Public Enemies - Johnny Depp interview
Interview by rob Carnevale
JOHNNY Depp talks about finding the character of legendary American gangster John Dillinger and why working with Michael Mann on Public Enemies proved so much fun and a real gift.
He also talks about why looking at himself in the mirror is something he tries to avoid, getting his head around the size of his celebrity in the wake of Pirates of the Caribbean and which roles he’s found it most difficult to say goodbye to…
Q. It’s fair to say that John Dillinger is one of America’s most famous folk heroes, but what attracted you to playing someone who is also synonymous with the gun-slinging American past?
Johnny Depp: Well, first and foremost when I was nine or 10-years old I had a fascination with John Dillinger. I don’t know why. It probably wasn’t a healthy one for a kid. But I think there was something about the twinkle in his eye. There was something mischievous about him. But in terms of taking on the role… the idea that the guy was called Public Enemy No.1 but when you really think about it, he was never an enemy of the public, ever. That I found intriguing and challenging.
Q. What is it about historic characters such as Dillinger that continues to attract people?
Johnny Depp: Well, especially with a guy like John Dillinger I think where we were in 1933 with regard to the… well, it’s not unlike where we are now. The banks were the enemies and they were taking the knees out from under everyone. Displacement was a kind way of putting it. And there was John Dillinger who arrives. He’d spent 10 years in prison for some youthful, ignorant, drunken crime and he arrives on the scene in the ultimate existential arena and says: “I’m gonna stand up against you.” I think for me what’s fascinating is the guy who says: “I’m not going to take it. I don’t care who you are, I’m not going to take it.”
Q. What did your research entail and did you go back and try and watch any of the previous movies about Dillinger?
Johnny Depp: I certainly had a strong memory of Warren Oates’ John Dillinger in John Milius’ film. I haven’t seen that film in years but I do remember thinking that there was a certain palette that was limited and I thought there were more colours to be offered. There’s been information that’s come out since – some of Dillinger’s own words have surfaced, so there’s a bit more to the story and a bit more dimension to it. I was hoping to add some of that.
Q. How did you get on with Stephen Graham [who plays Baby Face Nelson]?
Johnny Depp: I think he’s magnificent. He’s one of my favourite actors of all time. What he did in This Is England destroyed me. What he and Tommo [Turgoose] in that film by Shane Meadows brought me to my knees. Stephen Graham is someone I’m going to force to be in every film I do from now on… even at gun point if I have to.
Q. You mentioned you’d not seen the film and you kind of did a double take on yourself when you walked in the room. Do you not like looking at yourself in the mirror and how do you get your head around the fact that you’re now this massive star?
Johnny Depp: If I can avoid the mirror when I brush my teeth in the morning, I will. I find security and safety in the most profound degree of ignorance. If you can just stay ignorant of almost everything you’ll be OK. It’s fine to stay informed and look at things, but to judge things will bog you down. I don’t like watching myself in the movies because I don’t like being aware of the product. I like the process. I enjoy that. That is not my fault. I didn’t do it… I was there but I didn’t do it.
Q. But can you get your head around your fame. Did you think your time would always come?
Johnny Depp: Well, I went through 20 years of what the industry would define as failures. So, for the better part of 20 years I was defined as box office poison. I didn’t change anything in terms of my process. I didn’t change a thing. But then that little film Pirates of the Caribbean came round and I thought: “Yeah, that would be fun. I’d like to play a pirate for my kiddies and stuff.” But I created the character the same way I created all my other characters and nearly got fired. But thank God I didn’t because it sort of changed my life. So, I’m super thankful that that radical turn happened. But it’s not like I went out of my way to make it happen.
Q. You’ve played a lot of biographical characters such as George Jung in Blow and Donnie Brasco. What draws you to that type of character? And is there anyone you’d like to play next?
Johnny Depp: Carol Channing [laughs]. Really, I’d love to. I mean in the digital age… I could play a 12-year-old girl at this point.
