Johnny Depp at Pirates of the Caribbean event
(Credit: Andy Templeton)

From Tim Burton To Marc Foster: Johnny Depp’s 10 best film performances

With any part you play, there is a certain amount of yourself in it. There has to be, otherwise it’s just not acting. It’s lying.“—Johnny Depp

One of the biggest names in the film industry, American actor Johnny Depp is known for his wonderful and whimsical performances in films like Donnie Brasco, Edward Scissorhands and more.

Depp has received critical and commercial success, earning nominations for ten Golden Globe Awards (winning one) and three Academy Awards. In addition to acting, Depp has also worked as a musician. He has performed in numerous musical groups, including forming the rock super-group Hollywood Vampires along with Alice Cooper and Joe Perry.

Depp was initially drawn to music when he was gifted a guitar by his mother at the age of 12 and began playing in various bands. Depp’s wife (at the time), Lori Anne Allison, worked as a makeup artist and introduced him to Nicolas Cage. It was Cage who advised him to become an actor.

With all that in mind, we take a look at some Depp’s best performances as a celebration of one of the biggest acting talents in Hollywood.

Johnny Depp’s 10 Best Films:

10. Into The Woods (Rob Marshall – 2014)

Depp plays the role of the Big Bad Wolf in this 2014 Sondheim musical. He brings overtly sexual tones to this famous childhood story which complicates things, given that Red Riding Hood is a very young girl. However, Depp is very compelling as the allegorical antagonist and puts up a nuanced performance.

“I was exceptionally eager to do it,” Depp said of getting to be included with the film. “I was respected, and, to be truthful, to some degree pleased.”

“That not just Rob (Marshall) and John (DeLuca) needed me to play The Wolf, at the same time, that Sondheim, once more, you know, put stock in me to fill the role and sing his notes once more,” Depp said of re-collaborating with Sondheim after Sweeney Todd (2007).

9. Black Mass (Scott Copper – 2015)

Based on the life of South Boston mobster James “Whitey” Bulger (played by Depp), the 2015 film earned the actor his third SAG Best Actor nomination. Depp is almost unrecognisable, thanks to the efficient use of the prosthetics, as he brilliantly captures the internal conflict of the mobster. He internalizes all his rage until it cannot be contained anymore, transforming him into a destructive force.

“What attracted me to Jimmy Bulger were the various facets of his personality and his humanity,” said Depp, “because I felt that the only way I could approach playing a character like him was to find his human side first and then map that out to see where it took the turn.”

He added, “He was a very complicated man. I think there’s a very sensitive side to him and he could be a caring, lovely family man who worshipped his brother and was very loyal to the community. There was something poetic about what he was able to do, being a proud Irish immigrant, loyal to his neighbourhood, a great caregiver to his mother and very close to his brother. But his business was violence.” 

8. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (Tim Burton – 2007)

This was Depp’s first collaboration with musical theatre composer Stephen Sondheim. He is terrifying as the barber/serial killer who slits the throats of his enemies provides the filling to his partner’s lucrative meat pie business. Depp won the Golden Globe for his performance as Sweeney Todd and received Academy Award and SAG nominations as well.

While speaking about the film, Depp revealed, “We thought we were going to lip synch but in fact the only way to do it is to belt it out once again on the set, which is extremely mortifying. Everyone’s very, very close and you just feel like an idiot at first. But then it was oddly liberating, having music on the set all through.

“It was interesting. Like Tim said, it felt like we were doing a silent film…I think it’s a story of a man who clearly has obsessions to avenge the horror that happened to him.”

7. Charlie And The Chocolate Factory (Tim Burton – 2005)

Burton’s 2005 film is based on Roald Dahl’s beloved children’s book and is a more sincere adaptation than the 1971 rendition by director Mel Stuart. Depp is fascinating as Willy Wonka, the eccentric candy mogul. He adds depth to the character by fixating on the childhood trauma that Wonka was subjected to. For his performance as Willy, Depp received his sixth Best Actor nomination from the Golden Globes.

“It is kind of therapeutic to go in and make an ass of yourself and be paid for it,” the actor said. “There’s something to be said for that. As an actor, with any character you play, you have to bring as much of your own truth to the character as possible and then you make an ass of yourself.”

He also noted, “That source material is an amazing help in building the character of Wonka, using Roald Dahl’s work. In early conversations with Tim we talked about various things, like memories when we were growing up of children’s show hosts and that kind of strange cadence with which they spoke to children”.

6. Finding Neverland (Marc Foster – 2004)

Marc Foster’s 2004 film is a unique addition to the corpus of Peter Pan adaptations because the film focuses on the author J.M. Barrie’s life and how he was inspired to write the classic story. Depp’s portrayal of Barrie is honest and restrained, capturing the essence of the author perfectly. He received nominations for Best Actor for the Oscars, Golden Globes and Screen Actors Guild for his wonderful performance.

