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AFI Fest: Johnny Depp Talks ‘Black Mass,’ Auditioning For The Coen Brothers, Working With Scott Cooper & More

AFI Fest: Johnny Depp Talks ‘Black Mass,’ Auditioning For The Coen Brothers, Working With Scott Cooper & More

Yesterday, AFI Film Festival attendees were treated to a conversation between Johnny Depp and director Scott Cooper moderated by Variety editor Jenelle Riley, and undoubtedly, the topic at hand was the recently released gangster flick “Black Mass.”

Cooper and Depp talked about how their working methods complemented each other and what it was that attracted both of them to this particular story. They went into the different reactions they got while filming “Black Mass” in Boston and, more specifically, how Whitey Bulger’s attorney felt the first time he saw Johnny Depp play his client. Depp also provided some interesting, funny tidbits about his career. He gave us his version of what happened behind the scenes when Disney first saw him, in costume, as Captain Jack Sparrow. He also talked about an awkward audition he once had with the Coen brothers and how that encounter might prevent him from appearing in one of their movies in the future.  You can read about all that and more by checking out some highlights of the conversation below.

READ MORE: Johnny Depp On The Oscars: “I Don’t Want To Win One Of Those Things Ever”

Why Johnny Depp Wanted To Work With Scott Cooper

Johnny Depp: “Crazy Heart” certainly was the inspiration to track him down. I wanted to do anything with him, it just sort of coincided with “Black Mass.” I would’ve shot a telephone book with Scott, but “Black Mass” was such a wonderful piece and such a wonderful character study and so it was very exciting.

I was really excited to meet Scott, but also really excited to Q&A him because I really thought “Crazy Heart” was so courageous, not only on Scott’s part, but on Jeff Bridges’ part. What Jeff allowed us to see in his acting and his behavior… it was somehow just so pure, so I think I asked Scott the first thousand questions. Then we started talking about other stuff.

The “Face Molesting” Scene in “Black Mass”

Scott Cooper: The stage direction didn’t say that Johnny was going to “face molest” her, it just said she [Julianne Nicholson’s character] was going to open the door and there stands James Whitey Bulger. Because John came to set well before everyone else, most of the actors didn’t really see Johnny Depp, they’d only see Whitey Bulger. So when she opened the door, of course she knew she was going to see Jimmy Bulger, but she didn’t realize it was going to have that unnerving effect. And in this particular scene I only shot in two different angles: her coverage and Johnny’s. We shot hers first because I believed it would allow her to experience it as Marianne would experience it and, as you see, a lot of it was from the first take because she was really unnerved. And after I called cut she had to take a few minutes to compose herself.

Johnny Depp: The fact that Scott didn’t cut before I said something like, “John’s a lucky man,” is [the action of] a trusting director and a brave director and he actually used it in the film. There are moments where you’re really cheering for an actor and I certainly cheered for [Nicholson]. 

Cooper: It’s really all about Jimmy Bulger’s psychological violence, just like downstairs when he’s having dinner, he’s enacting violence on the FBI officer about his secret recipe without resorting to any physical violence, it’s all psychological. We see he’s venal, cold, calculating, and also charismatic but clearly deadly and could kill you in two seconds. And he would.

Depp Being Present For Other Actors’ Coverage

Cooper: Johnny’s such a generous off-camera actor, a lot of actors will save what they’re going to do when they turn the camera around on them. And in this particular case, like Jeff Bridges or Robert Duvall, two actors I directed, they’re as good in their coverage as they are always trying to help the actor and it’s rare to have that and sometimes actors of Johnny’s stature won’t be there to do their coverage.

Depp: Who does that? [laughs]

Watching Scott Cooper Work On Set

Depp: He’d set these amazing scenarios, his decision to make a huge scene, like [the scene in] the bar where the Italian guys come in… [Cooper set up] just the one shot and then we went in and simply covered the last couple of lines with overs [over-the-shoulder]. And I thought it was one of the most courageous things I’d ever experienced because under normal circumstances people will feel like they need to shoot a master, over, over, single, single, this, that – he didn’t approach it that way at all and I kept thinking in my head, “Man, this is this guy’s third film.” And that seems impossible, he’s so great and in touch with the emotion of the piece. I was impressed.

