AMERICAN actor John Malkovich has no regrets about handing over the plum role of randy Restoration rake the Earl of Rochester to another actor. In fact, he suggested that Johnny Depp should star in the new film, The Libertine.

After appearing as Rochester in a stage production of the Stephen Jeffreys play at the Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago, Malkovich thought it would make a good movie.

That was getting on for ten years ago. It's taken that long to get the film on screen, including a last-minute threat to financing because of changes in British tax laws.

"I always had in my mind that we would hire or at least attempt to get Johnny Depp to play the part I'd played on stage," recalls Malkovich.

"I've no regrets whatsoever that I didn't get the chance to play him on screen. The first thing is that he died at 33, I was 44 when I played him. It's a young man's story, a young man's film.

"Of course, one can get away with that on stage but the cinema's not like that. As soon as we began to think of it as a film I thought of Johnny. I never thought of anyone else."

As well as being one of the producers of The Libertine, Malkovich appears as King Charles II, the monarch with a love of the arts who didn't know how to handle the volatile, mischief-making Rochester. The actor felt the story was about one's responsibility to one's talent, something that the supremely gifted Rochester didn't take seriously. "It's a story of artists that I often heard repeated in the Thatcher years in England. Rochester spends tons of time complaining what a c-word Charles II is and it's up to Rochester to do something, and he never did.

"He was a very gifted essayist, he could have been a very gifted dramatist, he had talent in a million ways but never really did anything with it."

After Depp saw the play in Chicago, Malkovich took him out for dinner and proposed he should play Rochester on screen. A screenplay was written and finance raised but the schedules of Depp and Nicole Kidman, who was also interested in the movie, meant they weren't available at the same time.

Meanwhile, Malkovich had recruited a director, Laurence Dunmore, he'd met making a commercial for Eurostar to helm The Libertine. At one point he himself had been mooted to direct the film.

It took another couple of years before Depp was available and then the money had to be raised from a different group of people. Disaster struck two weeks before the cameras were set to roll when the British Government changed tax laws affecting movie production to plug what was seen as a loophole.

"It happened very suddenly and affected a huge part of our budget. We were already in rehearsals," says Malkovich. "I called some people in the Government, not really to enlist their aid but to try and find out if there was going to be any kind of grey period for films already in production or very far into pre-production. Everyone seemed to say there wouldn't be."

He was filming another film, Colour Me Kubrick, on the Isle of Man at the time and a deal was struck with film authorities on the island to save The Libertine.

"My feeling is it's never easy to find financing for the kind of films we produce. It's almost always nightmarish and everything that can possibly go wrong generally does go wrong," he says.

"You just have to keep your eye on the prize and do your best to have the resources you need to make the film your director wants to make. It wasn't a pleasant time."

Once in front of the cameras, Malkovich concentrated on playing his role without offering advice to anyone, certainly not Depp. "I have great admiration for Johnny's skills as a performer," he says.

"I would never dare to proffer any suggestion whatsoever, not only to Johnny but to any actor, because I'm acting in it. That's the director's job. I have more than enough work trying to acquit myself in the role. I don't need to worry about Johnny or anyone else, they'll take care of themselves."

Besides, the stage play was quite different in tone and design to the dark, dingy and squalid portrait of 17th century London life that Dunmore paints on screen.

Malkovich sees no value in spotting differences between his portrayal of Rochester and Depp's. "In point of fact, I never saw myself do the role - I did it on stage, not on TV or for the cinema. Suffice it to say I'm not known to be among my most ardent fans," he says.

"I wouldn't make that comparison because the two performances were wildly different. I always love to watch Johnny work. So I never even thought about that really."

What he will admit is a love of stand-up comedian Johnny Vegas, who appears in the film as historical rake and wit Charles Sackville. "He rapidly became one of my lifelong heroes. I found it impossible watching him to take my eyes off him. I really liked watching him. He's very funny and very moving," he says.

l The Libertine (18) opens in cinemas on Friday.