Johnny Depp's latest role, playing real life outlaw John Dillinger in Michael Mann's Public Enemies, is a long way away from playing perhaps his most famous (and certainly best paid) renegade character, jovial Jack Sparrow from Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean series. While on one level basically playing another beloved criminal, Mr. Depp has jumped from a cartoonish children's tale (which has also unfortunately cost him the ability to enjoy Disneyland in anonymity) to a gritty portrayal of one of the world's most notorious figures in move which has required much research, and as is apparent in Buzzine's recent exclusive interview with Johnny in Los Angeles, CA, also much thought...
Emmanuel Itier: What does the theme of this film and the words “gangsters” and “justice” inspire in you: Do you think we have justice in our world today?
Johnny Depp: Wow! Great question… Well, the gangsters of today aren’t the ones from the ’30s. In the ’30s, gangsters were a little bit like Robin Hood in Chicago, because the people rooted for them, pretty much, and they were good with people. They only attacked banks and the government. But of course they were violent, and that is condemnable.
As far as justice…in the ’30s, the justice system was definitely crooked, and this is why they changed laws — to be able to arrest these criminals. Now, in the sense of universal justice, I don’t think there is a lot of justice in many parts of the world, and people are revolting, as you can see, like lately in Iran or other countries where the notion of freedom and justice are not so granted to the people.
EI: What do we need to do to get to a new level of justice and peace in the world?
JD: In America, we finally got rid of the bad people and elected a great man - a generous man who finally makes America look better. I want the rest of the world to love America so we can, together, build a new united planet. We need our governments from various countries to work together and to make sense of the new challenges we’re facing, especially economical challenges right now…
EI: Speaking of challenges, what was the main one for you as an actor playing John Dillinger in Public Enemies?
JD: Any time you’re playing someone who existed, it’s a real challenge to be trustful to what he was, how he spoke, how he walked… So I truly did lots of research to figure out the real John Dillinger. It wasn’t easy, but I got clues, like for his tone of voice, I listened to his dad’s voice. There were no other recordings available with Dillinger’s voice. And of course, the tough job was left to Michael Mann to be faithful to the ’30s and bring back the true emotion of the times. It really was a bad time for America due to the ravages caused by the 1929 financial crash: I think Michael did a great job and I’m thankful for it.
EI: When I was watching this movie, I had to think about what I would like to rob - a place, a person: I thought about robbing the Vatican to find out the truth about Christ and behind all the supposed conspiracy stories… what about you - What would you like to rob?
JD: I’m with you on that one! I’d love to get into the vaults of the Vatican and figure out what they indeed must have about Christ, about the original work from Dante — you know, “Dante’s Inferno”... This is definitely a place that must hold lots of responses to lots of question. No doubt: Let’s go and rob the Vatican!
EI: What makes the American outlaws of old - Jesse James, Dillinger, etc. - so appealing?
JD: They get away with things that we don’t get away with, especially Jesse James, back in that era. He was the sort of precursor to John Dillinger, in a way. John Dillinger, in 1933, when the banks were the enemies and the government was… I mean, J. Edgar Hoover was teetering on criminal himself. So John Dillinger as the common man stood up and said, “No, I’m not gonna take it. I’m gonna get what I believe is mine.” [Laughs] Am I done? [Laughs] I don’t know: Should I say anything else?
EI: The scene where Dillinger just walked into the police station without being noticed and he was one of the most wanted criminals that time, is that the actual truth?
JD: That’s the truth.
EI: Then there might just be a parallel with you, being one of the most wanted actors in the world…
JD: Really? [Laughs]
EI: [Laughs] Yes: If you had the opportunity to just walk into somewhere without being noticed, where would you go?
JD: Ooh wow! God, that’s a very good question. Off the top of my head, where I could walk and be completely anonymous? I’d walk through Disneyland with my kids: That’s what I’d do... I’d go in every ride and I’d walk through Disneyland with my kids and let them experience that. They don’t get to get daddy… when daddy walks through Disneyland with them, things get weird... [Laughs] at the moment... [Laughs]
EI: You’ve talked before about the hats you get to wear onscreen and how much you appreciate them, the way that they’ve become friends. In Public Enemies, you’ve gotten the opportunity to wear a lot of them: Have you made any new friends?
JD: I have made some new friends – new hat friends, yeah!
EI: Which one was your favorite?
