Inside Johnny Depp’s Remarkable Transformation Into Funny or Die’s Donald Trump
In last year’s Black Mass, Johnny Depp used some heavy makeup and a thick accent to transform himself into Boston gangster Whitey Bulger. The dynamic performance failed to win him a Best Actor Oscar nomination. Now that he has done the same to become Donald Trump, he deserves all the awards.
Yes, on Wednesday morning, Funny or Die dropped a 50-minute video called Donald Trump’s The Art of the Deal: The Movie starring an unrecognizable Depp as the title character. Set nearly three decades before his current run for the presidency, the project has been presented as an uncovered made-for-TV movie written, directed and produced by Trump himself.
In reality, the idea for the video came from Funny or Die editor in chief Owen Burke, who, together with the site’s co-founder — and current Oscar-nominated director — Adam McKay, approached Depp to play the role in a meeting last fall.
Speaking to The Daily Beast by phone, Burke recounted the story of the meeting in which he looked at Depp and told him that back in the ‘80s, “Donald Trump wrote and directed and starred in a TV movie version of his own book,” The Art of the Deal.
“Really?” Depp asked in disbelief.
“No, that was a lie,” Burke replied, “but we’re saying that we found it and we’d like you to be Donald Trump.” When Depp answered with a yes, Burke said, “We couldn’t believe it.”
A huge fan of the actor’s performance as Hunter S. Thompson in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Burke said he knew Depp could “do anything,” including portray the figure who has arguably become the most famous man in America.
“He’s a chameleon, he’s a fantastic mimic, but more than that, he’s just a tremendous performer and a skilled actor,” Burke said. “Whenever he does a role, he brings to it what only Johnny Depp can bring to it.”
Depp’s portrayal of the real estate mogul certainly holds nothing back. The film’s premise finds him teaching the secrets behind his best-selling book to a young boy who wanders into his office, using his bid to buy the Taj Mahal as a prime example of his expertise. Midway through shooting, when he discovers the boy is Latino, he demands that he be recast. That joke repeats itself again and again until he finally lands on Jacob Tremblay from last year’s Room.
“He got into hair and makeup and he was in there for two to four hours,” director Jeremy Konner, who co-created the Drunk History series, told The Daily Beast of Depp’s transformation. “And I wouldn’t even really see him until he came out of hair and makeup. So there was this very weird disconnect where I felt like I was never actually working with Johnny Depp, which made it a lot easier to work with Johnny Depp.” Had he actually been “staring at Johnny’s face,” Konner said he would have been a lot more nervous.
“He really wanted to play around and improvise and and we surrounded him with, in my eyes, the best improvisational actors in the world,” Konner added, referring to comedians like Paul Scheer, Jason Mantzoukas and Andy Richter. “So they really got to fuck around.”
“I’m not going to lie, it is the weirdest thing I think I’ve ever done,” Konner said. “I think of it as a psychedelic ‘80s fever dream.”
Among the plethora of familiar faces playing figures from Trump’s past are Alfred Molina as Jerry Schrager, Henry Winkler as Ed Koch, Patton Oswalt as Merv Griffin, Andy Richter, and Alf, Michaela Watkins took on the role of Ivana Trump. Watkins, who has previously played both Ayn Rand and Serial host Sarah Koenig for Funny or Die relished the chance to work with Depp.
“While I always dreamed of working and of course kissing Johnny Depp one day — I hadn't intended it to be through four inches of prosthetics and makeup,” Watkins told The Daily Beast via email. “Nonetheless, his eyes and his personality exude nothing but warmth and kindness. And c'mon — his take on Trump? The best. What a talented dude.”
Comedian Rob Huebel, who plays Igor Cassini, the “classy club owner of classy Le Club” agrees with Watkins that working with Depp was a dream come true, though a seriously surreal dream given the degree to which he embraced the Trump character.
“I was nervous to meet Johnny because you know, it's Johnny Depp,” Huebel told us. “But he was completely unrecognizable so it didn't feel like acting with Johnny Depp. It was like acting with Donald Trump. Which was confusing and upsetting."
"He was 100 percent committed,” Huebel added of Depp, noting that he wore “full-on facial prosthetics, the pathetic hair swoop and everything.” He described the “freaky” experience of chatting with Depp between takes because he was staring into the face of Donald Trump. “It still gives me nightmares,” Huebel joked. “But Johnny really seemed to approach it very seriously. Like he wanted to really become Trump. And he totally delivered."
Huebel’s sketch comedy partner Scheer, who plays a sleazy Roy Cohn, said he was “just impressed with how playful” Depp was on set, “willing to go anywhere and really say anything.”
“I literally didn’t recognize him when he first stepped on set, I had a real double take,” Scheer added. From day one, he said Depp “immediately had the swagger and attitude” of the man. “It’s a different Trump than I had seen before and I really think it works,” he said. “It’s Johnny Depp’s Trump.”
Even those who have worked with Depp in the past, like Alfred Molina, were blown away by his performance. “I have worked with Johnny four times now, and when I saw him on set as Trump, I was stunned. I didn’t recognize him at all. In fact, he had to remind me that it was him,” Molina told The Daily Beast. “It’s a tour de force performance.”
On the set during a lightning fast four-day shoot last December, Burke said Depp just kept doing Trump’s voice over and over again, staying intensely focused on the task at hand. “He works very hard at it and he wants to make it right and he won’t stop until it’s right,” he said. Depp even engaged in some signature McKay-style improvisation, for instance when he stood up and said of Trump Tower, “Nothing has more brass than my balls!”
“There are things that only Johnny Depp can do, things with his eyes, like looking at the camera at the exact right moment,” Burke said. “Or showing some internal dark struggle that Donald Trump is going through at a certain moment in his life.”
“Man, this guy is delving deep into Donald Trump,” Burke remembers thinking to himself. Beyond just delivering a solid Trump impression, for Depp, he said, “It’s about getting a thorough and well-rounded and dedicated performance.”
After Larry David’s successful Saturday Night Live hosting stint last weekend, you have to think Lorne Michaels is at least considering giving Depp a call. As good as Darrell Hammond has been over the past couple of months, this portrayal is going to be hard to top.
As soon as you have 50 minutes on your hands, check out the full movie for yourself below.