Three summers ago, when Pirates of the Caribbean opened, most people expected it to sink straight down to Davy Jones' locker, like pretty much every other pirate movie in recent memory. Instead, the high-seas adventure plundered more than $650 million in worldwide box office booty, thanks largely to Johnny Depp's mischievously comical turn as the rakish and rum-soaked Captain Jack Sparrow. As the sequel, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, sails into theaters nationwide, Depp is still trying to wrap his head around it all.
You agreed to do the first Pirates film without even seeing a script. Didn't the potential cheese factor of a movie based on a theme park ride turn you off a bit?
No. I don't know why—ordinarily it probably would. When I said yes to it, my agent Tracy Jacobs' head spun around like she was going to need traction.
A lot of people were surprised at the idea of you doing a big Disney movie in the first place.
People made more of a big deal about that than I thought was necessary, at least from my perspective. If you look back, Disney has done some amazing things. I was just interested in exploring. I didn't at that point have any idea of how far to explore.
It turned out you explored a lot further than Disney anticipated. Was the studio's reaction to your performance as panicked as legend has it?
Oh, boy. Listen, I ended up at a meeting, at the age of 39 or whatever, going in to meet with Disney executives—I mean, these guys push and pull billions of dollars around everyday—and the topic of conversation was my teeth, the eyeliner, and the beads hanging from my beard. I was expecting that someone somewhere along the line would have a problem. It seems that all they're ever looking for is the poster boy. I just thought, "Hey man, I'm the old guy. You've got Orlando and Keira—that's a stunning poster. You don't need me."
Did director Gore Verbinski have your back?
Gore took the brunt of it initially. They kept calling Gore saying, "You've got to do something about Depp. You've got to talk to him." Gore, bless his heart, said, "Look, I happen to like it. If you want to talk to him, you talk to him. I ain't doing it." He stood his ground. And my agent, poor thing, was getting calls from Disney saying, "What the hell is going on? He's ruining the movie." Finally, I just made the call to them and said, "Look, you hired me to do the gig. If you didn't see the stuff I've done before, that's irresponsible on your part. You had to have some idea of where I was going to go. If you don't like it, you can fire me."
Did you feel like you were injecting a sort of subversive, punk rock aesthetic into a Disney movie?
Oh yeah. It was sort of, like, Wow, they hired us to do this thing and the possibilities are endless. In a weird way, we'd not only infiltrated the enemy camp but we'd been welcomed in. I felt like Gore and I were clicked into something that Disney couldn't grasp because of the fear about their investment. I felt like it was our duty to push the boundaries and see what we could get away with for the audience, because audiences like to be surprised. They like to see new stuff.
Were you as surprised as everyone else by the movie's success?
It was shocking. Totally shocking. Listen, it's been a relatively long haul for me. I've been around quite a while. And a great number of the movies I've been involved with weren't necessarily embraced by the Hollywood community. Studios and marketers didn't know what they had, so they didn't get sold properly. It was normal to me that a movie would come out in a few theaters and 18 people would see it. That was okay for me. So I had no expectation whatsoever.
Did it make you uncomfortable in a way to be so embraced in a big Disney movie?
No. It was never like I had an allergy or aversion to the idea of commercial success. But if there was to be commercial success, I really felt strongly that it needed to be on my terms. I would never take a movie to go, Oh, this one is guaranteed to be a blockbuster and it's good money and a good career move.
How did those Disney execs who had freaked out talk to you after the movie proved to be such a hit?
There was one executive in particular who really went out of their way to investigate what the fuck I was up to, and after the release of Pirates, I got a letter from that executive saying, "Look, I apologize. I was wrong. You were right. Thank you for sticking to your guns. I appreciate the fact that you didn't listen to me.
While you were making Dead Man's Chest, Orlando Bloom took quite a beating in the press for the perceived failure of Kingdom of Heaven and Elizabethtown. Did he talk to you about that?
He mentioned an article where he'd been chosen to be the whipping boy, and he was a bit down about it. Ultimately, what can you do? Coming up the ranks like that, it's so easy to get pigeonholed. You've got to really watch yourself, because at a certain point if you allow them to do that, they'll never let you out of that box. That's a real danger. That's a real limitation.
Gore Verbinski told me he feels Mickey Mouse has been resuscitated as an icon so many times that there's nothing there and it's time for Jack Sparrow to take his place. What do you say to that?
Wow. Put the ears on me. [Laughs] It's an interesting part of the ride. If this is what's happening at the moment, that's great. Next week could be a different story entirely. But I wouldn't regret having been on a cereal box as Captain Jack Sparrow. Because it is the ultimate in infiltrating the enemy camp. It is subversive. And it should be. Kiddies grow up, and they get it. They'll understand in later years and they'll be along for the ride as well. It would have been wrong to have 21 Jump Street lunchboxes and thermoses and things like that. That would have been wrong because it wasn't on my terms. This is quite different.
Would you be up for making more Pirates movies after part three comes out?
If all the elements are there in the proper way, and if a good script can be put together, I still feel like there's all kinds of possibilities for this character to explore. It's not about ramming him down people's throats to make more money. It would have to be right. The very seed of it would have to be right and good.
Are your kids old enough to see these movies? They're pretty intense for little kids.
My kids have both seen [the first] Pirates. They haven't seen this one yet. My daughter's 7, so she's fine. Then again, it's a little different for them because there are certain things that happen to me in the story that might be a little traumatizing. You've just got to sit them down and give them the old "It's just a movie" speech.