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Johnny Depp relishes full-blown transformation.

He got a kick out of inserting gold teeth and kohling his eyes to play the inimitable campy pirate Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean. He enjoyed putting his own face-powdered stamp on Willy Wonka with Tim Burton's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. And now he's hitting the screens as a clumsy, insecure and well-meaning puppet named Victor, in Tim Burton's Corpse Bride.

Depp, in Toronto last weekend to promote his friend Burton's stop-motion animated film, says these roles have been a nice change from character-driven parts that perhaps are a bit closer to the real Johnny Depp. "Any actor with any semblance of sanity -- probably our biggest fear is to go anywhere near who you are. It's okay to use certain truths," he continues, but then is interrupted by a tray of falling plates just outside a room at the Four Seasons Hotel.

"You saw I didn't do anything at all. I'll be blamed for that."

Then Depp, who has always had a loyal cult of fans but only recently enjoyed blockbuster, box-office success, says he's never forgotten the words of a wise man he worked with on 1995's Don Juan DeMarco. "I can hear Marlon's [Brando]words reverberating. One time he said to me, 'How many films do you do a year?' " Depp recalls.

"And I said, 'I don't know. Two or three.' And he said, 'You gotta watch yourself.' I said, 'Why's that?' And he said, 'We only have so many faces in our pockets.' And as you get to a certain point, and you've played different characters, you think, God, he really was right."

Since Depp broke out of obscurity as a teen heartthrob in the TV series 21 Jump Street, he's been incredibly productive, pumping out close to 35 feature films that show a multitude of Depp faces and run the gamut from fantasy, thriller, biography, horror and bizarre adventures for adults and kids.

His next film is Laurence Dunmore's The Libertine, the story of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, the 17th-century poet who drank and debauched his way to an early grave, only to earn posthumous critical acclaim for his life's work.

While Depp is now a staunch family man, he admits The Libertine edges back to a role that has more shades of himself in the character. He doesn't elaborate, but this could, perhaps, be a nod to the actor's younger years, when he owned the infamous Viper Room, partied hard, trashed the odd hotel room -- and like Lord Rochester -- brushed close to a flammable existence.

Roles that infringe on home territory, Depp acknowledges, are by far the most challenging. "It is a great challenge, and I've kind of touched on it here and there in more charactery parts. I just . . . more than anything, I am interested in exploring one area, and then that's territory covered. Let's see what happens next. But I have the voice of Marlon reverberating. . . .

"One of the luxuries of an actor, one of the joys of the gig, is that you get to observe people, and by observing people, and you find these little traits, these interesting things that people do. Well, I'll have a bit of that and I'll have a bit of that. And you store it up and save it for later, later on when you'll need it."

Unlike other stars, Depp lacks all pretension. His wrists are loaded down with homemade bead bracelets, leather straps and a white piece of cloth that looks like it might be covered with drawings by his two kids, Lily-Rose, 6, and Jack, 3. Around his neck, he's got a half-dozen chains, all cheap costume stuff with teeth and more beads. His long hair is flattened down by the usual frumpy hat.

He acknowledges that the box-office bonanza of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory -- many at TIFF predict that Corpse Bride will be another crowd pleaser -- has been more than a long-time coming. He's grateful for it, but doesn't give it much thought. "I've learned to condition myself not to have any expectations in terms of box office because as we all know, that kind of thing escaped me for many, many years," he says with a grin. "So all this is a relatively new experience."

Depp says it wasn't until the breakout success of Pirates that studios started seeking him out. "I've noticed a change from the upper echelon of the industry," Depp concedes. But it's recent. "Every time Tim wanted to cast me for a film he had to fight like a bastard with the studio. He was telling me today that when he sat down with the people in London [for Charlie] they said, 'Okay, let's figure out our cast.' And then they added, 'Maybe we could use Johnny.' "

Burton, apparently, almost fell off his chair. "He's like, 'Okay, yeah. Good.' The fact they brought it up was pretty astonishing and surprised him."

Five times now, Burton and Depp have collaborated. And the offers from Burton usually come right out of the blue. The two men will have gone months, sometimes years, without getting together, and Depp says he'll suddenly get a call. "He'll say, 'What are you doing?' And I'm like, 'Nothing. Just hangin' around.' He'll say, 'Can you meet me for dinner next week?' Sure, where? 'New York.' Okay, I'll see you then. There's no subject. No topic. Nothing."

Depp, who was born in Kentucky, hates to use the word fan. But he goes on to say he appreciates all the people -- agents, family, colleagues "and all those kids who are outside the movie theatre and who go and watch. I appreciate the kids who have stuck with me on this very long, strange and bumpy road. They're the ones who keep me employed."

As for the critics who matter most? His partner Vanessa Paradis and their kids. The night the rest of the Depp family went to see Charlie for the first time, Johnny says he stayed home.

"I was afraid in the theatre my kids would not react well," he says. "So I was sitting at home, waiting for them to come back. And when they arrived my son, Jack, walks in, stands in front of me and in Willy Wonka's voice, says, 'You're really weird.'

"It was liberating."

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