When he takes on a role, Johnny Depp often paints a watercolor portrait of the still-forming character to help find his face and personality. After putting the finishing touches on his painting for "Alice in Wonderland," Depp looked down at the Mad Hatter staring back at him from the canvas and giggled.
"I was thinking," the actor said, " 'Oh, my God, this one will get me fired!' "
It's hard to imagine any pink slips in the future for Depp, who, it could be argued, reigns as the biggest movie star in the world at the moment. But his version of the Mad Hatter for Tim Burton's interpretation of "Alice in Wonderland" has stirred interest and, early on, some skepticism from literary purists who say it's a far cry from the character as described in Lewis Carroll's 19th-century writings or from images in the collective public imagination shaped by years of stage productions and the 1951 Walt Disney animated classic.
Depp's extreme vision for the character - who arrives in theaters on March 5 - creates yet another vivid screen persona for the Hollywood chameleon who has played Sweeney Todd, Willy Wonka, Edward Scissorhands and a certain scoundrel named Jack Sparrow. The 46-year-old actor said his Hatter's springy mass of tangerine hair became a particularly important detail because of one of the suspected origins of the term "mad as a hatter."
In the 18th and 19th centuries, mercury was used in the manufacture of felt, and when used in hats it could be absorbed through the skin and affect the mind through maladies such as Korsakoff's syndrome. Hatters and millworkers often fell victim to mercury poisoning, which, in Carroll's time, had an orange tint - hence Depp's interest in adding brush strokes of that particular watercolor to his portrait.
"I think [the Mad Hatter] was poisoned - very, very poisoned," Depp said. "And I think it just took effect in all his nerves. It was coming out through his hair and through his fingernails, through his eyes."
"There's a great line in the book where the Hatter says, 'I'm investigating things that begin with the letter M," Depp said. "So I started kind of doing a little researching, reading a bunch. And you start thinking about the letter 'M' and Hatters and the term 'mad as a hatter' and 'mercury.' "
Depp was also intrigued by one of the Mad Hatter's nonsensical questions during a dizzying tea party: "Why is a raven like a writing desk?"
"I think he is referencing Edgar Allan Poe," Depp said, referring to the haunted author of "The Raven," which was published in 1845, two decades before Carroll's surreal tale reached the public. Depp let the two ideas germinate in his head, and it informed his own Hatter concoction.
Burton also draws his characters, and when he and his star compared their handiwork they grinned like the Cheshire Cat. "They were," Depp says, "very close."