Johnny Depp’s Best Roles: ‘Fugget-aboutit’ to ‘Savvy’

Born fifty years ago, Johnny Depp has cemented himself as one of the great actors of the modern era. Attempting to live the rock and roll lifestyle, Depp dropped out of school at the age of fifteen to peruse his dreams in music. Little did he know that his true future would be in film. Being known for his eccentric and quirky acting style, Johnny Depp has not only won over adults but children alike with his roles in Disney movies. His latest pairing with Disney, The Lone Ranger, has been filling cinemas around the world. With mixed reviews, Depp’s talent has been the one sure factor that people can agree on.

Though the role of Tonto in The Lone Ranger might not be his best, it is undeniable that Depp has shown his true talent in many other films. As a big Depp fan, it was hard to limit his greatest rolls to one list with so many possibilities to choose from. With much thought I have decided on his top ten, which will no doubt stir controversy with other loyal Depp fans.

10. William Blake – Dead Man

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Dead Man is one of Johnny Depp’s lesser known movies as it wasn’t a high budget Hollywood production. Instead, Dead Man is an artistic approach to the Western genre that follows William Blake (Depp), an accused murderer who travels on a spiritual journey with a Native American. The movie gives off a haunting feeling being shot in black and white and with echoing guitar riffs scored by Neil Young, but it is Depp’s portrayal of the character that achieves the evocativeness in the movie. It feels as if Depp doesn’t have to do much either in the film to portray his character. With his character on the verge of death, only few emotions can be portrayed, but it is these few emotions that are executed with such style that only Johnny Depp could do. The transformation of the character from the start of the film as a regular man who turns into a wanted outlaw has been seen before in many other Western films, but it is in Dead Man that Johnny Depp’s character strays away from the norm. His quiet and slow performance grows through the film, creating a character that is unlike any other in the genre.

9. Rango – Rango

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Though this film was marketed for children, Rango is a film that adults will love as well. Depp stars as Rango, the chameleon actor who is quite content with his lifestyle as a household pet. It isn’t until he is exposed to the real world, in this case a Wild West town full of desert animals, that Rango must come to terms with himself and become brave instead of taking on the persona of his characters. Depp is no stranger to animation, but this film is different to many animated films out there. Director Gore Verbinski, who also directed Pirates of the Caribbean and The Lone Ranger, had a different idea for his animation and utilised Johnny Depp’s peculiar acting style. Depp stated while in production that the movie was made with ’emotion’ capture rather than motion capture. The actors were filmed on a stage as they acted out the scenes that were in the script, and the animators would then take the emotions of the actors and use that to convey life like expressions. This is how Depp’s style comes out in the character the most. It feels as if you are watching him on screen instead of just listening to his voice while an animated character speaks. The role of Rango also channels many of Depp’s past characters with inspiration drawn from Hunter S. Thompson, creating a well-rounded and intricate character.

8. Edward Scissorhands – Edward Scissorhands

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The role that started one of the best collaborations within film. Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands was the first time Johnny Depp and Burton worked together, and was the first film that Depp had the leading role within a movie. He takes the role of Edward Scissorhands: a gentle young man who is an outcast in his life due to his scissor hands that tries to live his life in society, ultimately falling in love. This gothic fable was what started the classic Tim Burton style that he replicates in majority of his other movies. Johnny Depp’s role as Edward adds further sympathy towards the character as Depp’s facial expressions and quiet tones to his voice build the character. The innocence of Edward is so sincere, and Depp captures that perfectly. The relationship between Burton and Depp grows after each collaboration, with their style becoming more polished, but what makes Edward Scissorhands such a great role for Johnny Depp is how he pulled back. He used little words to convey his emotions. Through his body language and his movements, the audience could understand Edward’s pain, even if Depp didn’t have many lines in the scene. Arguably the best collaboration Depp and Burton have done, Edward Scissorhands is the role that put Johnny Depp on the radar.

