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Here's Johnny

Is Johnny Depp’s wacky uncle routine not getting a little old? Paul Byrne hooks up with the man himself in Los Angeles in search of an answer

Last weekend, hollywood belonged to Johnny Depp. Then again, Hollywood belongs to Johnny Depp just about every weekend. But last weekend, well, Johnny was actually in town. And this film-industry town rolled out the red carpet. As usual.

At a time when the star system seems to be collapsing, with old reliables such as Tom Cruise and Julia Roberts no longer able to pack 'em in, Depp is probably the closest thing Hollywood has to a box-office cert. When he steps out with a big-budget, bells-and-whistles blockbuster, that is. Such as next week's Alice In Wonderland.

Right now, Johnny Depp is Elvis. The man could announce he's going to write, direct, produce and take the lead in a Mother Teresa biopic, and every studio in Hollywood would be clamouring to get onboard.

Having rejected the pretty-boy pin-up status early on when he walked away from TV's 21 Jump Street at the beginning of the 90s, throwing himself instead into quirky character roles in largely oddball movies (many of them with Tim Burton, including 1990's Edward Scissorhands, 1994's Ed Wood, 1990's Sleepy Hollow and the recent Sweeney Todd), Depp has built up the kind of loyal underground fanbase that was more than happy to follow him overground in 2003, after he brought his mutinous method madness to the role of swaggering swashbuckler Jack Sparrow in Pirates Of The Caribbean: The Curse Of The Black Pearl.

By signing on for Pirates, Depp made a pact with Hollywood's uber-producer, Jerry Bruckheimer, bringing some street cred to a screamingly commercial enterprise. Bruckheimer had pulled off the same trick before, getting Depp's old roommate, Nicolas Cage, to enlist first for The Rock (1996), and then a series of increasingly ridiculous, and desperate, blockbusters, such as Con Air (1997), Gone In Sixty Seconds (2000) and National Treasure (2000).

Today, Cage's bag of tricks appears to be empty, a fate Depp is in danger of suffering too if he goes ahead with a planned fourth Pirates Of The Caribbean outing. No one particularly loved the second and third Pirates outings -- except Bruckheimer and anyone else with a financial interest in the bloated franchise.

But that's a question I'm going to have to put to Depp a little later on. When I'm due to be thrown out of the room anyway.

I open by enquiring if the seemingly total artistic freedom he now enjoys is actually a minus. I'm thinking of Depp's overly dark Willy Wonka in Burton's Charlie & The Chocolate Factory. Or, indeed, his Mad Hatter in Alice, Depp deciding to play the wacky milliner as bona fide mad.

"There's always that danger where you might go too far in one direction or another," answers Depp, "but you have to trust your instincts, ultimately. I can never tell if any of my characters are truly going to work for an audience -- I had an enormous amount of trouble when it came to Jack Sparrow and the studio just not liking what they were seeing -- but I don't think I could ever be comfortable playing it safe."

But, isn't Johnny Depp going too far pretty much the equivalent of playing it safe, as far as his fans are concerned? "True, there's an expectation there for the unexpected, as you say," nods Depp, "but the way I counter that is by pleasing myself first and foremost, every time."

So, how does Depp equate his own artistic flights of fancy with the demands now placed upon him by the studios? "I love the idea of doing something subversive at this level of film-making," he says. "It's crazy that I'm allowed to do what I do in movies that are going to go all over the world. I want to be the cuckoo in this kind of nest, as it throws a big film into a totally different light, makes it a totally different experience to so many of the other blockbusters coming down the line."

Think Captain Beefheart being drafted in to front Coldplay. Still, it's hard to know what the 26-year-old Depp who walked away from the Hollywood game in 1990 would make of the 46-year-old Depp who pranced about the stage as Jack Sparrow for the world's cinema-owners at Disney's industry shindig, D23, last September. I witnessed Depp do pretty much the same closing routine as Sparrow a few years ago for Disney, at the Kodak Theatre, and it was just, well, surreal. "The simple truth is, I love playing Jack Sparrow," says Depp, "and I owe the chance of getting to play him to Disney. I'm happy, therefore, to say thanks, basically."

And is he serious about that fourth outing? After the shock departure of Disney studio chairman Dick Cook last September, Depp announced: "There's a crack in my enthusiasm for Pirates 4." Has that crack grown any bigger?

"It's really all down to the script," says Depp. "I love playing this character, and I certainly wouldn't want to play him again if I didn't think we had a cool story to tell. Dick was a big part of my signing on too, hence my shock at his going. It's always tough, living up to that breakthrough moment, but I certainly feel there's lots yet to be done with Jack Sparrow."

Depp pauses, perhaps noticing a large crack in my enthusiasm for Pirates 4.

"It's not like I'd ever set out to make a bad film. Honest..." HQ

Alice In Wonderland 3D hits Irish screens tomorrow