HOLLYWOOD – While the return of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise has gotten mixed reviews from critics overseas, it’s bound to be a hit in Japan for two reasons: Johnny Depp and Paul McCartney.
Depp plays the series’ hero, Captain Jack Sparrow, and McCartney is playing his uncle.
“As a big music fan, I was thrilled we got Paul McCartney aboard as my Uncle Jack,” Depp tells The Japan Times. “He looked the part and was so into it. It was almost like two kids playing. I didn’t even feel like he was older than me, or an ex-Beatle — I mean talk about awesome.”
The Beatles had a phenomenal impact on Japanese music fans when they toured here in 1966, and their presence has been felt in everything from commercials to English lessons by JET teachers since. One of the only actors to approach their level of fame? Depp. He’s so popular in Japan that he doesn’t even need to visit to feel the love.
“A few years ago in France, a Japanese tour group was staring and smiling at me,” the 54-year-old Depp recalls. “I smiled back, then a lady covered one eye with her hand, like an eye patch, and of course I knew what they were referencing.
“Then a young guy comes forward a bit, so I stretch out my hand so we can shake and he asks, ‘When is the next “Pirates” movie?’ I had to shrug, and at first he looked disappointed. Then his face lights up and he says, ‘I think next “Pirates” movie should be rated Aaarrrgh!’ like in that way pirates have of saying ‘yes.’ It was so funny, I burst out laughing, and soon everyone was laughing.”
Luckily for that fan, the franchise hadn’t yet walked the plank. This past weekend saw the release of “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales” (Japan title: “Pairetsu obu Karibian: Saigo no Kaizoku”), the fifth installment in the film franchise that launched in 2003 with “The Curse of the Black Pearl.” It has been six years since the fourth chapter, “On Stranger Tides,” was out in cinemas. The weekend box office in Japan was around $9.2 million, bringing the film’s global take to more than $708 million.
“It does take more grease to get you back into the frying pan,” Depp says about his return. “I don’t mean money, I mean a worthwhile script and new elements. And reintroduced elements.”
Something old and something new? He’s likely referring to the return of Elizabeth (Keira Knightley) and Will (Orlando Bloom), who were absent from the previous film, and new baddie Captain Salazar, played by Javier Bardem.
“Isn’t Javier terrific? He’s such a cool guy, really nice, but he’s such a rotten bastard on screen — and he can retain his devilish charm,” Depp says. “He was one of the best ‘Bond’ villains.”
Speaking of villains, Depp got his start in acting with one of the most famous in cinematic history — he was the third-ever victim of Freddy Krueger, the razor-clawed monster from 1984’s “A Nightmare on Elm Street.” From there, Depp honed his cool factor on the TV show “21 Jump Street” before playing iconic roles in “Edward Scissorhands” (1990), “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” (1998), “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” (2005) and “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” (2007), to name but a few.
“Just to transition from television to movies is something. I’m grateful I’m one of a few who’s managed it, and it’s been a long run,” Depp says. “Like to some degree that’s owed to Captain Jack and company. There’s a big, enthusiastic market for these movies. As action movies go, I think they maintain a higher level of quality than most action franchises.”
Japan’s not the only foreign market on Hollywood’s radar these days: what Chinese audiences think is definitely growing in importance. Depp is grateful for the interest, but notes that while the country’s influence increases, he hopes it won’t impose conditions on film content and casting. He briefly cites the example of Buddhist actor Richard Gere, a friend of the Dalai Lama and critic of China’s occupation of Tibet, before switching the topic back to Japan.
“It just occurs to me that one reason Japanese, but also British, fans are so fond of the ‘Pirates’ movies is they’re island nations, right? The sea is part of their history … and their background — literally,” he says. “I wonder if landlocked countries like Switzerland have the same feeling for pirate movies. Hmm. I’m pretty sure there must have been Japanese pirates, come to think of it.”
The pirates that wreaked havoc on the seas surrounding Japan were known as wakō and were particularly active around 1350. Depp thinks adding one or two of them to the franchise, if there’s a sixth installment, would be “really cool.”
Speaking of new kinds of roles, Depp says that, having performed as so many different types of characters, it’s hard to think what’s left for him to do.
“Just when you think there aren’t any (new roles), along comes some interesting off-the-wall script or a new young director with a brand-new vision,” he assures me. “But what I’d really like is for one of my movies — where I’m not Jack Sparrow — to be a really big hit. Then I’d know it was really, and especially, just because of me.”
He pauses for a moment and adds, “I wonder if I should have said that, it sounds pretty vain.” Depp says that one thing he loves about being an actor is the ability to go all-out in embracing a personality that’s outside of his own.
“I think everyone gets bored with himself now and then,” he says, adding that he loves dressing up in costumes. “I think it’s a compliment when, like with ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,’ some people come up to me and say they didn’t recognize me in it at first. That means I’m really doing my job.”
Depp pauses, then erupts with a playful laugh. “Aaarrgh! That’s me, bucko! Just doin’ me job, matey boy. I’m just doin’ me job.”
“Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales” is now playing. For more information, visit www.disney.co.jp/movie/pirates.html.