He’s also the only global superstar I have ever seen stay behind after an interview to sign autographs – usually the press wrangler will usher them politely but firmly away from journalists seeking to get a couple of one-to-one quotes, but Johnny ignored instructions and hung around for a few minutes chatting and signing press notes.
They’re probably up for sale on eBay even as you’re reading this!
Anyway, here’s our conversation from that sunny day in early July…
Johnny, thanks for taking time to chat today, how was the film?
It’s a very collaborative – and fun – movie to make… I’m surprised they pay me for it actually!
You had plenty of critical success before the first Pirates film – Sleepy Hollow, Donie Brasco, Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas, Chocolat, Ed Wood – but never a runaway blockbuster. Did the first film’s success come as a surprise – or maybe as a relief?
I had gotten used to the idea of never having a successful film! I was pretty comfy in that! It was a terrific shock for me, I’m still sort of babbling about it. The fact that people took the character in and really supported me when at a certain point some of the better-dressed people at Disney were having a difficult time with my interpretation of the character. The fact that audiences came in and supported it was a win-win situation.
Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley said they had trouble keeping a straight face when acting opposite you…
They should be on this side of me!
How was Bill Nighy?
Bill is one of my all-time heroes. I think he’s one of the finest actors to have ever done anything. He is miraculous to watch. I probably would have fallen over laughing had he been all tentacled-out, but the fact is he was doing his work in a kind of glorified prison suit! It was this grey and black suit – it was fetching, but it had strange grey and black things with little tennis balls or ping-pong balls all over it. So just that alone was kind of fascinating to look at. It was probably that which kept me from giggling all the time with Bill.
Who would you rather be, Jack Sparrow or Peter Pan?
Jack Sparrow because he doesn’t wear tights! He’s a bit more worldly.
And which one do you identify with more?
Unfortunately Jack Sparrow!
A lot has been made of Jack Sparrow being a inspired by Keith Richards. Who came up with walk?
What are you saying?!
I suppose Jack’s body language in fact came from extreme heat, actually. I locked myself in a sauna for a long time – by the way I wouldn’t recommend that to anyone, no-one should do that. I thought at the time if I was going to be out on open seas for long, long periods of time I would be subjected to the elements. So what happens when you lock yourself in a very, very hot place, it starts to affect the way you move and you’re very, very uncomfortable and that’s where Jack’s movement was born.
You’ve produced an album of sea shanties and pirate songs, Rogues Gallery, with people like Nick Cave, Lou Reed, Sting, Bono, Bryan Ferry and Rufus Wainwright – it’s missing the hand of the mighty Hunter S Thompson though…
Oh, yeh, I believe if Hunter was still around, yeh, he would absolutely have contributed to the album, he would have a ball. The Rogues Gallery record was a thing that Gore [Verbinski, director] and I cooked up. It was probably a little more than a year ago now, we started talking about the idea of kind of, well, shanties – centuries-old sea songs. It started out as one of those things, you know: ‘Wouldn’t it be great to hear such and such do this or do that’. Then [music producer] Hal Willner came on board and just knocked it out on an arm, we were both stunned by what he’d done. I’m really pleased about the album, really proud of it actually. It’s an amazing record.
Where did your dialogue with the cannibals come from?
It wasn’t really written in the script but we worked out the idea of a language and, um, we took it and perverted it! Just dirtied it up!
You’re already working on the third film; does Jack’s character develop further?
I kinda reckon he’s fully developed. He’s arrived and had arrived on the first one, so the whole idea of the arc of the character and stuff like that – bollocks! The guy just is; and he just sort of moves forward and that’s that.
Were the suits at Disney relieved you hadn’t gone further with the character?
Well, they haven’t [Pirates] 3 yet! It’s a strange thing, Gore and I were talking about it a couple of weeks ago – if you’re not making them really nervous you’re not doing your job fully! It should be interesting.
Did you want to be a pirate as a kid?
I can very clearly remember wanting to be a pirate when I was a kid actually. It feels like that still exists for a lot of people, most of them are in tune with the idea of total freedom and everybody would love to be totally irreverent and free.
Where do Jack and Johnny meet?
He’s me and I’m him, so in terms of comparison he’s a character that was born out of me, but I don’t trust him at all!
Any chance of a love affair for Jack?
A love affair? A love affair with Peter Pan? I think that’s Pirates 4! No, Pirates 3 is really – well it’s the further adventures of the three. There’s a love affair with Orlando!
Johnny, to what extent have you ever planned your career?
I’ll go in whatever direction I’m going, I don’t really know yet. Working with Stellan Skarsgard [who plays Bootstrap Bill in the Pirates franchise] was a real honour. That guy is someone I’ve admired for a long time and he was not a let down, especially just as a guy, hanging out with him. Not only a terrific actor, but just a really sweet, very down to earth guy, I was really honoured to spend time with him.
