It takes a lot to step into a dress of one of history’s most notorious snitches, let alone a garment previously worn by such actresses as Cloris Leachman and Pamela Sue Martin. However, the clothes the real-life Anna Sage (i.e. Cumpanas) wore as a signal to the FBI that night were actually orange, and the Romanian Madame’s betrayal of her famous gangster friend at Chicago’s Biograph Theater would result in an iconic death, one brilliantly depicted for Public Enemies. While this “woman in red” was ultimately deported back home in ignominy, Branka Katic’s performance in a role depicted in Dillinger and The Lady in Red is likely to be the last word when it comes to this woman to die for — and the beginning of this Yugoslavian (and near-fourth wife of Big Love’s Henrickson family) star’s ascent as a major Eastern European import a la Bergman.
Daniel Schweiger: How did you first come to Hollywood?
Branka Katic: The war broke out in Yugoslavia. People made you declare yourself, and I suddenly learned that I was a Serb, but I felt like saying I was a Navajo Indian because I don’t like being defined like that. I’d gotten a job from the BBC and left Belgrade two days before NATO started bombing. While I was shooting in Czechoslovakia, I wondered how it was that I was safe while my family and friends were under such a horrible threat. The filming wrapped in London, and I went back home. Though I’d worked with many of the great directors in Serbia, like Emir Kusturica on Black Cat, White Cat, working in London had made me realize that I could live somewhere else.
I was ready for a new challenge so I moved to London, where I lived for five years and fell in love with a director named Julian Farino, with whom I have two beautiful children. When he came here to direct for HBO, I came with him. While I had a big career in Yugoslavia, I’ve had to start here gradually again. Now I’m being judged by the jobs I’ve done in America.
DS: You made an impression on HBO’s Entourage, and especially on the last season of Big Love. It seemed interesting that a character as intelligent as Ana’s would want to be part of a polygamous clan.
BK: I thought that if you lived so far away from the people and place that made you who you are, then you’d still be longing for that sense of belonging. I think Ana was lonely being a waitress in America and was ready for love. She thought that Bill was a manly, paternal guy who could take good care of her. Of course, when Ana discovered that he was married to three other women, she had a lot of doubts if she could become part of that lifestyle. Personally, I think that’s crazy. I wouldn’t share my man with anyone, ever! But I think Ana wanted to be part of one big family. Yet, in the end, she leaves the Henricksons because she doesn’t want to ruin them with their arguing over her.
DS: Do you think Ana will ever come back to Big Love?
BK: A lot of people are asking me what happened to Ana and when she’s coming back, so if she stays in people’s minds like that, it’s good. That means there’s more of her character to explore, and everything is possible on a show where you’ve got such great writing and imagination. They said they would bring Ana back but didn’t know if she’d return at the end of the forthcoming season or the one after that.
DS: Public Enemies is certainly your biggest Hollywood movie role yet. What kind of research did you do for Anna Sage?
BK: First I did research on the Internet, which is always the easiest way to start! Then I went to the museums and looked at the paintings from the period. Then I found a great book called A House is Not A Home. It was written by Polly Adler, who came from Russia and struggled to live happily in America. She became a Madame, but not a prostitute like Anna Sage, who was from Romania. House is about Polly’s relationship with all of the girls whom she took a motherly approach with. Like Anna, Polly was also under investigation, and there was big pressure on her to be faithful to her customers. Unlike Anna, she didn’t betray them, but I know how threatened Anna must have felt that she was going to be deported by the FBI after years of living in America, especially since she gave birth to a son in this country.
Anna had put a lot of effort in to rise from being a prostitute to becoming a Madame, so I can understand how she wouldn’t want to lose that. What made it even worse was that she had a good relationship with John Dillinger. The public loved him, and the fact that it’s Johnny Depp is playing him in this movie will make people love him even more! Dillinger was charming and nice to the ladies. He was like a rock and roll star back then — not some “villain” who would heartlessly hurt people. It was unjust that he was first sent to prison for such a long time because of a small robbery. He hit someone on the head and didn’t even get away with any money, yet he still ended up in jail for ten years. If you grow up in jail, how can you come out being anything other than a criminal? That was his downfall.
