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So long, kemo sabe

Johnny Depp wanted to take his latest role beyond the 'cowboys and Indians' clich© of the cinematic savage

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Johnny Depp as Tonto and Armie Hammer as The Lone Ranger.

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Johnny Depp as Tonto and Armie Hammer as The Lone Ranger.

Santa FE, N.M. -- On an episode of George Stroumboulopoulos a few months back, Manitoba-born actor Adam Beach good-naturedly derided the movie The Lone Ranger for casting white actor Johnny Depp in the iconic role of the aboriginal partner Tonto.

"For me, I'm like: Stay away from my territory," Beach said with a laugh. "Stick to another pirate movie, because I wanted to do it."

Other critics have not been as good-natured about Depp playing aboriginal.

So at a press conference for the film held last week in New Mexico (where much of the Gore Verbinski-directed film was shot), Depp had a chance to expound on why he took on the role in the tent-pole western event movie.

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You might say Depp blamed Marlon Brando, a longtime advocate for native issues with whom Depp worked in the comedy Don Juan De Marco.

"I learned more about this through the great mentor-father-friend that I had in Marlon Brando, that in the history of cinema, the Native American has been portrayed as a savage or as something lesser than," Depp said. "And, it was important to me to at least take a good shot at erasing that."

Certainly, Depp took steps to make Tonto more than just a stoic sidekick. If The Lone Ranger follows the template of the original serialized story of how a Texas Ranger named John Reid (Armie Hammer) became the titular masked hero, it gives equal time to Tonto's back story and his own mission of vengeance against Reid's nemesis, the demonic Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner).

"I can remember very well as a little kid seeing the series on TV, you know, the black-and-white series with Clayton Moore and the great Jay Silverheels," Depp says. "And as a very young child, I was always perturbed by the idea of Tonto being a sidekick. That just didn't register properly in my head.

"I felt, you know, no disrespect to anybody at all, certainly not Jay Silverheels, but I just thought it was potentially an opportunity to right the wrong."

Indeed, in the film, it is Tonto who effectively rescues the wounded John Reid and makes a mask for him out of the bullet-riddled coat of Reid's murdered brother.

"I think it's great that Tonto makes the Lone Ranger and I think it's a very poetic way that he creates the Lone Ranger, and I think it's right, finally."

Depp, like many people, can lay claim to some aboriginal blood in his background, especially his great-grandmother, the person he had in mind when he donned extraordinary old-age makeup to film the movie's framing device, featuring an ancient Tonto holding forth in an amusement park.

"I saw my great-grandmother who, apparently, has quite a bit of Indian blood and wore the braids and had the tobacco down her bosom. So yeah, that was the idea... to sculpt me into my great-grandmother."

Even so, Depp, 50, isn't surprised there's blowback from taking the role.

"I expected it," he says. "I still expect it, but as long as I know that I have done no harm, and represented, at the very least, the Comanche Nation in a proper light.

"There's always going to be naysayers," he says. "Everybody's got an opinion, man, you know.

"There's a great Christopher Hitchens quote. He said that everyone in the world has a book inside them, and that's exactly where it should stay.

"People can critique and dissect and do what they want," Depp says. "I know that I approached it in the right way, and that's all I can do, you know?"

randall.king@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 29, 2013 G1

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