“I think that an actor has some degree of responsibility with regard to their audience to change—to give them something different, to give them something new” – Johnny Depp
While Johnny Depp has been known for transforming himself throughout his career, in recent years most of those transformations involved playing a character under heavy white makeup and/or riffing on his performance as Captain Jack Sparrow. Because of that, Depp portraying real-life Boston gangster Whitey Bulger in the upcoming Black Mass is being welcomed as one of Depp’s more intricate performances in the past decade. In an interview with The Daily Beast, Depp spoke about becoming Bulger and why the convicted murderer wouldn’t meet with him and why he has been so dedicated to transforming himself in his roles.
Depp explains that it was essential that he looked like Bulger in the film, right down to eye color. He says, “It was very, very important to look as much like Jimmy Bulger as humanly possible. My eyeballs are black as the ace of spades, so clearly the blue contacts… they were hand-painted because they needed to be piercing, they needed to cut right through you.” As for portraying the crime boss’ personality, Depp says that while he did utilize “FBI surveillance” footage and “a couple of tapes,” most of it came from inside, adding, “It was really just shooting from the hip with Bulger.”
Depp reveals that he did try to meet with Bulger, who is currently serving two life sentences in a Florida prison, but the real-life subject passed. Depp says, “I asked to meet James Bulger through his attorney, Jay Carney, and—as expected—I knew this wouldn’t happen, Bulger respectfully declined because I don’t believe he was a great fan of the book Black Mass. I also don’t believe he was a great fan of any of the books written about him. But Jay Carney was very helpful to me in finding James Bulger. First and foremost, he said, ‘I ain’t gonna say nothin’ that Jimmy wouldn’t want me to say. I will say this, and I’ll say this, but I won’t say anything over here.’ But Jay came to the set a couple of times and watched, and he gave me a lot of confidence because he said he could feel his old friend in what I was doing, which was a very high compliment.
Immersing himself into roles has been important for Depp ever since he starred on TV’s 21 Jump Street. He reveals, “I was stuck in a TV series that was—you know, not to bite the hand that fed me, it put me on the map, so to speak—but it was very frustrating because you realize you end up saying more of someone else’s words in the span of a year than you get to say your own, especially when they’re badly-written words. My heroes were John Barrymore, Lon Chaney Sr., and certainly Marlon Brando, Timothy Carey, John Garfield, all of these guys who would transform. So I suppose it was just an obsession; I always wanted to try to be a character actor more than the ‘poster boy’ they tried to make me more than a hundred years ago. Aside from what it does for me, I think that an actor has some degree of responsibility with regard to their audience to change—to give them something different, to give them something new—each time.”