Everyone in Hollywood must face the same devilish question of compromise at some point. Many, in exchange for fame, fortune and a good table at Ashton Kutcher’s restaurant, will happily trade in their artistic aspirations for a big-budget, roman-numeral-bearing remake co-starring Tom Arnold as the zany neighbor next door. Others, meanwhile, cling so tightly to their anti-commercial virtues that they boast about their new John Sayles movie opening soon in one theater as their tears fall into the mac-and-cheese dinner they’ve prepared in their studio apartment.
Remarkably, Johnny Depp has successfully straddled this line for more than two decades, earning himself an audience filled with equal numbers of shrieking “Pirates” fanatics and turtleneck-clad film students joyously reciting “Dead Man” dialogue. It seems like part of his master plan, then, that the Kentucky-born actor would spend November simultaneously shooting the world’s most high-profile sequels, debuting a controversial unrated art film and receiving a career tribute at age 42.
“I’d do it over exactly the same way if I had to do it over,” Depp grinned through gold-capped teeth at the recent premiere of his bawdy drama “The Libertine.” “I wouldn’t do anything over.”
To Depp, that credo now includes “The Libertine,” a sexy 17th-century biopic that the ratings board attempted to slap with an NC-17. The star hopes that a decent percentage of the crowd that recently made “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” a hit will give the much-smaller movie a similar chance when it opens wide following this month’s Oscar-qualifying sneak previews.
“I can just say that getting the film made [was tough], but you feel that about every movie you make,” said Depp, who stars as real-life poet John Wilmot. The second Earl of Rochester, Wilmot’s enormous appetites for sex, liquor and debauchery (he is believed to have created the world’s first printed piece of pornography) contributed to his death at age 33. Needless to say, the role is a long, long way from Willy Wonka. “Suddenly, you’re in the ring, and doing the film, and you go, ’It’s amazing that we got this thing off the ground.’ ”
“[Depp] has been involved with the project for about 10 years,” first-time director Laurence Dunmore marveled of his leading man. “He went to see John Malkovich play Rochester on the stage. … We went back to Johnny because he was the only person I saw being able to play Rochester the way I had in my vision. When he actually came to perform the role, it was obvious that he was born to play him.”
“We did this film in 45 days, really down in the mud,” Depp recalled, admitting that even the racy result (which co-stars Malkovich and Samantha Morton) only begins to scratch the surface of the life that Wilmot embraced so lustily. “If you did a true biopic of Rochester, it could have gone in many, many directions.”
“I [now] play Charles II, the King of England,” Malkovich said of handing over his stage character to Depp. “I certainly wouldn’t have had any pointers for Johnny; he seems to have done quite well without me or my advice.”
Although Depp received a brief shore leave from filming parts two and three of “Pirates of the Caribbean” (simultaneously shooting at various global locations) for “The Libertine” premiere, brief flashes of his trademark grin served as reminders that Jack Sparrow remained close at hand. “They’re about as permanent as they can be,” Depp laughed about his fronts, “until the dentist scrapes them off my skull.”
The actor further reported that, when he received the scripts for the sequels (the first of which hits theaters in July), he was pleasantly surprised with the tender directions in which the filmmakers took the rough-edged Captain Sparrow. “There is a nice opportunity for Jack to get a little bit introspective here and there,” he said, “which is kind of a different angle on the guy.”
Earlier in the same evening, Depp attended an American Film Institute event held in his honor. Peppering his speech with lovingly self-deprecating jabs at his old appearances, the star fought back uncomfortable feelings of self-congratulation while watching clips from a body of work that contrasts “Cry-Baby” with “The Man Who Cried,” and “Edward Scissorhands” with “Ed Wood.” As “The Libertine” hits theaters, and two “Pirates” blockbusters prepare to follow, Depp seems certain to proudly continue walking his tightrope.
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