If you think about it, John Dillinger’s not all that different from Captain Jack Sparrow.
Actually, maybe it’s better not to think too hard on it, but just to acknowledge that in Johnny Depp’s rogue’s gallery of robbers, scoundrels and ne’er-do-wells, they’re on a similar spectrum of iconic anti-heros and larger-than-life rapscallions.
One, of course, is the cartoonish embodiment of an animatronic character in a theme park right, while the other is based on the most famous gangster of his time. Asked at the recent “Public Enemies” junket to distinguish, though, between his “normal” characters and his more outlandish roles, Depp demurred.
“I think they’re all normal,” he laughs. “I mean, to me, they’re all normal. I think that most people are the same. We’re all a bit weird when you get down to it. Yeah, I would say he’s one of the more normal guys, normal just in the sense that he was nothing much more than an Indiana farm boy who stepped in a pile of something unpleasant and ended up in prison, in criminal school for 10 years and that was his college education and he became very good at what he learned. The fact that this guy became a sort of mythic, Robin Hood figure, I mean this is a guy who really took the ball and ran with it. That’s pretty normal to me. Most people run with it when they get the ball.”
The football analogy is one that Depp returned to when asked if Dillinger’s love of the spotlight and ability to understand the media game made him a bit of an actor-in-thieves-clothing.
“He’s certainly like an actor, but as I’ve said before, when somebody hands you the ball, depending on where you’ve been in your life, if you worked in the sewers or pumped gas or worked construction or whatever you did, when somebody hands you the ball, you run with with it, as far as they’ll let you, which is all I’ve been doing for 25 years,” he says.
Directed by Michael Mann, “Public Enemies” picks up in the last years of Dillinger’s life, as he was on a crime scene that attracted the attention and then ire and then vengeance of J. Edgar Hoover. But in addition to following his attempts to escape from Christian Bale’s Melvin Purvis, “Public Enemies” focuses at least as much on the master bank robber’s romance with Chicago coat-check girl Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard).
“I think he was just not unlike any Southern gentleman in a way, the fact that he made a relatively grave error in his youth, in a fit of drunken ignorance, which, I know I remember a few of those,” Depp cracks. “That sent him to prison for 10 years. They really whacked a ball and chain on him for that. So coming out of prison from 1923 or something and coming out in 1933 and suddenly the world was Technicolor and women were wearing tight clothes and skirts. It was a whole world. I think there was that Southern gentleman in there and also the guy who was also a supreme existentialist, who decided ‘This day and every day is mine.'”
On the theme of Dillinger As Existentialist Hero (Depp’s cinematic term paper topic one might presume), he continues, “Everyday was his last. He had made peace with that. He was fine with that. Yesterday doesn’t exist. He just kept moving forward. There is something admirable about that?”
That’s pretty groovy, but it may not be Dillinger’s existentialism that will resonate with viewers. Mann does a careful job of setting up the contemporary parallels that will allow 2009 audiences to understand the stakes of 1930s drama. One reporter even asked if “Public Enemies” might prove inspirational on some level.
“People are different than they were back then. Back in 1933, there was some degree of innocence left. Today, on some level, we’re really hit the digital wall and a wall where almost everything is available, if you can make your way to it, so I think people are radically different,” Depp muses. “I don’t know if you could have a similar kind of folk hero, a similar kind of hero as today. Maybe, what, Subcomandante Marcos down in Chiapas, who’s trying to protect the Indians in Mexico, he might be the closest sort of thing that we can have, in terms of innocence and purity. Because at that time, 1933, the banks were clearly the enemy. They foreclosed and they were taking people’s lives away from them. Not that it’s all that different now. Here we are teetering on this similar kind of recession/depression and… God, the banks are still the enemy, aren’t they? Right? I don’t know. If somebody starts robbing banks, you know… As long as nobody gets gets hurt.”
“Public Enemies” opens on Wednesday, July 1. Keep an eye out for the bank robberies to follow.