LOS ANGELES — LOS ANGELES - Oh, to have been a fly on the wall for the negotiations between Johnny Depp and Disney over his portrayal of Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl.
Depp plays the pirate antihero with a staggering, sashaying gait to reflect a lifetime at sea. His speech drips with too many days in the sun and too much rum. He has gold teeth (Depp had to get rid of a few as part of a compromise), and he braids his beard into two strands.
Depp says he told the Mouse Factory brass to let him do what he was hired to do.
"I'm a sucker for my own brain," Depp says during a recent interview at the St. Regis Hotel. "It reaches a point where you can't help yourself. I had a very strong feeling about the guy."
Producer Jerry Bruckheimer says Depp's interpretation sets the movie apart from other Disney projects. (Still, the film is inspired by the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland.)
Depp and Disney will get a better idea of how his swashbuckler connects with audiences when Pirates of the Caribbean opens tomorrow. The movie, set in the 18th century, is part revenge tale and part ghost story, and also stars Orlando Bloom (Lord of the Rings) and Keira Knightley (Bend It Like Beckham) in more conventional roles as the meant-to-be lovers.
"He puts himself out there," Bloom, 26, says of Depp. "He's been a gambler. Any actor of my generation will say the same thing."
Depp, 40, long ago escaped what he called "a harsh prison sentence" as the kid cop on Fox's 21 Jump Street. He is not about to succumb to any imposed norms now.
He has lived in Paris with French singer-actress Vanessa Paradis for the last five years. They have two children, Lily-Rose, 3, and Jack, 1. Family life abroad lets Depp stay away from Hollywood until the cameras roll. He is the anti-Variety, arriving on the set without a head full of industry buzz.
"I come in just completely ignorant of all of it and it feels really good," he says. "I don't have to think of anything but my work."
As of this chat, Depp still wore the gold front teeth, because he hasn't had time to have them removed. The undermining of his pretty-boy looks underscores the eccentrics he has played lately: the cocaine king in Blow, the gypsy in Chocolat and the opium-addled detective in From Hell. He is perhaps revered most for his collaborations with Tim Burton in Edward Scissorhands (1990) and Ed Wood (1994). He was also a glamorous delinquent in John Waters' Crybaby (1990).
He has never liked to see the end result of his own work. He once watched What's Eating Gilbert Grape? for 10 minutes and began to hyperventilate.
"I always figured that once I wrapped a film, then anything beyond that is none of my business," he says. "If I can avoid seeing the final product, then all I have in my head is feeling good about the experience."
Depp, clad in a knit cap, suede leather coat and librarian glasses, appears equal parts grunge singer and creative dentist. He still performs at times in rock bands, but his bad-boy days are long over. Arrests for trashing a hotel room in 1994 and a tussle with photographers in 1999 now seem out of character.
The rebel in Depp persists on-screen, however. Knightley says Depp's performance was "spontaneous and funny and gave us the freedom to play around." The young actress adds that she took delight in seeing a fellow high-school dropout succeed.
"I can only say [leaving school] worked for me," Depp says. "It's not for everybody. School's a weird thing. You have to deal with a weird cop syndrome in school, authority and all that. I couldn't take it."
Depp's iconoclastic bent colors his work behind the camera, as well. He tried his hand at directing with 1997's The Brave, a Native American drama that received poor reviews.
"The ultimate for me would be to do a feature that didn't require any narrative structure," he says.
In Pirates of the Caribbean, an evil buccaneer (Geoffrey Rush) steals Jack's ship, the Black Pearl, and kidnaps an island governor's daughter, Elizabeth (Knightley). Elizabeth's childhood friend, Will Turner (Bloom), joins forces with Jack to rescue her and take back the Black Pearl while undoing the curse that has banished its crew to the ranks of the undead.
In assessing how he approached the part, Depp told an anecdote about the late Lee Marvin.
When the actor was asked how he prepared for his drunken gunfighter in Cat Ballou, he reportedly answered, "I've been preparing for this role for 40 years."
Says Depp: "I kind of feel the same."