The Lido has been clogged since before 6 AM local time with fans waiting to catch a glimpse of Johnny Depp. Some of them must have snuck into the afternoon press conference for Black Mass because it was wall-to-wall SRO; the most tightly-packed assembly I’ve seen across the years in Venice. Depp was joined by co-stars Joel Edgerton and Dakota Johnson along with director Scott Cooper to speak to reporters about the movie which was met enthusiastically by the press this morning and which is being hailed as something of a comeback for the actor.

He plays James “Whitey” Bulger, the notorious Boston (Irish) mob boss who ran the streets in the 1970s and was an informant for the FBI — a charge he has denied since his arrest in 2011 and sentencing to two life terms for murder and other violent crimes. Although Depp as Bulger at times actually looks like the devil incarnate, he didn’t find Bulger completely evil. “I think you have to approach him just as a human being in the sense that nobody wakes up in the morning and shaves or brushes their teeth and looks in the mirror and thinks ‘I am evil. I am going to do something evil today.’”

black massDepp was asked about his fondness for transforming himself for roles — he is virtually unrecognizable as Bulger. “I find safety and danger in these transformations. It’s important as an actor to test yourself and take the chance that you might fall on your face and look like a complete ass. That’s what I do for a living… I’ve always wanted to try to be a character actor more than just the poster boy that they tried to make me about a hundred years ago. Most importantly, I think that an actor has some degree of responsibility with regard to their audience to change and give them something new and different each time.”

Bulger is nothing if not different and complicated. “He would take little old ladies’ groceries into the house and 10 minutes later might be bashing someone’s skull in, but to him that was all he knew,” Depp explained.

He had asked to meet Bulger in prison, but the convict “respectfully declined.” Evidently he is not a fan of the book upon which the film is based, Black Mass: The Unholy Alliance Between The FBI And The Irish Mob. The actor nevertheless finds something “poetic” about “what he was able to do in his work and at the same time be of that very proud Irish immigrant stock who was loyal to his neighborhood, a great caregiver to his mother, very, very close to his brother” who was a powerful senator.

Cooper noted that he had tried to cast a local as Bulger’s mother, but the woman said she had “no interest whatsoever.” She didn’t want to be in the film because both Bulger brothers had been “very good” to her and to the neighborhood.

black mass 2One of the people from the neighborhood was FBI agent John Connolly who set up the so-called unholy alliance between Bulger and the feds — and ultimately went to prison for 40 years. Edgerton is roundly receiving praise for his turn as Connolly here. He spoke about the challenges that go with interpreting a real-life person. “As much as we need to have a certain respect for those true people, the fear of the repercussions of getting it wrong or painting a character in a wrong light, you somewhat need to separate yourself. As much as this is a true story, this is our fictional version of a true story and that helps alleviate the pressure.”

The actor said he’s drawn to gangster movies because they’re “a great way of standing on a little stool and looking through a window at bad people doing bad things in a way that’s really safe to watch.” Black Mass should do particularly well in Oz as Aussie Edgerton, who starred in David Michod breakout Animal Kingdom, added that for historical reasons, “Australia has a real love of criminals.”

Warner Bros is taking Black Mass on to Telluride and then Toronto before its September 18 release.