JD: Oh man, there were so many nice ones... There was a guy in Chicago making these things for us and he was such a great, great artist. I think the thing about hats, coats, suits, ties - that whole thing - what I appreciate about it is, I suppose, what it represents. Everyone made an effort then: Times were so different. There was still a kind of innocence. There were still possibilities and everyone made an effort –- hats coats, and ties. I’ve always felt like I probably should have been born in that era. Apparently I wasn’t, but not far, actually... [Laughs]
EI: In the movie, your Dillinger seems very comfortable with being a celebrity...
JD: The thing I’m infinitely more comfortable with is the process and the effort of making the character and the collaborative process in making the movie, basically. Then there’s this other stuff that goes along with it that I don’t think I will ever understand, which is that - but I do appreciate it as a part of the gig - which is certain amount of attention that goes along with it.
The alternative is the drag. The real drag is that if there’s no attention, then the job goes away, doesn’t it? John Dillinger, I think, just like any red-blooded American, was handed the ball and he ran with it, and that’s not any different than what happened to me a very long time ago. You’re handed the ball, and you go as far as you can go until somebody says, “All right, kid, you’re done: Get off the ride,” and I think that’s what Dillinger was doing, although Dillinger, obviously, knew the clock was ticking.
His situation was infinitely more grave than mine. He knew he had a very short period of time to deal with, and he made peace with that, so that’s what he was doing. He was kind of the ultimate existentialist, figuratively; he’d move forward constantly and never went back.
EI: As man who is also always moving forward, can we turn for a moment to your upcoming appearance in Alice in Wonderland, what kind of influence did you bring to your character, The Mad Hatter? Did you go straight to the book in order to create him, or did you bring any external work and your own signature to the character: What should we expect?
JD: Certainly the book - the book has a basis for everything. There are little mysteries, little clues in the book that I found fascinating, that were keys to at least my understanding of the Mad Hatter, like him saying, “I’m investigating things that begin with the letter M.” That was huge for me because, when you do a little digging, you realize you’re talking about a hatter - a man who made hats, and you go back and look at some of the history – hatters – there’s the term that this guy or that guy is “mad as a hatter.” There was reason for that, and the reason for that was mercury poisoning.
So I found out what the “M” was and why they went nuts. So that became a huge thing. And then it was just what I saw, what I thought the guy should look like, and I made my weird little drawings and watercolors and brought them to Tim [Burton] and he brought me his weird little drawings and watercolors and they were not dissimilar. [Laughs] I mean, you could put them right together and they’re…
EI: On the same page? As usual? What’s so special about your relationship with Tim?
JD: The most special thing is that he, very luckily, has given me about seven jobs: That’s the most amazing thing! I’m looking forward to the eighth and the ninth... I don’t know…there’s no real definition other than there is some kind of connection, some sort of understanding that Tim and I have that is, at most times, unspoken. Most people, when they hear Tim giving me direction while we’re talking about the characters or something on the set, people are baffled, completely befuddled. They don’t know what we’re talking about. A guy actually came to me one time after watching Tim and I talk for ten minutes and said, “I didn’t understand a word you guys were saying.” So I don’t know. It’s one of those things you don’t question, but I sure love him, you know. [Laughs]
EI: Going back to the film at hand... Have you ever fantasized about being a Robin Hood kind of figure, taking from the rich, giving to the poor?
JD: That’s what I’ve been doing for 25 years! [Laughs] It’s true: When I started out, I printed, I silk-screened t-shirts, I sold ink pens, I worked construction, I worked at a gas station, pumped gas, I was a mechanic for a little bit, I went down into sewer lines… I had a lot of somewhat unpleasant gigs for a time there. And ever since, I suppose since somewhere in 1986, I started to take from the rich... [Laughs]
EI: You said before that the era that Dillinger lived in was when men were still real men: What do you mean by that?
JD: That time –- the ’20s, ’30s, ’40s, all the way… Whether you’re talking about fashion or work and art, in any case, whatever guys did, whatever women… there was a very strong sense of who was who, what was what. I suppose the easiest way to say this is they were individuals back then, and today it seems like people are a lot less individual than they were. Most kids dress like the other kid. Today, you’ve got the odd one out - you’ve got Tom Waits, you had Hunter Thompson and you’ve got Bob Dylan... but today, they’re infinitely more few and far between.
EI: I’m quite surprised that you’ve now been living in France for so long and you haven’t done a movie yet there: Do you have any plan to do something, or to participate in something where you leave some kind of art or some paintings that people would recognize?
