Casting Willy Wonka, Charlie Bucket and the Bucket Family

When Tim Burton proposed the role of Willy Wonka to his friend and frequent collaborator, two-time Oscar nominee Johnny Depp, he was barely able to get the words out. As Depp relates the conversation, “We were having dinner and he said, ‘I want to talk to you about something. You know that story, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory? Well, I’m going to do it and I’m wondering if you’d want to play….’ and I couldn’t even wait for him to finish the sentence. I said, ‘I’m in. Absolutely. I’m there.’ No question about it.”

“To be chosen to play Willy Wonka in itself a great honor,” says Depp, a long-time fan of Dahl’s work, “but to be chosen by Tim Burton is double, triple the honor. His vision is always amazing, beyond anything you expect. Just the fact that he was involved meant I didn’t need to see a script before committing. If Tim wanted to shoot 18 million feet of film of me staring into a light bulb and I couldn’t blink for three months, I’d do it.”

Before long the two were poring over Burton’s preliminary sketches, discussing Wonka’s look and the themes of the story, falling into a familiar creative rhythm that began when the director cast Depp as the lead in the 1990 poignant fantasy Edward Scissorhands. They subsequently re-teamed for the critically acclaimed Ed Wood and Sleepy Hollow and are currently working together on the stop-motion animated feature Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride.

“Johnny is a great character actor in many ways,” says Burton – “a character actor in the form of a leading man. That’s what struck me about him from the very beginning and it’s what makes him such an intriguing actor – the fact that he’s not necessarily interested in his image but more in becoming a character and trying different things. He’s willing to take risks. Each time I work with him he’s something different.”

“He’s a tremendously insightful actor,” adds Grey. “He came to the project with respect for the book and also a sense of how he could do something very special with this character. I can’t think of anyone we’d rather have in the role. Sometimes the right magical combination comes together and I believe that’s what we have here: Roald, Tim, and Johnny.”

Above all, Depp approached the role with “a great sense of affection for Wonka.”

Forced to open his beloved factory for the first time in 15 years to find an heir, Wonka is uncomfortable with the unfamiliar human contact. As Depp suggests, “he puts on his game face in front of people but underneath he has a great anxiety about actual contact or closeness. I believe he’s a germophobe, which is why he wears gloves, and in addition to the gloves it’s as if he’s wearing a mask. There are moments during the tour when we catch Wonka acting, and acting badly, literally reading off cue cards. I don’t think he really wants to spend any time with these people. I think he’s struggling, from the first second, to put on an act for them and keep a smile.

“At the same time,” Depp continues, “a part of him is genuinely excited about being the grand showman, like P.T. Barnum, pointing out everything he’s created and saying, ‘hey, look at this! Look what I’ve done, isn’t this wonderful?’”

“Willy Wonka is an eccentric,” notes Zanuck. “He’s odd, he’s funny, he’s aloof yet terribly vulnerable; it’s an interesting composite, both childlike and deep at the same time. No other actor could give this character the kind of depth, range and spin it requires. Johnny has an incredible gift.”

Burton and Depp worked with Academy Award-winning costume designer Gabriella Pescucci (The Age of Innocence, Van Helsing) to arrive at precisely the right look for Wonka, which resulted in a total of 10 different plush jackets and overcoats. In keeping with the timeless quality of Dahl’s tale, wardrobe was, Pescucci says, “contemporary, but with some old-world styling.”

Regarding Wonka’s hair and other small but significant details, Depp made some deliberate choices. “The hair was one of those elements I saw clearly very early on,” he says. “The top hat was easy, because that came right from the Quentin Blake drawings, but the hair I imagined as a kind of Prince Valiant do, high bangs and a bob, extreme and very unflattering but something that Wonka probably thinks is cool because he’s been locked away for such a long time and doesn’t know any better, like the outdated slang he uses.”

Based on the book’s description of Wonka’s sparkling eyes, Depp selected a pair of violet-tinted contact lenses for an effective dimension of color, and drawing from the story of Wonka’s childhood orthodontia, decided he should flash remarkably perfect teeth. Add to that a distinctly pale skin tone from years of living indoors and an image of Wonka emerges as an extraordinary figure of outlandish but expensive tastes, with a style of speech and presentation as unique as his lifestyle.

As Pescucci exclaims in her native Italian, “Willy Wonka é la persona fantastica!”

