In The Libertine, Johnny Depp adds another misfit to his impressive roster of cinematic outsiders. No, not Pete Doherty—John Wilmot, Second Earl Of Rochester, the infamous, hell-raising, alcohol-guzzling 17th century poet and playwright who courted scandal with such ribald works as The Quintessence Of Debauchery, before expiring of syphilis (surprise, surprise) at the age of 33. He was the Shane MacGowan of his day, Johnny tells us . . .
Rochester is a very interesting character—how aware were you of him before you were sent the script?
It actually, it all came about basically from a phone call about 10 years ago. I got a phone call from [the film’s producer and co-star] John Malkovich who asked if I had any interest in coming to Chicago to see a play he was doing called The Libertine. And obviously I jumped at the opportunity, went to Chicago, saw the play, had dinner with John afterwards and he informed me then that he wanted me to play the part in the film version. And my first reaction was, “Why don’t you do it?” because he was so good. And he basically said, “Well I want you to do it.” So it was at that point that I started learning about Rochester and reading his poems, his books, his plays . . .
He’s not that massively well-known even in the UK. Was part of doing this for you to raise awareness of him?
I definitely wanted to raise awareness of him and at the same time kind of polish up the tarnished image or memory of the guy, because for the most part for the last few centuries he was often written off as a pornographer or a satirist when in fact I think he was a great poet and a very important poet. He was a very complicated man who never got his fair shake in terms of history. He got a bit of a raw deal, I think. So yeah, it was an opportunity to salute him, you know? Write him a love letter in a way.
At the opening of the film, Rochester tells us, “You will not like me.” Do you think if, via a quirk of time and space, you could meet him today, that you’d like him?
I think so, yeah. I think I’d like him very much. In a lot of ways you can look at people over the years, writers, primarily guys like Jack Kerouac . . . He was a terrific writer and really changed the way people write. Like Rochester, Kerouac had his own sort of period where he self-medicated quite heavily. Hunter Thompson—you know, Hunter was a great friend a great hero, and another guy who, basically self-medicated. I’m not saying that that’s what everyone should do, but they were kind of . . . you know, in pain. They were looking for a way to deal with it. Someone else, one of the most important poets I think—for me at least—of the 20th Century is Shane MacGowan. Shane has certainly had a pretty bumpy road, and he has, uh, imbibed. You know? His intake has been pretty impressive over the years, but he’s produced some of the most beautiful lyrics that are a great gift to the world . . .
Rochester seems the kind of character that seems to interest you—someone who exists or thrives outside of society’s normal parameters. Is that a fair assessment?
Oh, yeah, you know, all my, the majority of my heroes have been almost exactly what you’re just described.
Why do you think you’re attracted to this kind of character?
Well I’ve always rooted for the underdog. I guess the consistent theme in the movies or the characters that I’ve been involved with is the . . . I guess they’ve been labeled, you know, odd or weird or outside or strange or freakish or whatever one wants to call it. I’ve always been fascinated by what kind of, what society deems as normal and abnormal. Because some of the things that are accepted on a daily basis are pretty strange to me.
Well, I mean, even going back to, like, my childhood, for example, I remember as a kid growing up in the ‘70s, and even then thinking the idea of resin grapes was odd. You know, on the table, these fake grapes—basically made of glass or plastic. Or macrame owls . . . And no one ever noticed, but to me it was strange.