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Dark Shadows: Johnny Depp Vamps It Up

May 09, 2012

By: Lynn Barker

Captain Jack, Edward Scissorhands, The Mad Hatter, Sweeny Todd, the voice of Rango and many more. Uber-talented Johnny Depp makes us believe anything is possible and takes us along for the wild ride. His new turn as stranger-in-a-strange-land vampire Barnabas Collins in Dark Shadows is no exception. 

Maybe your parents or even grandparents watched a melodramatic, moody, romantic late 1960’s/early ‘70’s daytime TV series called “Dark Shadows”. This show marked the first time vampires, ghosts, witches etc. were on TV on a regular basis, long before today’s “The Vampire Diaries, “TrueBlood”, “Teen Wolf” and many more.

Johnny Depp was a teeny boy back then but he remembers watching the show and loving it. So does his director/pal Tim Burton.  They decided to bring back the story of the Collins family, witches curses, stolen true love and family patriarch Barnabas Collins who believes in family loyalty above all. 

This quirky, gallows humor/melodrama film, set in the 1970’s, was Johnny’s idea. He wanted to play Barnabas since he was a tiny kid.

  • Johnny: Just a wee tyke. It’s true.

Johnny's Barnabas posterJohnny's Barnabas poster

Kidzworld: You are also a producer on the film. Talk about that and how you got Tim Burton onboard to direct you as Barnabas.

  • Johnny: It’s almost impossible to consider myself a producer. I can barely produce an English muffin in the morning. But, as a fan of the TV show, I think it was during making Sweeney Todd where I just blurted out in mid conversation, “You know, we should do a vampire movie together. You know, where you actually have a vampire that looks like a vampire (not like gorgeous Edward Cullen)”. It was kind of a rebellion against vampires that look like underwear models and stuff. Dark Shadows was kind of looming on the edges. Then Tim and I started talking about it.

Kidzworld: How does Barnabas fit in your gallery of very weird, offbeat characters that you’ve played? And what did you find is the key to playing him? 

  • Johnny: I wanted Barnabas to come across as this very elegant, upper echelon sort of well-schooled kind of gentleman who was cursed in the 18th Century and was brought back to probably the most surreal era of our time, the 1970s. How would he react to how radically different things were? Not just with regard to technology and automobiles and such. But I mean actual items of enjoyment for people.

Kidzworld: Like?

  • Johnny:  Like pet rocks and fake flowers and plastic fruit and Troll dolls, lava lamps and lime green leisure suits and Earth shoes. Yeah. Just weird things that, you know. they didn’t make sense then and still don’t. Oh and macramé owls...they’re my favorite.

Barnabas with witchy Angelique

Kidzworld: Fun toys. So, you were directed in a music video by Sir Paul McCartney the famous Beatle. (Johnny used American sign language along with Natalie Portman for the beautiful “My Valentine”. He also played guitar). What was that like?

  • Johnny: I’ve known McCartney on and off over the years and ran into him and then he gave me a call and asked if I would be interested in being in his video. “Certainly. Let’s do it”. It was a yes. I had to learn the sign language thing, which apparently, I don’t know. I think sign language is not rote and it’s all kind of different. And apparently, instead of “love” I think I might have signed “murder”. But I was only copying what the guy showed me. So, track him down.

Kidzworld: What is so temping about vampires that made you want to play one?

  • Johnny: It’s a strange thing because, as a child, I certainly had a fascination with monsters and vampires, as did Tim. Whatever this darkness, this mystery, this intrigue is, as you get older, you sort of recognize the erotic nature of the vampire and the idea of the undead. What was most interesting in terms of Barnabas was the idea of the combination. It was a real challenge, but probably more for Tim than me. We wanted to make sure that this guy, clearly a vampire, fit back into this odd society and his dysfunctional family.

Kidzworld: Was your first “bite” as a vampire fun? How was that to maneuver?

  • Johnny: When I had the fangs in you wanted to be a little bit careful that you didn’t actually pierce the jugular. It was kind of like my experience shaving Alan Rickman, (while playing a barber in Sweeney Todd) which by the way neither of us wants to do again, especially Alan.

Johnny's Barnabas

Kidzworld: What about Barnabas’s cool costumes and your make-up?

  • Johnny: Generally, when you do a movie, depending on the character there’s some degree of make-up involved especially when you’re a vampire; all white and kind of dead. Colleen Atwood (Oscar-winning costume designer), with her amazing eye and incredible taste, has a real magic.

As soon as you don that armor that she’s created, the character starts to come alive so it’s almost like working from the outside in, in a sense. You put on this “suit” that you stand or walk a certain way in. The cane was one of the leftover things from the TV series. Pretty much the same design. It’s not a silver-tipped cane because (as a vampire), my hand would have burst into flames!

Kidzworld: You brought on a lot of the original TV cast as party guests briefly. Talk about that.

  • Johnny: It was great for Tim to bring them into the fold, as our way of saluting them. Jonathan Frid (who played the original Barnabas) was terrific. He had written me a letter a couple of years before and signed a photo to me sort of passing the baton to Barnabas which I thought was very sweet.  He had his original Barnabas cane and I wasn’t sure that he wasn’t going to attack me with it when he saw me but he didn’t. 

Kidzworld: Johnny you look so young in your films. Do you have a deal with the devil?

  • Johnny: You’re missing the point. I AM the devil and I’ve been sleeping under your couch for months! (laughter)

Kidzworld: Yikes! Hey, come out from under there and visit! Okay let’s ask the important stuff. Going to the bathroom with those long, spiky vampire nails on.. difficult?

  • Johnny: In every film I’ve been lucky enough to do with Tim, there’s always some form of torture and the nails were Tim’s idea and the length of the fingers too but it was okay because I had a troupe of people who would help me go to the bathroom. That is true.