Depp was full of praise for the film, saying, “I thought, you know, this is a really nice story, a rare thing. It isn’t something you see all the time. It’s truly a work of pure genius, an absolute masterpiece. An incredible work of imagination.”

5. Ed Wood (Tim Burton – 1994)

Ed Wood, considered to be the “worst director in history”, was a Hollywood outcast who was known for his strange and confusing films. Burton’s black-and-white biography features Depp as Wood at a point in his life where he had a more optimistic view of his situation but still riddled with doubts. For his performance, Depp received his fourth Golden Globe nomination.

The actor explained, “My fascination with (Ed Wood) is really simple. I admire the guy as a filmmaker, I really do. A lot of people call him the worst director in history but I never agreed with that. I think that he was a sincere man. He was doing his best to put his vision into the context of films.”

4. Edward Scissorhands (Tim Burton – 1990)

In Tim Burton’s strange and surreal fantasy, Depp stars as Edward, a creation of The Inventor (played by Vincent Price) who gave the artificial young man scissors instead of hands.

This was Depp’s first collaboration with Burton and marked the beginning of a long partnership. He humanizes Edward’s character and evokes empathy. Depp received his first Golden Globe nomination for his brilliant performance.

The actor regards this film as his most important, saying, “Probably the most important film that I’ve ever done, just in terms of the transition for me. From basically at the time, being known as having come up the ranks as a TV actor, essentially, in the minds of Hollywood.

Scissorhands was the one that sort of put me on the road that I wanted to be on. So for me that one’s – yes, that’s probably the most important of all.”

3. Pirates of the Caribbean Series (2003, 2006, 2007, 2011, 2017)

Arguably his most iconic role, Depp broke the stereotype of the hyper-masculine pirate with his portrayal of Captain Jack Sparrow. Even though his decision to model his pirate Jack Sparrow after the out-there rock icon Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones was not well received by the studio, the audiences were completely enthralled by the whimsical Sparrow. For the first Pirates film, The Curse of the Black Pearl, Depp won the Best Actor award from the Screen Actors Guild and earned nominations for the Oscar and the Golden Globe, and for Pirates 2, 2006’s Dead Man’s Chest garnered Depp his seventh Golden Globe nomination.

Depp wasn’t expecting the fame that this particular role would bring because Disney wanted to fire him. He recalled, “I was freaked out by it. I mean, at the beginning I genuinely didn’t give a fuck about acting. But I began to enjoy it. I enjoyed creating those characters up there, being in the trenches and sparring with collaborators, actors, directors.

The trouble with working with these big studios is they can get uncomfortable about certain creative decisions you make. That happened with Pirates. My view is if the studio isn’t worried then I’m not doing my job properly.”

2. What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (Lasse Hallström – 1993)

A welcome change from the usual roles that Depp plays, Hallström’s drama features Johnny Depp as a young grocery store clerk in a small Midwestern town.

After the death of his father, he is left with the responsibility of taking care of his morbidly obese mother Bonnie (played by Darlene Cates) and his mentally challenged younger brother Arnie (played by Leonardo DiCaprio). Depp delivers a moving performance and maintains an engaging on-screen chemistry with DiCaprio.

“It was a hard time for me, that film, for some reason. I don’t know why. I tortured him. I really did,” Depp said of working with Leonardo DiCaprio in the 1993 film. “He was always talking about these videos games, you know? I told you it was kind of a dark period. ‘No, I will not give you a drag of my cigarette while you hide from your mother again, Leo.’

“I’d say the absolute truth is that I respect Leo a lot,” Depp added. “He worked really hard on that film and spent a lot of time researching. He came to set and he was ready to work hard and all his ducks were in a row.”

1. Donnie Brasco (Mike Newell – 1997)

Based on a true story, Newell’s 1997 crime drama stars Depp as a young FBI agent Joseph Pistone who goes undercover as “The Jewel Man,” Donnie Brasco. 

The distinction between a law enforcer and a mobster gets blurred as Pistone becomes the protege of aging gangster Lefty Ruggiero (played by Al Pacino). This film proved that Depp, a rising star, could hold his own among some of the top actors in the industry.

“I’m a huge fan of some of the better films of the genre, like The Godfather I and IIGoodfellas and Casino,” the actor revealed. “But for me, those films slightly romanticize the Mafia and they deal with the upper echelons. While researching Donnie Brasco, I didn’t meet too many of the upper-echelon guys, but I met some of the grunts, the soldiers.

“These guys are really funny guys, and very charming. They’d do anything for a score. They will bust a parking meter open, they do that kind of stuff. There’s a whole lot of humour in the film. One thing I like is that the film doesn’t glorify the Mob and it certainly doesn’t glorify the FBI. There are no winners and I think that is more like life.”

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