Film Review, June 1997 – Depp Undercover
Title: Depp Undercover
Publication: Film Review
Issue: June 1997
DON’T EXPECT Donnie Brasco to have any of the innocent charm of Edward Scissorhands or the kitsch sensibility of Ed Wood – Johnny Depp’s latest film is as far removed from these as is possible. The 33-year-old actor stars as Joe Pistone in the almost unbelievable true tale of an FBI agent who manages to infiltrate a Mafia ring for six years in the 1970s. Starring with Al Pacino – who plays Joe’s mentor and guide through the Mafia world, Lefty Ruggiero – Depp is astonishing as the FBI agent whose double life threatens to tear him apart. And while Depp isn’t exactly renowned for being typecast, if he were to find himself a comfortable niche in other films that are as unflinching and graphic as Donnie Brasco, the likes of Brad Pitt would be looking over their shoulders.
The Mafia men in Donnie Brasco are not the sort that a mother-in-law would welcome with open arms. They can appear to be friendly enough but running through them is a streak of vicious ruthlessness. In their world it’s often kill or be killed. Amazingly, Depp managed to meet Mafia men before shooting the film.
“Yeah, well, we spent some time with some guys,” he says almost nonchalantly. “You know, all I can say really is that it’s not exactly what we’ve come to know in the movies – that sort of wise-guy persona. I found the majority of them to be good guys – real gentlemen, family men, good fathers, good husbands. I had the utmost respect for the guys that I met.”
Not exactly the response that you would expect from someone meeting the Mafia. We’ve all seen The Godfather!
Depp continues. “I never asked them about their business and they never volunteered any information. I wouldn’t really have been ready to receive that! I just got to know them and found them to be very, very good guys.” He pauses for a moment. “What they do for a living is a mystery to me. Again, I don’t believe it’s exactly what they portray in the majority of the movies. I think it’s closer to what happens in Donnie Brasco.”
It’s true that you don’t find a horse’s head in anyone’s bed but if the film is even remotely true to life, the Mafia men that Joe Pistone met were cold killers.
“ I don’t think they’re serial killers,” says Depp of those he met. ‘There’s a circle in which they live, and within that circle there’s a game of survival. You know, you can tag this to anyone who has a pulse: ‘If it’s him or me, he’s going down’. I mean, I can’t be more plain than that. That’s just the way it is. If somebody’s going to get you, you’re going to try and get them first.”
The fact that Depp sounds like he understands these people does not mean that he condones their way of life. The film made him very aware that his life as an actor is far removed from their terrible reality, and he never found any similarities between the life of an undercover agent who has to be somebody else and his life as an actor.
“It’s different. I can always back up and do a second take. Joe didn’t have that advantage. I think what got him through is that he didn’t portray a character. He didn’t pretend to be anything else. Obviously he didn’t run into the room screaming that he was an FBI agent. He was himself with those guys. I think the pressure of having to go and pretend to be somebody or play a character would’ve probably sunk him.”
Indeed, the fact that Pistone could be revealed at any time in the film as an imposter frazzles the nerves of the viewer, never mind what Pistone went through in real life to break the Mafia ring. It comes as no surprise that Depp wanted to lighten the atmosphere during filming.
“Al [Pacino] and I were experimenting with some…” he pauses, then laughs, “…noises. It’s important on a movie set, you know, to have a good time. I had this little device that sends out a noise that could make you think that the guy sitting next to you was, er…very ill.”
He admits that playing the same trick on Pacino, an actor who never gets anything less than the utmost respect from his co-stars, was a little risky. “There was always that chance,” he laughs. “I had a sneaking suspicion that he had a sense of humour. And I was right. He’s really one of the funniest guys I’ve ever worked with.”
That wasn’t quite the same experience he had with the director, Mike Newell, who didn’t always appreciate Depp’s attempts to lighten the mood.
“Mike got a little hot under the collar now and again. He was like [affects a deep, booming voice!, ‘Oh my God, Johnny! Stop!’ He got a little sick of it. It actually made me want to do it more – and then he laughed and lightened up.”
For all his attempts to make people smile, Depp acknowledges that playing Joe was difficult.
“The most challenging [aspect] was to play Joe Pistone in such a way that he would be able to live with it for the rest of his life. This is a guy who lived through something unbelievable for six years. And for some actor to come in and sort of make-believe and pretend… I felt a huge responsibility to him and to his family to do it right and to make him proud; so that it was something he wouldn’t be embarrassed by.”
