Andrew Collins: Johnny Depp sold his soul

The 48-year-old stars as a vampire in his latest film Dark Shadows, but has he lost his way?

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A few years ago, Johnny Depp told a magazine that he enjoyed his job, but was not “a great fan of all the stuff that goes along with it”, adding, “I don’t want to be a product.” This is pretty rich from an actor whose image has been turned into one of the largest collections of tie-in action figures in Hollywood.

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You can buy a seven-inch plastic Edward Scissorhands or, if you prefer, a cell phone charm. There are any number of Jack Sparrows from the world-beating Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, each relating to a different instalment – from The Curse of the Black Pearl to On Stranger Tides – and posed around various firearms, cutlasses, rum bottles and skulls on pikes.

There’s also a Mad Hatter from Alice in Wonderland; a Willy Wonka in a psychedelic box; and a 12-inch Sweeney Todd from The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, boasting highly detailed hair sculpture, six interchangeable hands and a barber’s chair.

Depp, now 48, is back in cinemas in yet another Tim Burton collaboration, his eighth: Dark Shadows, a knowing reboot of the US supernatural daytime TV series from the late 1960s/early 70s, whose lead character, bemused vampire Barnabas Collins, will surely guarantee yet another spike in moulded plastic futures on the stock market.

Once justifiably hailed as the greatest actor of his generation – a thinker, an iconoclast, a cool dude, the only Hollywood actor I’ve ever interviewed who smoked throughout – Depp seems to have sleepwalked into creative paralysis, however lucrative that may be. He clocks on, clocks off, collects the paycheck (with an annual income of $75 million, he entered the Guinness Book of World Records in 2010), and waits for the box of figurines to arrive on his doorstep.

Back in the early 90s, when John Christopher Depp was graduating from 11th in the cast of Platoon to starring in Cry-Baby and Edward Scissorhands, he turned heads. Now you can turn his – assuming it’s one of the main points of articulation on your Depp figure.

He successfully eclipsed the teen idol status generated by his role in TV show 21 Jump Street (recently remade as a movie in which he gamely made a cameo), but it was Scissorhands that bestowed upon him a new kind of cult fame. Reuniting with Burton for Ed Wood, an arty, black-and-white hymn to the 50s schlock director who made so-bad-it’s-good Plan 9 from Outer Space, Depp occupied an enviable position: the thinking person’s movie star.

But something went wrong. He started making fodder that wasn’t equal to his ability. The Astronaut’s Wife? From Hell? Once upon a Time in Mexico? And then came Pirates. Let’s be honest, he put in a barnstorming, Keith Richards- channelling turn as Captain Jack, and who can blame him for taking the money again, and again, and again? But combine the theme-park rides with the increasingly repetitive output of Burton, and you start wondering when Depp will ever again play a part worthy of his undoubted talent, one that will not simply be turned into mass-market merchandise.

Let’s not hold our breath. In fact, clear a space on your toy shelf – his next role is Tonto in Disney’s revival of The Lone Ranger, due out next year. Like the hands on the inevitable action figure, I fear his roles are becoming increasingly interchangeable.

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This article was first published in the Radio Times (19-25 May)