JD: As I was saying earlier, my dance card is a little bit thick at the moment, it’s a little full. But I do have plans one day to do more work in France. I did do a film that I refer to as the “Unpronounceable” by a guy named Yvan Attal, with Charlotte Gainsbourg, and I had a bit part in there, and that was great fun doing scenes in French. In terms of the community where we live, we do bits around the area and whatnot or whatever we can, whatever helps, but for the most part, I’ve been on location for so long now that I don’t know what timezone I’m in, truly: I could be in Puerto Rico at the moment... [Laughs]
EI: You seemed very comfortable in the era of John Dillinger. Do you think that, conversely, he would be all right in this day and age, or more of a duck out of water?
JD: I think he’d probably run screaming. [Laughs] I truly do. It’s so wide a world now, and think I’m shocked at things that I see. I’m shocked at things that are available on the Internet. I’m shocked at what technology is promising in the next couple of years. There’s great and then there’s unbelievably scary, the possibilities.
It’s like, somewhere in the back of your mind, you hear Albert Einstein saying, “I don’t know how World War III will be fought, but I know how World War IV will be fought - with sticks and stones.” So yeah, I’d think he’d run away.
EI: You played John Dillinger as a man with a sense of humor: Was it written in the script, or was he really a man with a sense of humor, or you added it?
JD: He definitely was a man with a sense of humor, and I just happened to be a sucker for humor, so anywhere I can sneak in something that I find potentially interesting or funny… It goes far with this little brownie automatic camera, hands it to a cop and says, “Would you take my girlfriend a nice photograph?” [Laughs] That’s a guy with a sense of humor! [Laughs] And also a guy who, at the same time, has some sort of great, wonderful outlook. Like I said, he knew the clock was ticking, he knew his time was up, he knew there wasn’t much more to go, and he was gonna make the best of it in any case... pretty amazing!
EI: Dillinger was like a sign of his time with the Great Depression, and we’re now in a deep recession again. Do you feel there is a time or a place for somebody like Dillinger again, like an outlaw that becomes sort of a heroic status? And, as a Hollywood star, do you feel the recession, and how, if so?
JD: Most definitely. It will definitely find its way into your world. Sure, I’ve been able to witness it on a lot of levels, but I’m very, very privileged. I feel very lucky.
EI: What about a place for somebody like Dillinger…?
JD: I don’t know if we make that same species of individual truly anymore…because I don’t believe he went out there to kill anyone. I think he just went out there to get what he felt was rightfully his. He wanted payback, and I think, today, we’ve gone so far technologically and also emotionally, psychologically…there’s a lot of crime out there and there’s a lot of stuff going on and people don’t care if they’re going to go to prison. They couldn’t give a rats about the repercussions.
They go out and they do what they do and they don’t care about hurting anyone out there, so it’s a very different time. There must be someone out there who wants to stand up and take a shot, but I don’t know if we, as a species, are the same as we were then.
EI: I would want to know if you could talk about working with the HD cameras, which is I think a new thing for you. And also Dark Shadows— what’s the status?
JD: Dark Shadows is happening. Tim is working on Alice in Wonderland, which is obviously quite a large piece of work there. So when Tim is done with Alice and we get the script - the script is very, very close - we get the script in order, we’ll probably attack it next year, which is very exciting, like a lifelong dream for me.
EI: I understand that you personally own the rights to Dark Shadows — you’ve been fascinated with it your whole life…?
JD: Oh I’ve always… I loved the show when I was a kid... I was obsessed with Barnabas Collins and I have photographs of me holding Barnabas Collins posters when I was five or six or something! I’m very excited to do it...
EI: And what about HD?
JD: I did a film with Robert Rodriguez a few years back called Once Upon a Time in Mexico, and that was all HD. That was my first experience with it, and the one thing I will say is that I suppose if you push it, there is the danger of a digital noise or something.
The quality is quite good - requires a lot less light, so there’s a lot to be said for it. There’s a lot of good, and also it’s a 52-minute tape so you can kind of just keep going. Nobody has to say “cut.” You can just invent until you fall asleep. [Laughs]
So all that’s good, but I still love that texture of cinema. I still love the layers of cinema, whether it’s 35mm or a 16mm or 8 - super 8, which I love. I love the grain, I love… If I had my druthers, I’d film everything in Kodachrome...
EI: Finally, I have to pass on a message, I promsed I would: Megan Fox says she wants to be your wife.
JD: Who said that?
EI: Megan Fox.
JD: Oh, really? [Laughs] Where is she? [Laughs] That’s very sweet.
Universal Pictures' 'Public Enemies' is in theaters nationwide from Friday July 1, 2009.