The Envelope: ‘Black Mass’ stars Johnny Depp and Joel Edgerton chose ‘white-knuckling’ over rehearsing

There is method (but no Method -- or rehearsal) in the madness of "Black Mass" actor Johnny Depp, left, director Scott Cooper and actor Joel Edgerton.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Over an ocean of caffeine, Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton and Scott Cooper — the stars and the writer-director, respectively, of the somber crime-drama “Black Mass” — gathered for a colorful conversation that began with the discovery of a mutual love of hardcore punk bands Agent Orange and the Dead Kennedys and ended with assorted tales of Bob Dylan sightings. (Cooper saw him one year on Halloween while taking his girls trick-or-treating. Depp recalled standing backstage at a concert years ago, holding his then-3-week-old daughter, Lily.)

In between, there was colorful talk of Donald Trump and Ben Carson, Strasberg and Stanislavsky, Henry VIII, turkey legs and, yes, “Black Mass,” which tells the true-life tale of Boston crime boss James “Whitey” Bulger (Depp) and his mutually beneficial alliance with FBI agent John Connolly (Edgerton).

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Joel says that “audiences like to watch people do bad things to people in movies.” Can you each name a personal favorite?

Edgerton: The givens are “Godfather I and II.” But let’s be more daring and creative. I’ve always wanted someone to make a really good version of the [1971 novel] “The Dice Man” because that’s the ultimate person just doing random, terrible things.... And my Australian favorite that I was involved in, “Animal Kingdom,” was a great window into the criminal world as well.


Depp: Very strong film. Mine, I’d have to say “Bad Boy Bubby.” Did you ever see that? [Edgerton doubles over, laughing.] It was banned in the United States, and I just happened to get a copy. “Bad Boy Bubby.” It’s one of the most disturbing films you’ll ever experience …

Edgerton: Guy trapped in a basement brought up by his mother …

Depp: … he’s never been outside. His mother tells him that there’s poison in the air. She wears a gas mask every time she goes outside. She finally dies and he does some real weird [stuff].

Edgerton: It’s kind of like Australia’s 20-year-old version of “Room.”

Depp: The other one, because they were such lovable characters and not remotely interested in the law, is “Withnail & I.” It’s right there in my Top 3 films.

Cooper: I can’t top “Bad Boy Bubby.” But I do like Jonathan Glazer’s “Sexy Beast.”

Edgerton: Ben Kingsley’s character in that … there’s a man that won’t back down. There’s something really graceful about a person like a criminal. I remember people saying my character in “The Great Gatsby” was really horrible and I’d go, “At least he knows what he is. He’s the most honest person in that bunch. He’s not pretending to be anything he’s not and that’s beautiful.”

That seems to be the appeal of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.

Edgerton: Exactly. He’s not predicting his audience and what they want to hear. He’s just saying what he thinks.

Depp: He says weird [stuff]. Who’s that other guy? Ben Carson? He thinks weird [stuff]. A neurosurgeon? I don’t want that guy in my brain.

So there’s an appeal to these characters and this genre. It’s easy to make a fun gangster movie. But “Black Mass,” for the most part, is not a “fun movie.” It doesn’t get off on the violence.

Cooper: Absolutely. “Goodfellas,” that’s a fun movie. Probably a lot of people wanted me to make that film. But it’s too easy to glamorize gangsters and turn it into an aspirational lifestyle. I had no interest in stylizing the violence. I didn’t want to desensitize it.

Edgerton: If it wasn’t a true story, you’d probably have more license to go that way. But you have to respect the ghosts and spirits of the real people gone past and their families that still walk the Earth. I knew Scott would be coming at this with a certain austerity. Different directors might have made other choices. I’m not saying that Guy Ritchie would have done the “Snatch” version of this, but you have to make sure you’re on the same page with the director before you sign on.

Depp: God, yes. Do you know the moment where it’s the loudest silence? It’s on the first day where you do a scene and then it’s over and there’s that pause. And then you hear, “Uh, once again.” The cacophony of silence in that pause. And you know, right then, that things aren’t going to get better.

Edgerton: I had a friend, literally on the first day, he sees a team of producers walk up to the director. And then, as a team, they walk over to the actor and tell him, “We see the character a different way.” Day One and you open your mouth and they go, “Oooooh. Is that how you’re going to do it? We need to have a meeting.”

But you don’t like to rehearse, Scott, so how do you make sure you’re not going to have to call any of those meetings?

Cooper: Robert Duvall always says, “Never have a road map. Never know where you’re going to go in a scene because if you do, then that’s what you do in acting class as opposed to really finding it.”

And these two guys didn’t rehearse. They met with me separately and we talked about character and behavior and motivations. And then on the first day, we shot the scene where these two gentlemen meet for the first time by the Mystic River. And you watch that, you get a sense that you’ve got Joel Edgerton working opposite Johnny Depp, you have John Connolly looking at a man in Jimmy Bulger who he’s long admired. I never discussed that with you, Joel, but it felt that way, with you standing alongside, arguably, one of our great national treasures …

Depp: The Statue of Liberty.

Not Mount Rushmore?

Depp: No. Lincoln complained.

I will say, quickly, that with too much rehearsal, it feels like things become pat. It nullifies the possibility of chance, which I think is the most beautiful thing that can happen in a scene. And I remember that first scene with Joel and after that first take, I thought, “Damn, this is [freaking] killer.” I knew our venture down this road was going to be great together.

Edgerton: I just remember white-knuckling that first week, pushing the terror aside so that maybe what I’m doing can just be free. The heavy schedule helped. It keeps you from yourself. I kind of like getting home at the end of the day, exhausted to the point where all I have to do is go to bed and wake up the next day. It keeps your head in the film, not that you’re staying in character, but …

Depp: It’s a funny thing, [Lee] Strasberg, [Constantin] Stanislavski’s Method, Uta Hagen’s technique. I’ve seen actors do this and it bugs the [expletive] out of me, because they go in there and let’s say they’re playing Henry VIII. They go home and they’re Henry the [freaking] Eighth. What I want to know is when they go to the craft services table for a bag of Doritos, are they [freaking] Henry VIII? If that’s their thing, stick to it. If you’re going to live it, [freaking] live it.

Get a turkey leg from craft servies, not a bag of Doritos!

Depp: Get that [freaking] turkey leg and some [freaking] gruel and then heave it at someone!

Edgerton: “Yes, your honor, I had to cut her head off. But there’s a reason. It’s a little film. It went to Sundance …"

Depp: “And she looked almost like the character.” Even in the context of scenes that are righteously dark, you need an approach that’s loose and allows the possibility of chance, the possibility of the [freaking] bottom dropping out of the scene. You’ve got to have fun. If you don’t have fun making this [stuff], you’re in the wrong profession.