Dark Shadows: Interview with Johnny Depp

Tim Burton brings TV cult classic series “Dark Shadows” to the big screen in a film boasting an all-star cast, led by Johnny Depp in his eighth collaboration with Burton.

In 1750, Joshua and Naomi Collins, with young son Barnabas, set sail from England to start a new life in America, where they build a fishing empire in the coastal Maine town that comes to carry their name: Collinsport.

Johnny Depp plays Barnabas, the master of Collinwood Manor. He is rich, powerful and an inveterate playboy–until he makes the grave mistake of falling in love with a beauty named Josette DuPres (Bella Heathcote) and breaking the heart of Angelique Bouchard (Eva Green).

Nearly two centuries later, Barnabas is inadvertently freed from his tomb and emerges into the very changed world of 1972, a stranger in an even stranger time. Returning to Collinwood Manor, he finds that his once-grand estate has fallen into ruin, and the dysfunctional remnants of the Collins family have fared little better, each harboring their own dark secrets.

Depp as Producer
Johnny Depp, who stars as Barnabas Collins, recalls, “There was nothing like it, certainly not in the daytime, with its vampires and ghosts and witches. I’ve always been attracted to that genre, even as a very young kid, so when I got hold of ‘Dark Shadows,’ I didn’t let go.”

Decades later, he is playing the film’s central and also producing the movie, with Richard D. Zanuck, Graham King, Christi Dembrowski and David Kennedy.

“Dark Shadows” marks Depp’s eighth collaboration with Tim Burton, his most frequent and favorite director.
The film continues their remarkable cinematic partnership. “Obviously, the one person who immediately came to mind to bring this project to life was Tim,” Depp states. “He became really pumped up about it as we began to develop it.”

Passion
“Johnny always puts 100 percent into everything he does, and I could tell right away he had a passion for this,” says Burton. “I was excited to see where we could go with the story, and I knew it would be a lot of fun.”

The role of vampire Barnabas Collins was conceived by Dan Curtis and famously originated by Jonathan Frid. Introduced almost a full year after the series’ debut, the character quickly caused the ratings to soar and came to define the show.

Years before Burton’s film version of “Dark Shadows” became a reality, Johnny Depp had been hand-picked to assume the role of Barnabas by the series creator. Curtis, together with David Kennedy, had long wanted to bring the series to the big screen and, in the mid-2000s, approached Depp with the idea of a film, starring the actor as Barnabas.

I am Honored

Depp says he was “honored that Dan saw me for the role of Barnabas Collins,” also revealing that his portrayal pays homage to the actor who first played the role. “Every angle I tried, I kept coming back to Jonathan Frid’s iconic performance. He did something striking with that character, so my Barnabas is largely based on his, with a few other ingredients thrown in and slightly more flowery language…a little bit more of a vocal style in terms of enunciation.”

Willing to Try Anything

For Burton, one of the joys of working with Depp is the actor’s ability to push himself. “Johnny is willing to try anything. He’s always coming up with new things, which we both enjoy. So every time we work together is different, and that’s what keeps it fun and fresh.”

Zanuck observes, “Each collaboration between the two of them is quite amazing—Tim comes up with these incredible ideas and Johnny translates them on the screen. They know each other so well, Johnny can tell by Tim’s expression whether he likes something, or Tim will say one or two things and Johnny will immediately get what Tim wants.”

A vampire’s most distinctive trait is his fangs, and Depp had several choices with which to work. Harlow details, “We had some that were curved and others that were straight, one short set and one longer one. We even had a set that were more like rattlesnake fangs, which came down from behind the teeth. We also had a set that were activated by the way Depp opened his mouth; the fangs would drop down into place.”

Another of Barnabas’ sharpest features were his pointed fingernails tipping elongated fingers. Burton comments, “There was something about the fingers that was important to me, just the way a vampire touches things. I think it also helped with the emotional quality of the character’s expression.”

My Hands Make the Character

“The hands really helped make the character, although I had to learn how to touch things or pick things up about three inches from where my fingers actually were. It took a little while but I got used to it, and it completed the look.”

Graham King says, “Johnny just dove into this role; you could see his commitment in the hours and hours of hair and makeup he had to go through every day, as well as in his performance. Barnabas says and does some pretty outlandish things, but Johnny’s delivery is totally straight-faced as if it’s the most natural thing in the world. No one does these kinds of characters better than he.”

When Barnabas returns to Collinwood Manor, the only person who knows his true identity—and the fact that he is now a vampire—is matriarch Elizabeth Collins Stoddard. Telling the family he’s a distant relative, she attributes his rather odd behavior to the fact that he’s from England.

Kindred Spirit
“I think Barnabas finds a kindred spirit in Elizabeth,” says Depp, “because she has tried to uphold the family name and is as dedicated as he is to restoring them to their previous stature.”

Pfeiffer, who plays Elizabeth, reveals that when she heard Tim Burton was planning a film version of her onetime favorite show, “I got so excited, I did something I never do: I called him about a part in the movie. There was no script at that point and I said, ‘I don’t know if there’s anything remotely right for me in this, but I want you to know I’m a huge fan of this show’. I knew I would kick myself if I didn’t because I really wanted to do this.”

With no rehearsal time prior to the start of principal photography, Burton found a way to put his entire main cast in the mindset of their respective roles. He gathered them together on the set for a photo session in which they replicated a famous image of the original television cast, all standing in the foyer of Collinwood Manor.

Burton recounts, “The day before shooting, we had everyone get into costume, and recreated that photo. It was amazing. In about 30 seconds, people found their characters. It was a good way of getting everybody into the same vibe.”

Christopher Lee as Depp’s Hero
The cast of “Dark Shadows” also includes cameos by some familiar stars. One pivotal scene features Christopher Lee, who has worked in four Tim Burton films. In this movie he plays local fisherman Silas Clarney, who ends up on the hook of Barnabas’ hypnotic powers.
Depp says generously and proudly: “Christopher Lee is not only one of my great acting heroes, he’s also someone I consider a friend and mentor, so it was wonderful that we got him for this role.”

Great Respect for TV Series
Depp says: “The film pays homage to the series, but at the same time, they put together something totally original.”

“It was done with great respect for the series and for Dan Curtis,” he affirms. “I hope die-hard fans will love it because you don’t get more die-hard than myself, Michelle Pfeiffer, or Tim Burton.”

Burton reflects, “I wanted to straddle the line between the old and the new to concoct something fun for both generations. Times have changed, but I think these characters are timeless.”