- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 6, 2006

LOS ANGELES — Johnny Depp gently defends the array of misfits that turned him from a Fox TV star into a perennial Oscar favorite.

Edward Scissorhands. Willy Wonka. Ichabod Crane. Ed Wood. They’re oddballs to us but endearing, “straight” characters to Mr. Depp.

Then again, the actor admits to a warped perspective.

“I think everybody’s nuts. The weirdest thing in the world is to see some guy who’s super-earnest. He’s probably crazier than any of the guys I’ve played,” Mr. Depp says.

The actor’s predilection for outcasts rendered him a critic’s darling but hardly a Hollywood power broker.

Captain Jack Sparrow changed all that.

Now, Mr. Depp is revisiting the drunken outlaw in “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest.”

The sequel to the 2003 smash deposits Mr. Depp back into more sea adventures, destined to clash with “Pirates” holdovers Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley.

Still sporting the gold teeth he had bonded to his own for the role, Mr. Depp appears a decade younger than his 43 years. He’s also thoughtful in conversation to the point of distraction. But you can’t look away, whether it’s to examine the tattoos decorating his arms or for the same reasons we get lost in his performances.

He’s a bona fide movie star, even if he’s as prone to the occasional clunker (“The Astronaut’s Wife”) as his less magnetic peers.

It’s hard to believe he started out as a teen hunk on “21 Jump Street,” seen on the once-fledgling Fox network back in 1987. The young actor bristled that the television fame shut him in, and he left the show for a film career.

Talented types like David Caruso had similar ambitions but quickly retreated to the tube. Mr. Depp, however, found eclectic work in movies such as “Cry Baby” and “Edward Scissorhands” (both released in 1990) before establishing his film pedigree in both “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape” (1993) and “Ed Wood” (1994).

The Kentucky native’s porcelain features and ability to find believable shadings in the most unbelievable characters made him irresistible to directors like Tim Burton. Yet mainstream acceptance remained elusive — until a Disney theme park attraction came calling.

Revisiting Captain Jack might seem a commercially safe bet for someone like Mr. Depp, but he contends he wasn’t ready to kiss off his favorite buccaneer.

“With a character like this, the parameters are a little broader, there are more possibilities,” he says.

That meant a little line improvising, both on the set and off.

“Sometimes it comes to you when you’re reading the script,” Mr. Depp says, before diplomatically insisting both director Gore Verbinski and writers Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio have the final say.

He might play with the verbiage during a scene just to shake things up.

“It kicks the bottom out from under you for a second and its fun to see honest reactions all around ?. that kind of panic is fun,” Mr. Depp says.

The actor, in fact, started a little panic on his own with the dailies for the first “Pirates” film. Back then, he was an iconoclast threatening to derail a blockbuster with his fey posturing.

“I was definitely never a crowd pleaser,” he says. “In terms of commercial success I had about 20 years of studio-defying failures. To me, they were all great successes.”

What he struggled with for years is that his industry didn’t see it that way.

“I don’t think they understood the movies I did and didn’t know how to sell them because they didn’t know how to label them. If you don’t understand the product you can’t sell it,” Mr. Depp explains.

Yet the commercial clout he’s gained from the “Pirates” franchise means he won’t have to sell himself to Hollywood for years to come. But, says Mr. Depp, he’s long since come to terms with the industry.

“When I found out Vanessa (Paradis, the French singer and actress) and I were gonna have a baby, you find out what’s important to you real quick,” says the father of two while snapping his fingers.

He won’t rule out playing more conventional roles but hardly sounds thrilled at the possibility.

“It would have to make sense to me somehow,” says Mr. Depp, who confirms gossip he is considering a starring role in the film version of the Broadway musical “Sweeney Todd.” “There are a bunch of guys out there who do that kind of thing very well. I don’t think I could.”

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