To what extent can the East India Company in the film be read as a metaphor for corporate globalisation? Do you identify with Jack’s stance against the Company?
I’ve always been a big supporter of the underdog having been an underdog for a very, very long time! Absolutely, I do believe in the little guy. I think there’s a great shame in the global homogenisation of artisans and unfortunately they are starting to evaporate because big business is coming in and taking over – even the possibility of individual is out and that’s a great shame. I’ll just put my mouse ears on now!
So, why do a sequel for Disney then?
As long as there’s a good script there I think you’re OK in any scenario. As long as the story’s there, as long as all the elements are there, why not? I’d be happy to keep going. I just very selfishly enjoy playing the character, purely because it’s fun, nothing more.
It’s not like there’s an evil moment where we go into the back room and start counting money! So if these guys want to continue on the same ride, if everything is in the right place and the script and the story is good then yeah, I’d stay on the ride. It felt totally normal to me, the idea of a sequel. In fact I was looking forward to it, just to be able to put the gear back on and become Captain Jack again.
How do you feel knowing that kids wearing Captain Jack outfits?
It’s obviously very touching when you see a kid dressed up as your character because a couple of years ago the character wasn’t around, he didn’t exist, so to see a kid affected by something you’ve done is moving. At the same time though I think it’s probably always not a great idea – I could’ve seen the idea of kids dressing up as Ed Wood or Raoul Duke!
What do you like doing in your spare time?
Hanging out with my kids, somewhere where the phones don’t ring and there’s a lot of sun, that’d be fine.
Now, what’s all this about Keith Richards appearing in the third film?
Yes, Keith, hopefully. We’re all looking forward to this idea of Keith coming in and doing a cameo and it’s looking very, very good. One thing is you just never say it’s definite, for me, until the guy walks onto the set and the camera’s rolling. It’s certainly something I’m pretty excited about.
How much input did you have in creating Jack Sparrow?
Ted [Elliott] and Terry [Rossio, writers] had written this character and I know they were coming in from a slightly different angle than I took with the character, but it feels very good taking part in the construction of this guy, this entity that is Jack Sparrow. It was great fun and it was great fun being in trouble for having created him. It felt good to have the suits come down on me because it worked, even at that early stage and we were a month or so into the shooting and they were really nervous. Then I felt we must have reached some point, I felt like I’ve accomplished something because I believed in it. It’s very satisfying.
It’s been said you took role to please your kids?
My kids, they’ve had a lot to do with it. They haven’t seen Pirates 2 yet. I felt the responsible thing to do was to check it out first before they watched it and I’ve come to the conclusion they will be OK seeing it! The funny thing is with my kids when we sit down to play Barbies, as we all do, right? Don’t we? Yeh, but when I sit down to play Barbies anyway, I can sort of assume characters and it’s a great way as an actor to experiment with voices and different things. So I start to assume a character with a Barbie and my daughter [Lily-Rose Melody, born 1999] will just sort of go: ‘Um, Papa, could you just don’t, just use your regular voice.’!
There was only one time when she was taken aback. When I was trying to find the voice of Willy Wonka and she stopped me as said: ‘What’s that? Who’s that?’
She liked it?
She did. At least I don’t think she’s lying! She seemed to like it. She said: ‘What was that?’ and I said ‘I think that might be Willy Wonka’ and she said ‘Ah, I like that’.
How has your life changed in the last ten years?
The huge change was obviously having kids, becoming a father. [As well as his daughter with Vanessa Paradis, the couple have a son, Jack, born 2002.] But more than changing, I feel like I’ve been revealed to myself. I’ve found out who I was. The first moment when you meet your child for the first time and you’re looking at this angel, you start realising what an idiot you’ve been and how much time you’ve wasted.
As far as being level headed and having your feet on the ground, once again, my kids and Vanessa – my family – have given me a proper foundation, a sense of home that I’ve never had in my life, a real sense of home, of family, of a place to be.
You’ve obviously enjoyed the experience of making a Pirates sequel, do you fancy a return to any of your other characters?
The opportunity to play Jack Sparrow again was a real gift. At the end of the first one I felt like I wasn’t done, I felt there was more to be done – more possibilities, more areas to explore. Years and years ago I always felt that a sequel to Edward Scissorhands would have been a good idea. Again, that character felt like we hadn’t explored all the possibilities, there was more to do. Obviously 20th Century Fox felt differently, but I think that was something to do with money, I’m not sure.
Do you miss characters when you finish them?
Absolutely. Every time on a gig and you get to spend time with these guys, these characters, there’s always that certain point where you know you’re going to have to say goodbye and though it sounds horribly silly for a middle-aged man to admit, I do. You go through a kind of bizarre decompression and you miss these guys. You know you’re not going to see them again in that capacity. I mean, you won’t look at them again. They may rear their ugly heads with me in one of my Barbie jags, but you don’t get to play them again, so yeah, you miss them. I’m not looking forward to saying goodbye to Jack Sparrow – hint hint!