Starring as Charlie is Freddie Highmore, who rejoins Depp after sharing the screen with him in 2004’s acclaimed drama Finding Neverland. Twelve years old when Charlie began production, Highmore had already carried leading roles in the family films Five Children and It and Two Brothers, and portrayed young King Arthur in the TNT miniseries The Mists of Avalon.

As Grey attests, “He brings great emotion to the role, but you don’t see any of the strings – you don’t see him working. He really is well beyond his years to have that kind of skill.”

Expressing the consensus of opinion from all who have worked with him, Burton marvels at how “completely natural and genuine” the young actor is. “He has such gravity, without ever being false, which is very difficult to do, even for an adult actor. He has the ability to convey emotion without speaking or trying too hard. That’s not something that a director can tell someone to do; they either have it or they don’t. This is why casting Charlie was crucial.”

To Highmore, Charlie’s appeal is based on his being “a normal boy. He doesn’t have any special talents or superior qualities. In fact, he doesn’t have much of anything at all, except for his family, but he’s always thoughtful and really nice to everyone. So when his wish comes true and he goes to the factory, I think people are happy for him because he’s so deserving.”

In that respect, says Zanuck, “Freddie conveys an air of purity and goodness” – yet, he doesn’t take it too far. “Goodness can be so boring on screen,” quips Helena Bonham Carter, who first worked with Highmore in the 1999 British comedy Women Talking Dirty. “Essentially, Charlie’s a good soul with the right values. He’s not spoiled, which sets him apart from the other four children. But what’s great about Freddie is that he doesn’t make Charlie a drippy boy, which is always the danger with a role like this.”

As Charlie’s home is dominated by the Wonka factory looming just behind it, so his imagination is dominated by thoughts of what might be inside. Still, unlike his privileged companions on the tour, he is content with his life as it is. Says Highmore, “Even though he has cabbage soup every night and wears a sweater that’s threadbare, Charlie has a loving family. He seems to have nothing, but he’s actually got everything already.”

When Charlie comes home with the precious golden ticket it revitalizes old Grandpa Joe, played by Waking Ned Devine’s David Kelly. “You can see it in his walk, you can see it in his talk,” says Zanuck. “Grandpa Joe used to work in the factory years ago before Wonka shut the town out, and those were his glory days. The opportunity to get back into the factory literally gets him out of bed and makes him come alive again.”

“When David walked in, that was it,” Burton recalls. “He was Grandpa Joe. What an amazing actor, and what a deeply expressive face, like a silent movie character.”

Kelly appreciates how Dahl highlighted the special relationship between Charlie and his grandfather, noting that the author saw value in the whole spectrum of age. Not having had the good fortune to know his own grandparents, who died before he was born, the actor enjoys the connection his children have with his parents, and asks, “Is there anybody in the world who doesn’t feel a very special grace for their grandparents?”

Kelly compares the production to “being inside Tim Burton’s head, which is a rewarding place to be. The man is a standard-setter, truly brilliant. When people asked what I did, I’d say ‘well, I was being rowed by 50 Oompa-Loompas in a pink candy boat down a chocolate river with Johnny Depp.’ The sets are wonderful – hand-painted, handmade, the kind you rarely see anymore. Going to work every day was endlessly jaw-dropping and magical.”

Cast as Charlie’s loving parents are Helena Bonham Carter and Noah Taylor, both of whom, says Burton, “shine in relatively small roles that bring warmth and credibility to Charlie’s family unit. The house and their living conditions are so extreme, almost surreal, that without the right actors it just wouldn’t have worked. We were lucky to have Noah and Helena; they truly made it feel like a real family.”

Bonham Carter, whose starring role in the 1997 romantic drama The Wings of the Dove earned both Oscar and BAFTA nominations, describes the emotional balance she and Taylor keep as Mother and Father Bucket. “Like Grandpa Joe,” she says, “Charlie’s parents are accustomed to disappointment. We’ve had a hard time with life, used to being the underdogs, so when the golden ticket contest is announced of course we haven’t the slightest expectation that Charlie has a chance of winning. The odds are tiny. We adore our son and don’t want him to be hurt so we try not to get his hopes up. He’s always been our main source of joy but when he finds the ticket, suddenly, he becomes the embodiment of hope and life and future for the whole family.”

Taylor (Shine, Almost Famous, The Life Aquatic) sees Mr. Bucket as “not the kind of man you’d call successful. He’s probably from a long line of people who aren’t particularly rich or clever or well-connected, but he’s clever enough to keep his family together and bring up a sweet child, and that, I think, is one of the greater accomplishments you can have in life.”

