Twenty-five years after he made his screen debut as one of Freddie Kruger
Depp plays legendary Depression-era bank robber John Dillinger – a charismatic bank robber whose lightning raids made him the number one target of J. Edgar Hoover’s fledgling FBI and its top agent, Melvin Purvis (Bale).
Just like in Sweeney Todd, Depp somehow manages to bring out the good while still playing a baddie with him likening Dillinger to Robin Hood.
The gangster did indeed become a folk hero for a downtrodden public which, in a situation not unlike the present economic climate, had come to despise the banks Dillinger was plundering.
The film follows a thrilling cat-and-mouse chase between Dillinger and Purvis which has become part of American folklore.
Here Depp talks about marking 25 years in Hollywood with another performance as sharp as Freddie’s razor fingers back on Elm Street.
Q: What made you want to play a notorious criminal like Dillinger?
JD: He is a character who has always fascinated me. John Dillinger was one of those guys, like Charlie Chaplin and Evel Knievel, that I was fascinated with at a young age.
Q: Do you see him as just a villain?
JD: Not at all. Some people might disagree, but I think he was a real-life Robin Hood. I mean, the guy wasn’t completely altruistic but he went out of his way not to kill anybody. He definitely gave a lot of that money away. I love the guy.
Q Was it easy to connect to a character like that?
JD: My grandfather bootlegged moonshine during the Depression so because of him, the character of Dillinger was pretty easy for me to connect to. In a way, this movie was a salute to my grandfather.
Q: As a role model for so many young adults, do you ever worry about playing villains?
JD: You know, I’ve never ever thought of myself as a role model, not in any of my movies. And definitely not in movies like this, God forbid! ‘Johnny Depp, the role model’, hmmmmm that’s weird! Well, maybe one or two of my characters have been role models, and perhaps have inspired some people – maybe kids. I love it when I see youngsters dressing up as Jack Sparrow, but that’s not vanity, it’s because I think somehow that we’ve fired their imaginations – and imagination is such a vital thing for them.
Q: What kind of research did you do to get into Dillinger’s character?
JD: I don’t know how he did it but Michael got his hands on a case of Dillinger’s belongings. It was incredible – all of the dress shirts were still folded perfectly. It was a real insight into the guy. Everything was ready to go at a moment’s notice. It was just economical and beautiful. Oh, and get this – everything fitted! We’re the same size!
Q: How did this movie come about for you?
JD: It came about at the time of the writers’ strike. A wave of fear gripped the industry. And out of nowhere this script arrived with a note saying, ‘Michael Mann would like to talk to you about playing Dillinger.’
Q: What was your reaction to hearing that?
JD: Well, I was certainly intrigued. I was intrigued by both Dillinger and Michael Mann. It’s always interesting to get in the ring with a director and explore their process and see what does it for him.
Q: So what was working with Michael like?
JD: Details, details, lots of details (Laughs). They should invent a word to describe it, because it’s not just details, it teeters on microscopic obsession with every molecule of the moment. Which is admirable, you know? You got to salute that.
Q: So what details of this character did you try to latch onto?
JD: The interesting thing is, John Dillinger really became a criminal almost by accident. The two main ingredients for his initial incarceration were ignorance and youth. There are moments in life when those two walk hand in hand in a very tight grip. When he went inside, the world was one thing, and when he came out, it was Technicolor. Women dressed differently. It was a different planet. Prison at that time was college for criminals. He went in and basically learned how to rob banks. By all accounts, he wasn’t the best student initially, but he got the hang of it.
Q: You also have Dr Parnassus coming up which is of course Heath Ledger’s last movie. I heard you gave your fee for the film to his daughter, Matilda.
JD: The unfortunate passing of Heath was something of an utter devastation to his family and friends. He was in the middle of that film with Terry Gilliam. Gilliam was kind of stuck so we got together – the three actors – Colin Farrell, Jude Law and myself. We went in and basically finished off the role for Heath. Basically we all said, ‘It’s Heath’s money and it should go to Matilda.’
Q: What do your own kids think of you being a big movie star and do they watch you on screen?
JD: My own kids? Well, I haven’t let them see any of the Pirates – yet. And it will be a long time before they are allowed to see some of my other work so they don’t really make a big deal of it. But I do try out voices when I’m playing with my daughter and her Barbie doll – and she looks at me as if her daddy is a bit crazed. The only one that she approved of was when I was making Willy Wonka – and she said ‘Who’s that, Papa?’ I knew that I’d scored there! I’d convinced her that I was someone else! But there are previous films of mine that I would definitely not want my kids to watch – well, not for some considerable time, at any rate!
Q: It’s 25-years since you made your film debut in A Nightmare on Elm Street. Does it seem that long?
JD: No. And I never knew, or even dared to dream, that I would ever get this far and stay around for so long. In point of fact, I always wonder when I’m going to be rumbled, and sent packing. It could happen tomorrow, I know that, so I’m just deeply, deeply grateful for the jobs that I get, and the fact that I’m still working in this business. Who knows, I might still end up playing guitar in some bar someplace. Or pumping gas? I honestly believe that it is a miracle that I still get jobs.
Q: Do you have any ambitions left?
JD: I’d like to grow into being a traditional old man, with a beer belly, and sitting on the veranda of our place in France, just staring out over the lawns…