Mr. Beaks Presents An Interview With PUBLIC ENEMIES' Johnny Depp!
Published at: June 30, 2009, 4:22 p.m. CST by mrbeaks
Okay, gang. I didn't get the fancy-shmancy one-on-one interview like that kneecappin' bastard Capone did with Michael Mann (and read that sucker if you ain't done so already), but I did get to hang out with a small group of smart online journalists and fire off questions at Johnny Depp, who stars as bank-robbing maestro John Dillinger in PUBLIC ENEMIES.
I'd never interviewed Depp before, and, honestly, didn't know what to expect. I also didn't know how to bring up the topics that really interest me - e.g. his mentor/protege relationships with iconoclasts Marlon Brando and Hunter S. Thompson, and the status of his stashed-away directorial debut THE BRAVE (which I believe is wrongly maligned) - in a press conference setting. But while I'm disappointed our time with Depp expired right at the moment it would've been appropriate to ask such questions, I still think we got a damn good Q&A out of Depp.
It helped that Depp was extremely gracious and friendly - no hint of an attitude with this guy. He's also not aging, which is both impressive and alarming. Over our twenty minutes, Depp shared with us his thoughts on Dillinger the man vs. Dillinger the folk hero, the differences between Michael Mann and Terry Gilliam, and what it was like portraying a historical figure who'd previously been brought to life by tough guys like Warren Oates, Lawrence Tierney and Robert Conrad. Enjoy!
Johnny Depp: My apologies for my tardiness.
Q: Christian said he loved shooting digitally, and that he'd love to do it again. What are your feelings on digital filmmaking?
Depp: It's got its advantages. The idea that you can keep rolling for fifty-two minutes. And it's relatively cheap; I think it's roughly a grand for a fifty-two-minute tape. There are advantages, and there are disadvantages. But I like the texture of [film]. I like the texture of... crude, grimy cinema. I actually prefer that.
Q: You did an incredible amount of research on Dillinger, but we're only seeing him towards the end of his life. What do you think gave him that sort of chivalrous side?
Depp: I think he's not unlike any other southern gentleman in a way. The fact that he made a relatively grave error in his youth in a fit of drunken ignorance - which I know I remember a few of those. (Laughter) And they sent him to prison for ten years. They really whacked the ball-and-chain on him for that. So coming out of prison in 1933, suddenly the world was in technicolor. Women were wearing tight clothes and skirts. It was a whole new world. So I think that southern gentleman was in there, and that guy who was a supreme existentialist who decided that "This day, every day, is mine."
Q: We've talked about your ability to play quirky characters sometimes. Do you consider Dillinger one of your "normal" characters, or a quirky one?
Depp: I think they're all normal. (Laughter) To me, I think they're all normal. But I think most people aren't the same. I mean, we're all weird when you get right down to it. Yeah, I would say he's one of the more normal guys. Normal just in the sense that he was nothing much more than an Indiana farm boy who stepped in a pile of something unpleasant. And then being in prison, or "criminal school" for ten years... that was his college education. And he became very good at what he learned. The fact that this guy became a sort of mythic Robin Hood folk hero... I mean, he really took the ball and ran with it. That's pretty normal to me. Most people run with it when they get the ball.
Q: There have been several Dillingers on film. In building the character, did you look at guys like Warren Oates so that you maybe wouldn't be touching on things that they did? Or did you just not want any part of that in your head space?
Depp: I mean, there's no way to not remember Warren Oates as John Dillinger. I remember seeing that as a kid and just loving it. But I did stay away from it when we were going to start this film because I didn't want to accidentally steal anything from the guy. He was so good. The one thing that stayed in my mind about the Warren Oates version - and, forgive me, I forget who directed it--
Q: John Milius.
Depp: John Milius, exactly. I felt that at the time he did it there was a certain amount of colors available on that palette that they put on the canvas. I feel like now, with the stuff that's come out... with the ability to have slightly more information with regards to Dillinger's personal life, there were a few more colors available. So that was one of the challenges for me.