7. Willy Wonka – Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

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The reimagining of the classic Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory was a big step for director Tim Burton. His vision once again transforming a loved film into something entirely his own. It was only fitting to cast his friend Johnny Depp to play the unusual and flamboyant chocolate maker. This film stuck closer to the source material written by Roald Dahl, with Depp’s impersonation of Willy Wonka significantly different to Gene Wilder’s from the 1971 film. The main difference being the quirkiness and childlike approach of Depp’s character, which for me is what I imagined Willy Wonka to be like when I first read the novel as a child. Many would argue that this is the same character that Depp plays time in and time out within a Tim Burton movie. That may be the case, but as Willy Wonka, he has polished and refined his skills to create a fantastic character who was being introduced to a younger generation for the first time. When the original adaptation was released, Roald Dahl stated that he wasn’t a fan of the movie as it strayed too far away from the source material. If he were alive to see Tim Burton’s version with the reimagining of the character, I believe Roald Dahl would have enjoyed the film much more. For me, the original will always be remembered as one of my favourite movies as a child. In saying that, with Tim Burton’s vision and the childlike innocence and peculiarity of Depp’s Willy Wonka, I believe Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is the better of the two. I hope they make the sequel.

6. Sweeney Todd – Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

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Pairing Tim Burton with Johnny Depp never seems to fail, and their adaptation of the musical Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street does not disappoint. The art style is classic Tim Burton whose dark and gloomy nineteenth century London is the perfect tone for the story to be set in. Many characteristics are shared between this movie and Sleepy Hollow, another Depp and Burton collaboration. The gloomy and misty atmospheres are similar as well as the exaggerated gore. Sweeney Todd differs though when comparing past Depp roles within Tim Burton movies. He isn’t the quirky eccentric character. Instead he is full of hatred and vengeance; a much darker character with an interesting history. This role seemed to be written for Johnny Depp, which is probably true since his friendship with Tim Burton is so strong. Not only is the depiction of Sweeney Todd excellent, but Depp can hold a tune as well. Even though Depp has a background with music, he still had to undergo training with the other actors for the songs. These songs aren’t the standard rock songs either. The musical features many intricate and complicated pieces which would have taken months of practice to master. Depp’s solo songs are where he shows his true ability as the role of Sweeney Todd. Not only is his singing fantastic, but the emotion he conveys whilst singing shows that he was the right role for this part. Many other people believe this too as Depp walked away with a Golden Globe for best actor as the role of Sweeney Todd.

5. James Barrie – Finding Neverland

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In Finding Neverland, Johnny Depp takes the role of Scottish writer James Barrie, the creator of Peter Pan. The movie follows Barrie from the unsuccessful playwright and his relationship with a widow and her three boys, which results in the creation of Peter Pan. When I first watched this movie, I had no idea what I was in store for. As a huge fan of Peter Pan growing up, I thought it was another remake of the classic tale. But instead it was so much more. Depp’s role as James Barrie is fantastic, but is heightened even further by his relationship in the movie with Freddie Highmore. As a young boy in the film, Freddie Highmore plays the second youngest of the three boys that James Barrie befriends. With a bitter relationship throughout most of the movie, the bond between the two characters grow, creating many tear jerking moments. Johnny Depp seemed to be fit for this role instantly. He brought a feeling of innocence and imagination to the screen, which is perfect for a story about the creation of Peter Pan. When you watch the movie, you can’t help but feel a certain charm by the character, which is what Johnny Depp is great at. Even his accent sounds like he hailed from Scotland himself. This is one of his most heartfelt and touching roles since What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, proving that Depp’s softer side is just as entertaining as his peculiar roles.

4. Ed Wood – Ed Wood

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Some may argue that the Johnny Depp’s weird yet wonderful style of acting started with his first collaboration with Tim Burton on Edward Scissorhands. I believe it did not flourish and develop until they made Ed Wood together. The movie follows Depp as he portrays the legendary film maker Ed Wood, who was known for making terrible movies with no grace or technique. This was the movie that Tim Burton and Johnny Depp found their style together, and it just so happens to be one of their strangest, yet funniest films. Depp might not be known for his humour, but when he plays a cross dressing film maker, you can’t help but laugh. In nearly every one of Burton’s films that he stars in, it seems that Depp develops his own voice for that character; creating something entirely new. Ed Wood has this same factor with Depp putting on a nasally almost adolescent tone to his voice, showing that even back in 1994, Johnny Depp was a serious actor. Depp brought a craziness to the role, which many other actors could not have done, and it suits the movie. This was the movie that defined the style that Johnny Depp would further peruse as an actor. The quirky and eccentric characters that he would later play would all show signs of Ed Wood and the foundations that he created in this film for the roles to come.

