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After another stint as swashbuckle Jack Sparrow earlier this year, Johnny Depp is revisiting the world of Hunter S. Thompson in the upcoming movie ‘The Rum Diary’. He plays the main character, an alcoholic journalist looking for a change of scene. And according to the production team, there were no questions about Depp’s match for the part of Kemp.
“There’s no actor who was closer to Hunter Thompson than Johnny Depp,” says producer Graham King. Although Paul Kemp is loosely based on Hunter S. Thompson as a young man, director Bruce Robinson wanted for the character to come out of Depp’s interpretation of Thompson, not an imitation of the writer in later years.
“I wanted Paul Kemp to be Johnny Depp playing Hunter, but not with the shorts and the bald head,” says Robinson. “The film is set in the late fifties and very early sixties, so, in a sense, this is a very straight romantic lead. For all the comedic exuberance of ‘Fear and Loathing’, this is a straight drama. Hunter was very handsome when he was young, and Johnny is an incredibly handsome leading man.”
“Johnny transformed himself into Kemp very easily,” adds King. “He adds layers and layers to a character. He makes a raised eyebrow hysterical. He’s very subtle at what he does. Bruce had the easiest job directing Johnny, because you don’t really need to tell him as an actor what to do. You don’t really need to tell him how to deliver a line, especially a comedic line.”
Depp, like Robinson, wanted to tap into the idea of Thompson as a young, unformed artist. “The way I approached it was that the character of Paul Kemp is Raoul Duke as he was learning to speak. It was like playing the same character, only 15 years before. This guy’s got something; there’s an energy burning underneath it, it’s just ready to pop up, shoot out.”
In the movie’s plot, when Kemp begins working at the San Juan Star, he immediately strikes up a friendship with Sala, the news photographer who works there. Robinson was looking for a very particular quality when he was casting this role. “I wanted someone relatively unknown, but who was a really great actor. Michael Rispoli fit the bill,” says Robinson.
“Sala is somebody who came to San Juan ten years earlier. He was a photographer, probably not without talent. He became absorbed into the place, elevated by it, and then almost destroyed by it. One of the reasons I cast Michael was that I was looking for that sense of inability to escape.
I wanted an actor who the audience would look at and think: ‘He’s not getting out of here, he can’t leave.’ A lot of the people who read for the part were superb actors, but when Kemp leaves at the end of the story, they were going with him.” “Bruce called me and said, ‘I’ve found him!’ Depp says. “As soon as I saw the tape, it was instant—that’s the guy.
He looked, sounded and felt exactly like the part of this expatriate American down in Puerto Rico, lost and trying to figure out what he wanted to do with his life.”
The crook of the story is the dirty businessman Sanderson, who hires Kemp to write favorably about his latest scheme. Robinson had no doubt about whom he wanted to play Sanderson. “Aaron Eckhart was my first and only choice,” he says. “He is a very good actor, and he has a kind of cruel beauty about him.
He is also a complete contrast to Johnny Depp. He is handsome in an Aryan way. Johnny is Latin handsome. Sanderson is a property developer who has attachments to the newspaper, both financially and editorially. He is utterly charming and utterly ruthless.”
Depp was impressed by Eckhart’s intense commitment to the role. “He absolutely just scrubbed us all. He took the role by the throat and went with it.”
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