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Casting the Characters
When Tim Burton proposed the role of Willy Wonka to his friend and frequent collaborator, two-time Oscar nominee Johnny Depp, he was barely able to get the words out. As Depp relates the conversation, "We were having dinner and he said, ‘I want to talk to you about something. You know that story, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory? Well, I'm going to do it and I'm wondering if you'd want to play….' and I couldn't even wait for him to finish the sentence. I said, ‘I'm in. Absolutely. I'm there.' No question about it.”

"To be chosen to play Willy Wonka in itself a great honor,” says Depp, a long-time fan of Dahl's work, "but to be chosen by Tim Burton is double, triple the honor. His vision is always amazing, beyond anything you expect. Just the fact that he was involved meant I didn't need to see a script before committing. If Tim wanted to shoot 18 million feet of film of me staring into a light bulb and I couldn't blink for three months, I'd do it.” 

Before long the two were poring over Burton's preliminary sketches, discussing Wonka's look and the themes of the story, falling into a familiar creative rhythm that began when the director cast Depp as the lead in the 1990 poignant fantasy Edward Scissorhands. They subsequently re-teamed for the critically acclaimed Ed Wood and Sleepy Hollow and are currently working together on the stop-motion animated feature Tim Burton's Corpse Bride. 

"Johnny is a great character actor in many ways,” says Burton – "a character actor in the form of a leading man. That's what struck me about him from the very beginning and it's what makes him such an intriguing actor – the fact that he's not necessarily interested in his image but more in becoming a character and trying different things. He's willing to take risks. Each time I work with him he's something different.”

"He's a tremendously insightful actor,” adds Grey. "He came to the project with respect for the book and also a sense of how he could do something very special with this character. I can't think of anyone we'd rather have in the role. Sometimes the right magical combination comes together and I believe that's what we have here: Roald, Tim, and Johnny.”

Above all, Depp approached the role with "a great sense of affection for Wonka.” 

Forced to open his beloved factory for the first time in 15 years to find an heir, Wonka is uncomfortable with the unfamiliar human contact. As Depp suggests, "he puts on his game face in front of people but underneath he has a great anxiety about actual contact or closeness. I believe he's a germophobe, which is why he wears gloves, and in addition to the gloves it's as if he's wearing a mask. There are moments during the tour when we catch Wonka acting, and acting badly, literally reading off cue cards. I don't think he really wants to spend any time with these people. I think he's struggling, from the first second, to put on an act for them and keep a smile.  "At the same time,” Depp continues, "a part of him is genuinely excited about being the grand showman, like P.T. Barnum, pointing out everything he's created and saying, ‘hey, look at this! Look what I've done, isn't this wonderful?'” 

"Willy Wonka is an eccentric,” notes Zanuck. "He's odd, he's funny, he's aloof yet terribly vulnerable; it's an interesting composite, both childlike and deep at the same time. No other actor could give this character the kind of depth, range and spin it requires. Johnny has an incredible gift.”

Burton and Depp worked with Academy Award-winning costume designer Gabriella Pescucci (The Age of Innocence, Van Helsing) to arrive at precisely the right look for Wonka, which resulted in a total of 10 different plush jackets and overcoats. In keeping with the timeless quality of Dahl's tale, wardrobe was, Pescucci says, "contemporary, but with some old-world styling.” <

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