By ANGELA DAWSON
Front Row Features
HOLLYWOOD—In the sci-fi epic “Transcendence,” Johnny Depp plays Will Caster, an artificial intelligence researcher whose consciousness is uploaded into his machinery after he is assassinated by an extremist. But Will’s thirst for knowledge soon evolves into a seemingly omnipresent quest for power, which doesn’t sit well with either the anti-technology extremist group that killed him or the U.S. government.
The 51-year-old actor, newly engaged to actress Amber Heard, recently spoke about his new role, his own thoughts about artificial intelligence, his recent bizarre trip to China and jamming with Paul McCartney.
Though Depp was wearing his much talked about diamond engagement ring during the interview, he was tight-lipped about his upcoming nuptials. Dressed in his signature beat up fedora, tinted glasses and donning a goatee and mustache, the actor was in a playful mood.
Q: When your character in this movie becomes an image on a TV screen, did you think of the ‘80s MTV icon Max Headroom?
Depp: (He chuckles.) I did feel a little bit like Max Headroom. I guess the worst part is I liked it. I liked being in my little dark room. It’s all done through videotape and sound. I think this film is essentially about a man chosen by God to grow a long beard, grab a few insects, a couple of animals and know the rest of the world will be slaughtered, but the animals will come to him and follow through. That’s “Noah?” Oh, Noah! Sorry, I was in that one as well. I played Russell Crowe. That beard was a bitch too, seriously.
Q: Your character seems to age backwards in this.
Depp: That’s “Benjamin Button.” I was in that one too—as Brad Pitt.
Q: What are your thoughts on artificial intelligence?
Depp: Having no intelligence, I’m looking forward to gaining something, whether artificial, superficial or super duper, as in the names of some of the Chinese TV shows that you see, like “Super Happy Funship Rocket Hour Cowboy Time.” Actually, I thought there was something very beautiful to (director Wally Pfister’s) idea, the sort of disintegration of the character, and to really watch him slowly kind of go out. That was well researched by Wally. It was pretty much the progression – to be uploaded and finally brought to this. Essentially, I suppose once he’s inside (the computer) PINN, he could become anything. One of the things, hopefully, that came across as he became a brighter, chippier, younger version of Will, he became the version of Will that Evelyn wants to see as opposed to the Will who can’t button his shirt correctly.
Q: Speaking of China, how did you enjoy your recent visit there?
Depp: It was amazing, just an amazing experience on a cultural level. Constant information and something new everywhere you look. I found real warmth in the people. The people were very sweet and welcoming. It was quite a turnout. A lot of strange things went down that I’d rather not talk about ever again in my life.
Q: Like what?
Depp: The two guys on the television show that had the haircuts. I was bookended in-between by their hairdos. Then it went from one place to the next. There were the four quadruplet Chinese boys dressed in Shaolin priest outfits. (The spelling of) “Transcendence” comes out to four Chinese characters. They had shaved those characters onto those little boys’ heads. So they come out on stage with me. I’m pretty shy; I tend to run when that kind of thing happens. Little boys with their heads shaved with the name of the film? That scares me. But I trusted the little boys. Yeah, China was a great success. (He laughs.) No, it’s wonderful place. They took me to place called the 7-9-8 District, which was an abandoned bomb factory from the time of Mao. Slowly but surely artists started moving in there. More and more came, and then they made a deal with the government to rent the space, and they’ve turned it into the 7-9-8 District. It’s just artists and artisans—people who make flutes and giant sculptures and wonderful paintings. It’s very diverse, so, yeah, that was a real eye opener for me. I’ve never seen an artist colony where people live, thrive and get along. Everything was beautiful.
Q: Your character in this film reminded me of Frankenstein.
Depp: (quips) It’s because I watched “Frankenstein.”
Q: Your character becomes Dr. Frankenstein and the monster as well. Did “Frankenstein” inspire you when you were playing your character?
Depp: No. I wish it had. It would have been brilliant to say, so I think I will say that for the rest of the day. But, no, I didn’t give it any thought at all. But in an hour and a half, it’ll be the whole basis for my character. Thanks for that.
Q: Did you see Will as a bad guy?
