LOS ANGELES—It is dangerous for a rebel to be loved too much.
Defiance is the troublemaker's oxygen, and the surprise of a great big bearhug from the mainstream powers-that-be can be enough to choke it right out. There's a temptation to bite the embracer's ear and wriggle free.
Johnny Depp, one of his generation's most iconoclastic actors, is in that situation now with Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, the sequel to the 2003 blockbuster that earned him his first Oscar nomination and propelled him from cult star to cultural touchstone. The movie opens July 7 and is expected to be one of summer's biggest hits.
He was in more familiar territory four years ago, when the money men of the Walt Disney Co. were hopping from foot to foot in a nervous panic over his performance as a swishy swashbuckler in an expensive pirate movie based on an amusement park ride.
Depp now says he wonders what they expected.
His career is a menagerie of peculiar and inscrutable men: the quivering, comedic Ichabod Crane of Sleepy Hollow, the oblivious B-movie maker Ed Wood, Hunter S. Thompson's drug-crazed alter ego in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and the heartbreaking monster Edward Scissorhands.
"They must be related to me in some way. Not so much that they're outsiders, though it must be. I never considered myself an outsider," the actor says, a devilish smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. "But I definitely didn't consider myself an insider."
So Depp came to expect anxiety from the studio brass when he set to work. "I'm so used to those calls now that I wait for them, where they say: 'Now, what exactly are you doing?'"
The actor is 43 but doesn't look battle-hardened. His boyish face is shaded by the wide brim of a well-worn gray Borsalino hat and a necklace jangles around the frayed collar of his white T-shirt as he recalls the internal uproar over the original Pirates, which came principally from former Disney CEO Michael Eisner.
"They did come to me and say, you know, 'What's going on? What does this mean? Is he gay, is he drunk? We can't understand what you're saying. It sounds like you're slurring your words. None of it makes any sense.'
"They were really worried and, in a lot of ways, rightly so. They had a lot of dough invested in the thing and here comes this really weird guy doing something they never experienced before from a human being. I did understand it, but it didn't change anything. I still had to do what I had to do, even when the threat was to potentially be fired."
Pirates producer Jerry Bruckheimer, the powerhouse behind movies such as Top Gun, Armageddon and Pearl Harbor, talked down the hostility. "You protect him by giving confidence to the studio. We all agreed to hire Johnny Depp, and the fact that he's interpreting the character in a unique way is why you hired him. Otherwise you hire anybody."
Depp, of course, wasn't fired, and his wobbly buccaneer, Jack Sparrow (inspired by Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards), launched the movie to a worldwide gross of $653.9 million.
Then came the best-actor Oscar nomination and an order for two back-to-back sequels. (The third Pirates movie, which is still shooting, arrives next summer.)
Among certain audiences, Depp always had a degree of loyalty, but suddenly his appeal was much broader. It was no longer just the gothically inclined who got him—it was the so-called regular folks.
Since then he has had three smaller successes—Finding Neverland (which earned him a second Oscar nomination), the offbeat murder thriller Secret Window and the action-comedy Once Upon a Time in Mexico—and one blockbuster, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which brought in $475 million worldwide last year.
His performance in Charlie as the somewhat menacing, slightly androgynous, saccharine-free candy tycoon Willie Wonka reportedly rankled Warner Bros. executives—as he often did.
But it proved, once again, that Depp's brand of cheerful weirdness and dark poetry strikes a chord with people.
And in resurrecting his Sparrow character, Depp found himself in strange territory: acceptance.
"On Pirates 2 and 3, we didn't get the calls—'My God, you're ruining the movie!'
"In a lot of instances they kind of were beyond supportive to the degree where it's, 'Keep doing it! Make some more stuff up! Add some more weirdness!' But we did hit a couple of places that made them nervous . . ."
Depp pauses for a long time. That devil's smile returns. "And it does feel good. It does," he says. "If you don't sort of tread in the arena of fear, you won't move forward somehow."
Locked in that mainstream embrace, Depp did not bite the ear of those doubters who now celebrate him. Instead, he nibbled on a toe.
Gore Verbinski, director of the Pirates movies, says he and Depp were trying to find a way to "one-up each other" to avoid playing it safe the second time around. At one point in the sequel, when Sparrow is captured by cannibals, Verbinski had the savages drape a necklace of severed toes around his neck.
Sparrow then does something outrageous. (We won't spoil the joke.) "People were like, 'You can't put that in the movie,' " Verbinski says. "Well, who's going to stop us?" Not the suits. Not this time.
The scene gets a big groan, followed by laughter, from preview audiences. "It's a sort of gambit," Verbinski says. "We're both really uncomfortable if other people are comfortable. You worry, 'Are we phoning it in?' If executives are going to sleep well at night, well, you don't want that."
Depp explains that the anxiety level of businessmen is simply a good way to gauge your balance on the high wire. "It's not like you get a thrill out of worrying them. But if they're freaked out about it, that means it's different. Let's keep going in that direction."
Frustrating times early in his career on the 1980s TV drama 21 Jump Street made him vow never to perform solely for the sake of a job again.
It's about "pushing yourself to the absolute brink of failure, in terms of like, 'Boy, if this don't work, it's going to be real bad. And if it does work, it might be great,'" Depp says. "When I'm about to pop my clock I want to be able to say, 'From this particular period to this particular period, I was solid and I was honest and there were no compromises.'
"I could be wrong," he adds. "I might have been wrong many times."
Movies like last year's The Libertine, about a debauched aristocrat, misfired with critics and were ignored by the masses. Occasionally, the daredevil breaks a leg. And some day, Depp knows, the daredevil could break his neck.
"There was always the chance that maybe you'd get away with (taking risks) for one or two movies, and then you'd get deep-sixed and you're out on your ear. And I was OK with that. I figured, I pumped gas before, I worked construction before. So I could do it again, what the heck. It's still kind of miraculous to me that I was able to stick around after all these years."
Memories of two important figures in his life—Marlon Brando, his co-star in 1995's Don Juan DeMarco, and Thompson, the iconic crazed journalist of Fear and Loathing—guide his tastes.
"I wouldn't do anything that I thought could disappoint them or make them ashamed. Even if I'm alone—even if I'm going down this road and I feel it's really what this character is and everyone in the world thinks I'm wrong—you've got to do what you believe in."
But, like many creative enigmas, Brando's life was full of personal grief and emotional and social exile, and Fear and Loathing was not just a title for Thompson, it was a lifestyle. Slowed by declining health, he committed suicide last year—his final act of defiance.
Depp is testing whether it's possible to follow their fearsome creative path and still have happiness. He says his personal life has mellowed because of his longtime romance with model/actress Vanessa Paradis, and their two children, daughter Lily-Rose, 7, and son Jack, 4.
That's when he says he let go of what "freaks me out or bothered me or confused me" along with the "boozing" that helped him deal with it.
"It took kind of meeting that right girl, her getting pregnant, and that whole beauty of nine months waiting for the kid and then BOOM—there's your baby and you go, 'My God, there is my life.' The same moment your child is born, you're born. You're brand-new, because you are revealed finally to yourself. You're meeting yourself for the first time. And it's about being OK with yourself, not hating yourself anymore."
So, maybe there is danger for a rebel like Depp in being loved too much, but he seems willing to sacrifice some of that defiance. He has found ways to fill that void.