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JAMES 'WHITEY' BULGER
Playing the famous Boston mobster in 2015's Black Mass, Depp obviously didn't have to look far for inspiration. But he did dive deep into now-86-year-old Bulger's persona. "The first thing for me was to understand him first and foremost as a human being," Depp told reporters at the film's premiere. "Anybody and everybody, especially the families of his victims, could say 'He's just an evil person.' I don't believe that exists. People have their humanity, everything they've carried with them since they were children. There's a side of James Bulger who is not just that man who was in that business." Depp did try to reach out to Bulger – who has been in prison since his 2011 arrest – but according to the mobster's attorney, he has no interest in the film.
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"When I was first approached about the role, I just had this burning sort of vision in my head of the Wolf, and all I could think of was the wolf in the zoot suit in the Tex Avery cartoons," Depp said in press materials about 2014's Into the Woods. He wanted "a hip, big, bad wolf with a fedora and a zoot suit and a cat chain," he added, and thankfully, costume designer Colleen Atwood was on board – with a few minor modifications.
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Following in the footsteps of Gene Wilder, who played the fanciful candy maker in the 1971 film adaptation of Roald Dahl's children's novel, Johnny Depp sought to make the character his own in 2005 by calling to mind the 43rd president of the United States. "I imagine what George Bush would be like incredibly stoned," he told talk-show host Ellen DeGeneres.
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Sparrow's basis in Keith Richards is so well-known it even led to the Rolling Stones guitarist appearing in Pirates of the Caribbean's 2007 and 2011 sequels as Sparrow's father, but there's another icon that Depp borrowed from to create the Oscar-nominated character. "What I loved about Pepe Le Pew was this guy who was absolutely convinced that he's a great ladies man," he told IGN. "The cat clearly despises him, but Pepe Le Pew takes it as sort of a, 'She's just playing hard to get. She's shy. Poor thing.' I always loved a character like that, just blinders no matter what the actual reality is happening around him. This guy sees only what he wants to see."
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In 1999's Sleepy Hollow, Crane's character was changed from a schoolteacher to a bumbling detective, with his awkward demeanor meant to take precedence over his homeliness, an important part of the character's description in writing. "I thought of Ichabod Crane as a very nervous, ultrasensitive prepubescent girl. That's where Angela Lansbury came in," Depp told Playboy. "I thought of some of the work she's done over the years, especially in Death on the Nile. I also based Ichabod a bit on [British actor] Roddy McDowall, who was a very good friend."
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In bringing the Dark Shadows leading man to the silver screen in 2012, Depp didn't stray far from the 1960s TV series. "It was apparent to both Tim [Burton] and myself that it had to be rooted in Jonathan Frid's character of Barnabas," Depp told Collider.com. "It was so classic, in the classic monster, Fangoria magazine way … Tim and I talked early on that a vampire should look like a vampire. It was a rebellion against vampires that look like underwear models."
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The cross-dressing cult filmmaker was known for his enthusiastic attitude against all odds, an aspect of his personality Depp put on display in 1994 by channeling former president Ronald Reagan, radio DJ Casey Kasem and a certain metal man from a movie classic. "Jack Haley's performance as the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz is one of the strangest I've ever seen. Watch that film and think about a grown man giving that performance. It's really astounding," he told Playboy, also identifying Reagan's "innocence and naive, blind optimism," as major influences.
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Explaining his process for bringing characters to life, Depp told Entertainment Weekly, "When reading a script, I get these visions of things that I feel would be good ingredients for the role." To portray the well-meaning protagonist of the 1990 film, he drew upon the temperaments of some non-famous simple creatures. "Scissorhands was a combination. The idea of a newborn seeing things for the first time," Depp explained on The Ellen DeGeneres Show. "And also, a dog that I'd had. This dog … with unconditional love, this sort of purity in my dog."
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Wanting to reinvent the character for The Lone Ranger's big-screen adaptation, Depp drew from a painting by artist Kirby Sattler titled "I Am Crow." "The whole reason I wanted to play Tonto is to try to [mess] around with the stereotype of the American Indian," he said. "That makeup inspired me … It just so happened Sattler had painted a bird flying directly behind the warrior's head. I thought: Tonto's got a bird on his head. It's his spirit guide in a way. It's dead to others, but it's not dead to him. It's very much alive."
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While he's moonlighted as a musician, Depp underwent no professional vocal training before hitting a high note as Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street in the 2007 musical. "If there was anybody in terms of inspiration for my sound, it was Anthony Newley [the Broadway vet]," he told New York magazine. "And Iggy Pop, you know? Iggy's kind of this very aggressive crooner. Especially in the early stuff, there's something about his attack that's haunting."