Venice Film Festival 2015: Black Mass press conference with Johnny Depp, Dakota Johnson and Joel Edgerton
Did you have to find something evil in yourself to portray Whitey Bulger?
Johnny Depp: I found the evil in myself a long time ago, and I’ve accepted it. We are old friends.
The way he approaches the mirror, thinking “I’m gonna do something evil today”, that is in the context of the business he is in. Violence is part of the job but also the language that the people he associated with and opposed, they understood the same language. It was a language.
Scott Cooper: I’ve come to know Johnny over the years, socially and personally, He is one of the most soulful and kind, gentle human beings that I know. See him transforming into that (Bulger) is something I’ve never seen from an actor. Truth is, I think he is an actor taking risks most of the movie stars don’t take. He is a man I consider a national treasure, a real honour to work with, a true artist.
Did you (Johnny) notice fans are camping since last night to wait for you arrival at the premiere?
JD: They are kind enough to wait for such a long time just to say hello and welcome to Italy. Those people outside, I don’t call them fans, it doesn’t work for me. They are our employers, they are our bosses, they spend their money to go and escape for two hours, watching a film…I thank my bosses outside
How is portraying a real life criminal, who is still alive?
Joel Edgerton: It’s a matter of respect and reverence when you play a character who is a person who really exists. Not to presume that you know everything, every angle of the story. Everybody has a story and a point of view. (Thinking of) telling “the” true story is naive and presumptuous. There’s also the fear for repercussions for getting it wrong.
Dakota Johnson: I agree with that. Also this is the first character that is an actual existing person that I’ve ever played. There’s an amount of information available, and if you are lucky enough to have physical footage it helps a lot. Very different from creating a character from thin air… basically what Joel said (giggles)
JD: I’ve always found, at least for me, there’s a tremendous amount of responsibility – no matter if they are deemed good or bad, it doesn’t even come into consideration – to be as true as you can. Dillinger (who Depp portrayed in Public Enemies) for example, people had various opinions, to me he was almost like a Robin Hood. I spoke with his last living relative, his sister, and she told me he was one of the funniest guys – and I believed that.
(Regarding Bulger) there’s some footage, FBI surveillance stuff, a couple of tapes you can hear shootings from a hit with Bulger. (It’s important) being truth to different sides of the guy: he is a businessman who, within the language of that business, did what he had to do; and there was another side, a loving family man, very dedicated to his mother and his brother. He is a very complicated man. When you dig into a person like that, you owe them first to do them some sort of justice, even though along the way there are some ugly moments. I asked his attorney to speak with him, Bulger kind of respectfully declined, because I don’t believe he was a great fan of the book Black Mass – or any other books about him. He (the attorney) gave me a lot of confidence, he said he could feel his old friend in what I was doing. A very high compliment
What attracts people to gangster movies?
JE: Johnny and I talked about all the animals that can kill you in Australia, much more dangerous than gangsters. And much smaller.
I suspect I like gangster movies because in modern Australia, after the British came in, proper criminals were killed, we just had petty criminals were sent over to Australia. We have an affinity because of that. In general people like to watch people do bad things on screen.
Blood ties, political power, childhood friendships: are characters complex because of these relations?
SC: In South Boston, 1970s and 80s, certain lawmen and criminals were virtually indistinguishable. It still happens today in the US and other countries around the world. It’s fascinating. Going back to playing real life characters…on two occasions on the set the attorney (of Bulger) went to visit, and he was shaking his head: “I knew this man forever and seeing Depp doing the same is terrifying.”
Also the actual John Connelly saw the actor playing his character and wondered “who is that man? Is he from Boston? “No he is Joel Edgerton, from Australia! Once I had these conversations I knew we were on the right track.
How did you work on the contrast between the public image as a criminal and his devotion and affection as a family member?
JD: They never looked at themselves as evil, they see themselves as righteous, even (when it gets to) the worst. There’s some sort of…something poetic about what he was able to do in his work, being a very proud Irish immigrant, loyal to his neighbourhood, a great caregiver to his mother and very close to his brother.
Connelly is younger than Bulger, he got involved because he was a Southie boy too! Exhilarating when you can switch gears going 90s, 70s to 20s. It’s challenging and it’s always…satisfying I can’t say, satisfaction isn’t a bad feel. He was complicated. He would take the old ladies’ groceries to their house and ten minutes later he would crush someone’s skull.
SC: I was scouting in South Boston and I saw a picture of a lady who could be a Bulger’s mother. I asked her to play the role and she said: “I have no interest in a movie about Jimmy Bulger, these guys were very good to me, I don’t want to be in a movie about them.”
You transform a lot: Ed Wood, Edward Scissorhands, Pirates of the Caribbean…why do you do it?
JD: I’ve never decided to be an actor. I never really cared because I was a musician. After, when I got into the racket and started going on and stuck in a TV series that was…you know…it put me on the map…it was very frustrating. You realise you end up saying someone else’s words and in a span of one year maybe you get to say your own, especially the bad words.
My heroes were in the cinema, John Barrymore, Marlon Brando, Timothy Carey, John Garfield…all these guys who would transform. I suppose it was just an obsession, I’ve always wanted to be a character actor, trying to be that, not the poster boy they were trying to make me, a hundred years ago.
Besides what it does to me, I think being an actor gives you responsibility towards the audience to change, to give them something different, something new, to…yeah…try to surprise them. Not bore them! By just being the same sort of thing every time, playing yourself. There’s danger in trying to do these transformations. For me it’s very challenging, it’s very important as an actor to test yourself.
How did you work on your look in this film, particularly the eyes?
JD: Scott and I decide it was very important to look as much like Jimmy Bulger as humanly possible. My eyeballs are black as the ace of spade. Clearly we used hand-painted contacts. There’s a makeup artist I worked with for many many years, Joel Harlwo, we did about four/five tests before showing Scott anything. Capture the look in Jimmy Bulger as exactly as we could.
The editorial unit
Photos: Laura Denti