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Crossing swords in ‘Libertine’

Depp goes from 'Pearl' to earl

After a swashbuckling hit, Johnny Depp will play another rogue, this one infamous for undoing his buckles.

Following “Pirates of the Caribbean,” Depp will go to the 17th century for “The Libertine,” which begins production Feb. 23 outside London.

Depp will star opposite John Malkovich and Samantha Morton in a tale based on the true story of John Wilmot, the Earl of Rochester, who was a poet, courtier and notorious rake.

Adapted by Stephen Jeffreys from his own play, the film marks the feature debut of British commercials director Laurence Dunmore. The pic was touted at Cannes last year and has now firmed up its start date.

“Pirates” marked the biggest hit of Depp’s career, but the “Libertine” gig means he’s sticking with his familiar game plan of bouncing between Hollywood mega-productions and small indie pics.

“Libertine’s” budget of about $16 million is close to Depp’s asking price to star in high-profile studio pics.

Following “Libertine,” Depp is slated to shoot “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” for Warner Bros. He is also expected to reprise his Golden Globe-nominated role as Jack Sparrow in Walt Disney Pictures’ “Pirates of the Caribbean 2.”

History’s scoundrel

Samuel Johnson described the earl (Depp) as having “contempt of decency and order, a total disregard to every moral and a resolute denial of every religious observation. He lived worthless and useless and blazed out his youth and health in lavish voluptuousness.”

Little wonder, then, that the earl was a confidant of King Charles II (Malkovich). The earl’s undoing, as well as his death at 33, came after he found himself smitten with Elizabeth Barry (Morton), a failing actress.

Malkovich portrayed the earl when his Stepppenwolf Theater Co. in Chicago staged the play in 1996. When his Mr. Mudd producing partners Russell Smith and Lianne Halfon said it had bigscreen potential, Malkovich immediately earmarked Depp as the ideal Earl of Rochester.

Depp was keen to take on the part, but the project faced eight years of struggles to lock in financing. Not only is the project a period piece, but the script doesn’t soft-peddle the earl’s prodigious sexual appetites.

Asked if “The Libertine” could court an NC-17 rating, Smith told Daily Variety, “It’s clearly something that will be a question. No doubt about it.”

Halfon, Smith and Malkovich will produce the film, with Chase Bailey of Paris Mudd exec producing. U.K.-based Odyssey Entertainment reps foreign sales on the pic, with Ralph Kamp and Louise Goodsill also acting as exec producers. Pic is financed with the participation of Robert Jones and the U.K. Film Council.

Morton is nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for her perf in “In America.” She stars opposite Tim Robbins in “Code 46,” skedded for a summer release through United Artists.

Mr. Mudd produced “Ghost World,” the feature directing bow of Terry Zwigoff (“Bad Santa”) that starred Thora Birch and Scarlett Johansson. Mudd, Zwigoff and UA reteam this spring with “Ghost World” writer Daniel Clowes on “Art School Confidential.”

Last May, Fox Searchlight released Mr. Mudd’s production of Malkovich’s feature directorial debut, “The Dancer Upstairs,” starring Javier Bardem.

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