A white man as Tonto—is that kosher?

Johnny Depp gives a Hollywood Indian icon a rethink, and may just get away with it
"THE LONE RANGER" - Armie Hammer, Johnny Depp Ph: Peter Mountain ©Disney Enterprises, Inc. and Jerry Bruckheimer Inc. All Rights Reserved.
A white man as Tonto—is that kosher?
Peter Mountain/Disney

There is no more iconic stereotype of the Hollywood Indian than Tonto, the Lone Ranger’s faithful sidekick. But at a time when Native Americans were typically portrayed by Mexicans, Tonto was at least played by an Aboriginal actor, Canadian Mohawk Jay Silverheels, who once spoofed his role in a sketch on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show: “My name is Tonto. I hail from Toronto, and I speak Esperanto.” Now it’s almost obligatory for Native actors to play Native roles, and that’s been the case at least since Graham Greene’s Oscar-nominated turn in Dances With Wolves (1990). But six decades after Silverheels was routinely upstaged by a white steed named Silver, Johnny Depp has given Tonto a nervy makeover that could ruffle some feathers.

In the blockbuster reboot of The Lone Ranger, opening July 3, he’s a white actor playing a red man in whiteface with a dead crow on his head. But Depp claims he’s gone native in the name of Native empowerment. Reversing the old roles, the movie makes Tonto a puckish hero and the Lone Ranger (Arme Hammer) his starchy straight man. Saying he wanted “to set the record straight,” Depp told Entertainment Weekly: “Tonto is nobody’s sidekick. Tonto is a proud warrior.’’

Rehabilitating a Hollywood stereotype by reverting to non-Native casting brings to mind that western cliché “white man speak with forked tongue.” But if anyone can get away with the piracy of race appropriation, it’s Johnny Depp. Unique among his peers, the shape-shifting trickster may be the only A-list action hero who routinely refuses to play himself, and instead treats acting as a kind of pantomime ritual. John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Tom Cruise, Harrison Ford, Matt Damon, Brad Pitt, Robert Downey Jr.—every one of them became a Hollywood brand with a screen persona that’s instantly familiar, and doesn’t change much from one movie to the next. But Depp is a perpetual impersonator. No stranger to whiteface, as Tonto he re-engineers the noble savage as a slapstick sage.

He approaches performance almost more as a rock star than as an actor, with an outlaw style that seems to have rubbed off from his pal Keith Richards—whose shambolic mannerisms he shamelessly plundered to create Capt. Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean. On the other hand, the ancient mariner of the Rolling Stones has cultivated a consistent image. Depp, 50, has behaved more like David Bowie or Bob Dylan, a chameleon who morphs from one freaky anti-hero to another: from the pasty punk of Edward Scissorhands to the Mad Hatter of Alice in Wonderland. And when Depp gets real, he’s drawn to stories of outlaws and renegades, like gangster John Dillinger in Public Enemies and an overly embedded undercover cop in Donnie Brasco.

Even Depp’s path to superstardom was oblique. After his breakout as a teen heartthrob in TV’s 21 Jump Street, he spent years resisting fame in the indie wilderness. And when he created a dissolute pirate with dreads and guyliner, Disney executives were mortified. Now, sitting on the bottomless treasure chest of Pirates of Caribbean, Depp is poised to launch another franchise. With Pirates veteran Gore Verbinski directing The Lone Ranger, Tonto looks like a kabuki Jack Sparrow of the Wild West. He’s a Comanche warrior gone rogue, and Depp, who claims to have a touch of Native blood, immersed himself in Comanche culture for the role.

But his Tonto may be no more a real Indian than his Mad Hatter is a real hatter. He’s a Hollywood Indian reimagined as a shaman/fool by an actor who preserves Tonto’s original syntax, which consists of speaking without articles. Depp has been searching for his inner native since Dead Man (1995), the psychedelic western Depp made with director Jim Jarmusch and Canadian Native actor Gary Farmer. Tonto’s face paint is copied from I Am Crow, a painting of an imaginary 19th-century Plains Indian by contemporary non-Native artist Kirby Sattler, who says it has no historical authenticity. But it looks cool. In The Lone Ranger, Tonto declares: “There come a time, kemosabe, when good man must wear mask.” Depp could just as easily be talking about himself.