3. Joe Pistone/Donnie Brasco – Donnie Brasco

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Donnie Brasco has Depp playing Joe Pistone, an undercover FBI agent whose assignment is to infiltrate a New York mob. His alias for the assignment is Donnie Brasco, an Italian American jeweller. As Donnie, he befriends Lefty, a low level hit man in the gang. It is this friendship within the film that brings him further into the gang, to a point where he can’t differentiate between Joe Pistone and Donnie Brasco. Lefty is played by Al Pacino who is no stranger to this genre of film. Watching Depp and Pacino on film is a pairing made in heaven. With two very talented actors, the audience’s emotional involvement heightens. Lefty teaches Donnie the street rules of the mafia, caring for him like his own, which creates heartache for the audience as you know that Lefty has befriended an agent. Depp developed his character with such style, digging deep to unlock potential that he had not shown yet in a film. One scene within the film that showcases this is when Donnie explains to his fellow FBI agents what ‘fugget-aboutit’ means. “Forget about it is like if you agree with someone, you know, like Raquel Welch is one great piece of ass, fugget-aboutit. But then, if you disagree, like a Lincoln is better than a Cadillac? Fugget-aboutit! You know?” As Donnie Brasco, he shows initial restraint to his emotions but as the film progresses Depp showcases his skills as an actor; balancing the character’s anger with love and friendship. Johnny Depp showed further skill when developing the voice for the character: a mix of Italian and American, creating the ideal gangster voice. Donnie Brasco has become a cult movie, locking itself with the top gangster movies. Depp’s performance within this film showed the world that even in his early days as an actor, that he could tackle any role.

2. Raoul Duke – Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

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Johnny Depp has stated that the one character from the past that reappears most in his life is Raoul Duke; his character from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Raoul Duke was the alter ego of Hunter S. Thompson, the author of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and also a close friend to Johnny Depp. The movie follows Raoul Duke, a journalist who is hired to cover a motorcycle race in the deserts of Las Vegas, but instead goes on the search for the American Dream in a drug and alcohol infused journey. Depp adapted the personality of Hunter S. Thompson almost perfectly, studying his mannerisms and his speech to end with a performance that even Thompson was proud of. With the characters on copious amount of drugs within the film, the performances given by Depp and Benicio Del Toro (Raoul Duke’s partner in crime) had to match. The way they acted and the way they spoke their lines had to change as if they were on the drugs themselves. Depp’s performance stands out the most against Del Toro’s. He became Hunter S. Thompson. Not only by the way he acted, but even shaved his himself bald to make the role authentic for his friend. Depp was no stranger to unorthodox characters by this time in his career, after already completing Ed Wood, but Raoul Duke does not compare to the characters Tim Burton creates. Raoul Duke is a maniac of sorts, which Depp displays perfectly. This character was a personal role for Depp, taking the role of a friend, and that is why it keeps showing itself within his daily life and in other films.

1. Jack Sparrow – Pirates of the Caribbean

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Out of every role Johnny Depp has ever done, Captain Jack Sparrow from the Pirates of the Caribbean series is the most well-known and popular, not to mention the most well developed. Who would have thought to create a different manner for the character to walk? Johnny Depp did and it was his eclectic and eccentric style that made Jack Sparrow what he is today. Jack Sparrow is not just a fan with kids, but adults flock to the cinema every time a new Pirates of the Caribbean movie is released. Whether the sequels were good or not, Jack Sparrow sold the movies and will continue to sell them with another sequel announced. The voice that Depp developed for the character has become just as iconic as the swaying walk, adding ‘savvy’ into the vocab for many people. With all the voices that Depp can create, it would be hard to contain all of them in his head. Not only is Jack Sparrow a well-developed character, but Depp portrays him with humour and humility. He is a pirate, so humility is shown in small amounts, but Jack Sparrow’s humorous lines mixed with his mannerisms are what we love about the character. We are drawn to the character even though we know that he is a pirate full of backstabbing and betrayal. There is a magnetism about the character which is irresistibly entertaining. In my opinion, Jack Sparrow is not only the best pirate to be portrayed in film but is one of the most recognised characters from modern cinema. Savvy?

