In a long and varied career studded with outrageous characters, Johnny Depp has played a puppet, a a pirate, a a poet, a pauper, a pawn and a (drug) king. So it stands to reason that, after dabbling in gangsterism in 1997’s excellent Donnie Brasco, as an undercover FBI agent infiltrating the New York Mafia, he’d finally go full hoodlum at some point. That’s the case with Michael Mann’s Public Enemies, in which Depp stars as charismatic gangster John Dillinger, a 1930s-era bank robber whose daring antics deeply embarrassed a young J. Edgar Hoover, and ironically helped shape federal law enforcement procedure for decades to come. Last week, Depp answered questions about the film — and, inevitably, some of his other high-profile projects — at the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles. Excerpts follow, below.
Question: Your costar, Christian Bale, said he responded positively to his first experience with shooting in digital. What are your feelings about digital cinema?
Johnny Depp: It’s definitely got its advantages, chiefly among them the idea that you can keep rolling for 52 minutes. It’s really cheap, I think roughly a grand for a 52-minute tape. But there are disadvantages, too. Me, I like the texture of crude, grimy cinema. I sort of prefer that.
Q: What do you make of Dillinger’s chivalrous side?
JD: I think he was just not unlike any other sort of Southern gentleman, in a way. The fact is that he made a relatively grave error in his youth in a fit of drunken ignorance — and I certainly remember a few of those — and got sent to prison for 10 years, where they dropped a ball-and-chain on him. Coming out of prison in 1933, from about 1923, suddenly the world was Technicolor — women were wearing tight clothes and skirts, it was a whole new world. So I think that there was that Southern gentleman in there, but also the almost supreme existentialist, who decided that this day and every day is mine.
Q: You’ve talked in the past about an affinity for quirky characters. Is John Dillinger quote-unquote normal?
JD: I think they’re all normal, (the characters I play). But with saying that, I think most people are pretty weird when you get right down to it. I’d say Dillinger is one of the more normal guys (I’ve played), in that he wasn’t much more than an Indiana farmboy who stepped in a pile of something unpleasant, ended up prison where he essentially was in criminal school for 10 years, and that was his college education. He became very good at what he learned. The fact that this guy became that sort of mythic Robin Hood figure is just because 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: Did you watch and/or consciously avoid other portrayals of John Dillinger?
JD: There was no way not to remember Warren Oates as John Dillinger. I remember seeing that movie when I was a kid and just loving it. But I did stay away from it in regards to starting this film, because I didn’t want to accidentally steal anything from the guy, because he was so good. The one thing that stayed in my mind from the (1973) Oates version directed by John Milius was that I felt like at the time they did it there was a certain amount of colors available on that palette that they put on the canvas, and I feel like now with the new information that came out with regards to Dillinger’s personal life there were a few more colors available.
Q: How do you think the character will resonate now? Do you think people will start robbing banks?
JD: I don’t know if I’d go that far. People are different than they were back then. In 1933 there was some degree of innocence left, and today on some level we’ve really hit the digital wall, a kind of wall where everything is available if you can make your way to it. So I think people are radically different than John Dillinger, and I don’t know that you could have a similar type of folk hero as 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 to that, in terms of innocence and purity. Because in 1933, the banks were clearly the enemy, they foreclosed on homes and were taking people’s lives away from them. Although not that it’s all that different now. Here we are teetering on a similar kind of recession/depression, and… (pause) well, the banks are still the enemy, I guess you’re right. I don’t know, if someone starts robbing banks, as long as no one gets hurt… I may start robbing 7-Elevens.
Q: In Public Enemies, Dillinger is portrayed as practiced and cautious most of the time, but he also exhibits some psychotic or at least curious behavior, as when he walks into the police station. What did you make of his actual psyche?
JD: He actually did walk through what was called the Dillinger squad room in Chicago. He pulled his car up out front, walked into the headquarters all by himself and wandered through all these cops, even though his photograph was everywhere. That’s all true. He had an enormous amount of, for lack of a better word, chutzpah, you know? He had an incredible confidence. One of the things that I admire about him is… to have gotten so far and become an existentialist hero. Every day was his last, he’d made peace with that, he was fine with that: “Yesterday doesn’t exist, I’ll just keep moving forward.” There’s something admirable about that.
Q: Do you think Dillinger felt he was untouchable?
JD: I think he felt the clock was ticking. When you’re on an adrenaline high, you may feel like no one can get me. But I don’t think he was dumb. To really feel like he was completely untouchable would require a certain amount of ignorance. I think he just felt like, “I got that one, what happens next?”
