Movie press conferences in Japan are often pretty inane affairs, with vague questions about on-set “happenings” and zany ones along the lines of, “If you had superpowers like your character, what would you use them for?” Uh, world peace maybe?
These events aren’t always good at soliciting intelligent answers from Hollywood’s finest, but they are quite effective in another regard: The turnout at a press conference is the surest indicator of who’s hot and who’s not. Judging from the crush at his appearance before the media for “Public Enemies” at Roppongi Hills last week, no one is hotter than Johnny Depp.
True, no one swooned or squealed; the promoters have gotten better at keeping the groupies out. But all eyes were glued to the 46-year-old actor, who gives a hardboiled performance in the film as real-life 1930s bank robber John Dillinger, a desperado who became The United States’ most-wanted criminal before being shot to death by FBI agents outside Chicago’s Biograph Theater in 1934.
Depp was looking very much out of character in his chin-length hair and horn-rimmed glasses, with only his hipster beige fedora suggesting a sartorial connection with Dillinger. Fielding questions about the film in his usual deliberative drawl, Depp slouched nonchalantly and barely moved on stage, either supercool or supertense.
Right off the mark, the media went digging for dirt. Gee, the movie’s so dramatic, said one reporter before asking, Could you tell us about any dramas you’ve experienced lately? Depp parried the pry, replying, “Just turning on the television is about as dramatic as can be, seeing some of the horrors that occur across the world.” Point, Depp.
And yet they persist; since Johnny plays a public enemy in the film, perhaps he also has some enemies in real life? “No, I don’t think I have any enemies. I mean, the scariest enemy is within, allowing yourself to be limited, to conform to what you’re expected to conform to.”
That was Depp on Depp. Now listen to Depp on Dillinger: “(He) was such a charismatic figure, and at the same time he was this very solid man who basically did what he wanted, how he wanted, without any thought of the idea of compromise.”
They say actors tend to identify with the roles they play, and that sure seems to be true here. Depp spoke of a childhood “obsession” with the gangster, how he was raised in Kentucky not far from Dillinger’s hometown in southern Indiana, and how his own granddad was outside the law, running moonshine in the Prohibition era.
Views of the real Dillinger range from coldblooded killer to modern-day Robin Hood, but Depp clearly prefers the latter, saying, “Dillinger went in a particular direction, because of a mistake that he made, and I recognize in myself that I could have gone in that same direction.”
Depp went on: “He was put into prison at a very young age, given a very severe sentence for a relatively minor crime (that Dillinger foolishly pleaded guilty to), and he became a criminal in prison; 10 years in criminal school. And because of the situation of the times, coming out of prison during the Great Depression with nothing to do.
“The real enemies at the time were banks and government, closing on farmers’ mortgages, and basically taking whatever anyone had. So being the fair guy that he was, he decided, ‘Well, I’ll just go and get what’s mine.’ So I kind of admired him for that. He (also) went out of his way not to hurt anyone. I thought, as an actor, to pay tribute to this man, who got kind of a bum rap.”
Director Michael Mann (“Heat,” “Miami Vice”) made a point of shooting the film on many of the same locations — prisons, banks, motels — where the actual events took place. Depp found this useful, walking the same steps as his character, even using the same toiletries, and noted how the “Biograph Theater (scene) was almost scientifically researched, so we knew the exact amount of steps he’d taken, and exactly where his head went down on that night.”
Realism is hard work, though, and the shootout at the Little Bohemia Lodge in Wisconsin, where FBI agents almost nabbed Dillinger’s gang, was a tough scene to shoot, said Depp. “We fired maybe 7,000 rounds of ammunition, so you were constantly getting hit with pieces of wood and plaster. It was pretty hairy.”
On working with Mann, a stylistic obsessive, Depp commented: “He’s very passionate about what he does, and has very strong opinions about what he wants to get out of a scene. So he’s definitely not afraid to do a bunch of takes and push an actor to go a little further. I admire his chutzpah.”
Perhaps most surprising was when Depp was asked what his favorite scene in the movie is, and he replied, “That’s a tough one, because I haven’t seen the film yet,” adding dryly, “but I hear great things about it.”