Johnny Depp goes deep in portraying Boston gangster Whitey Bulger
It’s been three decades since Johnny Depp made his movie debut in “A Nightmare on Elm Street” as Glen, the fellow who gets sucked down into his bed before exploding into a fountain of blood. The bigger roles commenced just a few years later, in “Edward Scissorhands,” “Ed Wood,” “Donnie Brasco,” “Pirates of the Caribbean,” “Sweeny Todd,” “Alice in Wonderland,” “The Lone Ranger,” “Tusk” (yes, he had a major but uncredited role in “Tusk”). Depp’s films, both big-budget and independent, have sometimes hit, sometimes missed at the box office, but he has always been a shining part of them. In “Black Mass,” he plays James “Whitey” Bulger, the murderous South Boston gangster who ruled his neighborhood crime scene throughout the’70s and’80s, before fleeing town in the’90s, only to get caught and jailed in 2011. Depp plays Bulger as the monster he’s reputed to be, while letting his human side show through. It’s one of the best performances of his career. He spoke about it at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival.
Q: What are your thoughts about choosing a role that satisfies you as much as this one obviously did?
A: Every character that I play, as long as you’ve arrived at that place that you believe is the right place to be for that character, and if you feel that you’ve done service to yourself, to the director, to the author, to me that’s a success. Once I’ve wrapped on a film, I say goodbye to the character, and then move forward.
Q: You’ve played mostly fictional characters. Was there a big difference portraying a real-life one?
A: You mean that the Mad Hatter never existed? Or Willy Wonka? (laughs) No, when you’re playing a fictional character, you can sort of stretch it out into all kinds of strange places, which I’ve taken a lot of heat for (laughs). But when you’re playing someone who either existed or exists, there’s a tremendous amount of responsibility, at least for me, no matter who they are, no matter whether they’re deemed good or bad or whatever, to that person, because it’s their life. You also have a responsibility to history and truth to some degree. And to be as accurate with regards to his look was extremely important to me. It’s really everything in terms in finding Jimmy Bulger. There’s a makeup artist I’ve worked with for years, Joel Harlow, who’s just brilliant. He sculpted Bulger’s face on top of a caste of mine, and we did tests until we got to a place where it felt like Jimmy Bulger.
Q: What was your process in preparing for the role?
A: I was certainly familiar with the story of Jimmy Bulger, which is fascinating in itself. Then you start reading the books, and there were various angles; everybody’s got their own take of what exactly went down, and it’s still a little bit up in the air on a lot of it. The first thing I did was contact Bulger’s lawyer, Jay Carney, because I wanted the opportunity to meet Jimmy, to hear his take. But about a week after I made the request I got a message from Mr. Carney that said Jimmy respectfully declines, as he is not a great fan, as you can imagine, of the book. So from there on I had Mr. Carney, who was right up front in saying, “I will tell you this bit and this bit,” but not others. He would never put his client into any sort of weird situation. But he was very helpful with regard to [me getting to] the heart of the man. So I don’t know what it would’ve been like to meet Jimmy, what I would’ve taken from that, other than being able to study and sponge from him. Also, there’s some surveillance footage and a little bit of audio. But I’ve gotta tell you, the people of South Boston were incredibly helpful with regard to that accent. South Boston is different from other slivers of Boston. Southie’s almost got its own language.
Q: You certainly presented Bulger as much more than a one-dimensional character.
A: My intention was not to go out and create someone who’s evil. I don’t think any of us wake up in the morning and shave or brush our teeth and go, “I’m SO evil, I’m SO horrible.” I approached James Bulger as a human being who was multifaceted. He did have a side to him that was human and loving, and then he had his business. As we all know, there are certain businesses out there where the language of that work is violence. That was the only way I could approach it.
Ed Symkus covers movies for More Content Now.