Q: Dillinger also has some traits in common with an actor, in that he thrives in improvisation, and seems to yearn for immortality in people’s memories — did any of those parallels strike you while filming?
JD: Well, as I was saying before, if someone hands you the ball, depending on where you’ve been in your life — whether you’ve worked in sewers or pumped gas or worked in construction — you run with it, as far as they’ll let you. And that’s all I’ve been doing for 25 years, really. John Dillinger getting out of prison after 10 years is just like getting handed the ball, and I hate the idea of [people talking about] him manipulating the media, because I don’t think that he did. I think he just understood that there was a game to be played, and because of his savvy and the stuff he’d learned while inside, he learned how to play the game well. So there are some parallels. I also think Dillinger had somewhat of a semi-fascination with Hollywood and movies, and the idea of his legend and leaving his mark. I think most people feel like that.
Q: A lot of John and Billie’s relationship isn’t on the page, per se. What was it like working with Marion Cotillard, and establishing a quick rapport to sell the whirlwind passion of this relationship?
JD: Well, Marion’s simply great — she was there months before she even started shooting, just working. She went down to the Menominee Reservation and spent time with Billie Frechette’s family, and was deeply dedicated and worked so hard on her accent. I thought she was amazing, and perfect for the role. When you read about Dillinger and how he felt about that woman, they were oddly these uninvited, perfectly matched outsiders — her being half-French, half-Menominee Indian, and working as a hat-check girl in Chicago, him being this ex-con who’d never been able to keep a woman in his life, and had his mom die when he was little. When they met, it was absolute fireworks, and I honestly believe that Dillinger, had he not been sold out by Anna Sage, would have made one last hit and gone to South America and waited for her. I’m totally convinced of it.
Q: We’ve now seen the pictures of you as the Mad Hatter in Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland. How was the movie?
JD: The Mad Hatter was awfully fun.
Doing something like John Dillinger — it’s a performance that is somewhat necessarily restrained because of the responsibility you have to that guy and his memory. The Mad Hatter was more like being fired out of a cannon. It was great fun, and it’s another one of those roles where I’m amazed I wasn’t fired. All I’ve seen is the bits and pieces, but Tim did a great job, and (the Mad Hatter) looks like exactly what I first thought he should look like.
Q: And what about The Lone Ranger and a fourth Pirates film?
JD: With The Lone Ranger we’re still in the super-early stages, so there are all kinds of possibilities, but I feel like I have some good ideas for the character that are interesting and haven’t been done all that much before. And with Pirates, call me a glutton. If we can get the screenplay right to Pirates 4… well, virtually no cinema is perfect. The first film had its own thing, and I suppose (parts) two and three had their own thing, and it got a little confusing here and there during the stories — not that I’ve seen the movies, but I hear tell. But for me, because I love the character so much, and enjoy playing him so much, and people seem to like it, if there’s an opportunity to try again, it’s like going up to bat — you want to get out there and try and see what you can do again. At this point what I’m trying to do is turn it into a Beckett play, let’s see how far we can take it. (laughs) Jack Sparrow could come out in some geisha clothing, we could really explore a lot of possibilities.
Q: Terry Gilliam has talked about remounting Don Quixote. Any interest there?
JD: We’ve talked about it. I love Terry and would do virtually anything the guy wants to do. The thing with Quixote is, my dance card is pretty nutty for the next couple years, so I’d hate to put him in a position, or ask him to be in a position, to wait for me. That would be wrong. But also, in a way, 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 documented well in the film Lost in La Mancha. So I don’t know if it’s right to go back there.
Q: Terry Gilliam and Michael Mann both come across as very detail-oriented, but they do it in very different ways. How are they similar and/or different?
JD: Oh, boy, there’s almost no way to compare the two. The only thing you can say about Terry and Michael’s similarities comes in the form of their drive, or passion — an intense scratching out of the truth of the moment. But they’re very, very different. Terry giggles a lot.
Q: Dillinger is something of the first rock star, was he not?
JD: There was definitely an element of the common man standing up against the establishment and saying, “Oh no, I’ve had it up to here, and so now I’m going to get something back, whatever the cost.” And as far as the comparisons to Dillinger being the Robin Hood of the time, there is some truth to it — he did literally see farmers in the bank with their life savings, and hand it back to them, saying, “I don’t want your money, I’ve come for the bank’s money.” That’s not to say he was a saint, but he stood up against authority. At the time, certainly the government and J. Edgar Hoover were, at best, a bit slimy. So who were the criminals, really?