Playing Real People vs. Original Characters

Depp: I knew that to pull this off, it’d have to be under the right circumstances. I knew that because of someone like myself, who carries a certain amount of baggage to a film. My goal is to at least attempt to make them forget that it’s me within the first 5-7 minutes. That’s really important to me. So I knew I needed to look as closely to Bulger as possible and I needed to be able to somehow tap into the guy. There’s very little footage of him, there’s surveillance footage of him from the FBI which is wonderful because you see his physical demeanor and the way he stands. You see this ego, the physical side of his ego and this hubris he carried around with him. At the same time, you hear very little of his voice whenever it’s available. So in coming up with this equation, there’s so many approaches, but you can’t approach him as a bad man or a criminal, you have to approach him as a human being who absolutely was as loyal as he could be to his people. Or his mother. He loved his community, his business just happened to be what it was, and it entailed a lot of violence. So to be able to put all those things together and be able to step out of the trailer on the first day of shooting… one of the most satisfying things was walking out the trailer completely done up as Bulger, walking from the trailer to the set. In Southie, there was a number of people who knew or associated with that man. So I’m walking out the trailer and people were looking at me and checking me out and there were people who had these grim faces and I thought, “This is fantastic.” I just worried about getting shot. [laughs]

Cooper: One day I saw this bearded fellow come on the set that I hadn’t seen before and I was told it was Whitey Bulger’s attorney. The producers allowed him to watch a couple scenes and [at one point], just as I was about to call cut, I looked over and he was shaking his head. So I introduced myself to him and I said, “Did we just not get it right?” He said, “No, Scott, I’ve known this man for 30 years. To see Johnny capture him the way he has, the way he looks, talks, his eyes, it’s as if the spectre of this man came back in this room.”

Depp: It’s a completely different process, whether you’re playing Bulger, or George Jung in “Blow,” or Joe Pistone in “Donnie Brasco.” There’s a boatload more responsibility that comes along with it, it’s very important no matter who the person is, no matter what they’ve done. It’s my responsibility to move in that person/character with the utmost degree of truth. When playing a character like Captain Jack Sparrow or Willy Wonka or… I don’t know, I forget a lot of them… but playing those people requires nothing but a degree of responsibility to the author and to the intent of the story. [It’s about] responsibility to the filmmaker to deliver the goods, but more than anything, it’s about pure imagination.

Disney’s Initial Reaction To Captain Jack Sparrow

Depp: Yeah, they wanted to fire me. I remember hearing about Michael Eisner. It trickled back to me that Michael Eisner went on some sort of bent about how “Goddamnit Johnny Depp’s ruining the film! Is it drunk? Is it gay?” And so I fully expected to be fired, and I got a call from the upper echelon at Disney who were courageous enough to ask me, “What the fuck are you doing?” And again, the questions came up, “Is it drunk? Is it gay?” All I could say was, cause they set me up with a great line, I said, “Well don’t you know all my characters are gay?” [laughs] I really expected to be fired, but I wasn’t for some reason. They were actually gonna put subtitles under my character, they couldn’t understand Captain Jack.

The Ensemble In “Black Mass”

Cooper: When you cast Johnny as the lead, you do get a lot of leeway to really cast great actors. And, I was with my wife and we were watching Paul Anderson’s “The Master” and I said “Wow Phil Hoffman and Joaquin are doing really great work, but who is that kid paying Phil Hoffman’s son?” And then I go home and look him up: Jesse Plemons. I had never seen “Friday Night Lights,” I had never seen “Breaking Bad.” So I told Francine [Maisler, casting director], I want to bring this kid in, I want to meet him about playing this part. Peter Sarsgaard, his wife Maggie [Gyllenhaal] was in “Crazy Heart,” I always wanted to work with Peter. Kevin Bacon... immediately we see him on screen and we have a relationship with him, you know you can trust him as an FBI head. And then there’s someone like Joel Edgerton, who lives in Australia, but he’s been working for 15 or so years in this industry, and really always doing great, specific, really detailed work. When you have someone like Johnny, you’re able to cast Joel, who’s representative of the everyman, and who just so happens to be an incredible actor. I had never seen Dakota Johnson’s work, Francine recommended her. I typically don’t like to audition actors because, as a former actor, I know it’s the least creative endeavor. You typically see the casting director with terrible lighting, they don’t even listen to you. it’s really a terrible way to cast your film, so I typically spend time with actors and I spent time with Dakota. And I said, “Wow, she’s such an old soul that I know she can elicit a very tender side of Jimmy Bulger.”  And then you have actors like Rory Cochrane who’ve been around forever, and they just lend such authenticity to the world.


