Johnny Depp is wrestling with a monster. No, it’s not one of the numerous sea monsters from “Pirates of the Caribbean” — it’s the franchise itself.

As the world lines up to see the latest installment of the blockbuster series, “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides,” Disney has alluded to the fact that this is not the finale of a four-film narrative but the beginning of a second trilogy.

“It’s kind of a big monster I got myself caught up in,” Depp tells The Japan Times. “I am impressed as hell on the one hand. I’m also, in my mind, keeping it at arm’s length … I don’t want it to swallow me up.”

A statement like this is not surprising coming from Depp. The 48-year-old actor is known for being somewhat wary of what he calls the “big-time Hollywood studio-system machine.”

“It isn’t necessarily a negative thing,” he adds, ” but it’s huge and it’s motivated first and last by money.

“Let’s just say (when it comes to a fifth and sixth film) time will tell. … As will the script. That’s the key — the script.”

Until he took wing as Capt. Jack Sparrow in the “Pirates” films, Depp was well-known for his collaborations with director Tim Burton, which included “Edward Scissorhands,” “Ed Wood,” “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and the recent “Alice in Wonderland” remake. Over the years he has also made numerous independent films and undertaken a variety of roles. Yet despite the mainstream success of the “Pirates” franchise, Depp is still considered a rebel and an independent spirit by much of Hollywood.

Depp lives in France with his partner, Vanessa Paradis, and their children Lily-Rose Melody (12) and Jack (9). He says many studio executives question why he lives so far away from the heart of the film industry.

“(They) ask why I turned down this role or that role. Or how I feel about it now, if, say, the role was in a hit movie,” he says. “Some guys can’t understand my not regretting it if I turned down something that made a ton of money. On the other hand, I tell them the ‘Pirates…” movies have set me up (and no doubt his children) for life.”

Depp didn’t start out as an obvious leading man. He came from a television background, playing officer Tom Hanson in the series “21 Jump Street” (1987-90). He won teen-hearthrob status, but wasn’t the Arnold Schwarzenegger-type action hero or the romantic Michael Douglas type that were popular at the time. His rebelliousness, however, was (and still is) appealing to many fans. One famous incident took place in 1994 at New York’s Mark Hotel. Depp trashed the room and later blamed it on a hard-to-catch rodent.

“I used to have more of a chip on my shoulder,” he says.

That Johnny is long gone though. He says he now feels more confident and more at ease, but the rebelliousness lingers in the film choices he makes.

“I sometimes would wonder,” Depp admits, “once I got into the movies and success was clearly indicated, if I wasn’t making some wrong choices … if I wasn’t maybe throwing it away, going too far off the beaten commercial track. Sometimes I thought by taking roles like Edward Scissorhands or Ed Wood, I was shutting doors so I wouldn’t be chosen for anything where I could make a lot of money and maybe have a bigger impact.

“Now I don’t worry about the money — which I know is easy to say because now I’ve got it,” he says before chuckling: “Those pirates bring in the gold, all right!”

Joking aside, Depp seems genuinely more interested in the kind of social message his work sends.

“I don’t think being in hit after hit is really making an impact … and an impact on who, anyway?” he says before answering his own question. “The biggest impact, the best one, is the one you make on your mind and, in a positive way, on your family and friends.”

The family impact is one of the reasons Depp says he took a voice-over role in “Rango.”

“A big reason I did it was my kids,” he says. “I knew they’d love it. It was very well done, really well thought out. In fact, I think sometimes more planning and care goes into many of the movies aimed at kids — or at kids and their parents — than into a lot of the big-time, big-bucks movies aimed at a wider audience.”

The previous “Pirates” film, “At World’s End,” was released in 2007, and the ones before that in 2003 and 2006. As to how this one differs from the others, Depp teases, “I could say, ‘Go see the movie and find out.’ That might be cynical … and self-serving. But it did take time to come up with a good story and a script that pleased everyone — including the star (he coughs).

“And as usual, I get to indulge myself and go a bit loony at times. Jack Sparrow happens to be one of my favorite roles.”

Actors who have worked with Depp often remark how much fun it is to work with him. When asked about this, the actor seems as if he might share some gossip by talking about an Oscar-winning star who has the people around him praying their work days come to an end — but he stops short of dishing out a name and stresses the moral of the story instead.

“This isn’t surgery or scientific research, it’s entertainment,” Depp says. “If we entertain ourselves and each other, obviously in a directed and disciplined way, then there’s a good chance we’ll attract and entertain an audience. That is the business of show business.”

Another reason Depp is so care-free is because he says he has learned to relinquish control when it comes to the films he stars in, something he learned after much of his work from Oliver Stone’s “Platoon” (1986) wound up on the cutting-room floor.

“I was shattered at the time,” he admits. “But it’s the director. It’s the producers and the studio, sometimes it’s the editor or editors. It’s not the actor. You know, if I wanted to spend more time in the business and less with my family, I could go direct, I could go out and have more control. But I enjoy acting and I also enjoy my family and just living our life … so I don’t want to be a director or producer.”

“I do my job, I do it fairly often, I enjoy it and I go home. I enjoy home a lot. … It’s one of the advantages of being older — you’re not as intense and desperate about everything that happens in your life, including the things you have no control over. ‘Why worry?’ is like a motto for me now. … There are more important things to worry about, or at least be concerned with. And if you cannot control or even affect the outcome, why worry?”

Could this new way of thinking come with getting older? Depp turns 48 on June 9, which means 50 is just around the corner. When asked how he feels about the milestone, the star falls silent.

Any thoughts?

“Yes. Yes, I have thoughts,” he laughs. “You don’t want to print them!”

Really? Being Johnny Depp at 50 can’t be all bad. This is the man with whom, just a few months ago on the pages of The Japan Times, bombshell actress Angelina Jolie confessed to having a crush on!

“I don’t know how getting into that decade (his fifties), especially after the halfway mark, is going to affect how I’m cast or perceived,” Depp confesses. “This sounds so vain. … Fortunately, there’s Tim (Burton), and many or most of his characters are ageless. I could also age into a crustier pirate.

“Personally? Aging is not a horrible thing. We just let our vanity make it seem awful for us. When you think about it, in this very business — in show business — look at the small army of actors who died before reaching 50. So turning that age basically means you’ve survived to reach it. Which is especially good news for your loved ones … also your dermatologist and possibly a plastic surgeon.”

Depp isn’t just popular with other celebrities. He’s popular worldwide. In Japan, for example, he always had a strong following, but his role as Jack in the “Pirates” films seemed to almost give him another layer of fame. The actor acts genuinely surprised at the news of his Japanese fame, and says he has thought about what attributes make certain stars more popular than others overseas.

“This isn’t the first time I’ve thought about that,” he says. “I mean England, well, that’s not so different (from the United States). In Japan … being popular there is an achievement. Why me? It could be that I represent more of a generation or an outlook than a country. John Wayne really represented America. That made him extra popular in America but less popular in some other places. I think I’m kind of perceived as an individual, more than a Hollywood star.”

Depp says he likes to think that it’s his choice of roles that keeps people interested. He strives to keep people surprised even with a role like Jack, which people have come to know quite well.

“But if they also like me just for me … gee, I’m really very flattered,” he says. “I can only say that I’ve always suspected the Japanese have good taste — look at so much of their art and architecture and their movies. If they like me (for other reasons) than for me, that really confirms their good taste. That sounds so egotistical, but it makes me quite happy. Really.”

“Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides” is playing in theaters nationwide. See a full review on today’s Re: Film page.

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