From the 1980s onwards, there was a shift in focus from spectatorship studies, which saw the actor as an object or figure to be looked at, to star studies, which applied attention to the meaning of the performer. As screen performance became a considerable area for scholarly analysis, the complexity to define the intuitive art of acting became apparent. Performer interviews became widely used in an attempt to uncover the tactics used by performers. These interviews and subsequent media coverage have lead to the idea of stardom.

The element of stardom can be both beneficial and detrimental to how an actor constructs a performance. The meaning of a star’s performance is influenced by audience expectations and the star’s intertextual references. Therefore, it is essential for the actors to construct their performances in a way that subordinates the star image to the demands of characterisation. Johnny Depp is a fine example of how these demands of characterisation can be mastered.

Following his success as Willy Wonka, Depp recreated the troubled Sweeney Todd in Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd: the Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007). Based on Stephen Sondheim’s malicious stage production, this film adaptation presents a darker side of musical performance, compared to the joyous characters in Singin’ in the Rain and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.

Johnny Depp as Sweeney Todd

Set in the 19th Century, barber, Benjamin Barker, returns to London, after being exiled for a crime he did not commit, to find his wife supposedly dead and his daughter adopted by the judge who charged him. To gain revenge on the judge, Barker, now known as Sweeney Todd, begins a killing rampage, murdering his clients and subsequently turning them into meat pies.

In the past there has been an argument that assumes stars can only perform a variation of his or her self. As Depp handles his revived, prized razor blades, it is hard not to reminisce on Depp’s past performance in Edward Scissorhands (1990). However, Depp’s performance eliminates him from becoming subject to the intertextual complications of stardom association. With the majority of dialogue falling into lyrics in the musical numbers, Depp successfully represents the solemn nature of his character through the intensely troubled gaze in his eyes and the resentful tone in his voice.

Depp seems to adopt a representative style of performance by acting in a relatively believable manner, within the extremities of the sinister text. The force in which Depp represents the inner emotions of his character positions the audience to feel overtly uncomfortable as they witness the murderous deeds that have resulted from his character’s grief.

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