Q: How do you think this character is going to resonate now? Because we're in an economic crisis, and... Dillinger is a hero to a lot of people still. You kind of want to cheer. And his ability to work with the media so well... he really created himself as a folk hero, too. He played with it, and was smart about it. I think it's going to resonate even more now. Do you agree?
Depp: I certainly hope so.
Q: Yeah? Do you hope people start robbing banks soon? (Laughter)
Depp: I don't know if I'd go that far, but... People are different, you know. Unfortunately, people are different than they were back then. Back in 1933, there was some degree of innocence left. And today, on some level, we've really hit the digital wall. And a kind of a world where almost everything is available if you can make your way to it. I think people are radically different than John Dillinger, and I don't know if you could have a similar type of folk hero today. Maybe Subcomandante Marcos down in Chiapas, who's trying to protect the indians in Mexico; he might be the closest thing we can have.
In terms of innocence and purity... because in [the 1930s] the banks were clearly the enemy. They foreclosed and were taking peoples' lives away from them. Not that it's all that different now. Here we are teetering on this similar kind of recession/depression, and... (pauses) God, the banks are still the enemy, you're right! (Laughs) Well, I don't know... if somebody starts robbing banks... as long as nobody gets hurt, why not? (Laughter) I may start robbing 7-Elevens.
Q: There's a scene in the movie where Dillinger walks through the office of the FBI. Is that fact based, or was that [a creation] of the director?
Depp: No, he actually did walk through what was then called the Dillinger Squad. He pulled his car up out front with Polly Hamilton, walked into the Dillinger Squad all by himself, and wandered through all these cops. And his photo was everywhere. That's all true. He had an enormous amount of, for lack of a better word, chutzpah. He had an incredible confidence that truly... I mean, one of the things I admire about him is that sort of... to have gotten so far and to have become that kind of existentialist hero. Every day was his last. He had made peace with that. Yesterday doesn't exist, he just kept moving forward... there is something admirable about that.
Q: Did he feel like he was untouchable? That no one could get to him?
Depp: I think he felt the clock was ticking. I think maybe when you're on that adrenaline high, you may feel that sort of thing, that "No one can get me." But I don't think he was dumb, you know? And to feel like you're completely untouchable there's a certain amount of ignorance in that. I think he just felt like "I got that one, let's move on to the next. And what happens now?"
Q: A trait this character shares with actors is that he thrives on improvisation. He seems kind of conscious that he is immortal in some ways in peoples' memories.
Depp: He was certainly like an actor in [that], like I was saying before, if someone hands you the ball, depending on where you've been in your life, if you worked in sewers or pumped gas or worked construction... whatever you did, if somebody hands you the ball, you run with it as far as they'll let you. That's all I've been doing for twenty-five years. John Dillinger getting out of prison after ten years is, in a way, getting handed the ball. He started to realize... I wouldn't say that he... I hate the idea of him manipulating the media, because I don't think he did. I think he just understood the game. I think he understood that there was a game to play, and, because of his savvy and the stuff he'd learned while he was inside, he learned out to play the game well.
So, yeah, there are parallels. I also think Dillinger also had a semi-fascination with Hollywood and the idea of movies - and his legend, you know? Leaving his mark. I think most people have that, in a way.
Q:Johnny, we just saw pictures of you as The Mad Hatter, which looks amazing. I'm actually looking even further ahead and wondering what you're looking forward to doing with THE LONE RANGER and [PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN 4].
Depp: Well, the Hatter was awfully fun, you know? Doing something like John Dillinger, a performance where it's so restrained because of the responsibility you have to that guy and his memory. The Mad Hatter was like being fired out of a cannon. The Hatter was great fun. And, again, it's one of those things where you're amazed you weren't fired. (Laughter)
And THE LONE RANGER... we're still in the super-beginning stages, so there are all kinds of possibilities. But I feel like I have some good ideas for the character that are interesting, that I don't think have been done all that much before.
And then there's another character. Oh, PIRATES! Yeah.
Q: It's so rare that an A-list actor does a character four times.
