Public Enemies, the new film from Michael Mann, tells the story of Depression-era bank robber John Dillinger. Starring as Dillinger is Johnny Depp, who is already courting a small amount of Oscar buzz if any of the pre-release reviews are to be believed. At the film’s press conference, Depp sat down and answered questions from the assembled journos.
Suave and dapper in a waistcoast and open-cuffed shirt, he cuts a sensual, catlike figure – as iconic and enthralling as his screen roles. From his entrance, he had the crowd in the palm of his hand, pausing to regard an oversized film poster draped behind the stage. In a moment of awkward, bashful humility, he laughed, and said “Well, that’s entirely too large, is it not?”, before easing into his designated leather armchair.
In the conference, he touched on his reaction to his popular image, his long career, as well as his approach to playing notorious Public Enemy Dillinger. Check out the transcript below.
John Dillinger is an absolutely bona fide folk hero, but what was the draw of playing this outlaw whose name is virtually synonymous with the gun-slinging American past? Well, first and foremost, when I was like 9 or 10 years old, I had a fascination with JD, I don’t know why – and probably not a healthy one. I think it was something about the twinkle in his eye; there was something mischievous that intrigued me. But, in terms of taking on the role, the idea that the guy was called Public Enemy Number 1, but, if you really think about it, was never an enemy of the public. That I found intriguing and challenging.
What is it about this character of John Dillinger that you think fascinated the public? And, famously, he died after watching Manhattan Melodrama, what would be the film you’d like to watch before you died? [Laughs] If I had to see a last-ever film, it would be Withnail & I, without question! I think, especially with a guy like John Dillinger, if you think about where we were in 1933 – well, it’s not unlike where we are now. The banks were sort of the enemies, and it was taking the knees out from under everyone. Displacement was a kind way of putting it – their lives were being ripped from them. And there’s JD, who arrives as one of those people who’ve been ten years in prison for some youthful, ignorant, drunken crime. Ten years, and he arrives on the scene in the ultimate existential arena, and says ‘I’m gonna stand up against these people’. So I think, for me, what’s fascinating is the guy who says ‘I’m not gonna take it’.
[In reference to a short scene where JD sings the country standard The Last Roundup, after a jail break] First Sweeney Todd, and now this, it was almost as if you were looking to crowbar in some singing… I almost broke into dance… I just might now!
Why not? Just wondering if you’ve been bitten by the singing bug? I’ve only been bitten once, and it was an indirect bite. No, no, no. I sang the one time on Sweeney because, well, basically I had no choice.
But you sang well in this. I know it was only a few lines…. Oh, yeah! I do sing in the film – is it in? I haven’t seen it!
Any recording contracts come your way yet? You know, some people better stay in their own little arena. [laughs]
How did you research for the role? Did you watch previous films about him? I certainly had a strong memory of Warren Oates’ John Dillinger in the John Milius film [Dillinger, 1973]. But, I hadn’t seen it in years. I do remember there was a certain palate that was limited. And I thought there were more colours to be offered – without being too esoteric about it. If you think about the information that has come out since – some of Dillinger’s own words have surfaced. So there’s a bit more to the story, a little more dimension. And that was what I was hoping for, to add some of that.
Stephen Graham [Baby Face Nelson in Public Enemies] over here is our rising star – how did you two get on? We hated each other, and we fought constantly. [assembled journos laugh] I think he’s magnificent, one of my favourite actors of all time. What he did in This is… [journos, in unison, ‘England!’] England… absolutely destroyed me. What he did, and what Tomo did in that film of Shane Meadows’, took me to my knees. He’s someone I’m going to fight to get… I’m going to force him to be in every film I do – even at gunpoint!
You’ve mentioned you’ve not seen the film, and did a double-take at the poster as you came in – do you not like looking at yourself? And what’s it like now that you’re a big star? 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, almost everything will be ok. Just keep walking forward, and it’s ok to notice things, and look at things, but, to judge things will bog you down. So I don’t like watching myself in the movie, because I don’t like to be aware of the product, I like the process. I enjoy that. That [pointing at the oversized poster] is… not my fault. I didn’t do it!
In terms of your success, can you get your head around it? Did you think your time had come? I went through 20 years of basically what the industry defined as failures. So for basically 20 years I was defined as box office poison. And I didn’t change anything in terms of my process. That little film Pirates Of The Caribbean came around, and I thought yeah, that would be fun to play a pirate for my kiddies, and all that stuff. And I created the character in the same way I created all the other characters, and… nearly got fired. And thank god they didn’t, because it changed my life. I’m hyper, super-thankful that radical turn happened, but it’s not like I went out of my way to make it happen.