DS: Christian Bale makes a formidable adversary for Dillinger as Melvin Purvis. Could you feel that intensity when his FBI man threatens Anna with deportation?
BK: I didn’t meet Christian before we did our scene, and I didn’t want to meet him until then because I wanted Anna Sage to feel like she was in control of the situation. I already had my energy set on that level for the scene. It turned out that Christian was married to a Serbian, who was a lovely girl. I had a long chat with her in the makeup trailer, but my intensity with Christian was right back on when we did the scene. I had no idea that our director, Michael Mann, was capturing my reflection in the car mirror, showing my escalating rudeness toward Purvis. It was one of the many tricks that Michael had up his sleeve!
DS: Was working with Michael Mann an equally intense experience?
BK: No, I loved Michael. He didn’t make me uncomfortable for one second. I had a good audition for him, which I did by shooting a scene with me in costume. There was makeup and lighting, and I was acting opposite someone with a good American accent, so I got the part of Anna by doing much more than an audition tape. It was a filmed scene, and Michael loved it. Public Enemies ended up being a good marriage of what I could do and what he needed from my performance.
DS: How did you like working with Johnny Depp?
BK: He was wonderful. He’d also worked for Emir Kusturica on Arizona Dream and knew some swear words in Serbian! We’d joke around a lot.
DS: When you were shooting Dillinger’s climactic death scene, did you have a sense of the importance of what you were reenacting?
BK: We filmed on location at the Biograph Theater on the original streets. It was amazing to watch 500 extras dressed in original period clothing, which the costume designer, Colleen Atwood, did such a fantastic job with. When you’re in those fantastic dresses, you feel like you’re in a time machine. Being there really gave me a sense of the people’s body language and an idea of the mood and atmosphere on that night. Johnny even “died” on the very spot where Dillinger did, so you’ve got a definite responsibility not to mess up a scene like this. But Michael Mann won’t let you because he’s such a perfectionist with a clear vision of what he wants.
DS: Did you feel the ghosts in the air?
BK: There was a certain heightened energy on the set, so I hope John Dillinger’s spirit isn’t angry with me! We made sure to show that it wasn’t easy for Anna to betray him. If we hadn’t, then she’d just be a crazy woman who was doing it for the money and thinking only about herself. As for me, it was really hard to betray Johnny Depp!
In the end, I believe that Anna wanted to be respected in this world because she’d been humiliated enough as a prostitute. She also had a boyfriend who was a corrupt policeman, yet she was a woman who went to church every Sunday. When you look at Anna’s pictures after Dillinger’s death, you can see how sad she is. She died in Romania from a liver disorder that you get from drinking too much, and you drink too much to forget.
DS: You definitely have an Ingrid Bergman quality as Anna Sage. When you look at the Eastern European actresses who have made a successful Hollywood transition, who are your idols?
BK: I love American actresses from that period, especially Barbara Stanwyck. If I watched more of her movies, maybe my English would improve! I also love Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman and Marlene Dietrich. Now the most common question I get asked by casting people is if I can do an American accent. But do I look American? Do I behave “American?” When it comes to period films like Public Enemies, I think what I really have going for me is a funny face that can accommodate those hairstyles! It’s really magical doing films like this.
DS: In the back of your head, were you ever worried that people would hate you because you get John Dillinger killed?
BK: Not when we were making the movie, but a few months before the premiere, I woke up one morning thinking that the whole world would hate me! They’d ask me how I could do it. And when I walked out of the premiere, there was some woman wagging her finger at me and calling me a villain! But I’m a strong girl. I think I can handle it.
'Public Enemies' is in theaters now from Universal Pictures
Special thanks to Nancy Bishop and Venice Magazine.