Actors Johnny Depp, Gil Birmingham and Saginaw Grant surprised fans in Lawton June 21
LAWTON, Okla. – Searing heat and soaring humidity did little to deter the crowd of Johnny Depp fans as they waited under the hot sun for a glimpse of the popular actor who stars in the new “Lone Ranger” movie set for national release July 3.
The Comanche Nation capital was the site of a Hollywood-meets-Native America red carpet premiere of the film Friday afternoon. The carpet stretched between temporary bleachers and low-metal barricades, which were flanked by fans, media and a ceremonial Drum. Native dancers in full regalia defied the heat by spinning, twirling, stomping and swaying to the drum beat while onlookers shot photos, tweeted and posted Facebook updates on mobile phones.
Former University of Oklahoma football coach Barry Switzer was one of the first celebrities to arrive, eschewing the freshly vacuumed carpet to pay his respects to the Drum before ducking inside the theater.
Select VIPs and privileged ticket holders walked the carpet next and posed for photos before entering the Carmike Theater for an exclusive advance screening of the movie and a 15-minute talk by Depp.
Comanche Nation Chairman Wallace Coffey didn’t address the Native Times, but in speaking with the Daily Oklahoman, said the tribe lobbied Disney for the special premiere to be held in the Comanche Nation.
“It was a lot of work for us, just to convince Disney that this needs to be done. That Indian Country needs to be given consideration for a special screening,” Coffey said. “It’s just very impressive and [Depp] plays an awesome role.”
Jefferson Keel, president of the National Congress of American Indians and lieutenant governor of the Chickasaw Nation, led the procession up the red carpet, followed by Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly.
Much of the film was shot in the Navajo Nation, instead of the character Tonto’s Comanche homelands in Oklahoma. Adding locations in Oklahoma wasn’t in the cards, according to the film’s director, Gore Verbinski.
“It just wasn’t practical, unfortunately. You need a base of operations for 400, sometimes 700 people. We needed a hub. Our hub was in New Mexico. We shot in Utah. We shot in Colorado. We shot in Arizona and we shot in Texas. It was just too cost prohibitive, ” explained Verbinski, who worked the media line along with Jerry Bruckheimer, who produced the film with Depp.
According to the film’s website, “Native American warrior Tonto (Johnny Depp) recounts the untold tales that transformed John Reid (Armie Hammer), a man of the law, into a legend of justice – taking the audience on a runaway train of epic surprises and humorous friction as the two unlikely heroes must learn to work together and fight against greed and corruption.”
Depp was obviously popular with fans, however, the burning question across the Native Times Facebook page has been, “Why is Tonto being played by a non-Native?”
“He was always Tonto. When you get Johnny Depp, you know, as an actor, it’s hard to beat him,” Bruckheimer said.
He would still be Johnny Depp if he played the Lone Ranger instead. Why not a Native actor? Wes Studi or perhaps Adam Beach?
“Well, he’s part Native. He’s been adopted by the Comanche Nation. It’s nice, don’t you think? Through history, they’re actors. They play a lot of different parts. They play a lot of different nationalities. That’s what Hollywood is all about.”
Before turning away to take his own cell phone photos of the ceremonial dancers and tribal princesses crowded in the shade at the theater entrance, Bruckheimer smiled. “You’ll have to see the movie.”
Also on the carpet was actor Gil Birmingham, of Comanche descent, who is known for his role as Billy Black in the “Twilight” saga movies and for parts in the Native films “Skins” and “Crooked Arrows” as well as the TV series “Into the West.” Birmingham didn’t speak to the media but posed for photos with fans before retreating to the relative cool of the theater entrance.
Depp’s arrival was heralded with a sudden shout from the bleachers and squeals from teen fans pressed up against the barricades lining the red carpet. Cell phone cameras clicked as Depp and the Natives in attendance stood in respectful silence while a cedar ceremony was performed for Depp who was on the arm of his adoptive Comanche mother, LaDonna Harris.
Harris, a long-time advocate for Native American civil rights and president of Americans for Indian Opportunity, which according to its website was founded to create new avenues for international Indigenous interaction and explore ways Indigenous peoples can influence globalization, adopted Depp in a traditional ceremony in May 2012.
Harris said in interviews at that time that she thought it would be “fun” to adopt him - a tradition she said is common in Comanche culture. Depp has been considered an honorary citizen of the tribe since.
Dressed in head-to-toe black and sporting a beaded medallion depicting his Tonto character, Depp escorted Harris down the carpet to the shade of the theater entrance before venturing out into the crowd to pose for photos and autograph movie flyers for fans.
Wiping his brow, he remained gracious while navigating the media and being ushered by four security officers who turned out in suits and ties despite the southwestern Oklahoma summer heat.
Across the carpet, a group of little boys chanted “Johnny Depp! Johnny Depp! Johnny Depp!”
“Last one,” said one of the guards. “This is the Native American Times.”
Why not play the Lone Ranger and let an Indian be Tonto?
“As a small child watching the Lone Ranger, it was always Tonto. I could never identify with the Lone Ranger. I never understood why [Tonto] was considered a sidekick. It sounds horrible, but I remember watching John Wayne films and hating John Wayne – the image of the patriotic American and all he did was kill Indians. It didn’t make sense to me,” Depp said.
“That’s it, let’s go!” a member of the security team motioned toward the theater.
Isn’t all this a little weird to you?
“Not at all,” Depp said, smiling over his shoulder as he was hustled away by the men in suits.
Despite assurances that Native media would get interview priority, the Native Times and Comanche Nation News, the only two Native media outlets present, were given minimal time in comparison to the mainstream outlets. Only one question each was allowed with Depp.
Comanche Nation Chairman Wallace Coffey and his wife Debbie walk the red carpet ahead of LaDonna Harris, actor Johnny Depp and Lone Ranger film director Gore Verbinski.