Sir James Matthew Barrie, the writer of Peter Pan, said: “All characters, whether grown-ups or babes must wear a child’s outlook as their only important adornment.” Even though he said it in a much more innocent era, it still applies perfectly to the actor portraying him in the 21st century, Johnny Depp.
While Johnny is certainly all man, there has always been a childlike innocence to him that shines through in his work. Who can forget the comical sweetness of his Buster Keaton-obsessed character in Benny and Joon? Or the hopeful persistence of whacky film director Ed Wood? The vulnerable beauty of Edward Scissorhands, and more recently, the endearing earnestness Captain Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean? Johnny has certainly proven, since his film debut as Freddy fodder in 1984’s A Nightmare on Elm Street, that he can play just about any kind of character — but it’s the naï¿½ve ones that really strike a cord with his fans.
The director of Finding Neverland, Marc Forster (Monster’s Ball), says of his Ocsar-nominated star, “Johnny is perfect to represent a man who never wants to grow up because you can see that he has this very accessible child inside him from the choices of movie roles he makes. He brought something very special to the role, underplaying it in a way that really pays homage to the man we both believe Barrie wanted to be.”
The movie opens in 1903 in a London theater where Scottish playwright J.M. Barrie has just suffered seeing his latest play bomb with audiences. He needs to write something new, and quickly. As luck would have it, he soon meets the widowed Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (played by Kate Winslet) and her sons Peter, George, Jack and Michael. The kids spark something in Barrie’s imagination as he watches them at carefree play, and he realizes that he himself never wanted to grow up. What audience couldn’t relate to a character that represents eternal innocence?
Although Barrie was married (Mrs. Barrie is played by Radha Mitchell), he developed a very close bond with Sylvia and her sons, especially Peter (Freddie Highmore, soon to be seen acting with Depp again in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory). He soon started spending almost all his waking hours with the Davies’.
Johnny says he enjoyed playing the undercurrent of unspoken love between his character and Kate’s. “The film never seems to go quite where you expect it go,” he says. “It never turns into a sentimental love story of two people destined to be together or that sort of thing. Instead, it’s a much more complicated and moving relationship between two people who need each other on a level that’s really beyond explanation or words.”
For Kate, working with Johnny drove home the film’s idea that anyone can tap into the spontaneity and adventure of being a child again. “Johnny was so able to be a child on the set that it was sort of like working with five children for me!” she laughed.
Kate is a mom in real life, so she was able to relate on a deep level to playing the fiery bohemian mother of a brood of charming young boys in a time of compulsory formality. “The character of Sylvia is such an interesting person,” she says, “because she’s a very modern mother in an era when the view of children was just starting to change. Most people still believed children should be seen and not heard, and children were typically kept away from the adult life in the household. Sylvia does things differently, and she reflects a change in how children were raised. She’s very involved in her children’s upbringing and she encourages them to be free spirits. I love the fact that she’s such a nonconformist.”
Johnny is also a parent, and he had a lot of fun working with the kids in Finding Neverland. “You’d expect that these little boys would be climbing the walls on a movie set, but they had incredible concentration and focus. In fact, sometimes we had to loosen them up,” he says with a sly smile. “For the dinner party scene, for example, Marc and I planned in advance that I could use my fart machine at certain moments. We hid the machine under the table and waited until the boys’ close-ups and then I just started nailing them, and it worked like a charm.”
Just as Peter Pan was a play, so was Finding Neverland (written by Alan Knee). J.M Barrie’s world-renowned play Peter Pan, Or The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up, celebrates its 100th anniversary in December 2004, just in time for Finding Neverland’s release. Of the source material, Johnny says, “It’s a masterpiece of imagination, and the result of the most remarkable inspiration. It’s one of those rare perfect things in the world that will always be with us and this was a wonderful opportunity to explore where such a powerful story might have come from.”
Peter Pan Trivia (courtesy of Miramax Films)
- Once J.M. Barrie wrote it, Peter Pan took on a life of its own, becoming not just a popular play and then a beloved novel (published as Peter and Wendy in 1911) but a part of the public imagination. Passed down from generation to generation, the story has woven itself into the consciousness of children and adults in Europe, America and beyond.
- The birth of children’s literature as a popular commercial genre. Although there previously was a long tradition of children’s literature beginning with adaptations of Robinson Crusoe and The Arabian Knights, Barrie’s novel of Peter Pan, sparked a revolution in literature, proving that child readers were just as vital a market as their parents.
- The word “Neverland,” which is now included in the American Heritage Dictionary, defined as “an imaginary and wonderful place; a fantasy land.”
- The name Wendy, which was invented by J.M. Barrie based on an associate’s young daughter, Margaret Henley, who, unable to pronounce an “R,” used to call Barrie “my fwendy.” Though Margaret died at age six, she lives on in the character of Wendy, who also inspired many parents to name their girls after her.
- An enduring fashion style: “The Peter Pan collar,” a name that came to represent the large, rounded collars that boys of the period often sported.
- Thousands of theatrical stagings, a Broadway musical, numerous films and television shows, an animated classic, a beloved Disney theme park ride, and a Peter Pan statue in Kensington Garden, among other incarnations.
- A tradition of cross-gender casting for the role of Peter Pan. The first actress to play Peter Pan was 37 year-old Nina Boucicault, sister to the play’s first director, whose casting started a trend. It wasn’t until 1982 that a male was first cast as Peter Pan in England. The role continues to be sought by actors of both sexes.
- Millions of dollars for the Great Ormand Street Children’s Hospital in England. The copyright for Peter Pan was bequeathed by Barrie to the hospital, which over the years has used the substantial proceeds to treat countless needy children.