Q. But is it harder or easer to play someone like John Dillinger than say Captain Jack Sparrow?
Johnny Depp: It’s definitely more so because you have a certain amount of responsibility to that person that did exist. There’s some sense of responsibility to their legacy. With John Dillinger, there’s an enormous amount of information on the guy. We know where he was at 12.02 when the banks were robbed. But there’s a great gap in regard to really who he was. There’s footage of him, there’s photographs… endless photographs of him. But there’s no audio of him. There’s just an attitude that he had. So, that was the dig. Can I find this man? How do I find the way he speaks, and what does he sound like?
What made it for me was when I made the connection that John Dillinger was born and raised in Indiana, which is two hours from where I was born and raised. It was at that point that I thought: “Ah, I can hear his voice now!” I know what he sounds like because it’s not all that different. He was my grandfather who drove a bus in the day and ran moonshine at night, he was my step-father who did time in the Statesville penitentiary. I could hear his voice then.
Q. Looking at the extraordinary range of characters that you’ve played so far, which is the one that you find closest to you, and which is the furthest from you?
Johnny Depp: Well, the furthest away might be Willy Wonka [in Charlie & The Chocolate Factory]. Let’s hope that’s the case. There’s probably three that are closest to me: Edward Scissorhands, Rochester in The Libertine and John Dillinger.
Q. What does it lend your performance to know that you’re in a location that Dillinger himself was in all those years before?
Johnny Depp: It was one of the amazing things that Michael Mann provded us with. To be able to break through the exact door that John Dillinger broke through as opposed to shooting on a sound stage somewhere was a real gift. Michael is a real stickler for that sort of thing and I will thank him forever for that. To be able to fire a Thompson [submachine gun] out of the very window that John Dillinger was firing his out of at Little Bohemia… you can’t put a price on that sort of thing.
Q. Was it invigorating to perform those moments?
Johnny Depp: Of course, yeah. To literally be able to walk in the steps that he took, to walk outside the Biograph Theater and land exactly, to the millimetre where John Dillinger’s head fell was surreal. Not to be spooky or anything, but there were moments when I felt his presence and a certain amount of approval from the guy.
Q. How did you find working with Christian Bale in the scene you shared with him? And are your acting styles very different?
Johnny Depp: I don’t know if our acting styles are different…
Q. He tends to stay in character…
Johnny Depp: Well, I don’t do that. But if you have to do that, it’s alright.
Q. What was it like playing opposite him?
Johnny Depp: I enjoyed it. We only had the one scene together, apart from when he and his cronies are waiting to croak me outside the Biograph [laughs]. But had the scene in the jail cell and I enjoyed it very much. It’s like a sparring match. There were two guys with great respect for one another trying to present the different angles to each other. Obviously, he’s a very gifted actor and very talented. When Christian and I saw each other, which wasn’t very much, we spent most of our time talking about our kids, and talking about being dads.
Q. What was it like working with Michael Mann. Did your styles compliment each other?
Johnny Depp: Michael’s style and my approach did compliment each other. When you’re building something there will be things discarded. Things will get broken along the way. It wasn’t right off the bat the easiest. But in the long run and what we were able to figure out together was that he’d present something, and I’d present something, and we’d find a happy medium, and we’d get there. We always got there. I have a tremendous amount of respect for Michael as a human being but as a filmmaker as well. He’s not joking. He means it. He truly means it.
Q. How easy was it to say goodbye to John Dillinger? And which other characters have you found it hard to say goodbye to?
Johnny Depp: Well, there’s been a few. The funny thing is you oddly don’t really say goodbye. There’s like a chest of drawers in here [motions to head] that you can always access. They’re always around. I’m not sure if that’s healthy. But they’re all there. Saying goodbye to Dillinger was tough because it was like saying goodbye to a relative. But the most difficult to say goodbye to? Scissorhands was rough. The safety of allowing yourself to be that honest and to be that pure and exposed… that was hard to say goodbye to. Lord Rochester, on [The] Libertine, was incredibly tough. I felt like it was a very intense 40-something days where I had the opportunity to be that guy. I felt a deep sense of responsibility and it felt like a marathon and in the end, when the lights went out, it was black.
- Buy it on DVD (Amazon)
- Buy it on Blu-ray (Amazon)
- Read our review
- Johnny Depp interview
- Marion Cotillard interview
- Michael Mann interview
- Christian Bale talks new projects
- View photos of Public Enemies
- Public Enemies poster gallery