There’s no surer way to make Johnny Depp chuckle than to cite those who call his icy performance as the Boston gangster Whitey Bulger in Black Mass a return to form for the actor.
“My comeback!” Depp wryly exclaims, his eyes lighting up behind blue-tinted glasses.
For an actor who has always delighted in head-to-toe transformation, playing the part of the rebounding superstar is not appealing. It doesn’t suit him much, anyway; his stardom has always been predicated on the wild abandon of his metamorphoses.
“I don’t watch movies, so I don’t know what other people are doing because I don’t care what other people are doing,” he said. “I want to do what I want to do, and if it works, great, and if it doesn’t, f– it, I can pump gas again.”
Scott Cooper’s Black Mass, which opens Friday, is an expansive look at the bonds of old-neighborhood loyalties that fostered the FBI’s disastrous shielding of Bulger’s Winter Hill Gang, which eradicated Boston’s Italian mafia only to replace it with a murderous Irish-Catholic fiefdom.
Based on the book by Boston Globe reporters Dick Lehr and Gerard O'Neill, it’s the first fact-based movie about the notorious crime boss and FBI informant since Bulger was arrested in California in 2011. He was later sentenced to two life terms for, among other things, his involvement in 11 murders.
Black Mass is a richly populated ensemble, including Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch and Julianne Nicholson. But Depp’s Bulger is the centerpiece of the film, and it has prompted predictions of an Oscar nomination for Depp.
“No disrespect to any victims or families of victims, but there was some element for me that was kind of glad that he got away,” Depp said. “For 16 years he was on the lam and he wasn’t causing any trouble. He was living his life. Good on him.”
With blond hair slicked back and pale, freckled skin, Depp’s Bulger is harrowing in its sleazy ruthlessness and cold-blooded intimidation, bearing none of the whimsy that has accompanied some of the 52-year-old actor’s recent films like The Lone Ranger and Mortdecai. But Depp, who sympathetically played John Dillinger in Michael Mann’s Public Enemies, said he sought to find Bulger’s humanity.
“You can’t approach him as a gangster. You can’t approach him as just innately evil,” says Depp. “He’s a Catholic boy, and kind of in a weird way, a pillar of the community, very sensitive in a lot of ways.”
“Johnny takes risks as an actor that most movie stars won’t even take because they’re too fearful that they'll lose their audience, that they'll lose their status as a movie star,” said Cooper, the director of the gritty blue-collar dramas Crazy Heart and Out of the Furnace. “The emotional and psychological transformation that I saw in the man who is sweet and gentle and kind and thoughtful into that? I don’t even know where that comes from.”
“I think they call it schizophrenia,” Depp retorted.