'Finding Neverland'

THESP FILE
Upcoming:
“Charlie and the Choco-late Factory,” directed by Tim Burton, co-starring Freddie Highmore
“Pirates of the Caribbean 2,” directed by Gore Verbinski, co-starring Orlando Bloom
“The Rum Diary,” directed by Benicio Del Toro, co-starring Josh Hartnett

Johnny Depp’s performance as “Peter Pan” playwright J.M. Barrie in “Finding Neverland” isn’t particularly flashy. It’s certainly no Jack Sparrow, the dippy swashbuckler of last year’s “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl,” the high-grossing summer blockbuster for which Depp earned his first Oscar nomination.

“He manages to be so subtle that you think he’s completely natural,” says “Neverland” director Mark Forster. “He can go from a dramatic scene into a playful scene, back and forth, effortlessly. His performance is so intrinsically fascinating and complex that it’s hard to see that he’s actually acting.”

And that’s the catch for voters during this awards season: Will they notice and reward Depp for playing an eccentric turn-of-the-century British writer who befriends a widow (Kate Winslet) and her four young boys, one of whom becomes the inspiration for Barrie’s best-known work?

Despite such eyebrow-raising accolades as People magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive, a not-so-long-ago appraisal as “box office poison” and a tendency to avoid the press, Depp has become one of the industry’s most respected talents.

“When you look at his body of work, from ‘Ed Wood’ to ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,’ any of the choices he has made as an actor, (you can see) he never wanted to be a movie star,” says Forster. “He has always made choices based purely on passion.”

A frequent lead in Tim Burton’s offbeat movies (“Edward Scissorhands,” “Ed Wood,” “Sleepy Hollow,” the upcoming “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”), Depp first gained fame on TV’s “21 Jump Street.” He earned raves for “Benny & Joon,” “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape” and “Donnie Brasco,” but, with few exceptions, has never been a box office favorite.

Forster says he immediately saw Depp as Barrie upon first reading the script.

“I was looking for a very internal performance, because that’s how I pitched it to him when I met him. I think he saw that as a challenge and was intrigued.

“We spoke a lot about Barrie. Barrie was a man who kept his cards very close to his chest. We both researched him, and came to the conclusion that he wasn’t a pedophile. He was asexual; he didn’t like to be touched or touch others. In our interpretation of the character, he was very restrained.”

Despite a reputation for reclusiveness, Depp was “very accessible and open” throughout the shoot, Forster says. The father of two in real life, Depp played with the youngsters on the set and even cracked them up by placing a whoopee cushion on Julie Christie’s chair during a dinner scene.

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