For Taylor, Dahl’s message, as illustrated by the Bucket family, is that, “you don’t need money or status to be a good person.” Yet, “it’s not the sort of moral that’s thrust down your throat; rather, he allows you to discover it for yourself.”

The Four Rotten Children

Cast as the four children who join Charlie on the factory tour are AnnaSophia Robb as Violet Beauregarde, Jordan Fry as Mike Teavee, Julia Winter as Veruca Salt and Philip Wiegratz as Augustus Gloop. Like their fictional counterparts who vie for a Golden Ticket to Wonka’s factory in a global contest, the four talented young actors of varying backgrounds and experience were chosen from an international pool.

We’re not saying they’re bad, these four Golden Ticket winners, but as Zanuck diplomatically puts it, “they’re not the kind of children you’d be proud to call your own.”

Violet Beauregarde is a ferociously competitive and self-assured little hellion who boasts of a roomful of trophies back home and is currently working on the world’s record for non-stop gum-chewing. Ignoring Wonka’s warning, she seizes a piece of experimental chewing gum with a blueberry flavor from the Inventing Room and within moments is turned blue and blows up like a giant blueberry-hued beach ball and must be removed to the Juicing Room. Violet is played by 11-year-old American AnnaSophia Robb, who recently starred in Wayne Wang’s family feature Because of Winn-Dixie and The WB’s 2004 television movie Samantha: An American Girl Holiday.

Robb says her Charlie experience “made me feel like a little part of history because everyone loves the book so much. Being on set was like a fantasy too, having a rooms full of candy that you get to play in and eat. Really cool.” Her preparation for the role included martial arts training with teacher and stunt professional Eunice Huthart, for an introductory scene in which Violet is seen mercilessly knocking down her rivals in a karate competition.

Know-it-all video game addict Mike Teavee, played by 12-year-old American Jordan Fry, scoffs rudely at another of Wonka’s inventions, an attempt to transport a chocolate bar via electromagnetic waves through a television screen. Teavee interrupts the experiment by inserting himself into the middle of it with some very unexpected results.

Newcomer Fry happily found himself flying across the set on wires for the sequence. “The hardest part,” declares stunt coordinator Jim Dowdall, “was keeping him from laughing in sheer delight at the experience because in the scene he’s supposed to appear rather frightened and unsettled.”

Gluttonous Augustus Gloop is unable to resist the lure of the factory’s luscious chocolate river and breaks from the tour to get taste of it, despite cautions from his mother and Wonka. He promptly falls in, mouth-first, and is sucked up through an intake pipe that transports the chocolate to other parts of the factory.

Gloop marks the professional acting debut of 12-year-old German-born Philip Wiegratz, who wore a fitted prosthetic body suit and calves for the role of the greedy youngster. Even more of a challenge, says Dowdall, was that “Philip couldn’t swim when he came to us. We had to get into our wetsuits and show him how to do it, but he learned very quickly, even with the encumbrance of all that padding.”

Meanwhile, hopelessly spoiled Veruca Salt has problems of her own. Upon seeing Wonka’s squirrels at work in the nut room she demands to have one and storms the assembly line. The squirrels examine her as they evaluate all nuts, determine she is a bad nut and dispatch her down the garbage chute with the other rejects. Veruca is played by 12-year-old Londoner Julia Winter, a member of the children’s drama group Allsorts Drama, in her professional acting debut.

“I couldn’t get the hang of lying on the floor fighting off the squirrels so Tim lay down on the floor next to me and demonstrated,” Winter offers. “There we were, both of us, kicking our legs and screaming at the top of our lungs, swatting away imaginary squirrels. It was great fun and we must have looked absolutely ridiculous.”

The parents of these beastly children represent the worst imaginable child-rearing skills, hilariously evident as they chaperone their horrible little brats through the factory.

Missi Pyle (Big Fish, Dodgeball, Bringing Down the House) as Mrs. Beauregarde appears more manager and coach than mother to young Violet, an obnoxious girl bent on winning every conceivable prize and contest in the world. “Mrs. Beauregarde wants her daughter to have everything she didn’t,” says Pyle. “A self-proclaimed winner, she has instilled in Violet her own competitive sprit to the exclusion of any other thought. The two of them arrive at the factory – in matching outfits, of course – fully expecting to go home with the grand prize,” whatever it may be.

