By Zorianna Kit
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Taking a break from his blockbuster "Pirates of the Caribbean" movies, Johnny Depp turns to a low-key role for his new project: starring in and producing "The Rum Diary."
Due in U.S. theaters on Friday, it is based on his friend Hunter S. Thompson's book of the same name.
After portraying a version of Thompson in the 1998 film "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas," Depp again becomes the gonzo journalist's alter ego in "Rum Diary," playing the fictional journalist Paul Kemp in Thompson's pre-gonzo years working in Puerto Rico.
The film, set in 1960s, tells the story of Kemp, an American journalist who travels to the Caribbean island to write for a local newspaper. While enjoying a rum-filled lifestyle, he falls for the attractive fiancee (Amber Heard) of a shady businessman (Aaron Eckhart).
Depp spoke to Reuters about Thompson, who committed suicide in 2005, his own connection to the Caribbean and his next role as Tonto in "The Lone Ranger."
Q: You and Hunter were such good friends. Whose idea was it to turn "The Rum Diary" into a movie?
A: "It was his idea to produce it as a film. I found the manuscript (in his home). We were reading it, sitting cross-legged on the floor and he said, 'We have to make this into a film and produce it together.' I said 'Sure,' never knowing that we would full-on go through with it."
Q: What was the next step?
A: "Hunter and I had all these horrendous meetings. We weren't accustomed to doing a song-and-dance to try and drum up money. We'd be sitting with bottles of Chivas (Scotch whisky) and these (potential financiers) would arrive completely shocked and confused."
Q: How did you keep Hunter's spirit alive on the set?
A: "I wanted Hunter's spirit to permeate (the set) and I wanted everybody to know that Hunter was there. We had his chair with his name on it. We had his script with his name on it. We had a bottle of Chivas with a high ball glass, tumbler filled with ice. We had his cigarettes, his cigarette filters, his ashtray ..."
Q: Did you do anything with them?
A: "(Director) Bruce (Robinson) and I would dip into the Chivas and put it behind our ears so we had Hunter with us. Two weeks in, everyone was dipping."
Q: Does playing Hunter come naturally to you?
A: "Yeah, almost too naturally!"
Q: How did you and Hunter first meet and bond?
A: "I first met him when he walked into the Woody Creek Tavern waving a giant cattle prod and a Taser gun ... He invited me back to his place, and I was admiring a nickel plated shotgun on his wall, 12 gauge. He says, 'Wanna shoot it?'
Q: Did you?
A: "Well, It was about 2:30 in the morning and then he said, 'Let's build a bomb!' So we built bombs out of propane tanks with nitroglycerin, took it out in the backyard and I shot it. It exploded into, like, an 80-foot fireball.
"I think that was kind of my initiation. Had I potentially flubbed the shooting of the bomb, it might have been a different story. But I hit it dead on, square on and he was so happy. (laughs) From that moment on, it was nonstop."
Q: You shot 'Rum Diary' and the 'Pirates' films in various Caribbean locations, and now you have your own island there too. Do you feel a special connection to the Caribbean?
A: "I do. It's one of the most welcoming places in the world I've been to. The ultimate irony is that I was given an opportunity to do a pirate movie back in 2003 that even Disney thought was gonna crap out. That was the thing that allowed me to buy my dream, to buy the island -- a pirate movie!"
Q: Which changed everything for you on many levels.
A: "It's nuts. It's really nuts. I took a left when everybody said, 'take a right' and things happened somehow. I really didn't instigate any of it. It's pretty wild."
Q: Now you're about to play Tonto in "The Lone Ranger."
A: "I know the character pretty well so far. The main thing with Tonto is the fact that 60 plus years in Hollywood, the Indians have been treated like second and third class citizens. And I can't abide. So Tonto has to take the bull by the horns, in a way. But in his own way, a special way, and not the very obvious way."
(Editing by Bob Tourtellotte and Patricia Reaney)