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The Tonto Files: Behind the Facepaint

Jessica Metcalfe discusses Johnny Depp as Tonto with Gary Farmer, Chris Eyre, and Ben-Alex Dupris

The Tonto Files is an occasional series of ruminations and riffs on Tonto, a fictional sidekick from the radio days who is suddenly the world's most talked about Indian. That'll happen to a guy when Johnny Depp plays him in a $250 million summer blockbuster (coming June 2013). In this installment, Jessica Metcalfe consults some experts:

We know the arguments. We’ve read them all here on Indian Country Today: the sometimes heated discussions about Johnny Depp playing the lead role of Tonto in the new cowboy flick The Lone Ranger, produced by Disney hotshot Jerry Bruckheimer.

Before I get too far into this article, I have to state the fact that in Indian country we will never agree on anything, and this is a good thing. It means we are feisty and prepared to argue our opinions on any matter. And so even though Tonto won’t hit movie screens until July 2013, Indian country is already a buzz with discussions about this controversial character: "Why does Hollywood continue to stereotype Native people?" "Why aren’t there more Natives in Hollywood?" "Johnny Depp is/isn’t Native American!" and "What’s up with that bird on his head?"

Among the discussions is the rumor that Depp seeks to elevate the Indian character from a mere side-kick and the roles have flipped. Now we get to see things from Tonto’s perspective.

And (another) rumor has it that Depp really wanted to make this movie happen -- so much so that he and Bruckheimer slashed the film budget, even at the expense of their salaries. So what’s up with Depp pushing so hard to get Tonto out there? So I asked some film folks to get a different angle on Depp.

Native filmmaker Chris Eyre, Cheyenne/Arapaho, explained, "It’s too easy to bash this -- there’s too many shades of grey. And it's unintelligent to not look at Depp's relationships with Native actors and his contributions to Indian country."

More than just "a good actor" on the one hand or "perpetuating Hollywood stereotypes" on the other, it seems as though Depp is an intermediary. Writer Ben-Alex Dupris, Colville, stated, "Johnny Depp is a guy who has played the in-between his whole life."

Back in 1995, Depp played the lead role in Dead Man alongside Native actor Gary Farmer. Depp and Farmer have connections. Dupris was the one who tipped me off to the fact that the guy who directed Farmer in Powwow Highway (1989) also directed Depp in 21 Jump Street the year before (1988). Did Depp have a tiny role in getting Native films made? In getting Indians cast in big flicks? What exactly is his relationship with Natives in film anyway?

So I got in touch with Gary Farmer, and he tells an interesting story (probably one of many) of when he went to Berlin with Depp to receive an award. Dead Man had earned the Best Foreign Film award (the first American film to do so) at the European Academy Awards in 1997, and Farmer and Depp were sent as representatives. While they were there, Depp made arrangements to connect Farmer with Hunter S. Thompson, and suggested to Thompson that Farmer get a role in the then-upcoming Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. The role didn’t pan out, but we get a tiny glimpse of Depp as a Native advocate and promoter.

Also in 1997, Depp played the lead role in The Brave (which he also wrote and directed) alongside Marlon Brando (you know, the guy who turned down his Best Actor Oscar award as an objection to Hollywood’s depiction of Natives in film and television). Depp also shared the screen with a young Native actor named Cody Lightning who played his son, and that role extended off screen

Farmer explained, "My time on that set was so special -- to see Johnny be a dad to Cody. I think it’s how he learned to be a dad. He formed a real bond with Cody."

Yes, LaDonna Harris is not the first cool Indian to bring Depp into the family (and, just for clarification, adoption doesn’t mean you get tribal membership rights or even status as an Indian). Native film costumer Pilar Agoyo, San Juan Pueblo, explained it clearly: "Being adopted by Natives or American Indians does not make you Indian. It makes you adopted by Indians."

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Regardless of whether we understand Depp as a descendent of a tribe (or two), adopted by a Native leader, or a white guy playing Indian, or none of the above, the fact remains that Depp has been around Indian country for decades. Perhaps Depp is a guy who is genuinely interested in advancing the dialogue on Native depictions and representations in Hollywood.

PART II: Tonto Remix: The Depp Version

Dupris explained that this Lone Ranger script isn’t anything new. It’s been around for a while, but it wasn’t until Depp tacked his name onto it that it became a reality. "He’s a doer," Dupris said.

Eyre agrees, "The reason they didn’t cast Wolf Pack guys or Adam Beach as Tonto is because there wouldn’t be a movie without Johnny Depp. They are not going to let just anybody play a lead role in a 240 million dollar film unless it’s bona fide super star, and it is still a risk. There was no vehicle without Depp."

Even Farmer pointed out that there were two recent "Tontos" played by Native actors: Michael Horse in The Legend of the Lone Ranger in 1981, and Nathaniel Arcand in the WB network’s 2003 version of The Lone Ranger. Both were great guys and great actors looking to remake Tonto, yet both flicks flopped. Can Depp do any better?

In Eyre’s eyes, Depp took a huge risk, especially at this point in his career, to show a different view of Tonto and to comment on this significant iconic character. In the 1950s, The Lone Ranger was actually a form of "revisionist history," Dupris explained; it wasn’t a depiction of reality, it was a reflection of American ideas of its own history and self. Now, the new Lone Ranger and Depp are out to spin that story again.

Farmer explained, "Depp is a well-read man. To me he is trying to reshape children's literature and retell those stories. Think of all those movies he did with Tim Burton. He is re-shaping our literary world with a new vision."

Thanks to 1950s Hollywood decisions, Tonto is out there. Yet the question remains, does Indian country need or want a revised Tonto? Should we leave Tonto alone?

"Based on Johnny Depp as an artist, and him going all the way, and making this film happen, in my book, [he] deserves some credit," Eyre explained. "He wants to change the view of Tonto, and he put his reputation and his career on the line."

Farmer agrees: "I respect Depp and the chances that he takes -- the chances that someone like Tom Cruise doesn’t take because it’s so easy to get sold out in this industry, and to lose integrity over time."

Full disclosure, I agree with Adrienne Keene on the very simple fact that "It’s still Tonto; Johnny is still wearing face paint that looks like it should be in Kiss, and he has a dead bird on his head." And like Keene, I think we are all wondering, "What does it really mean on a broader level?" We won’t know until the final cut hits the screen and we can take in the full role. Maybe it will be terrible, but what if Depp is successful with turning the tables?

Farmer stated, "The pressure for him to do the right thing is immense. It's his cultural mission to retell what has been told. He's not a slouch, he'll do the work. Even if he has a bird on his head, he may have made the right choice."

Dr. Jessica Metcalfe, Turtle Mountan Chippewa, writes about Native American art, fashion, and design at Beyond Buckskin and operates the online store Beyond Buckskin Boutique. She wishes to thank to Ben-Alex Dupris, Chris Eyre, and Gary Farmer for their participation in this article.