Johnny Depp on target as 1930s gangster John H. Dillinger in ‘Public Enemies’
Johnny Depp has fond memories of his first machine gun.
As a kid growing up in Owensboro, Ky., around age 5 or 6, he began shooting .22s, then moved to .38s, .44s and .45s.
Then he got his hands on a relative’s Thompson submachine gun.
“I butted it up against the tree ’cause it tends to ride up on you,” says Depp, 46, who relives the moment, complete with shooting sounds. “My pop came in and grabbed it, so it didn’t go anywhere.”
Guns are a topic of conversation for Depp, given that the superstar is talking about his new film, “Public Enemies,” the Michael Mann gangster epic in which he plays infamous 1930s bank robber John H. Dillinger.
Perhaps the most eccentric of all the major male movie stars, Depp, ironically enough, is practically the only one who didn’t ascend to superstardom with shoot-’em-up roles.
He has appeared in almost 50 movies, but for much of his career – the “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape” portion – he seemed a bohemian artist, wary of the stardom that could be his given his on-screen charisma.
Depp hasn’t played many ordinary citizens. He seems to prefer portraying an eye-lined pirate (“The Pirates of the Caribbean” trilogy), a creepy candy impresario (“Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”), the dreamy creator of Peter Pan (“Finding Neverland”), and the Mad Hatter from the upcoming Tim Burton version of “Alice in Wonderland.”
The vivid looks of his characters sprout from Depp’s own imagination.
“You get these strong images in your head and you can’t shake them,” he explains.
When preparing for a role, he sketches the character, or paints him in watercolor, allowing his brain to bounce along its own idiosyncratic path. Capt. Jack Sparrow’s coal-rimmed eyes weren’t inspired by glam-rock but by Berber nomads who lined their orbs to protect them from the sun.
“I always do (sketches),” says Depp. “Don’t know why. Just to kind of get an eyeball on the guy first.”
Dillinger fits perfectly into his personal canon of larger-than-life rebels and outsiders. He also holds sentimental appeal for Depp, whose Kentucky hometown is but three hours from the gangster’s birthplace in Mooresville, Ind.
Dillinger was just a punk when he was sentenced to nine years in the penitentiary for his part in a drunken mugging. He emerged as a hardened criminal, led a gang on a dozen bank robberies (hauling away $300,000 – about $4.8 million today), escaped from prison a couple of times, had a shootout with the FBI, and finally went down in a hail of bullets outside a Chicago movie theater.
While researching his role, Depp searched for a voice recording of the outlaw but couldn’t find one, although a recording of Dillinger’s father turned out to be revelatory.
“Hearing Dillinger’s pop … these are guys I know. I knew him then,” says Depp.
“I wanted to salute my grandfather through Dillinger and salute Dillinger through my grandfather. You know, my grandfather drove a bus by day back in the ’30s and ran moonshine by night.”
Depp says he felt a connection to Dillinger in old films he watched for hours on his family’s black-and-white TV.
That was in Florida, where his parents ultimately moved and split up. Young Depp was enthralled with Dillinger as well as Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton.
“I guess the era got me, the ’30s, ’40s and even the ’20s,” he says. “I was fascinated with the old Bogey movies, with Cagney movies, or even Fred Astaire.”
Undeniably, Dillinger the myth remains bigger than Dillinger the man, even though “Public Enemies” is based on Bryan Burrough’s nonfiction book about the gangster.
“The title of the film is ‘Public Enemies,’ but I don’t see John Dillinger as an enemy of the public,” says Depp.
He points out that Dillinger’s prime antagonist, J. Edgar Hoover, wreaked more havoc and misery during his 40-year tenure atop the FBI than Dillinger did during his 18-month crime spree.
“I mean, who’s the real criminal?” Depp asks.
The movie is “bloody and brutal,” but it takes place during the height of the Depression, during a wave of foreclosures and bank failures, he adds: “People at certain points just had to take up arms, did they not?”
Still, even in these troubled economic times, it’s hard to imagine the public romanticizing a similar outlaw figure. For Depp, the real difference is the corrosive media attention.
“Today, if there was a Robin Hood-type guy out there … we are in an age where we sell our privacy to television.
“Everyone out there has a camera, and a cell phone, and a BlackBerry, and in less then 10 seconds it’s on the Internet. So he would have been sold out just like that today,” says Depp, snapping his fingers.
Like most actors, he has issues with the media; reports of friction between Mann, known for his attention to detail, and Depp have been well publicized over the past months.
“He’s intense, and as long as you sort of walk into the ring ready for that, it’s all fine,” Depp explains, noting that Mann “is painting the picture, and that’s the one thing that takes a bit of getting used to.
“I’m definitely not good at just being a color on the palette, you know. I need a brush in my hand sometimes.”
In a separate interview, Mann says, “I will tell you there were scenes and moments it was complete and total rapport, and other times I’m seeing it one way and we’re butting heads a little bit.”
However, he adds, “Johnny said to me the other night, ‘When things are wonderful and blissful on set, it’s usually not a good movie.’ I want actors to have an interpretation.”
Depp hasn’t seen “Public Enemies.” In fact, he hasn’t seen the last two “Pirate” films, “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” or “Sweeney Todd.”
“I try not to,” he says. “Once you see it, maybe you have to admit it is product or something.
“Having done it, lived it … I like the idea of just walking away with the experience.”