Johnny Depp is no stranger to unfamiliar faces — but what exactly is the origin of his black-and-white painted warrior in The Lone Ranger?
The actor has a penchant for disappearing beneath heavy makeup and elaborate costumes in everything from Edward Scissorhands to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Alice in Wonderland, and the upcoming vampire comedy-thriller Dark Shadows.
It was clear from this first photo of Depp and Armie Hammer, released from The Lone Ranger set last month, that Depp was sticking by his word to make this Tonto a radical departure from the Jay Silverheels performance on the 1950s era TV show.
“I’d actually seen a painting by an artist named Kirby Sattler, and looked at the face of this warrior and thought: That’s it,” Depp said in a recent interview. “The stripes down the face and across the eyes … it seemed to me like you could almost see the separate sections of the individual, if you know what I mean.”
Well, not really … Separate sections of the individual?
Depp explained that the lines of paint on the Native American’s face looked to him like a cross-section of the man’s emotional life. “There’s this very wise quarter, a very tortured and hurt section, an angry and rageful section, and a very understanding and unique side. I saw these parts, almost like dissecting a brain, these slivers of the individual,” he said.”That makeup inspired me.”
The painting also provided inspiration for Tonto’s headdress. “It just so happened Sattler had painted a bird flying directly behind the warrior’s head. It looked to me like it was sitting on top,” Depp said, which led him to another eureka moment. “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.”
The title of Sattler’s original work is “I Am Crow,” and although there are Crow peoples native to the northern part of the American Midwest, Sattler says his paintings are not meant to refer to specific tribes. In the new film, Tonto is technically a full-blooded Comanche, and Depp identifies in real life as part Cherokee and Creek Indian, based on a Kentucky great-grandmother’s ancestry, so the character is proving to be less historically specific to one tribe than a blend of various cultures and influences.
Sattler himself, who licensed the look of his painting to the filmmakers, tells EW his work is a fusion of history and fiction. “The portraits I paint are composites created from a variety of visual references coupled with my imagination,” he says. “While being broadly based in a historical context, my paintings are not intended to be viewed as historically accurate. I used the combination of face paint and headdress as an artistic expression to symbolize the subject’s essence and his affinity to the Crow.”
The American Indian community has been divided over Depp’s Tonto. Leaders from the Navajo Nation visited the Monument Valley set and expressed support for Depp and the filmmakers, and Dana Lone Hill, a writer who identifies as part Lakota, penned an essaysaying she intended to give him the benefit of the doubt on adapting the character, since Depp is known for his fanciful and exaggerated performances.
In another column titled “Why Tonto Matters,” Native Appropriations blogger Adrienne K. expressed the frustration echoed by some other Native Americans over Depp’s characterization, saying there are too few authentic portrayals of Native people in pop culture to accept a highly fantasized version.
For his part, Depp has said his motivation to play the character came from disliking how Tonto was relegated to subservience in the old Clayton Moore/Jay Silverheels TV series. While the look may not be historically authentic, Depp wants Tonto’s character to be honorable and self-reliant.
“The whole reason I wanted to play Tonto is to try to [mess] around with the stereotype of the American Indian that has been laid out through history, or the history of cinema at the very least — especially Tonto as the sidekick, The Lone Ranger’s assistant,” Depp told EW. “As you’ll see, it’s most definitely not that.”
The Lone Ranger, directed by the original Pirates of the Caribbean filmmaker Gore Verbinski and produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, opens May 13, 2013.