I know that Johnny Depp has many other great roles that he has undertaken in the past, but I personally believe these are his best. He has proven himself to be one of the great actors of this generation on many levels, and his skills and expertise are unlike any other actor in film.

Honourable Mentions

– Sleepy Hollow

– What’s Eating Gilbert Grape

– Cry Baby

– Benny and Joon

– Secret Window

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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28 Comments

  1. P, Connor
    0

    Really good list but where is his character from the movie Blow?

    • Nicholas Devin

      I found that his role in Blow took a lot from Goodfellas. For me when I watched that film, that’s all I could think of. Still a good movie but I didn’t want to include it.

  2. Jon Lisi
    Jon Lisi
    0

    I was just talking to my friend the other day about how we all have to stop saying that Johnny Depp is this great, eclectic actor because the performances in all of his recent movies have been more or less the same caricature. Even though I still think he is a sell out, you’ve reminded me that he was a good actor at one point. Good job–especially the inclusion of Dead Man!

  3. Kathryn Graham

    After each character you wrote about I was thinking “oh yeah, that was definitely my favourite” but by the end of your article I just can’t decide! I think Jack Sparrow and Sweeney Todd are the ones that stand out to me. Excellent films and great characters brought to life by amazing acting. And even though he’s only three years younger than my Dad I totally wouldn’t say no to a date with Johnny!

  4. best male actors of the last 20 years depp, dicaprio, pitt. they all have way to many badass movies and its funny cuz when they started people thought they were heart throbs for teenage girls and they all turned out to be badass and the best actors around. but depp needs to stop doing these big budget movies so much hes getting a little boring to watch. go back to the weird stuff

  5. I’d have given him an oscar nomination for Ed Wood. A brilliant performance.

  6. I personally hated Burton’s Willy Wonka adaptation, even if it was closer to the book than the one with Gene Wilder. Maybe Depp wasn’t so bad, but something about his acting was too close to his recent caricatures of Burton’s device. I have to agree with most of the rest of the list though!

  7. Kelsey Clark

    Johnny Depp is such a well rounded actor and I really appreciate his attention to detail. Jack Sparrow is such a famous and loved character now and it is entirely thanks to him I think. Fear and Loathing was also a great movie as well, great list!

  8. I disagree with your Charlie and the Chocolate Factory selection (However, their are much bigger problems with that film than Johnny Depp). Overall, this is a commendable list. Depp brings brevity and joy to every role. Whether he’s the pretty-boy gangster John Dillinger or the charismatic Captain Jack Sparrow, he immerses himself into his roles to deliver truly original performances every time.

  9. Beth Callow

    I think Depp as an actor is remarkable but I have to say that his acting of late is becoming boring, maybe he has got to the point of riding on his previous merits, which are plentiful, I just wonder how many other roles Depp can play.

  10. Nice list, I had seen some of Depps film as a child, but I didn’t know his name. Once I got to know of him I didn’t realise how many films of his I had seen, his characterisation skills are so strong that he’s hard to recognise from film to film. He was the best thing in the remake of charlie and the chocolate factory (ok, probably not a remake, he certains saves a bad film in that one I believe.

    My top three favourate films of his have to be One upon a time iN mexico, pirates of the carribean and Blow. Great actor.

    • Nicholas Devin

      I actually really like his character in Once Upon a Time in Mexico as well. His character adds so much more to the Mariachi series.
      A lot of people liked Blow, but I found it pretty ordinary.

  11. Aliya Gulamani

    Intriguing selection. Have to say Sweeny Todd is my favourite Depp film. It seems the jury is still out on Depp’s portrayal of Willy Wonka in Burton’s version, but I think he definitely bought an intriguing (if not, slightly disturbing) understanding to Dahl’s Willy Wonka.
    Though, I do think The Rum Diary deserves a mention, I thought Depp’s performance was fantastic and showed a diversion from his performance style of which he now seems to be accustomed with.

    • Nicholas Devin

      I don’t think the Rum Diary deserves a placing personally, because it’s just a tamed version of Raoul Duke from Fear and Loathing, and it was better in Fear and Loathing. It is a good role, but they butchered it when compared to the novel.

      • Aliya Gulamani
        Aliya Gulamani
        0

        I haven’t read Fear and Loathing, but will pop that on my reading list now, thanks.

