Johnny Depp explains how he picked his poison with the Mad Hatter

Dec. 24, 2009 | 6:17 p.m.

We have big plans here at the Hero Complex for covering “Alice in Wonderland” and today we have an early exclusive as Rachel Abramowitz talks with star Johnny Depp about the very specific madness of the Mad Hatter.

Johnny Depp November 2009 

When he takes on a role, Johnny Depp often paints a watercolor portrait of the still-forming character to help find his face and personality. After putting the finishing touches on his painting for “Alice in Wonderland,” Depp looked down at the Mad Hatter staring back at him from the canvas and giggled.

“I was thinking,” the actor said, “‘Oh my God, this one will get me fired!’”

It’s hard to imagine any pink slips in the future for Depp, who arguably reigns as the biggest movie star in the world at the moment. But his version of the Mad Hatter for Tim Burton’s interpretation of “Alice in Wonderland” has stirred both interest and, early on, some skepticism from literary purists who say it’s a far cry from the character as described in Lewis Carroll’s 19th century writings or from images in the collective public imagination shaped by years of stage productions and the 1951 Walt Disney animated classic.

Alice In Wonderland Mad Hatter

Depp’s extreme vision for the character — who arrives in theaters on March 5 — creates yet another vivid screen persona for the Hollywood chameleon who has played Sweeney Todd, Willie Wonka, Edward Scissorhands and a certain scoundrel named Jack Sparrow. The 46-year-old actor said his Hatter’s springy mass of tangerine hair became a particularly important detail because of one of the suspected origins of the term “Mad as a hatter.”

In the 18th and 19th centuries, mercury was used in the manufacture of felt, and when used in hats it could be absorbed through the skin and affect the mind through maladies such as Korsakoff’s syndrome. Hatters and mill workers often fell victim to mercury poisoning which, in Carroll’s time, had an orange tint — hence Depp’s interest in adding brushstrokes of that particular watercolor to his portrait.

“I think [the Mad Hatter] was poisoned  — very, very poisoned,” Depp said. “And I think it just took affect in all his nerves. It was coming out through his hair and through his fingernails, through his eyes”

Depp’s research also took him down some unexpected literary rabbit holes with the writings of Carroll.

“There’s a great line in the book where the Hatter says, ‘I’m investigating things that begin with the letter ‘M,’” Depp said. “So I started kind of doing a little researching, reading a bunch. And you start thinking about the letter ‘M’ and Hatters and the term ‘Mad as a hatter’ and ‘mercury.’”

Depp was also intrigued by one of the Mad Hatter’s nonsense questions during a dizzying tea party: “Why is a raven like a writing desk?” “I think he is referencing Edgar Allan Poe,” Depp said, referring to the haunted author of “The Raven,” which was published in 1845, two decades before Carroll’s surreal tale reached the public. Depp let the two ideas germinate in his head and it informed his own Hatter concoction.

Burton, whose background in art and animation is well known, also draws his characters, and when he and his star compared their handiwork they grinned like the Cheshire Cat. “They were,” Depp says, “very close.”

– Rachel Abramowitz

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Photos: Top, Johnny Depp at London’s Leicester Square on June 29 at the British Premiere of “Public Enemies” (Max NashGetty Images); “Alice in Wonderland” images from Walt Disney Co.

Comments


11 Responses to Johnny Depp explains how he picked his poison with the Mad Hatter

  1. Andrew Kerr says:

    Looking forward to your lead-up to "Alice" in March. This one should be interesting. . .
    Great program about/with Tim Burton on Charlie Rose several weeks ago featuring not only his film work but the current exhibit of his artwork at MoMA in NY. http://www.charlierose.com/ Go to the 11/26/09 program to view.
    Merry Christmas!
    Andy

  2. Depp is mad to begin with!!! ha ha ha
    "why is a raven like a writing desk?" ha ha, we all need a lot more silliness and tea….green tea and laughs for everybody
    of course.. i sing Gothic Reggae, so don't trust me…ha ha

  3. irishladie195859@yah says:

    johnny depp is a wounderful actor i can which all his movies over and over . he is very smart

  4. irishladie195859@yah says:

    i am waiting for the next pirate movie but i will be injoying alice in wounder land johnny depp i love his movies what can i say . you already know.

  5. Arye Michael Bendeer says:

    Johnny Depp represents a rare confluence of superb actor and world-wide box-office. All his characters exhibit many layers of complexity beneath the surface. He makes them all a joy to contemplate on the screen.
    May Mr. Depp continue to work well into old age.

  6. wg says:

    How can you print a joke and make the reference, but not give the punchline (unless the interviewer didn't know what Johnny was referring to)?
    The generally accepted 'answer' to the Hatter's question "Why is a raven like a writing desk?" is:
    "Because Poe wrote on both."
    Lovely that Johnny did his research though and pulled the mercury detail into his interpretation of the character too. Appropriate for such a mercurial man!

  7. ArtsBeatLA says:

    ^ Huh. I always thought that was a rhetorical question / piece of nonsense.
    I didn't realise that line was actually a joke with an answer (punchline).
    Thank you!

  8. Ken says:

    I just find Depp totally overrated. He doesnt deliver his lines in a strong fashion. More like with his nose plugged. He is good at making faces though.
    Dont mistake good looks and interesting roles as good acting

  9. M2Infinity says:

    Letter M? Wasn't that the Dormouse, speaking of things the three little sisters in the treacle well were learning to draw? "Muchness of a muchness", etc.

  10. […] For Depp’s beloved role as pirate Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean he told The Los Angeles Times, “I was reading about the 118th century pirates and thought they were kind of like rock […]

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