The Walt Disney Co. keeps animatronic dummies of Johnny Depp, in character as Pirates of the Caribbean scalawag Capt. Jack Sparrow, whirring away every day at its theme parks. But last week, as part of an event in Hollywood to tout upcoming Disney movies, the studio briefly trotted out the real thing.
There in the flesh was Depp, bedecked in his now-iconic mascara and bandanna. ”This is for you,” the actor appeared to mumble as he comically proffered a gun to Walt Disney Studios chairman Dick Cook, who quickly confirmed what’s long been known at the Mouse House: Depp will return in a fourth Pirates movie. Spun off from the beloved Disneyland attraction, the initial three films quickly became a spectacularly potent cross-promotional tool. Now the company is looking for more loot from the billion-dollar franchise. (Never mind that a new script isn’t ready yet, or that original trilogy director Gore Verbinski is busy developing a major Universal thriller, BioShock.) Says Walt Disney Studios production president Oren Aviv, ”When the second Pirates movie opened, there was a line for the ride stretching the entire Disneyland park.” Indeed, the 45-year-old star seems more valuable to the company at this point than cartoon cornerstones like Mickey, Donald, and Goofy.
Unlike ‘toon characters, however, top actors must be paid — and well. One report suggests Depp will net a whopping $55 million to redon his buccaneer duds. If that’s even remotely accurate — Disney won’t discuss money — it would put him well ahead of the likes of Will Smith and Tom Hanks for the title of Hollywood’s best-paid actor. And the sequel is just part of an expanding Disney-Depp partnership. He’s set to play Native American sidekick Tonto in a Jerry Bruckheimer-produced version of The Lone Ranger — though once again, there is no finished script, set of costars, or director in place. Next month, Depp begins yet a third Disney project, playing the Mad Hatter in Tim Burton’s part-live-action, part-motion-capture, part-CG, and mostly 3-D version of Alice in Wonderland (due by March 2010). Burton has already wrapped 2-D live-action bookend footage on locations in England, with Mia Wasikowska of TV’s In Treatment as Alice; Depp’s role will be filmed mainly on West Coast soundstages.
It’s amazing that Depp has been able to anchor corporatized blockbusters like these without being seen as a sellout. In fact, he never comes off as a shill; even when indirectly hawking products and rides, he maintains his edgy cool. And Disney isn’t the only studio keeping him busy with mass-appeal tentpoles. For Universal, he’s playing crime kingpin John Dillinger (opposite Christian Bale as the FBI agent who nails him) in Michael Mann’s Public Enemies, out next summer.
So does this mean that Depp has abandoned the quirky fare that first made his name? Not entirely. He joined Colin Farrell and Jude Law to fill out Heath Ledger’s shape-shifting role in Terry Gilliam’s The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, and next spring, he may make the Hunter S. Thompson opus The Rum Diary. But then there’s Rango, a motion-capture CG feature to be made at George Lucas’ ILM shop for Paramount. Due in March 2011, it will star a virtual version of Depp as a household pet. Between that film and his duties as Disney’s de facto mascot, it sounds like Johnny Depp has, for the moment, been domesticated. But be careful: He’s been known to bite. — with additional reporting by Nicole Sperling and John Young
DEPP BY THE NUMBERS
It would be impossible to quantify the actor’s unique talent. But everything else is fair game…
Number of movies on his résumé: 35
Number of Academy Award nominations: 3
Estimated number of tattoos: 13
Domestic gross of the Pirates franchise: $1B
Two long-discussed Depp projects appear kaput for now: Shantaram, based on a novel about a heroin addict’s adventures in India, and the movie version of the ’60s vampire soap Dark Shadows, a childhood favorite of the actor’s.