The actor discussed reaching out to the infamous gangster before playing him onscreen
Credit: Marc Andrew Deley/Invision/AP

In the new film Black Mass, Johnny Depp plays infamous gangster James "Whitey" Bulger. On Tuesday, Depp arrived in Brookline, Massachusetts, for private screening of the film. There, he told reporters how he had to separate Bulger’s public persona – as a longtime mob boss long feared by the greater Boston community – from the version of the man depicted in the film.

“The first thing for me was to understand him first and foremost as a human being,” Depp told reporters on the red carpet. “Anybody and everybody, especially the families of his victims, could say ‘He’s just an evil person.’ I don’t believe that exists. People have their humanity, everything they’ve carried with them since they were children. There’s a side of James Bulger who is not just that man who was in that business.”

Depp, 52, also divulged that he had prepared for the role by reaching out to Bulger, who has been in prison since his 2011 arrest.

“I made an attempt to contact Mr. Bulger only out of respect. It’s his life, and I’m playing him onscreen,” Depp saying, noting that it was important that his performance capture as much as possible of the truth – Bulger’s, that of his associates and that of Bulger’s victims.

Depp said that through attorney J. Carney, Bulger “respectfully declined” to participate in the making of the film, “based on the fact that it’s a film that stems from a book that he’s not, let’s say, most enthusiastic about. I’m sure he’s not enthusiastic about any of the books – which I understand. I never expected him to meet with me.”

Depp went on to say that Carney helped with the role to an extent. “‘I ain’t giving you this much. There’s only so much i’m going to give you,’ ” Depp recalled Carney telling him. He said he was thankful for Carney’s help.

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In the end, Depp said he found the most challenging aspect of Black Mass to be playing a living person.

“The most difficult thing is when you’re dealing with a person who exists, and you know he’s a man, and certainly a man of honor in regards to the people he loved,” Depp said. “The responsibility is to do the right thing by that person, no matter how good the person is deemed, no matter how bad the person is deemed. My responsibility was to do my best to represent a human life.”

“It’s not just about a gangster,” Depp said. “It’s not a gangster film. It’s not even in that genre, even.”

Black Mass opens in theaters on Sept. 18.