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Public Enemies – Johnny Depp

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Johnny Depp © Universal Studios

Johnny Depp has played a plethora of diverse characters in his stunning career. Now he takes on the role of real life gangster, John Dillinger, who during the Depression in the 1930s became a mythic figure who robbed banks that had impoverished the public, and outsmarted the authorities who had failed to remedy their hard times. His well-choreographed bank robberies made him the number one target of J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup) and the FBI’s top agent, Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale). Depp admits that he’s had a life long interest in Dillinger.


Can you talk about your attraction to John Dillinger?

Johnny Depp © Universal Studios
Johnny Depp © Universal Studios

Funny enough, when I was a little kid, there was a long period where I was fascinated with John Dillinger. No particular explanation why, he struck my fancy somehow. But looking back on that initial interest in Dillinger, and the fact that it’s carried through for the majority of my life, [I realized] it was his character. It was who he was as a man back at the time when men were really men. He was, for good or ill, exactly who he was, without any compromise whatsoever.

What kind of research did you do for this role?

Johnny Depp © Universal Studios
Johnny Depp © Universal Studios

I read many books on him, but aside from all the research, more of it had to do with an instinct and understanding of the man.  I related to John Dillinger like he was a relative. I felt he was of the same blood. He reminded me of my stepdad and very much of my grandfather. He seemed to be one of those guys with absolutely no bull whatsoever, who lived at the time when a man was a man. I think Dillinger had some idea of what he was doing. I believe he had found himself and was at peace with the fact that it wasn’t going to be a very long ride but it was going to be a significant ride.

How did he turn to crime in the first place?

Johnny Depp © Universal Studios
Johnny Depp © Universal Studios

Dillinger was born out of one act which was a combination of youth, ignorance and drunkenness. At one point I know that all three of those things met, and it was when he robbed a local grocer, he bagged a guy with a sack full of rocks or something, and the cops picked up on him and when he got busted, the judge had absolutely no time for him whatsoever and he was sentenced very harshly.

He was sent to prison for 10 years, he was about 18 or 19 at that time, he was a kid, and 10 years in the joint at that time was like going in when the world was black and white and coming out when it was vivid, ladies were wearing shorter dresses, revealing clothing, tight sweaters, it was like, ‘What?’ And also  going to prison at that time it was a school for him, he went in and learned how to become a bank robber.

Why was he so popular with the public?

Dillinger was extremely savvy for a guy who had basically come up from nowhere, knew that his love for the people and the people’s love for him would work in his favor, so on some level there was a Robin Hood in John Dillinger, and he used that, he was not dumb, he was very smart to use that. He didn’t see himself as a criminal in a bad way, he went out there and was a rock and roll star. He spoke to them and owned them while he was speaking to them. He was very, very charismatic, very powerful in that way.

Was FBI Agent Melvin Purvis a good match for him?

I’m sure Christian [Bale] would have a different point-of-view on this than I do, but I don’t think they were evenly matched. I think Dillinger, his instinct and his ability far surpass that of Purvis, but especially at the time, I think Purvis was given virtually an impossible task, and he obviously had done very well, but I think the only reason that they got Dillinger was because somebody ratted him out, and that’s it. Other than that they’d still be debating where he ended up to this day, I’m sure of it.