The release last month of the first image of Johnny Depp and Armie Hammer in character from next summer’s big-budget western adventure The Lone Ranger didn’t particularly set the world on fire. One of the major question marks surrounding the troubled production was how Depp would look as the Ranger’s faithful Indian companion Tonto. In the months before the release of the first Pirates of the Caribbean, images of Depp in character as Captain Jack Sparrow led skeptics to believe the eclectic actor had gone off the deep end and the movie would be an epic bomb for Disney.
Instead Pirates was a blockbuster smash that finally made Depp a bona fide movie star and spawned a billion-dollar franchise for the Mouse House. It also established the quirky and roguish Captain Jack as the first iconic movie hero of the 21st century. Pretty soon the stylish swashbuckler would become a popular Halloween costume as well. Depp had taken an unusual approach in his ideas for the character’s look, much to the consternation of studio executives already sweating over the movie’s gargantuan (for 2002/3) budget and the nagging uncertainty of a pirate movie, much less one based on one of their famous theme park rides, but the gamble paid off handsomely.
With the iconoclastic Depp now a bankable star it’s no surprise that for The Lone Ranger the executives at Disney would be more than willing to afford him the luxury (in addition to his massive salary) of reinventing a character already ingrained in the minds of western fans for nearly eight decades. “The whole reason I wanted to play Tonto is to try to [mess] around with the stereotype of the American Indian that has been laid out through history, or the history of cinema at the very least — especially Tonto as the sidekick, The Lone Ranger’s assistant,” Depp said in an interview with Entertainment Weekly. “As you’ll see, it’s most definitely not that.”
The outcry from the Native American community and anti-defamation activists over Depp’s casting has not deterred the actor, who claims to have Cherokee and Creek Indian ancestry, from attempting to find a unique new look for his take on the Tonto character. He found his inspiration in an unlikely source:
“I’d actually seen a painting by an artist named Kirby Sattler, and looked at the face of this warrior and thought: That’s it. The stripes down the face and across the eyes … it seemed to me like you could almost see the separate sections of the individual, if you know what I mean.”
The painting by Kirby Sattler Depp is describing, which you can see here below, is called “I Am Crow.” The title references the Crow peoples who are native to the northern part of the American Midwest. The look of the man in the painting seems to fit in well with the character of Tonto as not belonging to a particular tribe and being more of a merging of historical fact and fiction, much like the movie itself.
“The portraits I paint are composites created from a variety of visual references coupled with my imagination,” Sattler said. “While being broadly based in a historical context, my paintings are not intended to be viewed as historically accurate. I used the combination of face paint and headdress as an artistic expression to symbolize the subject’s essence and his affinity to the Crow.”
One of the more curious aspects of the Tonto make-up is the series of black lines that run down his face. According to Depp, those lines are meant to symbolize the character’s emotional life. “There’s this very wise quarter, a very tortured and hurt section, an angry and rageful section, and a very understanding and unique side. I saw these parts, almost like dissecting a brain, these slivers of the individual,” Depp explained. “That makeup inspired me.”
The revitalized Tonto has been met with more than its fair share of criticism, much like Jack Sparrow was in the very beginning. No part of the character’s new look has been mocked as much as the crow that sits on top of his head, another inspiration from the Sattler painting. “It just so happened Sattler had painted a bird flying directly behind the warrior’s head. It looked to me like it was sitting on top,” Depp said. “I thought: Tonto’s got a bird on his head. It’s his spirit guide in a way. It’s dead to others, but it’s not dead to him. It’s very much alive.”
The Lone Ranger reunites Depp with the Pirates of the Caribbean team of director Gore Verbinski, writers Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, and producer Jerry Bruckheimer. Co-starring with Depp and Hammer are Helena Bonham Carter, William Fichtner, Tom Wilkinson, and Barry Pepper. The movie opens on May 13, 2013.
“I Am Crow” Painting by Kirby Sattler used with permission of sattlerartprint.com