The Guy Who Taught Johnny Depp and Natalie Portman Sign Language in McCartney Video

With our upcoming opening of the world premiere of our signed/spoken Cyrano, Sign Language is very much on our minds and in our hands these days. No wonder the new Paul McCartney video, “My Valentine”, caught our eye. It features Natalie Portman and Johnny Depp using Sign Language!

So, who taught them the Sign Language used in the video?

Bill Pugin

Our friend, Bill Pugin. Bill lives in Los Angeles and is a longtime friend of the Fountain and Deaf West. His sister, Mary Anne, is deaf and his great affection toward her inspired him to learn sign language. He attended Gallaudet University, a university for the Deaf in Washington DC, where he completed his formal training in Sign Language Interpreting in 1979. He is now one of the foremost ASL interpreters in the country and has traveled the world providing sign language interpreting services for three U.S. Presidents, His Holiness The Dalai Lama, World Leaders and Entertainment Industry Icons. He launched his own national interpreting service, The Sign Language Company, in 1986.

How did the gig with Paul McCartney come about?

“A mysterious call came from London asking if I could teach two actors to sign a Paul McCartney song for a video to be shot at Paul’s home in Beverly Hills, ” Bill says. “The London office of Paul’s Management company was impressed with my company’s web site and the body of work I had done. I ended up at Natalie Portman’s house teaching her “My Valentine” from Paul’s “Kisses on the Bottom” album. Three days later, the day of the shoot, I’m up at Paul’s place waiting for the second actor to be flown in.”

Johnny Depp and Paul McCartney at Paul's house (Bill Pugin in the background)

“Finally, Johnny Depp arrived and we got to work on the same song. We had about fifteen minutes to work on the song. I signed the song for hours sitting on an apple box under the camera for Johnny to be able to peripherally see me for each take. I was his “human cue card”. Johnny’s signing turned out to be more theatrical and ‘abbreviated’ because of the time issue.”

Why Did Paul Want Sign Language in the Video?

“He said it was his daughter, Stella’s idea. Paul always has an interpreter on a riser with a spot for his concerts and Stella loves sign language, apparently. Paul told me that he also makes sure that the portion of seats in the arenas where he performs that are blocked by equipment – and therefore can’t be sold – are given at no charge to blind audience members. All that AND an animal lover!”

Natalie Portman shooting the McCartney video.

“I spent nine hours with Paul McCartney at his house. When introduced to him, I asked “Is it as big a thrill for you meeting me as it is for me meeting you?” He laughed and said, “Bigger!” I told him how I spent a day with Princess Diana, he told me how he cried when she died (they were friends). I told him how some of my elementary school friends were jealous because their parents didn’t let them stay up to watch The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964. He told me stories about Eric Clapton and Elvis. I asked him if he ever received my sister (Evelyn’s) letter that she sent in 1966. He said it was the only one he kept.”

“At the ninth hour, he asked how I was doing and he gave me a neck and shoulder rub. I said, “I can’t believe I’m getting a massage from the ‘cute Beatle’! I woke up the next morning smiling because it wasn’t a dream. It was real. Surreal. Sir Paul!”

21 responses to “The Guy Who Taught Johnny Depp and Natalie Portman Sign Language in McCartney Video

  1. Congrats, Bill, for inspiring the public to appreciate the beauty, grace and power of ASL.

  2. Great article! Thank you Stella and Sir Paul for making this happen!

  3. So perhaps Bill can explain the embarrassing mistake in which Natalie Portman and Johnny Depp are supposedly signing “tampon” by mistake for the word “appear.” SOMEONE who trained them should taken responsibility instead of letting them, and Paul, be embarrassed by this. Perhaps you need to explain the differences between British and American sign language if that is the problem.

    And perhaps Bill should have been a bit less starstruck and corrected Johnny Depp’s signing, if it was sloppy. Just my thoughts.

  4. Wow, Lou. Jealous much? You were not there. You DID NOT know the situation during filming, editing, final cut, and what comments were said and were not said regarding sign usage.

