Johnny Depp Talks Transforming into Whitey Bulger in ‘Black Mass’ (and His Dogs)

The Oscar-nominated actor opens up about his performance as murderous Boston gangster Whitey Bulger in the award-bait biopic, which debuted at the Venice Film Festival.

“This is non-alcoholic, so I’m being responsible,” announced Depp, cradling a Beck’s beer. “And if I slur, it’s your fault.”

The occasion was the Venice Film Festival press conference for his gangster drama Black Mass, which had just premiered on the Lido. And perhaps it was the beer talking, but Depp did manage to address his recent controversy in Australia, wherein Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce lost his mind and threatened to imprison Depp if he ever returns after it was found that the actor had smuggled his two Yorkshire terriers into the country via private jet, thus violating Aussie quarantine regulations.

“I killed my dogs and ate them under direct orders from some kinda, I dunno, sweaty, big-gutted man from Australia,” joked Depp.

In director Scott Cooper’s Black Mass, Depp portrays vicious South Boston crime lord James “Whitey” Bulger, the leader of the Winter Hill Gang who, while serving as a top-level informant for the FBI, rose to become the most notorious criminal in Beantown (with the exception of Aaron Boone). The film spans the years 1975-1995, tracing Bulger’s rise up the criminal ranks—all while being shielded by childhood friend turned FBI special agent John Connolly, played by Joel Edgerton.

And Depp is aces in the role, oozing menace from his icy blue eyes and ragged, world-weary visage—shiny bald head, rotting teeth, and graying hair included.“It was very, very important to look as much like Jimmy Bulger as humanly possible,” said Depp. “My eyeballs are black as the ace of spades, so clearly the blue contacts… they were hand-painted because they needed to be piercing, they needed to cut right through you.”When asked about his desire to “transform” into his characters for each role, Depp went into a long spiel about how the monotony of being trapped on the TV series 21 Jump Street made him want to be a “character actor” and not the “poster boy.”

“I was stuck in a TV series that was—you know, not to bite the hand that fed me, it put me on the map, so to speak—but it was very frustrating because you realize you end up saying more of someone else’s words in the span of a year than you get to say your own, especially when they’re badly written words,” Depp said. “My heroes were John Barrymore, Lon Chaney Sr., and certainly Marlon Brando, Timothy Carey, John Garfield—all of these guys who would transform. So I suppose it was just an obsession; I always wanted to try to be a character actor more than the ‘poster boy’ they tried to make me more than a hundred years ago. Aside from what it does for me, I think that an actor has some degree of responsibility with regard to their audience to change—to give them something different, to give them something new—each time.”To prepare for the role of Bulger, Depp said he looked at “FBI surveillance” footage and listened to “a couple of tapes” where you can hear him speak, but for the most part, “It was really just shooting from the hip with Bulger.”

Depp went on to describe how important he felt it was to be “true to the different sides of [Bulger],” who’s portrayed both as a cold-hearted killer and a loving family man in the film.

“Nobody, no matter how evil we would consider them or that sorta thing, they never look at themselves as evil; they’re on a quest, and they feel what they’re doing is righteous, from the worst to the clumsy,” said Depp. “There’s something poetic about what he was able to do in his work, and at the same time, be of that very proud Irish immigrant stock who was loyal to his neighborhood, who was a great caregiver to his mother, who was very, very close with his brother, who was a very upper-echelon politician.”

The 52-year-old actor said he’d requested to meet with Bulger in prison through Bulger’s longtime attorney, but that the gangster shot him down, so to speak.

“I asked to meet James Bulger through his attorney, Jay Carney, and—as expected—I knew this wouldn’t happen, Bulger respectfully declined because I don’t believe he was a great fan of the book Black Mass,” said Depp. “I also don’t believe he was a great fan of any of the books written about him. But Jay Carney was very helpful to me in finding James Bulger. First and foremost, he said, ‘I ain’t gonna say nothin’ that Jimmy wouldn’t want me to say. I will say this, and I’ll say this, but I won’t say anything over here.’ But Jay came to the set a couple of times and watched, and he gave me a lot of confidence because he said he could feel his old friend in what I was doing, which was a very high compliment.”