Depp: I was always horrible. I was absolutely horrible at auditioning because, I don’t know, I was a young idiot. I recognize this process, this auditioning process, really had far less to do with performance and far less to do with connecting — two people connecting — so in my mind I thought, to put it in a very nice way, this is horseshit. It’s an uncomfortable place to be where you feel like you must be on. So I was never good at it and I’ve had some rank auditions where I embarrassed myself to new heights, which is hard for me to do. I was never good at auditioning and I know there are a number of other actors over the years coming up the ranks who are horrific at auditions.

READ MORE: 5 Ways Johnny Depp Can Get His Career Back On Track Post-‘Mortdecai’

When I auditioned for “21 Jump Street,” it was a last minute thing. I had one of the worst flus that I ever experienced in my life. I was forced to go to the audition, to the screen test. So I did the screen test, this was right after “Platoon,” and I didn’t wanna do a television series but I was broke and I was sick as a dog. So I was talked into it, signed some piece of paper, did the screen test, and the next day I was on a plane to Vancouver. So, I guess that was my best audition. [laughs]

Last Time Depp Auditioned

Depp: It was mortifying, but it was one of those things… this was years ago, I was a big fan of the Coen Brothers and I was asked to go and audition for something or another, so I went in and auditioned and I can only imagine the choices I must’ve made, but what I do remember very very well was how loud the silence was after I finished and whatever I had done. Between the three of us, I was sort of like, “How do I get out of this fucking room?” And they’re thinking, “How do we get him out of this fucking room?” So it was one of those things where they were like “…alright…so…yeah…cool…ok…good…yeah, alright…” And I just went, “Well, good then…. thanks.”

Moderator: They’ll be back, you guys gotta work together, I think that’d be a great collaboration.

Depp: Not if they have any memory of that audition. [laughs]

Does Johnny Depp Stay In Character Even When The Cameras Aren’t Rolling?

Depp: No. I mean, everybody has their own process and however pure that process is to you, fine. I salute it. I don’t find that if I’m going to the craft service table and I’m playing Henry VIII that Doritos don’t exist. [laughs] There’s so many great books and Stanislavski’s stuff stands up and Strasburg’s stuff stands up. There are many wonderful books out there to read and I find they’re like religion, which is not my forte. But, for me, once you’ve arrived at that spot where you can stand solid in the foundation of the character you created, you can do anything within the context of that film and that character. There’s no reason to wipe it off upon anyone else and so I put as much into it as I can as we all do and that’s pretty much it. But I don’t see any sense in inflicting it upon my children.

What Would Bulger Make Of This Movie?

Cooper: Well, Jimmy Bulger believes the book that “Black Mass” is based on is an absolute work of fiction. The truth was very elusive, when I came onto the project I did tons of research. I worked very closely with the FBI in Boston, the man who arrested Bulger in Los Angeles, I worked with the prosecutor—all these men had different stories… So it was tough to really find the truth and in the end, we’re not making a documentary, we’re making a narrative feature. And I don’t think people come to narrative features for facts, they come for emotional truth and heart and emotion. We certainly supplied that. I would assume at some point someone will telephone it to Jim Bulger in his cell and he’ll see it. But his attorney had seen it, the same one who I saw on the set. We took the film to Boston for our premiere and he was there and he said to me that he really appreciated the film. And as did the people who lived in the city of Boston who lived this because those emotional wounds have yet to heal for many people. And Deborah Hussey, Juno Temple’s character, her brother was at the screening and he introduced himself. And I was like, “Sorry… we were making a film, I hope that this is ok, I hope you can walk away with some peace.” And he said, “Yeah, it’s great, this is exactly the world we lived in.”

Listen to the full conversation below.

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