  5. Hi Lou…..(This note comes from Bill at The Sign Language Company and will hopefully clarify a few things). As often happens in the world of “show biz”… things are out of our control. I had a day with Natalie and was able to meet with Paul and the editor when her shots were completed. I gave my notes and asked if I could be involved with the editing of the entire completed video. I was told all editing would happen in London. Johnny was several hours late in arriving to Paul’s house. He was being flown in from New Mexico where he’s working on “The Lone Ranger”. He was to have met with someone to teach him signs while in New Mexico, but he never had that opportunity.
    With Paul’s project, Johnny arrived incredibly late with no knowledge of sign language at all. He didn’t even know the song very well. We literally had twelve minutes of prep time. He was having his make-up applied and I was on my knees in front of him on the bathroom floor taking advantage of whatever time we had before cameras rolled. This was all rushed because Paul had to catch a charter flight that night and private planes have a deadline as to when they could leave. So…it was a big task. I was going on the instruction of Paul – wanting Johnny to be as different from Natalie’s performance as possible. His signs, therefore, had to be stuccato and expressionless.
    I was able to give notes to Paul and the editor while we were filming. I mentioned that Johnny’s first and second take were not very good and that his handshape for “heart” (Valentine) was incorrect. Johnny had a difficult time making the correct handshape – AND hold the guitar – AND remember the lyrics, etc. etc.
    Unfortunately, because the editing was done in London, and I wasn’t there, they chose to use his first take. UGH! I have a feeling the deciding factors to use that first take was because they liked his expression, his guitar playing, whatever. I knew when I saw the finished product that there would be flack. I’ve developed a thick skin over the years and have learned that I’m okay if I know that I’m always doing the best I can with what I’m given. I learned this years ago while doing “Reasonable Doubts”. I used to get angry letters from interpreters saying a real interpreter wouldn’t do this or that. At first, I felt I had to explain to people that I was an actor playing a character – and that the situations were fiction. I was doing what my bosses told me to do… the director, the writer, the network. Marlee used to tell me…”someone will be angry with you. You can’t please everyone. Do the best you can with the situation you’ve been given.” Good advice, I think.

    So, yes…there are things I would love to be able to change about the finished product. But, the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive considering that Paul wanted to include sign language in his artistic expression. I have worked with many entertainment icons over the past 25 years and while Sir Paul is exceptional, I find I am able to avoid feeling “star-struck” and focus on the projects I’m given.

    I know this is a long answer to your comment, but I thought you would appreciate the info. ~~~Bill

    • Thank u for a candid comment on Johnny Depp’s last minute on signing cues. It is tough business when the time is so short to make such decision. Be there, done that. I def will give a huge credit for your team for outstanding job on Natalie’s signing song in particular. That is great stuff! 🙂

      • evelynhunter

        Seeing your name made me smile Paul. As I forwarded the story of the how the day unfolded, I thought of Paul Harvey’s line…..”and now you know the rest of the story”. It really was a ‘you had to be there to understand’ kind of day. Thanks for your comments! I just visited your site by the way. Wow! I’d like to share it with our twitter and facebook followers. What wonderful work you do……

  6. Wow, Bill, nothing like totally passing the buck and not taking any responsibility for you own role in dropping the ball here. I can’t believe you provide all these details about Paul, violating his privacy, talking about his personal schedule. All so you can prove you weren’t responsible when you WERE responsible for training them. You’re entire post is a defensive pass the buck. Shameful.

  7. “Tampon” for “appear” is a pretty big mistake that BILL should have helped the actors and Paul avoid. That is what is at issue here. Not whether they were signing perfectly.

  8. “With Paul’s project, Johnny arrived incredibly late with no knowledge of sign language at all. He didn’t even know the song very well.” Nothing like embarrassing both Johnny and Paul here. Wow.

  9. In case you were wondering, this quote from the MSNBC story on this, is the proper way to respond (rather than covering your own butt):

    “Christine, a nationally certified ASL interpreter, wrote on MTV News, “British sign language and American sign language are two completely different languages. They signed this in American Sign Language and while it wasn’t perfect, they did not sign the gaffes mentioned in this article. I just think it’s pretty cool that Paul McCartney thought this would be artistically and aesthetically pleasing to the eye. Good on Natalie and Johnny for their work on this. It may get more people interested in learning ASL, since these are three very popular artists.”

