Is Colin Farrell Everything Johnny Depp Could Have Been?

Above: Johnny Depp may get the greater praise, but Farrell has become the superior actor
Above: Johnny Depp may get the greater praise, but Farrell has become the superior actor

As the trailer for Alice Through the Looking Glass pops onto the television, promoting the film’s arrival this weekend, there is Johnny Depp, reprising his role as The Mad Hatter, glossy white with makeup and adorned in the kind of garish costume the character is known for wearing.

But those costumes aren’t limited to when Depp is playing The Hatter. In many of his signature roles, he’s spending copious amounts of time in wardrobe and makeup, being transformed into Captain Jack Sparrow or Sweeney Todd or Edward Scissorhands. It has become one of Depp’s signature traits as a movie star and it feels like it buys him a great deal of leeway with fans and critics who give him credit for diving into the role of Tonto in The Lone Ranger and skip over the fact that it was a train wreck of a film.

He’s become those NBA veterans that make the All-Star Game each year on reputation instead of results. He’s Kobe Bryant. You know the name; you know what you’ve come to expect and even though what you’re seeing isn’t as good as it once was, the connection between name and expectation keeps you from admitting his game has slipped or offering the same critical assessments you’d make if it wasn’t Kobe Bryant or Johnny Depp.

The other problem for Depp in these roles is that he’s Johnny Depp, Movie Star, where even though he’s deep in character, he’s still Johnny Depp. It was one of the issues with Black Mass, the film about Boston mob boss James “Whitey” Bulger. Depp was good, but it comes off as “Johnny Depp playing Whitey Bulger” and it takes away from the picture.

While you have to give Depp credit for often pursuing the oddballs and trying to give depth and breadth to some of these characters, it also makes you look at some of the more “normal” – for lack of a better word – roles he’s played and wonder if he hasn’t come up short in terms of the portfolio he could have put together for his career?

Standing in contrast to Depp’s ultraviolet Mad Hatter are a number of the characters Colin Farrell has portrayed, including True Detective’s Ray Velcoro, Marty in Seven Psychopaths and the anxiety-riddled hitman Ray in Martin McDonagh’s In Bruges.

Farrell seems to land at the opposite end of the spectrum as Depp when it comes to how his perceived image dictates what people think of his performances. His big swings and misses like Alexander and “leading man in an action film” roles are held against him, usually in combination with his having really enjoyed life as a rising star in Hollywood when he first arrived in the public eye.

Where Depp gets to play dress up in Mortdecai and avoids being roasted for such a ridiculous film, Farrell can’t escape having played Jim Street in S.W.A.T. and Sonny Crockett in Michael Mann’s Miami Vice, even though the truth is that he’s become the kind of deep, quality actor Depp only shows glimpses of being.

If Depp is Kobe Bryant, making All-Star Game appearances on his name, Farrell is Damian Lillard, the Portland Trailblazers point guard who constantly gets overlooked even though he’s deserving of a place on the roster. Some of it is because there are other great guards/actors around him – Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, Michael Fassbender, Tom Hardy – but part of it is because some folks can’t see passed the bigger name that has continuously been in the spotlight.

But just as NBA heads know Lillard is the far superior player to Bryant right now, Farrell has morphed into the actor Depp probably could have become if he wanted to showcase his chops as much as he wants to put on costumes. Make no mistake about it: Johnny Depp is a very good actor, but he’s not as good as the praise he receives, while Farrell is rounding into form and should be getting more recognition for his resurgence and what the future may hold.

Where you can never see passed Depp in any of his performances, Farrell disappears into his characters, not quite to the level of someone like Daniel Day-Lewis or Christian Bale, but it feels like he’s starting down that path.

Season 2 of True Detective wasn’t great, but Farrell’s Velcoro – sporting a moustache and bolo ties, battling with being a compromised soul – was outstanding. His coke-head, sleazy-bag Bobby Pellitt in Horrible Bosses is one of the best things about the movie and the kind of role that Depp never really takes, but that seems like he could have thrived on and it’s where Farrell continues to excel.

Depp may get the greater praise, but Farrell has become the superior actor.

E. Spencer Kyte

E. Spencer Kyte

E. Spencer Kyte is a freelance journalist based in Abbotsford, British Columbia, where he lives with his wife and dog. In addition to his work here, he writes about sports for Complex Canada and covers the UFC for various outlets. His mom also still tells him what to do on a regular basis, even though he’s nearly 40. He tweets from @spencerkyte.

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