Johnny Depp: into the woods of Sleepy Hollow Johnny Depp: Acting in character for Sleepy Hollow

Johnny Depp discusses his life and work, and taking inspiration from Basil Rathbone, Roddy McDowall and Angela Lansbury (really!) for his new movie Sleepy Hollow

A Shivers feature by Jean Cummings selected from Shivers #73

Johnny Depp has always chosen roles that are different, and in his newest film Sleepy Hollow he displays his talent for humour and drama in a film reminiscent of the Horror films of the ’50s and ’60s. Depp has the starring role in this new version of Washington Irving’s fable The Legend of Sleepy Hollow but the success of the film comes from the multi-faceted character of Ichabod Crane.

American-born Depp now lives with his wife Vanessa (Paradis) and their young daughter in France, but he had to adopt an English accent for the role of Crane. It is something he worked hard to develop. “You know what I did?” he responds to our inquiry. “I watched a lot of old Horror films. People like Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee.”

The inspiration for the character, he says, was in fact three people. “Number one was Basil Rathbone from the old Sherlock Holmes movies. Number two was a very great friend of mine that recently passed away, Roddy McDowell. He was a great man, a great actor and he was a very important model for the character. In a way this was my opportunity to tip my hat to him, to thank him, to salute him. The third was a terrific actress, Angela Lansbury, she was a great model for the character. I just tried to hold on to those three people and out of that came the accent.”

Depp is too modest to admit that the success of the character may have had something to do with his own talent as an actor, but whatever talent he has, he says, it is something he’s nurtured through constant education. “I’ve been blessed to know certain people who have been great teachers to me,” he says. “I think that every film you do is a kind of continuation of your education. You meet great teachers along the way. Marlon Brando was one, and he became a great friend. Al Pacino was another, Martin Landau, the list goes on. You learn from everybody.”

He insists that what he projects is only himself, not something he’s modeled on anyone else. “But there were people influencing me even before I was an actor. One was Buster Keaton, another was Charlie Chaplin, another was Lon Chaney – one of the greatest character actors ever to stand in front of the camera. Unbelievable performances..." he muses, "Unbelievable transformations.”

Chaney, of course, played some of the greatest Horror roles during his Hollywood career, popularising the Horror movie long before Karloff or Lugosi.

“I find all of those early stars very inspiring" says Depp, "but Chaney in particular. If I can be anything I would like to think that I can at least make an attempt at being a character actor. I think that is more important than just being a leading man.

Depp had his uneasy moments during the film. “I could keep my distance from the atmosphere of the film, the Horror element,” he says. “But you do get kind of wound up in these things. There were some scenes with the horseman that were pretty spooky. I got really scared.”

Jean Cummings


Miranda Richardson (Lady Van Tassel) in treebark-inspired costume

Sleepy Hollow marks Colleen Atwood’s fourth collaboration with Tim Burton. She has also earned Oscar nominations for both Little Women and Jonathan Demme’s Beloved

She previously worked with Burton on Mars Attacks, Edward Scissorhands and Ed Wood (and has Silence of the Lambs and Gattaca on her CV into the bargain - web Ed.) For Sleepy Hollow , Atwood’s research focused on period paintings and visual descriptions of costumes from books.

“There were no existing photographs,” comments Attwood, “but since this film is not a history lesson, the work becomes impressionistic.”

“People didn’t have a lot of clothing unless they were wealthy,” Atwood explains. “The idea with Ichabod’s costume was to make it very minimal and sleek.”

The more elaborate costumes were worn by the villagers of Sleepy Hollow – each one crafted by Atwood and her team from specially chosen fabrics.

The most extravagant dresses belonged to Lady Van Tassel (Miranda Richardson). “She’s definitely ruling the roost. When a character aspires to something greater, they take it to a different level.”

One of Atwood’s favorite costumes is a black and white dress worn by Lady Van Tassel. “It was such a challenge to create, and the way Miranda Richardson wore the costume was fantastic. The original inspiration was bark in the forest. I wanted the dress to fit in the woods, but still be very grand..."

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Images © Paramount • Feature © Visual Imagination Ltd 2000. Not for reproduction