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Depp the magical mystery man

The A-list jack-of-all-trades talks about 'The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus'

by George Hadley-Garcia

HOLLYWOOD — It’s no surprise Johnny Depp is starring in a fantastical new movie titled “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus,” which opens in Japan on Saturday.

Born John Christopher Depp II, the ever-youthful actor — now a surprising 46 — is known for taking on offbeat, often whimsical or daring, roles and projects. (Think of him in “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” in which his Willie Wonka was light years away from Gene Wilder’s earlier and more staid version.)

But Depp isn’t playing the immortal, 1,000-year-old Doctor Parnassus, a role that went to Canadian Christopher Plummer. Instead, he costars with Colin Farrell and Jude Law, with the trio sharing the role of Tony, one of the doctor’s employees. Why? Because Tony was originally portrayed by Australian actor Heath Ledger, who died — in January, 2008 — about a third of the way through shooting. Ledger’s death shut down production on the film until director and cowriter Terry Gilliam (a former member of Monty Python and himself a surprising 68) contacted, or was contacted by Depp and the other two actors. There are different versions of what happened after Ledger died.

“It was an awful, awful time. It was just hard to believe . . . confusing. But all that mattered was saving the work that Heath had done,” says Depp. “Everybody admired him. Heath was an actor everyone in the business liked. He was moving from one triumph to another . . . (and) he was someone to watch. His death set off so many ‘what might have beens.’ “

Ledger’s work in “The Imaginarium” was on the brink of being scrapped. The film’s producers wanted to replace him entirely, and reshoot his scenes using another actor. But the famously imaginative Gilliam decided that since the picture was a fantasy, Tony could be represented in more than one guise. Thus, Ledger plays Tony in the real world while Depp plays the first transformation of the character, and Law and Farrell the other two.

The movie is described as being about “a traveling theater company which gives its audience much more than they were expecting.”

It’s not the first project in which a star’s death or departure is solved by the character magically transforming into another persona (and therefore another performer). When an unhappy Bette Davis departed the set of her final film, “The Wicked Stepmother,” she was replaced by a much younger Barbara Carrera for her remaining scenes. The explanation? Davis’ character was a witch who could shift forms (and is at one point a black cat.) In “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus,” the ambitious if not overly good doctor has made a deal with the devil to gain immortality and to astound audiences, with members of the theater company traveling through a magical mirror in order to explore their imaginations.

According to Depp: “Terry said he used a lot of stuff from his own past and his own imagination in the movie. Like any auteur does. Which he really is, because his movies reflect such a personal sense of taste and style, and Terry usually writes his own stuff or has a hand in the script.”

Gilliam, who was the American member of Monty Python, and Depp have stated their hope that “kids of all ages” will enjoy this picture, including their own offspring. “I don’t let my children watch everything I’ve done,” affirms Depp. “Some of it isn’t appropriate for them yet. They’re just too young. I have enough trouble with television, which isn’t the best influence on kids, anyway.”

With French singer Vanessa Paradis — the two are a longtime couple, not legally wed, and have a home in France — Depp is parent to a daughter, Lily-Rose Melody, 10, and a son aged 7 and named, simply, Jack. What in “The Imaginarium” does Depp feel will specifically interest his children?

“Oh, so many things,” he says. “The visuals, obviously. Certain characters. Scene settings — some of the colors and backgrounds are incredible. The way things happen. . . . I mean, sort of in an ‘Alice in Wonderland’ way that is timeless and captivating for kids as well as happier adults.

“I think that adults who are more comfortable in themselves, more content with their lives, can let their imaginations roam. They can also better appreciate the vivid imaginations of others, of an artist like Terry Gilliam. I think it’s the more uptight adults, ones with insecurities and rigid surface images, that don’t enjoy or ‘get’ Terry’s kind of work.”

