Three-time Oscar nominee Johnny Depp talks about his latest role as a Boston mob boss. Susan Griffin asks could it be fourth time lucky?
When Johnny Depp was a little boy, his mother took him to one side and told him straight how to deal with the “little horror” who’d been bullying him at school.
“She’d come from nothing but hillbillies and she said, ‘OK, here’s the deal. Next time anybody puts their hands on you, pick up a brick and lay them out’. And I’ve taken that advice ever since,” says the softly-spoken star, quietly laughing.
“It worked for me. And if somebody tried to bully my kid [Lily-Rose, 16, and John, 13, from his relationship with Vanessa Paradis], if they didn’t destroy the little booger, I would.”
The comment is in response to the mention of a scene in his new movie Black Mass, in which his character tells his son that it’s all right to hit another kid, but better not to get caught.
The man in question is the brutal and sadistic James ‘Whitey’ Bulger, the real-life gangster, now aged 86, who was allowed to rule Boston’s underworld, thanks - in part - to his brother, State Senator Billy Bulger (portrayed in the film by Benedict Cumberbatch), and FBI Agent and childhood friend John Connolly (Joel Edgerton).
Following his arrest in 2011, he was charged with, among other offences, 19 murders, extortion and narcotics distribution.
“When you’re playing a fictional character, there’s room to stretch it out into all kinds of places, which I’ve taken a lot of heat for, but when you’re playing someone who either existed or exists, there’s a tremendous amount of responsibility, whether they’re deemed good or bad, because it’s their life,” 52-year-old Depp says from behind blue-tinted glasses.
“You also have a responsibility to history and truth to some degree, and to be accurate in regards to the look.
“There’s a make-up artist who I’ve worked with for years called Joel Harlow. He’s just brilliant and he sculpted Bulger’s face on top of a cast of mine, and we did five or six tests until we got to the place where it felt like Jimmy Bulger. This was much to the chagrin of the producers and the money people, because it was two hours in make-up every day,” the actor recalls.
In the film, Connolly persuades Bulger to collaborate with the FBI in order to eliminate their common enemy: the Italian mob. This allows him to evade law enforcement, consolidate his power and become one of the most ruthless and dangerous gangsters in Boston history.
“My intention was not to go out and create someone who is evil, because I don’t think any of us get up in the morning, shave, brush our teeth and go, ‘I’m so evil, I’m so horrible’,” remarks Depp.
“I approached James Bulger as a human being who was multi-faceted. He did have a side to him that was loving and human, and then he had his business.”
Depp, who married his The Rum Diary co-star Amber Heard earlier this year, is also reprising the roles of Mad Hatter in Alice Through The Looking Glass and Jack Sparrow in another Pirates movie.
These might be big budget, but he insists he doesn’t have any real interest in dollar signs, a fact that no doubt eases the news that Mortdecai, released earlier this year, is 10th on the Forbes list of 2015’s film flops.
“I’m gagging for the box office, it’s been the thrust of my interests from day one when I was about 19,” he says dryly.
“No, for me, with every character you play, if you feel like you’ve done service to the director, yourself, the author, then to me, that’s a success.
“Box office, that’s something else, and certainly none of my business,” adds Depp. “Once I’m wrapped on a film, you say goodbye and move forward.”