Depp tipped for Freddie Mercury film role

He is a keen guitar player whose admiration for the Rolling Stones stretched to modelling his character, the pirate Jack Sparrow, on the mannerisms of Keith Richards.

Now the Pirates of the Caribbean star, Johnny Depp, is being lined up to play a rock star for real in a biopic of the late Queen frontman, Freddie Mercury.

Robert de Niro's company, Tribeca Productions, is said to be behind the project, which Brian May, the Queen guitarist, confirmed was in development. "Discussions are at an early stage," he said on his website.

May described Depp as "fantastic". "He would be a worthy counterpart for Freddie on screen. I don't think I can say any more right now," he added.

De Niro has known Brian May and Queen's drummer, Roger Taylor, since they met at the Venice Film Festival in 1996 and ploughed his own money into their hit stage musical, We Will Rock You. The musical was originally going to be about the band but the surviving members decided that would be too embarrassing for all involved.

"It would be too painful, too close, and a bit grand. It would be for somebody else to do, you can't supervise your own history," May said at the time.

Instead, Ben Elton, the comedy writer and novelist, devised a story that incorporated the band's back catalogue of songs. When the show opened in London in 2002 after six years in development, De Niro attended the first night. "It's an adventure. I've been involved in this for a long time. It went through a lot of stages and finally got to this stage - it's going to be terrific," he said.

The £7.5m production, which is still running, is set in a future where musical instruments have been banned but a group of rebels go in search of mythical electric guitars.

But the proposed biopic would tell the life story of Mercury, who was born in Zanzibar in 1946 and died from complications of Aids in 1991, the day after confirming he had the disease.

His real name was Farrokh Bulsara but he adopted the name he was best known by at school in India, where he grew up. His family settled in England when he was in his teens. He performed with several bands before co-founding Queen in 1971.

They signed to EMI a year later. His distinctive voice, which ranged across four octaves, was a key factor in their success on songs such as Bohemian Rhapsody. It lasted nearly six minutes and stayed at number one in the UK charts for nine weeks.

It has since been voted Britain's best single of all time by music fans in a Guinness Book of British Hit Singles poll, defeating John Lennon's Imagine and Hey Jude by the Beatles.

Although Mercury had a close friend, Mary Austin, with whom he lived for several years and who inherited his estate, he was fairly open about his homosexuality. He lived with Jim Hutton for the last six years of his life.

Reformed character vs flamboyant showman

* JOHNNY DEPP Born: 9 June 1963 in Kentucky.

Significant other: Vanessa Paradis, the French actress and singer, with whom he has two children.

Reputation: Once accused of selling drugs at his club, The Viper Room, where River Phoenix overdosed and died, he is a reformed family man.

Did you know? He has twice recorded with the band Oasis, including playing lead slide guitar on the track "Fade In-Out" from the album, Be Here Now.

* FREDDIE MERCURY Born: 5 September 1946 in Zanzibar. Died 24 November 1991 in London.

Significant other: Jim Hutton, a hotel barber.

Reputation: A flamboyant showman who had numerous affairs.

Did you know? He was of Indian descent but kept this from most of his fans and rarely mentioned his heritage in interviews. Some friends suggested it was because he feared a racist backlash.