Depp: Man, call me a glutton, you know? I honestly... if we can get the screenplay right to PIRATES 4 - because virtually no cinema is perfect. So PIRATES had its own thing, and I suppose PIRATES 2 and 3 had their own thing. It got a little confusing here and there. Not that I've seen the movies, but I hear tell. (Laughter) I think, for me, because I love the character so much and I enjoy playing the character so much and people seem to like it, that if there's an opportunity to try again, it's like going up to bat. You want to get back out there and try and try and try and see what you can do again. I enjoyed playing Captain Jack very much. At this point, what I'm trying to do is trying to do it like a Beckett play.
Q: SPARROW'S LAST TAPE?
Q: [Drowned out by laughter, but the question was basically "Is the studio eager to make it like a Beckett play?"]
Depp: It could be anything at this point. Jack Sparrow could be in some kind of geisha clothing. I don't know. We could explore a lot of possibilities.
Q: Have you talked to Terry Gilliam about THE MAN WHO KILLED DON QUIXOTE?
Depp: We have talked about it. But to be honest, the thing about Terry... I love Terry, and I'd do anything the guy wants to do, but with QUIXOTE... my dance card is pretty nutty for the next couple of years. So I'd hate to put him in a position - or ask to be in a position - where he'd have to wait for me. That would be wrong. But also... I feel like we went there and tried something, and, whatever it was - the elements and all the things that got up underneath us - were there and happened and were documented well in that film LOST IN LA MANCHA. So I don't know if it's right for me to go back there. I don't know if it's right for Terry to, but if he wants to..."
Q: Terry Gilliam and Michael Mann seem like two sides of the same coin. They're guys who are very detail oriented and create worlds, but they seem like they do it in very different ways. Could you compare Mann and Gilliam?
Depp: There's almost no way to compare the two. The only thing you can say - in terms of Terry and Michael and their similarities - is their drive or passion, an intense scratching out the truth of the moment, or really seeing as much as they can get out of a moment. But they're very, very different. Terry giggles a lot. (Pause. Then a smile. The room laughs. Depp answered the question to his satisfaction.)
Q: They show MANHATTAN MELODRAMA at the end of the film. And as you're watching it, as you're watching Clark Gable and William Powell in the scene, it does sort of connect to [Dillinger's] idea that he's something of a star. But what's interesting to me is that Dillinger is, like, the first rock star, and these are movie stars. With Bonnie and Clyde, it's the same thing. These outlaws who are living on the edge during the Depression. Would you agree with that?
Depp: Oh, yeah. At that time, Dillinger and those people - not all of them, but a good majority - were the common man standing up against the establishment. "I've had it up to here, so now I'm going to get some. And I'm going to get some at whatever cost." You know, there are comparisons of Dillinger as the Robin Hood of that time, and there is some truth to it. When farmers were in the bank with their life savings, he did actually hand it back to them and say, "I don't want your money. I came for the bank's money. The bank's money is my money, and I'm taking it." That's not to say he was a saint, but he was a kind of man's man at that time. He stood up against... certainly the government and J. Edgar Hoover. At best, they were slimy. Who were the criminals really?
Q: And he was incarcerated for so long--
Depp: For a hideous mistake, yeah.
Q: And it still happens today.
Publicist: We have time for one more question.
Q: I'm just wondering if you could speak about working with Marion. There's so much that's not on the page that establishes their relationship.
Depp: Well, she's great. She's just simply great. She was there months before she started shooting. She went to a Menominee reservation and spent time with Billie Frechette's family. She's deeply dedicated and worked so hard on her accent. I thought she was amazing. She was perfect for Billie Frechette. You know when you read some stuff about Dillinger, and how he felt about that women... they were these uninvited, perfectly matched [outsider] people. Her being half-French, half-Menominee Indian at that time, and him being an ex-con who'd never been able to keep a woman in his life - his mom died when he was little; there was the whole heartbreak of that. When they met, it was absolute fireworks. I honestly believe that John Dillinger, had he not been sold out by Anna Sage, would've made one last hit, gone to South America and waited for Billie. I'm totally convinced of it.
PUBLIC ENEMIES blasts into theaters July 1st. Can't go wrong with Michael Mann, Johnny Depp, Marion Cotillard and tommy guns. See it.