    • First off, it was shot in the United States so get over yourself! It was taken to England afterwords to be edited. Seriously get over yourself. If I saw a music video in BSL, I would have be just as happy. Secondly, Mr. Pugin, did not deny that anything was not his fault. He gave you the details and you read how you saw fit. He says he only had little time to train and Johnny Depp was late, very late. He says he is sorry how it all turned out, but you have to be an idiot and continue with your nonsense. He said he knew there would be many people mad, he knew this, but I think he is being soft hearted! I think idiots like you shouldn’t even comment on anything, for you show the world how unappreciated the deaf world is. You make us look like fools everyday. No wonder were so far behind because idiots like you think we better than them!

  10. Thank you Lou for including Christine’s remarks. Her response is ‘spot on’.

  11. omg, that makes me love johnny depp more!!!!!

  12. one more thing…i really dont care about the mistake “Tampon” and “Appear”….who cares?????? johnny depp and natalie did a wonderful job!!!

  13. Only 15 minutes with Depp?! Wow.
    No one can learn how to sign a song in 15 minutes on a blank slate.

    I wonder though, during the 9 hours of your (Bill’s) conversation with Paul maybe a discussion about the next day’s plan of events would have been helpful to clue Paul in on the realistic expectations of teaching someone sign language for the first time. The fact that Depp arrived late and you only had 15 minutes with him it then after you saw how he did, it may have been a good idea to relay to Paul that Depp’s product may risk scrutiny. I am a huge fan of Depp but this video could have done without his part. You have to understand that it is so rare to see big stars honor our language it was like it was right there…within reach….then ‘TRAIN-GO-SORRY’. Yea the idiom is cliche but it described how I felt. I got so elated and awed by it and yet I barely understood Paul’s song for what it was. I felt like more could have been done, should have been done.

    As a professional, a trusted and paid ASL Consultant, I would have told Paul that the sign language was unclear and unusable [if you wish to add- “due to the limited time”]. I trust that the 2nd and 3rd takes were not that much better. Sure, it would be a bit awkward, but not saying anything is more so, awkward. I think that is what Lou is referring to when he said you were starstruck.

  14. It makes me sad to know they weren’t learning much and yet, these are who will be known to many as the ‘celebrities that know sign language”. It would have been more credible to have used actual deaf people, but I guess we are going for quick and easy entertainment, instead of doing the best we can! I hope they have a deeper experience with sign language and the deaf community so they can understand why some are offended.

  15. Well said, Regan Thidbodeau.

    Christine, certified interpreter, stated that the actors did not sign the gaffes? *scratching my head*

    I *whole-heartedly* believe that the fault lies between the Sign Language Company and the artistic director for the music video. Bill Pugin, of Sign Language Company, should have been bolder and protect its own integrity, professionalism and quality by informing, at least, to the director and Paul McCartney that the actors’ signing are STILL unclear and wrong in the majority rules of ASL as well as ensure that ASL demand the respects that it struggle to have. *sigh*

  16. Well said, Regan.

    Christine (certified interpreter) stated that the actors did not sign the gaffes. *scratching my head* They certainly DID and the majority of deaf population says so, too.

    I *whole-heartedly* believe that the fault lies between the Sign Language Company and the artistic director for the music video. Bill Pugin, of Sign Language Company, should have been bolder and protect its own integrity, professionalism and quality by informing, at least, to the director and Paul McCartney that the actors’ signing are STILL unclear and wrong in the majority rules of ASL as well as ensure that ASL demand the respects that it struggle to have. *sigh*

  17. I’m sad that they didn’t find anyone to teach Johnny Depp sign language while he was in New Mexico! I live in Albuquerque and would have happily taught him sign language!

  18. Rosemary Anderson

    Sign language is different the world round. Here in Australia it’s now called Auslan and there are differences state to state. Purple in WA can mean Prostitute in another state. Banana can mean sanitary pad. Even my deaf mother insulted a deaf American man at a deaf club event, due to the differences in signing and she thought she was paying him a compliment.

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