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The dissolute John Wilmot, aka the second earl of Rochester, aka the 17th-century English libertine in the film of the same name, might seem an odd choice for Johnny Depp.In fact, says Laurence Dunmore, the Englishman making his film directing debut with “Libertine,” the role is a perfect fit for the ever-adventurous Hollywood star. “Johnny is never afraid to flirt with controversy, and he’s never afraid to take an audience unawares. It’s hard to say he was born for this part, but it was his role. He felt it and we felt it.” The bisexual Rochester was a confidant of Charles II and lived life in extremis: As louche as he was poetic, he died of syphilis at 33. But his notoriety lives on in Stephen Jeffreys’ 1994 London play and now this $22 million film. Depp saw the play in its American preem at the Steppenwolf Theater Company in Chicago, where John Malkovich played Rochester. (Malkovich plays King Charles in the film.) “Johnny loved it,” reports Dunmore, “and John said to Johnny, ‘Do you think you can play it (onscreen)?’ and Johnny said, ‘Yes, but not like that. I won’t do the same as you, but I would love to try it.’ ” Eventually, the film got made, though not without severe financial tensions. “It was touch and go, but again, in tribute to Johnny and John and my producers, everyone stood firm and said we’re going to make this movie,” Dunmore says. Did Depp get impatient? Far from it, says the helmer: “He then lent his weight to the movie even more so.” “Johnny’s unique in his generosity as an actor and a friend,” says Dunmore. “He’s a very collaborative actor; he’s not someone who waves goodbye at the end of the day and disappears.” The thesp researched the period, and practiced his English sounds so he would be pitch-perfect when it came to filming. “He has the power both to own those words,” says Dunmore, “and then to do it with an English accent that I think is better than most English actors’ accents. This is a man committed to the passion, the joy, of his art.”
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