As a 5 year-old kid, Johnny Depp was an avid fan of The Lone Ranger, watching the TV series religiously, but something about the show was troubling to him. “There was something wrong,” he tells me when I meet him at a ranch in Santa Fe, New Mexico. “How come the red guy (Tonto) has to go and do this or fetch that or be the sidekick? Why is the white guy so prevalent and adored?” These troubling thoughts tenanted his mind for a long time.
The Lone Ranger is a masked ex-Texas Ranger, who survives an attack by Butch, who kills all his comrades in an ambush. A Native American, Tonto, saves him and becomes his trusted companion as he marches across the plains, fighting injustice in the American Old West.
The Lone Ranger first appeared in 1933 in a radio show, which spawned a series of books and a popular TV show that ran from 1949 to 1957. It has also been adapted into several movies. All these iterations of The Lone Ranger consistently depicted Tonto as a one dimensional sidekick, who lacked culture and substance. Other Native American characters were also portrayed as primitive savages, as was the case in other Hollywood movies.
Depp, who witnessed Marlon Brando’s undying passion for the rights of Native Americans, wanted to change that, so when he was offered the chance to play Tonto in Disney’s new The Lone Ranger in 2006, he leaped on the opportunity to present Indian Americans truthfully and honestly, and wipe out the 100 years of Hollywood cliche.
“It’s really the only reason I made the film to be honest,” he stresses. “It was something that I always wanted to do: to take that away. It’s a small chip on the boulder, but you gotta start somewhere.”
Directed by Depp’s collaborator on Pirates of the Caribbean and Rango, Gore Verbinsky, the new version of The Lone Ranger is narrated by and told from the perspective of Tonto, who becomes not only relevant but also the the central character, who actually manufactures The Lone Ranger,who is played by Armie Hammer.
Interestingly though, Tonto still speaks stilted English and chants incomprehensible prayers. Depp says that he did that deliberately in order not to alienate the audience who are conditioned to perceive Native Americans in a certain way, and gradually lead them onto a journey with Tonto. “I thought it would have been dumb to not embrace that and give the people what they thought they wanted,” he says. “At first, get them comfortable with that and then take it to another level with the character. That was my hope.”
Indeed, the 50-year-old actor lends Tonto the affability, intelligence and the playfulness that we often sense in the characters he plays, such as Edward Scissorhands, Jack Sparrow and Willie Wonka. Tonto utters hardly any words, but the gestures of his face, the twinkles of his eyes and movement of his body speak volumes. Inspired by Buster Keaton, Depp approached the story as a silent film. “My hope was that Tonto as the observer would become the eyes and the ears of the audience in a way,” Depp reflects. “Let’s minimise the dialogue and let it play in his face and his eyes. It tells much more of a story. I always have believed in that.”
Depp has also endowed Tonto with a new image based on a painting by artist Kirby Sattler, which he had seen online. Instead of the thin headband and dangling fringes that Hollywood had him wear, Tonto is shirtless, adorned with feathers, his face painted white with black stripes, and a stuffed crow atop his head.
“I loved the idea of the stripes down the face which would represent let’s say, personalities or bits of his brain,” Depp explains. “I saw this person split into quarters, by the painting. And there was a bird flying behind him, and I thought ‘Well, wouldn’t it be great if that bird was on top of his head?’ so Tonto came to me in a kind of series of images.”
The megastar’s efforts to resurrect and shed a positive light on the Native American’s culture were not lost on the Comanche (Tonto’s tribe), who made him an honorary member, while he was filming the movie. He was also given a Comanche name “Mawomey,” which means “shape-shifter.” Some Native Americans, however, were not impressed and accused him of perpetuating a stereotype through a character that lacks any cultural traits and in perverting the history of westward expansion that was devastating to their people. A charge that Depp, who claims that his grandmother had Indians roots, flatly rejects.
“Gore and I went through the script with Justin (the screenwriter) and sliced it as thin as you can,” he says. “It was microscopic, because I couldn’t stand the idea that there would be some juncture in the film where it might be questionable: what they meant and what they did and how they lived. It was very important to me.”
Indeed, Depp immersed himself into Comanche culture and even studied their language, in addition to hiring a Comanche advisor, William “Two-Raven” Voelker, who guided him through every step of the process. Nonetheless, his Native American critics were not satisfied, saying that he should’ve played The Lone Ranger and promoted a Comanche actor to portray Tonto. This decision, however, was made by the director, Gore Verbinsky, who told me earlier that he couldn’t find an a Native American actor of Depp’s calibre.
The heated debate about Depp’s portrayal of Tonto will probably simmer down when the star’s critics see the movie, because this is perhaps the first time that the whites are portrayed as covetous and brutal, and the Natives as noble and peaceful. As for Depp, he has heard only reassuring words from the Comanche nation and its chief, Chairman Coffey, who walked away from seeing the movie emotional and grateful.
“I was incredibly relieved and proud to hear that,” he enthuses. “Essentially I can’t blow smoke up my own buttocks, as it were. But he was proud, which made me feel very relieved.