VENICE — In preparing to play James “Whitey” Bulger, actor Johnny Depp says he tried not to view the notorious South Boston crime boss as inherently sinister.
“No one shaves, brushes their teeth, looks in the mirror, and says, ‘I’m evil,’ ” Depp told the media at a packed press conference following Friday’s premiere of “Black Mass” at the Venice Film Festival.
The actor, who was in an uncharacteristically jovial mood during his session with reporters, also revealed that he attempted to meet with Bulger before filming began, but the 86-year-old gangster, now serving two life sentences behind bars, “respectfully declined.”
One of the most anticipated films of the festival, “Black Mass” drew an enormous crowd to the Palazzo del Cinema Friday morning. Early reviews of director Scott Cooper’s tale of brutality and betrayal were positive, and many emerging from the 1,000-seat theater overlooking the Adriatic Sea praised Depp’s performance, predicting it could earn the actor an Oscar nomination.
“After too many Caribbean vacations, Johnny Depp finally gets back down to some serious business,” wrote The Hollywood Reporter. The Guardian called “Black Mass” a “mighty comeback” for the 52-year-old actor, and the Associated Press surmised “it may turn out to be Johnny Depp’s year.” While A.O. Scott of The New York Times described the film as “solid but standard” outside the theater after the press screening, Variety hailed Depp’s “mesmerizing performance” in a “sober, sprawling, deeply engrossing evocation of Bulger’s South Boston fiefdom,” labeling the film “one of the fall’s first serious, awards-caliber attractions.”
Based on the book of the same name by former Boston Globe reporters Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill, “Black Mass,” which opens in theaters Sept. 18, is the story of Bulger’s relationship with John Connolly, the egregiously corrupt FBI agent who cultivated his boyhood buddy as an informant and then looked the other way as crook became kingpin.
The Bulger story was obliquely told by Martin Scorsese in the director’s 2006 Oscar-winning film, “The Departed.” But the blood spilled in “Black Mass” — and there’s a lot of it — is no Hollywood fantasy. Bulger and his henchmen, notably Kevin Weeks, Stephen “The Rifleman” Flemmi, and John Martorano, were responsible for multiple murders and untold mayhem while under the not-so-watchful eye of the FBI.
Wearing the V-neck T-shirt, tight slacks, and leather jacket favored by Bulger, Depp resembles the mobster and possesses a monstrous glare. If the role earns him an Academy Award nomination, it will end a precipitous box-office slide that includes such forgettable films as “Mortdecai,” “Transcendence,” and “The Lone Ranger.”
Asked Friday about his appearance in the film, Depp said he wore blue, hand-painted contact lenses.
“We needed them to be piercing,” he said. “We needed them to cut right through you.”
Depp, whom Cooper called “a national treasure” during Friday’s press conference, said Bulger’s attorney, Jay Carney, visited the set twice during filming in Boston and told the actor he had captured the essence of his client.
“[Carney] said he could feel his old friend in what I was doing,” Depp said. “That was a high compliment.”
Because there’s scant audio or video of Bulger, the actor confessed he was “really just shooting from the hip” in trying to play the mobster on screen. He called Bulger a “very complicated man” and said the challenge was to present him as a human, not a ghoul.
“I’ve always wanted to be a character actor rather than the poster boy they tried to make me into 100 years ago,” he said.
“Black Mass” also features Australian actor Joel Edgerton as Connolly, Benedict Cumberbatch as the crime boss’s courtly brother Billy Bulger, Dakota Johnson as Bulger’s former girlfriend Lindsey Cyr, Jesse Plemons as dunderhead accomplice Weeks, and, in one of the movie’s best performances, Peter Sarsgaard as Brian Halloran, the hapless FBI informant who was gunned down by Bulger in broad daylight.
Notably absent from the film is any mention of Bulger’s longtime girlfriend Catherine Greig, who was due to be played by British actress Sienna Miller. In an interview with the Globe earlier this week, Cooper, the director, said Miller’s scenes were cut due to “narrative choices.”
At Friday’s press conference, Edgerton said he expects some people, especially those who are familiar with the Bulger story, will take issue with aspects of the movie.
“When you go to South Boston and declare you’re telling the story of James Bulger, everybody has a point of view,” he said. “To say you’re telling the true story, that’s naive and presumptuous.”
Watch part of the Venice press conference:
Mark Shanahan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.