At the center of Black Mass is Boston gangster James “Whitey” Bulger, whose criminal empire was made possible thanks to his relationship with disgraced FBI agent John Connelly. Having grown up in the same south Boston neighborhood, Connelly recruited Bulger as a federal informant and ended up instead feeding him information and protecting him from federal scrutiny. Joel Edgerton plays Connelly as a half-naïve sycophant, half-complicit huckster in a performance that differs as sharply from Johnny Depp’s flamboyant portrayal of Bulger as the two men did in real life. Edgerton based his portrayal on existing video footage and the testimony of FBI agents who knew Connelly, but fleshed it out by looking at the way Connelly’s spiral was in many ways a normal experience. “I don’t believe people are intentionally going, ‘Today I’m going to be a bad person,’ Edgerton says. “I think John thought in the end what he was doing was actually virtuous… I think that he lost sight.”
John Connelly has been depicted in media coverage in contradictory ways. How did you view his character?
It’s the difference between whether John is sort of an angel corrupted by a series of events, or a corruptible man given the fertile ground with which to really dance with that corruption. I’ve long held this belief that people are already what they’re capable of becoming. Quite often people will say, “Look at him, he’s changed,” or “Look at her and the monster she’s become.” I believe that monster exists in many forms already; the circumstances that you surround yourself with allow that monster to grow.
Do you think John could have gone either way?
It’s interesting isn’t it? Like at what point do you realize you’ve gone so far that you can’t go back? You’ve gone three-quarters of the way across the river and you’re tired, you can’t swim back, you just gotta keep swimming. I think there was a point where John’s conscience would have said, “Now is the time to pull out of this thing.” But the weight of locality, loyalty, culture, color of skin gave him a cloudiness from which he found it hard to find his way back—even if he wanted to find his way back.
How did you prepare for the role?
I had lots of footage of John, that’s how vocally and physically I got to get a sense of him. I spoke to a lot of FBI agents, and actually two pearls of wisdom about John really embodied the performance. One guy said John was a real “peacock,” which kind of said a lot about his puffiness, the way he manicured himself. Another one said John was “whoever he needed to be with whomever he was with.” Someone else in the FBI said he’s one of those people who put it all out there, who was kind of challenging people to (realize what he was doing). So every time I would tell a lie as John I’d think, “How well does he tell this lie?” or “Is he aware that the other person knows he’s lying, but he doesn’t give a f–k?” There’s that scene where Corey Stoll slaps down tickets to Fenway Park—that, to me, was my moment. The audience has been sucked into John’s side of the story, but Corey comes in and demands to know why nobody has asked the right sort of questions. As an audience it’s like, “YES! How did this go on for so long?”
How do you compare Connelly to Johnny Depp’s Bulger?
I think the difference between Jimmy and John is that John was spinning plates, expending a lot of energy pretending to be something he wasn’t, to be things to certain people in certain situations. He was expanding and diminishing himself according to the situation. Jimmy didn’t need to; he owned the ground he was on.
How in character did you need to be?
I’m looking to inhabit a character for as long as I need to, to not look foolish onscreen. Like with difficult accents like John’s, if I need to talk like him all day I’ll do it. But “method” is a very loose and weird and indefinable term. Where’s that line? There’s something that Ben Kingsley said to me once, that he’s looking for those moments where, when he watches a movie and looks on the screen, even for one moment he says, “I don’t remember that moment, I don’t recognize myself in that moment.” If what interests you in character work is character acting, (then) searching for those characters as far from you as possible makes me feel safer than playing a character like myself. That can really only be achieved by having a thorough understanding of who you’re playing. And then allowing yourself to be blind to that moment when “Action” is called. That to me is the joy of acting and unfortunately that means sometimes I need five minutes of one day that makes the whole day worthwhile. Directing is a different story. Directing is a constant series of challenges all day that makes the day worthwhile.
Speaking of that, do you plan to follow up your directorial debut The Gift?
I’m avoiding the concrete just yet, but I’m interested in writing another piece to direct, and I’m also looking at other things that have already been written. All I’ll say for certain is that I’m definitely doing it again because it just gave me so much. I’m terrified of doing the second one. You know, I waited 40 years to direct a film, so I don’t want to rush the second one.
For a behind-the-scenes look at Black Mass featuring Joel Edgerton, hit play below: