"Somebody asked me the other day how this character is different from others Johnny has played," Verbinski says. "He's always played against type – that's been his thing, the way he's escaped being typecast as a good-looking leading man. He's always Bud Cort, never Clint Eastwood. There's always an internalization, where he's standing back and watching things. But with Jack Sparrow, he's a guy who's a braggart, who makes the big speech, who can go with the grain. And so you get this virtuoso performance."
These days, Depp and his family – his longtime companion, the French actress and singer Vanessa Paradis, 33, and their two children, Lily-Rose, 7, and Jack, 4, continue to divide their time between the South of France and Los Angeles, though they've been mainly living in L.A. since February 2005, when filming of the second Pirates movie began. Pirates of the Caribbean III, due out next year, will begin filming in August, with a promised appearance by Richards himself, already nicely recovered, thank you, after falling out of a coconut tree in Fiji and undergoing surgery for a head injury. Says Depp, "I didn't have to talk him into it. I said, 'It's up to you, but I think we could have a ball.'"
Have you been in touch with Keith?
Not directly, but with his camp. He's fine. He's. . .
Yeah. A piece of machinery.
Have you known him for a while?
We met probably in '94 or '95. Obviously, for anyone who ever touched a guitar, Keith is one of your gods.
Have you played music around him? No. I don't have the kind of hair that would allow me to pick up a guitar and start strumming. I've never been that confident-or drunk. I just couldn't do it. Unless he asked me to. Then maybe.
I'm wondering what you thought when you heard the pitch for Pirates. Because in theory it sounds like a terrible idea.
Theoretically, you're right. It has all the markings of a nightmare.
So what made you take the chance?
Absolutely nothing, just gut instinct. I was in a meeting with Disney. They had offered me this other film, and I was turning it down. But my daughter, she was about three then, and I'd watched every single animated Disney hoo-ha that existed. I'd gotten quite close to these movies and enjoyed the fact that these cartoon characters were without limits. So I was telling them how much I'd like to do a voice for a kiddie film, and they said, "Are you familiar with the theme park and rides? Well, we're thinking of doing Pirates of the Caribbean as a film." And I said, "I'm in." Just like that, immediately. My agent was sitting there, and she was really shocked. I was a little shocked myself.
It seems like an unusual move for you, because you've chosen such non-mainstream movies over the years.
I don't know why I said yes. I didn't think, "I must do a commercial movie." I've never been the guy who can predict, "This fucker's going to go through the roof" or "This one will take a giant dump." And up until halfway through round nine, everyone, including Disney, was thinking, "This is going to be a huge flop." Later, when they were telling me I had to approve my image on cereal boxes, I still never felt compromised. It wasn't like selling out to me. It was like I had infiltrated the enemy camp and stuck my flag in, and now it's taken root and you're on the ride, so let's see where it goes. Friends of mine were going, "Jesus, man, isn't that a little mortifying?" And I said, "Fuck, no! I think it's great. It's funny to me."
Did you have a special affinity for pirates?
Well, I picked up all kinds of books to prepare. Research is at least half the fun. It's like studying for a history exam. The nutrition onboard those ships, that was a real eye-opener. They'd eat by candlelight, below deck, and be so sickened by the food that they'd blow out the candles so they didn't have to see the maggots. Pirate ships were kind of floating prisons, really. I started getting into that whole era, beyond just pirates.
Did you use specific things you learned in playing Jack Sparrow?
One moment where a bit of my research came in unbelievably handy, we were shooting the last frames of Pirates I, and we were trying to come up with a closing line. None of us were happy with what we had. The line needed to mean a lot to Jack. And I remembered a passage from a book I read by a French sailor, where he talked about the idea of why you keep going as a sailor: It's because the horizon is always there. You want to get to it, but you never will. It's all about the unattainable.
What was the final line?
[Thinks for a moment, then speaks in Captain Jack's voice] "Now bring on that horizon." It said it all for me.
When people talk about your portrayal of Jack Sparrow, they generally mention Keith but also point out a certain gay undercurrent.
Well, there was a great book I read . . . What was it called? Sodomy and the Pirate Tradition. A very interesting book. I wasn't exactly going for that with the character. And Keith is not flamboyant in his actions. Keith is pretty stealth. But with Jack, it was more that I liked the idea of being ambiguous, of taking this character and making everything a little bit . . . questionable. Because women were thought to be bad luck on ships. And these pirates would go out for years at a time. So, you know, there is a possibility that one thing might lead to another.
You're lonely. You have an extra ration of rum. [Shrugs] "Cabin boy!"
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