Johnny Depp and Scott Cooper discuss ‘Black Mass’ at AFI Fest

Actor Johnny Depp and director Scott Cooper are not your typical Hollywood heavyweights. Depp, though one of the world’s most recognized stars, rarely plays typical leading man roles and Cooper is a former actor (“The X-Files,” “Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me) turned instantly acclaimed director for “Crazy Heart” and “Out of the Furnace.”

The pair came together for this year’s “Black Mass,” a film about real life Boston gangster James “Whitey” Bulger that won strong reviews -- especially for Depp’s menacing performance -- when it opened this year.

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Depp and Cooper headlined a conversation moderated by Variety’s Jenelle Riley at the Dolby Theater Sunday as part of the ongoing AFI Fest. The duo fielded questions about their film, about meeting for the first time and bringing out the human elements of criminals. Below are some of the highlights from the discussion:

How Johnny Depp signed on for “Black Mass”:

Depp: “‘Crazy Heart’ was the inspiration [for me] to track him down. I wanted to do anything with him. It just kind of coincided with ‘Black Mass.’ I would’ve shot a telephone book for Scott, but ‘Black Mass’ was such a wonderful piece, a wonderful character study, not just for myself but a number of actors.”

On Depp and Cooper’s first time meeting, which lasted seven hours:

Cooper: “It was very clear to me that we share sensibilities in film and music, literature. When you’re sitting across from a guy that you believe is one of the great American artists and really a national treasure, you say, ‘How can I work with Johnny in a way that [lives up to that].’”

On Depp not reading screen directions:

Depp: “I stopped reading screen directions a long time ago. The first time I read a script, I read the whole thing. After that, I kind of block out all the screen directions. Why should I know what’s supposed to happen? I think it should be much more organic than that.”

Cooper: “That’s why he’s a genius.”

Depp: “I just don’t think I should know what’s going to happen. That’s why I don’t see movies.”

On pulling off James “Whitey” Bulger:

Depp: “I felt very confident that I could pull it off under the right circumstances. My responsibility and my goal is to make [audiences] forget it’s me in the first three to five or seven minutes. That’s really important to me. So, I knew, as far as the look, that I needed to look as close to Bulger as possible. And I needed to be able to zone out and tap into this guy because there’s very little footage of this guy.

You can’t approach him as a bad man. You can’t approach him as a criminal. You can’t approach him as whatever you want to call him. You have to approach him as a human being who absolutely was as loyal as he could be to his people, his mother, his community. His business just happened to be what it was, and his business entailed quite a lot of crimes.

To be able to put all those things together and step out of my trailer on the first day of shooting, one of the most satisfying things was walking out of the trailer completely done up as Bulger and walking to set [and having people who knew Bulger] with grim faces. I was like, ‘This is fantastic. I wonder if I’m going to get shot.’”

On playing someone real, versus a fictional character:

Depp: “There’s a boatload of responsibility that comes along with it. No matter what they’ve done, it’s my responsibility to deliver that character with the utmost degree of truth.”

On deciding to make “Black Mass”:

Cooper: “I told [executives] that I don’t want to make a film about criminals who happen to be humans. I want to make a film about humans who happen to be criminals.”

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