Depp: You could make an analogy to a security guard guy who three weeks prior to, he was mowing lawns for a living, the second he puts on a uniform and a badge, boing, he’s, like, a man. I’d imagine the majority of us all have felt the wrath of the overzealous security guard guy. Is there something lying dormant in the man that’s waiting to be pumped up with that kind of power? Don’t know. Does it reveal him? Don’t know. Does it change him? Don’t know. When Will is in the computer and growing in the computer with this rapid pace, growing through PINN, does any bad person think they’re doing bad things? Historically, they all thought they had a pretty decent cause. A few were off by quite a lot, and they were dumb. I think Will is dedicated to the cause and maybe the power. When you realize you’re essentially you’re God, there ain’t nothing on earth more powerful than you, you can do anything you want. You can transfer every cent from the Bank of England into an account in Syria. You can do anything you want. Will was just so focused on the cause. It’s sort of like (Argentine revolutionary) Che Guevara, you get into it, too far into it, maybe.
Q: Will is such a romantic, doing what he could to be with his wife forever. But do you think he went too far? Have you ever done anything that went too far?
Depp: (He laughs.) So many things come into my mind. I could come up with a 45-minute doozy for you.
Q: Like what?
Depp: We’d all go to jail. We’d all be implicated. Yes! (Co-star) Paul (Bettany) told me to say, “Yes.” I’ve done horrible things in my life.
Q: And it went wrong?
Depp: Things go wrong all the time, especially between me and technology. I’m not familiar with it and I’m too old school a brain and dumb to be able to figure it out. Anything I have to attack with my thumbs for any period of time makes me feel stupid. So I try to avoid it as much as possible—to protect my thumbs, of course.
Q: Will’s wife, Evelyn (played by British actress Rebecca Hall), does everything she can to save the man she loves. Do you think you should do anything for the one you love or is there a line you shouldn’t cross?
Depp: A choice of that degree, as Wally (Pfister, the director) has spoken to a lot of the high ups, the hoity-toity scientists and scholars and these incredible people, so knowing that part of the great technology is active, is actually happening, and the technology we’re talking about in terms of uploading a human consciousness is probably not far away. Indeed, it will happen. It’s pretty close.
Q: Would you make the same choice as Evelyn to upload her husband’s consciousness to a computer?
Depp: Technology is moving and reshaping itself every day radically. If her character was in that situation and the technology/intelligence existed right this second and given a split second to decide, we’re all capable of answering that question ourselves with the person you love: would you do it? Would you be married to a hard drive? Think about how technology is moving so rapidly. Things become obsolete very very quickly. So let’s say, Will Caster, in 15 years time, is going to be in some weird room in Vegas, and people are plugging quarters into him.
Q: One of the recurring things about your performances has been the physicality of the characters and the distinctive look of your characters. In “Transcendence,” your character looks like a normal guy. Does that make it harder or easier for you take on this role because you don’t have a facade?
Depp: It’s always more difficult and slightly exposing to play something that’s close to the surface, something that’s close to yourself. I always try to hide because I can’t stand the way I look. I think it’s important to change every time, and come up with something that’s as interesting as you can for your characters. It really depends on what the screenplay is asking of you and what your responsibility is to that character. You have the author’s intent to deal with, and the filmmaker’s vision and then you have your own wants, needs and desires for the character. It’s collaborative. But I knew right off the bat there was no need to go into pink-haired, clown nose, Ronald McDonald shoes at the same time. (Someone’s phone goes off.) What’s that noise? I’m in China again!
Q: Mr. Depp, how was it working with a first time director?
Depp: (pretends to be alarmed) My dad’s here? Sorry, I was spaced out for a second. I thought it was an intervention. I feel better now. What was the question? No, I’m kidding. I met Wally, ironically, on a video clip for Paul McCartney that Paul had asked me to take part in. I was aware of Wally’s work as director of photography. He’s a legend. On the McCartney thing, we had set up a shot—Paul was directing—Wally had set up a shot, and then we’d go and play guitar. He and I would sit there and play guitar, and then Paul would come over and the three of us would play guitar. We’d kind of subtly make him teach us things, Beatles songs. We just instantly got along.