  12. Depp has never has he been better than in Sweeny Todd. For an actor to take a role of a serial killer and manage to have the audience understand and feel his pain is to be admired (Yes I see you hiding there too Dexter).

  13. Nice article, but I might ruffle some feathers here when I say that I’ve never really been a huge Depp fan. How many of his roles involve him having an excessive amount of makeup (especially recently), and how many times has he done some kind of gothic-themed collaboration with Tim Burton? That formula is just done to death.

    I did enjoy the first Pirates movie, and he was awesome in that. But that franchise SUCKED after that first movie. And frankly, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was a pretty brutal movie.

    A talented actor and icon for sure, but somewhat overrated and tired at this point.

    • Nicholas Devin

      I always thought that the newer Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was a good film. It was enjoyable and had Tim Burton’s art style which I like. When it was released, the critics seemed to like it too, but from writing this article I have found many people think it’s terrible.

      Thanks for the comment though!

  14. Vic Millar

    Dead Man is very underrated, but I suppose that’s more about the direction and score than Depp’s performance. Great list, well done.

  15. Gemma Mary-Louise

    Very interesting read, I love Johnny Depp. My favourite movie has to be Edward Scissorhands because I totally agree about how well he conveys his emotions by hardly saying a word. I am looking forward to seeing The Lone Ranger but I think his role as Tonto will just remind me too much of Jack Sparrow. Well done.

  16. Brett Siegel

    I think Edward Scissorhands will always be my favorite Depp performance. Along with Ed Wood, it perfectly encapsulates what made the Depp/Burton duo so formidable and unique in its heyday. It was offbeat but not too showy, with a colorful sense of humor that masked a tangible, pervasive sadness. Best of all, it celebrated the outsider before both Depp and Burton became too mainstream to do so. The fact that Depp only speaks about twenty/thirty times in the film really allowed him to do some soul-searching as an actor, something that he doesn’t seem to be concerned with going into a fifth Pirates…

  17. Ivy Decker

    Personally, I would have ranked Sweeney Todd a bit higher, mostly because I feel the singing added an extra layer to the character that Depp was already suited so perfectly for. In any order, though, you’ve compiled a fantastic list!

  18. Ben Harper

    Interesting list. At first the choice of Jack Sparrow as NO.1 seems a bit ludicrous given how good an actor Depp used to be, but a good justification for it. Pity he has milked the character to the max with FOUR films !

    Nice to see his essay of Hunter/Raoul Duke get up so high. I think it is a superb re-creation of the man as opposed to an impression. Probably would have put Joe Pistone and Willy Wonka much further down personally, but good work.

  19. Mrs Cindy Louise cave
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    if this is the right page to write about Mr Johnny Depp then here goes!first of all may I Just say a (BIG) Hellow to Johnny Depp for being so very funny in the programme called the pirate of the caribean on stranger tides, & all the other programmes he has been in,well good Luck to you Johnny Depp & to all your pirate friends this little note is from a Mrs Cindy cave (SAVVY!) (if I may use that phrase!) (x x !) Just Little kisses o.k. thoe I know I have NOT yet met you
    & very much like too aswell o.k.!

  20. Rachel Elfassy Bitoun

    Interesting read, and thank you for mentioning less popular films in which Johnny shines and shows his finest work, like Dead Man or Benny and Joon – although I feel like this film should have been in the list, as Johnny’s performance is breathtaking, inspired by silent cinema stars like Buster Keaton and Charles Chaplin (yes, he reproduces Chaplin’s bread dance scene!). As counting among his biggest fan, I wanted to write an article about his work too. I would have developed on What’s eating Gilbert Grape, Secret Window and Sleepy Hollow: in all these roles, he is truly amazing. Yet it is very difficult to chose as he excels in so many different repertoires.

  21. Lindsay

    This is the first article I read on the artifice (after doing a search for Hunter S. Thompson). I was glad to see Depp’s portrayal of the mad doctor on the list, although I would have put it in number 1! Depp truly understood and embodied Faulkner’s quote and gonzo journalism’s essence, that of “fiction is often the best fact,” thus allowing him to portray HST in an authentic, spirited way. This was a fun read…thanks!

  22. Cindy Louise cave
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    I very much think that Mr Johnny Depp in the pirate of the Caribbean on stranger tides is apsolute esquit & also very good indeed & cleaver o.k.

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