It has been reported that Pistone himself felt a sense of deja vu watching Depp play his life on the big screen, especially in the scenes with Depp and Pacino together. Depp is superb as Pistone and, rat her humbly, he is a little wary of admitting that he managed to capture the real Joe Pistone.
“I can’t say for sure. He would be the best judge of that. I feel like I did. I spent a lot of time with him beforehand. I really put myself as far into this character as I could. I certainly did my best. I hope [Joel is happy. He hasn’t punched me yet, which is a good sign!”
If what Depp says is true, there is some similarity between Joe Pistone’s attitude as an FBI undercover agent and his own movie career: they were both themselves and weren’t interested in creating an image.
“It’s what I’ve tried to do,” confirms Depp. “Just be myself and not manufacture some formula that’s worked before. I just want to be myself and allow that to get out there. I don’t know if it’s successful. Who knows? I’ve read a couple of things and it’s so far from me”.
Depp appears resigned to his treatment at the hands of the media, but it doesn’t mean he has to like it.
“The biggest misconception is that I’m, you know, a whisky-guzzling, drug-taking, drug-addled menace. I’m just not any of those things. There were incidents in my life that have become public knowledge. The media have taken those little things, grabbed the ball and run with it. It’s a drag, but it’s something you’ve just got to carry around with you.”
While he might laugh at being nominated one of the 50 most beautiful people in the world, Depp views the way in which the media can completely fabricate a person’s life with weariness. He doesn’t want it but can’t do much about it. The hassle comes with the job.
Being famous can be a liability, but one of Depp’s biggest assets is that he refuses to be typecast. He’s no Schwarzenegger or Stallone who, try as they might, cannot fight their way out of the mould Hollywood has made for them. He recognizes that when he first appeared he was pigeonholed (“They do that with everybody, everybody”) but the films he has made and what he has learned ensures that he won’t be following in Arnie’s and Sly’s footsteps.
“The only time I tried to promote something was when Fox [US| was building its network and they needed to build it on someone or something,” he recalls. “Suddenly I was watching television and I would see these commercials. They weren’t commercials for 21 Jump Street! the series which launched Johnny to television fame, they were commercials for Johnny Depp. That really scared me, really scared me. I had gone from not being able to pay my rent and being completely anonymous to suddenly walking down the street and people were pointing and looking and all that stuff. It was a very strange time for me. So the only thing I did was to try and fight that. I just wanted to show myself-and that can be a problem. I was very naive.”
But who doesn’t know Johnny Depp now? After over a decade of making films and being a big box-office draw, hasn’t he become used to being recognized and pointed at?
“It will always be strange. On some level, I hope it is always strange. I hope I don’t get used to it, because that would be a very strange existence.”
Moving on, Depp has high hopes for his next project, The Brave.
“I wrote it with my brother and decided to direct it and be in it. I’ve been cutting for a few months and getting very close to that final edit and to doing the score and all that stuff.” Depp hopes to have the film ready for entry into this year’s Cannes Film Festival. At the time of writing there’s still no confirmation if it will premiere there, but he’s keeping his fingers crossed.
Like almost every movie he’s done. The Brave is very different from the one before, and it’s certainly going to be controversial as its subject matter involves ‘snuff movies’. Despite the fact that the media have picked upon this, Depp insists it isn’t the film’s focus.
“It was never meant, at least from my point of view, to be a shocker or something that had horrible violence in it. That was just part of the structure of the story. I really believe in it. I’m very proud of it so far.”
Depp stars (with good friend Marlon Brando) as a man whose family are given money in return for Depp sacrificing his life in the snuff film.
“Marlon did his time in the film as an incredible gesture of generosity,” Depp says happily. “He’s been very, very supportive
of me over the last few years and it’s more than a dream come true.”
Johnny Depp, true to form, isn’t worried that people will be put off by the film’s disturbing subject matter.
“It’s not very graphic at all. What I try to do is leave a lot to the imagination. This is just an opinion, it’s not a judgment on anything, but the majority of films made today are made within a certain structure and a formula that has worked before. I don’t think they leave enough for the audience-to think about. I think the audience is intelligent, but most films don’t allow them to be.”