Published Sep 14, 2015Veteran actor Johnny Depp has added a new sinister character to his arsenal, using a bald cap and plenty of make-up to inhabit the role of notorious U.S. gangster James Joseph "Whitey" Bulger, Jr. in Black Mass. Before the film opens on September 18, Depp stopped by the Toronto International Film Festival to speak at a press conference.
In an interview, Depp recently said that director Scott Cooper revitalized his career. He was asked to clarify his comments, as he doesn't seem like an actor who's ever been concerned about financial success. "It's been the thrust of my interests since day one," he joked about his box office concerns. "That's all I care about. Twenty years of failures will do that to you."
Joking aside, he clarified that he measures success as achieving the right role. "For me, with every character that you 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 the director, to yourself, to the author… to me that's success. Box office, that's something else. That's certainly none of my business. Once something wraps on a film, you say goodbye to the character and move forward."
As someone who's played Jack Sparrow, Willy Wonka and the Mad Hatter, Depp's mostly mastered the art of fictional characters. Here, he's instead playing a real-life gangster. "When you're playing a fictional character, you can stretch it out into all kinds of strange places — which I've taken a lot of heat for," Depp said. "When you're playing someone that either existed or exists, there's a tremendous amount of responsibility, at least for me. No matter who they are, whether they're good or bad, you have a responsibility to that person's life."
To get to know Bulger, Depp had to research the gangster. "Initially I was familiar with the story of Jimmy Bulger, which is fascinating in itself," he said. "Then you start reading the books…everyone's got their own take on what went down exactly. It's still up in the air a little bit."
He also tried to reach the real-life Bulger, who's currently still in prison at 86 years old. "I contacted Bulger's lawyer Jake Carney to request the opportunity to meet Jimmy Bulger — to hear his take, certainly," Depp says. "When I played Donnie Brasco, I was very fortunate to have spent a lot of time with Joe Pistone. In that I was able to make a lot of changes in the screenplay that weren't remotely true. I was able to get that stuff in.
"With Jimmy Bulger, I don't know what it might have been like, what I might have been able to take from him," Depp continued. "About a week after I made the request I got a message from Mr. Carney that said Jimmy respectively declines, as you can imagine he's not a great fan of the books or any of the books. From there I had Mr. Carney who was right up front saying I will tell you these bits, but he would never put his client into any sort of weird situation. He was very helpful with regard to the heart of Bulger. There's a little bit of surveillance footage, there's very little audio."
When you can't meet the actual gangster in question, physical accuracy is even more important. "To be as accurate with regards to the look was extremely important to me," Depp said. "There's a makeup artist that I worked with for years, a guy named Joel Harlow, who's just brilliant. He sculpted Bulger's face on top of a cast of mine. We did about five or six tests. It was much to the chagrin of the producers and money people, but it was about five hours of makeup every day."
Watch a trailer for Black Mass below. The film lands on September 18.