He is a UR Athletic Hall of Famer, a former pro soccer player, and, now, a hiring manager.
He’s also a Johnny Depp impersonator.
Forty-four-year-old Jason Walker, a 1996 graduate, has run a part-time Johnny Depp impersonation company in Atlanta for the past six years.
“It’s liberating to go from working in HR during the week, making sure people are respecting each other, and then getting to be a lusty pirate on the weekends,” Walker told the Campus Times during a recent phone interview.
Walker’s first association with his celebrity doppelganger was during his time as a Yellowjacket. One of his varsity soccer teammates christened Walker as “Johnny” because of the resemblance. At the time, it was simply a fun nickname. It wouldn’t be until years later that anything substantial came of it.
During his time at UR, Walker studied anthropology. He was inducted into the UR Athletic Hall of Fame last year for his soccer contributions.
After graduation, the resemblance faded for some time. Walker had started grooming himself better.
“After you graduate, you typically get cleaned up in order to get a job, so at that point, mine and Johnny’s appearances diverted for a while,” he said.
In 1996, Walker was drafted to the second-tier Rochester Rhinos soccer team, following his dream of going pro. A year later,he moved to Atlanta with some friends and played for the Atlanta Ruckus.
But he suffered a career-ending leg injury, and his future became uncertain. He debated continuing his soccer career, switching to coaching, or perhaps using his degree to do foreign research. He would eventually decide to work in human resources, following a recommendation by a friend. He is currently the director of talent acquisition for Habitat for Humanity in Atlanta.
Walker’s journey as an impersonator began in 2007, over a decade after he earned his college nickname. It started as a Halloween costume. Walker and his girlfriend — now wife — Mikalee were at a friend’s costume party. Walker dressed as Captain Jack Sparrow. They were late to the costume contest, but their friends assured them that Walker would have won had they been on time.
The couple decided to head to a local contest just to see how they would fare, and they came in first place. After the excitement (and cash prize), Walker entered another contest the following night. He came in first again. A tradition was born.
Each year, the winnings were invested back into costumes for the next contest. Walker credits his wife, and her theater background, for the high-quality costumes and makeup work.
“It takes significant investment, several hundred dollars to have that quality of costume,” he said.
Walker began to expand his cast of characters for the contests. After Jack Sparrow came Willy Wonka, then Sweeney Todd, and then the Mad Hatter, which Walker claims is his most elaborate costume.
An entrepreneur friend of his convinced Walker to turn his costume ventures into a more legitimate business. In 2011 the LLC was formed. Walker enlisted the help of a web design–savvy friend to create the website for displaying his characters and for scheduling gigs.
According to Walker, around 60 percent of his gigs are for Captain Jack Sparrow. Luckily that is also his favorite character to portray.
“It’s just the freedom that the character embodies,” Walker said.
Walker has performed at birthdays, anniversaries, and even corporate events. But at the end of the day, he said, he turns down a lot more jobs than he actually ends up taking because of the cost of travel with all of the necessary costume pieces.
Children’s birthday parties are some of the most fulfilling gigs for Walker. He prides himself in trying his best to make it work financially for the most families possible. According to Walker, most families can’t afford the typical rate for a professional impersonator ($650 for a two-hour minimum).
About the jobs he can make work for kids, Walker said, “It’s a blast to be able to bring their fantasy to life. They can meet Jack Sparrow and have him come to their house.”
One of the more interesting gigs Walker has performed at was a baby shower, as Johnny Depp. He was contacted by a friend of the expecting mother. The theme of the party was the ‘80s, and the mom-to-be, Shalene France Gray, was a huge Depp fan. When Johnny Depp showed up to her party, Gray was completely surprised, and the gig was a success.
“At first glance, I gotta be honest, I thought it was him,” Gray told the Campus Times in a recent Facebook message. “You know, in Nashville, there’s tons of stars lurking around, even the real Johnny Depp sometimes. He had a house here for a while, I guess, so it could have been totally possible […] Jason never really broke character, even when some people asked him point blank.”
Walker’s dedication to character evidently extends beyond his hired gigs. His Facebook page is full of shared posts of excited fans meeting “Johnny Depp” at the zoo, mall, pier, and so on.
Walker maintains Depp’s signature hair length and facial hair a majority of the time, so he can be ready for gigs without having to worry about growing it out. This leads to him getting mistaken for Depp frequently. Walker said that he gets called out at least twice a day by excited fans.
To minimize this, Walker tends to avoid wearing some of the more exotic accessories that Depp favors. He typically keeps his bangles, vests, hats, and fake tattoos back home in the room he dedicates to housing his costumes.
Even so, Walker notices fans trying to slyly take photos of him while he eats, following him around city blocks, or tweeting about their sightings.
Walker understands that Depp fans are a passionate bunch, and that passion translates to other areas. Depp was named “Sexiest Man Alive” by People Magazine in 2003 and 2009. Walker’s website claims that he “has mastered the quirkiest characters or can turn on the same bedroom-eyed sensuality that earned Depp the ‘Sexiest Man Alive’ title more than once.”
“I don’t have to do much, honestly,” Walker said. “It is attached to Johnny. People have preconceived notions. Me being present is often enough to get people stirred up.”
From time to time, it gets more intense than a fan asking for a selfie. Walker says he’s been mobbed by groups more than once before. He says that the resemblance can cause more problems than good when he’s not on the job.
“Thankfully I do not have a love for alcohol. When you’re dressed as Jack Sparrow people will be shoving drinks in your face. I have to turn down a lot of drinks,” Walker said. “I don’t share that affinity with the character, fortunately.”
For the more enthusiastic fans, Walker will try to calm them by explaining who he really is. But often, they reach a point of no return. Once they are starstruck, there isn’t much that can calm them down.
“Nobody cares I’m not him, once they’ve gotten to that level of excitement they can’t comprehend,” Walker said.
But there’s often perks that come with the part, beyond the paycheck. . Walker receives exclusive seating at restaurants, just to help boost publicity. He recently played Depp for a few scenes in an Atlanta-based horror-parody movie, Slaw. And this Halloween, Walker said, he’ll be playing Captain Jack Sparrow alongside “Captain Shaq” at a charity event hosted by Shaquille O’Neal’s non-profit.
There is something bigger than the small benefits though. Walker said, “When I started, I was thinking, ‘Hey this is one more thing I can add that diversifies me.’”
He embraced the idea that the average person will work a large variety of jobs in their lifetime. Having an interesting and wide-reaching life in important to Walker. He wants to live life to its fullest extent.
Perhaps some of that attitude was instilled during his time at UR. He certainly doesn’t regret his time here. He says his education has served him well, and that he is grateful for the chance to play soccer at UR.
“I don’t know where it’s going to take me, and I’m totally open to whatever comes up,” he said.
Walker doesn’t plan to stop his impersonation gigs any time soon. He admits that there is a selfish element to it. When he played soccer, he reveled in playing before large crowds. He is an entertainer, and he loves to make people smile.
He summed up his work like this: “Give people, without having to go to Disney World, the Disney World experience.”