Speaking of films he doesn’t let his children watch, Johnny includes his 2008 release “Sweeney Todd,” for which he received his third Academy Award nomination. (The prior two were for “Finding Neverland” (2005) and the 2004 hit and sequel-launcher “Pirates of the Caribbean.”) Another taboo picture is “The Libertine,” a period tale of English debauchery, sexual and otherwise, in which Johnny played a morally ambiguous character named Rochester, in 2004.

Clearly, the boyish star doesn’t worry about maintaining a particular, or rigid, image. “No, I don’t want to think there’s such a thing as a ‘Johnny Depp role.’ What would that signify? It would tend to mean I’d worked my way into a corner and then stayed there.”

“Years ago, several people around me said not to do ‘Ed Wood’ because of the transvestite theme,” he recalls. “One of them, a guy presuming to give me advice, said it could kill my career if I played a transsexual. I said to him Ed Wood wasn’t transsexual. He just liked to wear articles of women’s clothing and he happened to have a passion for Angora, which in our culture is reserved for women. He would borrow clothes from a girlfriend, from his wife, and it being the 1950s, the poor female in question became very distraught. Especially because he looked pretty good in those clothes.

“I’m proud of doing ‘Ed Wood.’ Fascinating personality, and a real-life person. It wasn’t a big hit, but I never assumed it would be. Some of the things I do, these days, still, I can expect they wont be big hits.”

What about when the likable Depp does a character who isn’t likable and does bad things in a bad milieu, for instance the gangster world, as in recent release “Public Enemies”?

He pauses before answering. “I don’t want to make it sound like I don’t care what the public thinks, that I’m . . . so indifferent. But I figure people who go to see a movie ’cause I’m in it know to expect something possibly very different. I’m not a brand, I’m more of a variety. And with ‘Public Enemies,’ yeah, we were taking a bit of a gamble.

“What surprised me was some of the critics said I did the role to try and get away from ‘young roles,’ because of my age, and as I edge toward 50. Blah blah blah. But the fact is, I don’t consider age in my roles. I don’t have a plan regarding age. I don’t try to look a certain age or to stay a certain age. I just try and visualize myself in a given role.

“In ‘Sweeney Todd’ they gave me an older look. I had some white in my hair. But it had as much to do with being sort of, uh, dissipated, a murderer, sometimes melancholy, as with trying to seem older.”

Depp astounded many in the audience with his singing in that film, which several Hollywood insiders had predicted would earn him an Oscar. Does he hope for that coveted award?

“I don’t hope for it in an active way. That is, praying or prayer is a form of hope, something you say or desire, in your mind. No, I just figure you rack up enough nominations, eventually you get the award, and that’s terrific. Again, though, I have no plan at all about trying to cop another nomination or get that award. When it happens, if it happens . . . that will be terrific. End of story.”

Depp has come a long way for a boy who dropped out of school at 15 to try and become a rock musician. Before long, he was a TV star (“21 Jump Street”) and teenybopper idol, and then he moved into movies, initially in teen roles such as his his 1990 breakthrough “Edward Scissorhands.” But the 1990s were also a time of personal travail, and after actor River Phoenix’s death from a drug overdose, Depp was accused of selling him drugs at The Viper Room nightclub (outside which Phoenix dropped dead). In 1994 came his notorious arrest for “smashing and trashing” a New York City hotel suite, and in ’99 he was arrested in London for fighting with paparazzi (far less shocking).

Perhaps understandably, these topics are off-limits (as dictated by Depp’s publicist). Asked if the years have made him a more mature and controlled person — admittedly a hokey question, but one wants to hear his reply — Depp concludes: “Time brings you down to Earth, no question. So does a long-running relationship. So, for sure, does fatherhood. And so does continuing in a career and continuing to build a reputation and meet new challenges.

“At some point after 30, and usually before 40, you kind of realize that there are certain behaviors that only harm you, and therefore they harm those you care about. And that it’s easier to be a bit extreme privately — very privately — or in your work. You just have to grow up, to take more responsibility and take your life and other people’s lives seriously. But without sacrificing your imagination or your . . . your sense of wonder and of daring. Not crazy, stupid dares, but taking a worthwhile risk. Preferably in your work!”