, when time was up, and he was being whisked away, there was a phenomenon I'd never seen before - grown-up writers clutching production notes and pens and clamouring for autographs and an A-plus member of the A-list more than happy to oblige.

And there was a repeat performance at the Berkley Hotel in London's Knightsbridge, where Johnny, his co-stars Helena Bonham Carter, Alan Rickman and Timothy Spall, plus director Tim Burton were assembled to talk about the macabre musical, Sweeney Todd: the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, which has already won big at the Golden Globes and is tipped for Oscar glory.

A very private man, Johnny pretty much manages to stay out of the tabloids. A former hell-raiser, he's now in his mid 40s (although he looks much younger) and is a devoted family man.

He, girlfriend Vanessa Paradis and their two children live in comparative anonymity in France, although it has been rumoured he's recently bought a country bolthole in our neck of the woods.

Most Read

Talking about his laid-back existence he says: “I don't hang out with anybody who is famous. I don't know who is rich or poor or successful and it feels good… I just want to spend as much time with my kids as possible. Doing simple things like going out to the trampoline and swing set, or just looking in the garden to see how the tomatoes are doing - old man stuff.”

Generous, he recently made a £1m donation to Great Ormond Street Hospital which cared for his daughter when she was critically ill and it's been reported that he spent time at the hospital reading to youngsters dressed as Captain Jack Sparrow.

As well as being refreshingly down to earth, professionally he is a pretty rare specimen. A Hollywood actor who is willing to take on risky roles that won't necessarily hit the box office jackpot.

He's been described as a chameleon - and certainly physically he's a master of disguise - unrecognisable from one role to the next.

But whether he's Captain Jack Sparrow or Edward Scissorhands he's still unmistakeably Depp.

“I do believe you have to bring some degree of truth [to every role],” he says, dressed down in a casual lumberjack shirt and jeans. And in what way does he indentify with his latest character, Sweeney Todd?

“I will admit it, I have shaved a grown man before,” he deadpans.

“I think it's [revenge] one of those feelings that most people don't want to admit to. I'm a big fan of revenge. I think it's the story of a man, clearly his obsession is to avenge the hell that happened to him.”

It's the sixth time that Johnny and director Tim Burton have collaborated - their working partnership goes back to the 1980s beginning with the gothic fairytale Edward Scissorhands, followed by Ed Wood, Sleepy Hollow, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and the Corpse Bride. And they're kindred spirits - one of cinema's great double acts - both non-conformists who celebrate the outsider.

Based on Stephen Sondheim's original Broadway score, Tim Burton's big screen version of Sweeney Todd is a masterly film. He's one of the few contemporary directors who can accurately be described as an auteur. But, an 18-rated musical, it's not what you'd call easy viewing - especially at 8.30am. The only splash of colour in Sweeney's grim but stunning monochrome London is the blood of his victims.

From the stomach-churning, yet exquisitely choreographed, murder scenes - and no detail is spared - to Mrs Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter) who is enthusiastically crushing cockroaches with her rolling pin in her pie shop, it's not for the faint-hearted.

Tim Burton, whose unkempt hair makes him look every inch the crazy genius, says: “It's an amazing thing that you can tell the studio you are going to do an R-Rated musical, with lots of blood, no professional singers. It gave me hope that there are still people in Hollywood who are willing to try different things.”

Johnny stars as Benjamin Barker, a man imprisoned for 15 years on the other side of the world on a trumped-up charge by the shady Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman) in order to steal his wife and baby daughter.

He escapes back to London vowing revenge and, adopting the guise of Sweeney Todd, he returns to his old barber shop above Nellie Lovett's pie shop, and sets his sights on Judge Turpin.

But when a rival barber, the flamboyant Italian Pirelli (a scene-stealing Sacha Baron Cohen), threatens to expose Todd's real identity, he kills him by cutting his throat.

Not knowing what to do with the body, Mrs Lovett sees the crisis as a potential solution to her ailing business and suggests using human flesh as the filling for her pies.

Her pies soon become the talk of London, and in a beautifully played-out scene, she dreams of respectability and a life at the seaside with Sweeney as her husband and her young charge, Pirelli's former assistant Toby (Edward Sanders) alongside as her adopted son.

But her affection is unrequited. Sweeney has only revenge on his mind and his only love is his cut-throat razors - one of the few times his troubled eyes betray any positive emotion is when he is serenading them.

The cast performed their own vocal duties - something that they agree they approached with some trepidation.

Johnny was in a band in the 1980s, called The Kids, but says he was never a frontman.

“Actually I did a musical many years ago with John Waters called Cry Baby,” he says. “Technically it was only half me. Tim's the only person brave enough to let me sing. Sondheim's melodies and lyrics were a real pleasure. It's beautiful stuff.

“I've never even sung in the shower - I'd be too mortified. But once I'd got over the initial fear, it was enjoyable. Would I do it again? I doubt it! Singing on set is mortifying - you feel like an idiot.”

His vocal performance has been compared to David Bowie, but he says that any similarity is flattering but unintentional.

“I wouldn't ever dream of attempting to channel David Bowie - he's a hero of mine. If there is a similarity, it's a compliment,” he says.

Helena Bonham Carter, who has two children with Tim Burton, said that she had to make her vocal performance “righter than right”.

“I didn't want to think I got it [the part] because I slept with him,” she jokes adding that the film is actually a portrait of their home life.

“I was being paid by my boyfriend to lust after his best friend,” she laughs.

Tim explains he's a long-time fan of Sondheim's musical.

“I was still a student [when I saw it for the first time]. I didn't know anything about the show. I just wandered into the theatre and it blew me away. I went three nights in a row I loved it so much,” he says.

And what were the enjoyable parts of making the film?

“Obviously seeing Johnny sing. I have never seen that in the many years we have worked together. It was something new.”

And do the pair have any more collaborations in the pipeline?

“A ballet version of the Village People with an edge. And he's going to play every one of them. The Indian, the cowboy...,” Tim laughs, tongue firmly in cheek.

t Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (18) opened in cinemas on January 25.