You’ve played a lot of real-life figures in Blow, and Donnie Brasco, and now in Public Enemies, what attracts you to that? And, who do you want to play next? Yeah… who would I like to play next. I don’t know, Carol Channing, maybe. I do like Carol Channing, very much! I mean, in the digital age… you can almost do anything. I could play a 12-year-old girl at this point – in the digital age!
But approaching someone like John Dillinger, as opposed to Jack Sparrow, is it as in-depth? It is, it’s even potentially more so, because of the amount of responsibility you have, to that person who actually 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 with regard to who he was. There’s footage of him, there’s endless photographs of him – but there’s no audio. There’s just an attitude. So, that was the dig – how do I find this man, how do I find the way he speaks. And what made the connection for me was that John Dillinger was born in Indiana, and raised in Mooresville, Indiana, which was 2 hours from where I was born and raised. It was at that point that I thought – ah, I hear his voice now, now I know him, 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 at Statesville Penitentiary. I knew his voice then.
Looking at you in this film, you don’t seem to have changed much over the years. Do you have any particular skin-care regime? [Laughs] Clean living. Oh yeah, most definitely. I say if you could avoid wine, I’d do it. And liquor, definitely. Avoid liquor. Most definitely don’t smoke – anything. And stay in your room. And watch a bit of reality television, that’s how I do it.
Looking at the extraordinary range of characters that you’ve played so far. Which has been the closest to you personally, and which has been the furthest away? Well, the furthest away – oh boy, probably a couple of them. But, furthest away… might be Willy Wonka [laughs]. Let’s hope that’s the furthest! Closest to me, this would be horrifically revealing, wouldn’t it? There’s probably three, Edward Scissorhands, John Wilmot from The Libertine, and maybe Dillinger.
There’s a great attention to detail in the film, in terms of shooting in real locations. How does that affect your performance, to know you’re in a location where Dillinger himself was? That was one of the amazing things that Michael Mann provided us with, that level of authenticity, to be able to break through the exact doors that John Dillinger broke though. As opposed to shooting on some soundstage because it was cheaper or handier to the studio. Michael was a real stickler for that thing, and I will thank him forever for that. To be able to go and fire my Thompson out of the very window John Dillinger fired his Thompson out of during the gun battle at Little Bohemia. You can’t put a price on that thing. To be able to walk in the same footsteps as he took, to walk outside the Biograph theatre, and land exactly to the tiny millimetre where John Dillinger’s head fell, in the alley near the Biograph was magical. I mean, you almost feel him arriving. Not to be moony or spooky, but there were moments when I felt his presence, moments when I felt a certain amount of approval from the guy. When you’re going to that umpteenth detail, something’s going on.
How did you find working with Christian [Bale]? Are your acting styles quite different? I don’t know if our acting styles are that different…Christian tends to stay in character, and kept up the Southern accent between takes… Oh, yeah, that kind of thing. Yeah, well I don’t do that. But, if you have to do that, that’s ok. I enjoyed our – basically – one scene together, besides when he and his cronies croaked me outside the Biograph [laughs]. Yeah, it was the scene in the jail cell, and I enjoyed it very much, it was like, how’d you describe it, like a great sparring match. Two guys in there with a similar respect for one another, trying to present different angles to each other. Obviously he’s a very gifted actor, and very talented. When we saw each other, which wasn’t very much, we talked about our kids, just talked about being dads. And that’s where we really connected.Could you tell us about Michael Mann – how was his style of directing? I think, ultimately, Michael’s style and my approach did complement each other. There are moments where, when you’re building something, there will be things discarded – things will get broken along the way. So it wasn’t right off the bat the easiest, but in the long run, what we were able to figure out together, was that, he presents something, he’d present something – we’d find a happy middle, and we’d get there. And we always got there. I have a tremendous amount of respect for Michael, as a human being but also as a filmmaker – he’s not joking, you know. He truly means it.
How difficult was it to let go of Dillinger once filming finished? And which character over your career has it been hardest to say goodbye to? There’s been a few. The funny thing is, you really don’t say goodbye. There’s a little chest of drawers in here [points at chest], where you can always access these guys. I’m not sure if that’s healthy, but they’re there. Saying goodbye to Dillinger was tough, because it was like saying goodbye to a relative. The most difficult to say goodbye to? Well, Scissorhands was rough. The safety of allowing yourself to be that honest, to be that pure, to be that exposed. That was hard to say goodbye to. Wilmot, Lord Rochester, on The Libertine, was incredibly tough, because I felt like it was a very intense 40-something days where I had the opportunity to be that guy. And I felt a deep sense of responsibility, so it was like a marathon. And then, in the end, it was like the light goes out and it’s black.
Public Enemies is out this week. Our review is here.