Veteran actor of both film and television, BAFTA Award nominee James Fox (A Passage to India) stars as the beleaguered Mr. Salt, father to the colossally spoiled Veruca, a girl with no thought for anyone or anything but herself. “He’s very anxious that his daughter have everything she wants,” says Fox, who slyly describes Veruca Salt as “lovable, adorable, sweet and talented, the perfect child,” before adding, “as long as her father meets her demands. Immediately. If he doesn’t, she’ll scream until he does.”

Fox believes the tour ultimately proves beneficial for all the children. The lessons meted out to the rude, selfish and inconsiderate are quite valuable, “and Wonka serves somewhat as a judge. He discerns the children’s motives and their characters and he wants to change and correct them. He wants to make them better people.”

Adam Godley (Love Actually, Around the World in 80 Days) as Mr. Teavee and Franziska Troegner (nominated for the German Film Award in her native country for 2001’s Heidi M) as Mrs. Gloop fare no better. Mr. Teavee is sadly not immune to his son’s sarcastic bullying and poor Mrs. Gloop seems not only unable, but uninterested in controlling Augustus’ rampant gorging.

The Oompa-Loompas and Dr. Wonka

Deep Roy, whom Burton appropriately calls “the hardest-working man in show business,” took on the daunting task of starring as an entire community of Oompa-Loompas, the factory’s sole work force. Rescued by Willy Wonka from their harsh life in distant Loompaland, they now cheerfully live and work inside its walls and feast on their favorite food: cocoa beans.

Having worked with Burton in Planet of the Apes and Big Fish, Roy was happy to renew the association when contacted about the part. But there was a catch, as the actor relates with a laugh. “The first time Tim mentioned the idea he said ‘There will be only one Oompa-Loompa and it’s going to be you. We’re going to create hundreds from you.’ Then he thought perhaps I would be doing as many as five in close-up. The next time I saw him in London, five had become nineteen! In the end, it didn’t matter to me if it was 19 or 20 or 50. It’s been an absolute blast.”

The production team managed to populate the screen with scores of the diminutive and industrious factory workers through motion and facial capture technology, creating duplicate yet individual Oompa-Loompas in computer image from Roy’s multiple performances and then scaling them down to size. For Roy, it meant months of rehearsal and choreography. If a scene called for numerous Oompas to join in a narrative song and dance, Roy would perform the steps for all of them, each from a slightly different starting mark and each with subtle distinctions of expression and movement, so that when the images were joined he became an entire troupe.

“The audience may think it’s all computer-generated,” says Roy, “but that’s not the case. If you see 20 Oompas, I did all 20 performances.”

Additionally, state-of-the-art photo-realistic and animatronic Oompas were modeled from Roy to supplement the action and serve as physical focal points in the scenes.

“Deep did a heroic amount of work on this,” Burton acknowledges. “Considering how to present the Oompa-Loompas there were a number of possibilities, one of which was full computer animation, but I think this was the way to go, to give it that important human element and keep it true to the spirit of the book.”

Bringing to life the role of Willy’s father, the dentist Dr. Wilbur Wonka, is Christopher Lee, conjured up by Willy’s memory in a series of flashbacks to his childhood. Well-respected worldwide, the British actor’s career spans nearly 60 years, first catching fire with the memorable Hammer horror films in the 1950s (of which Burton was an avid fan) and encompassing a wide range of feature and television productions including starring roles in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Star Wars sagas and 1998’s critically acclaimed Jinnah.

Lee sees the elder Wonka as “not a bad father, certainly, just overly stern and unable to show his love.” Dr. Wonka was acutely concerned with oral hygiene and overly protective of his son’s teeth, to the extent that he forbade the youngster from eating sweets. “It’s not exactly parental abuse,” Lee suggests, “as he does it for the best of motives. But he’s very strict and therefore comes across as a rather alarming figure to a little boy.”

“Not only is he a great actor, whose work I grew up watching and admiring,” says Burton, “but Christopher Lee is simply a powerful presence in every sense of the word.” As screenwriter John August avows, “He’s completely intimidating in just the right way.”

Lee, who worked with Burton and his Charlie co-star Johnny Depp on Sleepy Hollow and re-teams with them on the upcoming Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride, says, “Tim is a director of vast enthusiasm. It comes at you in waves of encouragement from behind the camera. He’s amazingly inventive and has a brilliant mind.”

In fact, Burton was so tirelessly active on the set and covered so much ground each day that Helena Bonham Carter gave him a pedometer as a joke. “She wanted to see how many steps he took in a day,” says Freddie Highmore, who cannot recall the official count but says “it turned out he didn’t need to go to the gym because he walks enough at work.”

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