TORONTO — In discussing Johnny Depp’s portrayal of the infamous Boston gangster James “Whitey” Bulger, the actor’s “Black Mass” co-stars were unanimous in expressing awe at how the actor totally transformed himself into the vicious killer and mob boss. Bulger, long near the top of the FBI’s “Most Wanted” list (right under Osama bin Laden), remained on the lam for 16 years, until being apprehended in 2011 and ultimately convicted to life in prison for 19 murders and other crimes.
As we chatted Sunday during the Toronto International Film Festival about “Black Mass” (opening Friday), Depp’s co-star Joel Edgerton (who plays morally conflicted FBI agent John Connolly) said, “I’m fascinated by Johnny, and even more so after making this film with him. Once again he really declassified himself — as I would put it — to play Bulger. I’m so intrigued by how Johnny is constantly striving to put on a mask as he moves from role to role.
“Most actors, if they would have a great face like Johnny’s is in real life, would want to show off that face!
“But that’s not Johnny. I think it’s psychological to him, in a good way — the need to cover himself up. But here, in ‘Black Mass,’ I think it’s a beautiful performance that comes closer to what he did in ‘Donnie Brasco.’ Yet, he still is putting on a mask — and it’s a great mask.”
Peter Sarsgaard, who plays drug-addicted killer Brian Halloran in the film, thinks “Black Mass” would not have had the same impact with another star.
“Johnny is able to use his own fame, his own charisma and his own magnetism from the long career he’s had that’s made him someone special in the public eye. He used that to create this role. It just wouldn’t have been the same to have an actor that we don’t know to play Bulger. It might have been a good film, but it wouldn’t have been that special. Johnny has made this so very special.”
“Magnetism” was a word Julianne Nicholson used when describing Depp’s appeal as Whitey Bulger. She also used a similar word as she talked about working with the actor, as she portrayed Connolly’s unhappy wife.
“It was magic watching Johnny work,” said Nicholson. “He brought such an element of surprise to his performance and left you wondering about what he would do or say next — just like, I would assume, people in the world of Jimmy Bulger worried about what he would do or say next.”