Interpretation of John Dillinger in Johnny Depp - Public Enemies

Dillinger- Public Enemy No. 1

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When deciding upon the actor who would portray the principal outlaw, Mann turned to a performer known for immersing himself in his roles. He found the complex character he needed for his interpretation of John Dillinger in Johnny Depp.

“Deep in the core of Johnny there's a toughness,” commends Mann. “When we started talking about it, he said that he had been interested in Dillinger for a long time and that Dillinger reminded him of some people from his past. He had Dillinger in him; that's something I sensed. Everybody has these dark currents inside of us, but to be able to reach down in a movie and plumb those depths and bring that up…that's courageous.”

Depp explains his long interest in the gangster: “Funny enough, when I was a little kid, there was a long period where I was fascinated with John Dillinger. No particular explanation why, I just was; 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, it was his character. It was who he was as a man…back at a time when men were really men. He was, for good or ill, exactly who he was, without any compromise whatsoever.”

For Mann, the challenge of preparation is “…trying to make 1933 come alive. And be alive just the way it's alive for you right now in 2009. And that meant not just how things looked, but how people thought. How men courted women in 1933. How ex-convicts thought about life and their fate in 1933. What the material world meant to those who were hungry and denied. The desperation on the streets.”

In preparation for the shoot, Mann, who had decided to film in some of the actual locations where the story took place-like the Crown Point Jail, Little Bohemia and the Biograph-was able to provide Depp with the actual clothing and personal articles of Dillinger.

Depp was able to spend time in some of the haunts frequented by the “Gentleman Bandit” and handle weaponry the man had used. Also informative were his personal experiences. “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,” Depp notes. “ 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 a time when a man was a man.”

The actor continues: “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.”

From his rise as a golden boy of the FBI to his need to get his hands dirty if he hoped to catch Dillinger, Purvis was just the complex part that Christian Bale was eager to tackle. The actor was particularly interested in the conflict he believed existed within Purvis. “He had such accolades in the press as a hero and was regarded so highly,” offers Bale, “but I think Purvis was very conflicted about the direction that the Bureau was taking in its effort to become efficient.”
Bale extended his feelings about that conundrum to Purvis' capture of Dillinger and the ruthless tactics pushed by Hoover. “There may have been no satisfaction for Purvis to pursue Dillinger,” he adds. “In my interpretation, I felt that by the time they got him, Purvis must have believed he had to compromise himself and his own values so much that he was questioning who was the loser here.”

As does Depp, Bale engages in extensive research into the characters he plays. For Public Enemies, he and Mann took an investigative trip to FBI headquarters in Quantico, Virginia, and spent time with Melvin Purvis' son, Alston. Because there was no recorded sound available of the senior Purvis' voice (he died in 1960), Bale chose to use Alston's southern drawl as his accent for the action-thriller.

The Welsh actor stayed in his character's voice throughout production, and his dedication had a big impact. Producer Misher explains: “When Alston Purvis came to visit the set, we were at the Biograph Theater where Dillinger was shot. Alston said it was the greatest night of his life, because it was like watching his father come back to life. To have a son of the character who an actor is playing say there's no other actor on Earth whom he could see play his father…that's quite a testament to the actor's performance.”

To understand Billie Frechette, Mann spent a good deal of time uncovering the history of the woman who became the singular love of Dillinger's life. “I tried to figure out the life of Billie: what she was about, what she was doing and how she got by in the Depression,” he states. “She worked as a hatcheck girl at The Steuben Club; she was an ambitious young woman from a small town making her way in Chicago. What also is very significant is her upbringing. As a Menominee Indian, she was very much a second-class citizen, an outsider.”

Marion Cotillard, who won an Oscar for her brilliant portrayal of chanteuse Edith Piaf in La Vie en Rose, was cast by Mann for the part. “After I saw La Vie en Rose, we met. That was it,” says the director.

As part of her preparation, Mann asked her to meet with a variety of gangster wives, girlfriends, strippers and bar girls to listen to the women's stories of unfailingly standing by their often-violent men. “He wanted me to understand the feeling of being a convict's wife and not knowing exactly what the next day would bring,” explains Cotillard.

As Frechette was French and Native American, the actress spent extensive time with a dialect coach and visited the Menominee reservation to learn about the world from which the gangster's girlfriend came. There, Cotillard met with members of Frechette's extended family and discussed the life and primary love of their ancestor. She was quite moved by what she learned about the woman…as well as about the man for whom Frechette went to jail and never betrayed. “It was very emotional,” she relates. “When you live a passion, a love like that, you will not turn your back at all the fear that comes from any situation to be with a man who's a gangster.”
“The skills of Marion are extraordinary. The commitment, the absolute total commitment to the moment. How deep and thoroughly she would live the truth of a small gesture, a glance,” says her director.

Her on-screen Dillinger was one of many on set moved by her performance. “I was profoundly impressed by Marion's commitment to Billie,” commends Depp. “She took so much care in playing her properly and giving Billie her fair shake. Marion worked unbelievably hard on the accent and was profoundly committed to the part. I like her very much, both personally and as someone to get in the ring with.”

For the supporting players in the world of Dillinger, Purvis and Frechette, Mann chose an elite international cast. Serving as two of Dillinger's primary henchmen are Australians David Wenham and Jason Clarke, who play Harry “Pete” Pierpont and John “Red” Hamilton, respectively, while British actor Stephen Graham portrays infamous psychopath Baby Face Nelson.

Rounding out Dillinger's immediate crew and known crime associates are Americans Stephen Dorff as incorrigible clown/unemotional killer Homer Van Meter; John Ortiz as high-level crime lord Phil D'Andrea; Giovanni Ribisi as train robber/kidnapper Alvin Karpis; Channing Tatum as the aptly named Pretty Boy Floyd; Stranger Than Fiction's Christian Stolte as calm killer Charles Makley; and 21's Spencer Garrett as Baby Face Nelson's wingman, Tommy Carroll.

For fellow Chicago gangsters and girls, Mann brought on board War of the Worlds' John Michael Bolger as corrupt East Chicago cop Martin Zarkovich; Bill Camp as Al Capone contemporary Frank “The Enforcer” Nitti; Miami Vice's Domenick Lombardozzi as Nitti henchman Gilbert Catena; Changeling's Peter Gerety as Chicago gangland mouthpiece attorney Louis Piquett; Branka Katic as Madam Anna Sage, better known as Dillinger betrayer the “Lady in Red”; and 88 Minutes' Leelee Sobieski as Anna Sage's “girl” Polly Hamilton.

On the other side of the law are Billy Crudup as the young front man for the newly formed FBI, J. Edgar Hoover; Rory Cochrane as Melvin Purvis' close ally and fellow agent, Carter Baum; Stephen Lang as Western Agent Charles Winstead; Disturbia's Matt Craven and Miami Vice's Don Fyre as, respectively, Western Agents Gerry Campbell and Clarence Hurt; Alpha Dog's Shawn Hatowsky as FBI Agent Medala; Barefoot to Jerusalem's John Hoogenakker as Agent Clegg; Taken's David Warshofsky as Lake County Jail Warden Baker; and Lost's Emilie De Ravin as bank hostage / Dillinger convert Anna Patzke.

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