Johnny Depp may have become a redoubtable box office hit in the noughties with Pirates of the Caribbean and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, but he's still keen to take artistic risks. Hence his showstopping turn in the low-budget Brit costume drama The Libertine, which tells the debauched tale of 17th-century ne'er do well John Wilmot, aka the Earl of Rochester—a man with a penchant for self-destruction that even Captain Jack Sparrow would struggle to top . . .
How did you approach the character of John Wilmot?
Very carefully! It was almost like an excavation in terms of the approach, because there's a lot of available material out there as well as his actual written works.There are a lot of biographies about him, each with a different angle on his life, so using those sources helped a lot. I guess from a distance, when you first think about the guy, the whole surface element really becomes more of an obstacle than anything else—which is yes, basically he drank himself to death and shagged himself to death. But what fascinated me was how did he arrive at that place? Was his drinking recreational? Certainly not. Was his sex recreational? Certainly not. He was a very complicated man. During my research I got to know everything about the guy, but the best thing was I got the opportunity to go to the British Library and peruse his letters, and that opened up a whole new side to him for me. He was a deeply caring father; deeply caring husband; wrote deeply moving letters to the women in his life. But he was just deeply plagued with, and tormented by, pains in his life. He medicated himself to such a degree that it took him down a nasty road.
Did you have anyone in mind when you came to play the character?
No, not really. Just him. I did my best to bring to life a guy that I had read about and tried to do him some justice. He's had a tarnished image and has been written off as a has-been for centuries—a debauched, drunken satirist, hedonistic. Those things might have been ingredients but there was far more too him than that.
What was the shoot itself like for you? A baptism of fire into low-budget British filmmaking?
Oh man, it was great. The experience of shooting the film was amazing. It was exhausting on every level, but it was great. We were given a limited amount of time to shoot the film, and the screenplay itself is an epic biography of the guy in a very short period of time. It was very intense, and some days you'd end up shooting eight to ten pages of very emotional spiel.
It's funny to see you share a screen with Johnny Vegas, something I thought I would never see—even given your love of British comedy. What was he like?
Sometimes you expect someone to be something and they turn out to be completely different. Certainly he is the Johnny Vegas we know from the stage, but what left all of us—and the crew—with our jaws on the ground was his unbelievable focus, and how seriously he took the work itself. He was totally professional and, obviously, sober! He's a very funny guy but also very gentle.
Tell us about Laurence Dunmore. It's a long time since you've worked with a first-time director . . .
First I've got to tip my hat to John Malkovich for locating Laurence and just knowing that this was the guy to do the film, because how could he have known? Laurence is definitely one of those names who's going to be around for a long time. Here was a guy doing his first film who was totally uncompromising in his vision. He just got as dirty as anyone, getting down in the mud, operating, shooting, bringing it all together. He's a real force. We still talk at least once a week and are actively looking for more stuff to do together. I think he's a brilliant filmmaker.
And did the experience inspire you to want to get behind the camera again and direct another movie?
I've got a sneaking suspicion that at some point I'll end up directing something again. For the moment I'm just going to sit back and learn from these guys. I've been lucky enough to work with these incredible filmmakers—Tim Burton, Lasse Hallström, Mike Newell . . . it's a pretty great list—so I'll just keep sponging as much as I can off them.
The Libertine is released in UK cinemas on Friday 18th November 2005.