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Black Mass: Joel Edgerton talks Whitey Bulger film, working with Johnny Depp

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Claire Folger

Black Mass arrives in theaters Friday after generating plenty of buzzy chatter from the film festivals in Venice, Telluride, and Toronto. (You can read EW’s review of the film here.) The film, directed by Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart; Out of the Furnace), tells the true story of James ‘Whitey’ Bulger (played by Johnny Depp), one of Boston’s most notorious criminals. The film chronicles the scary menace that is Bulger and explores his complicated relationship with his FBI handler John Connolly — currently serving a 40 year prison sentence — played by Joel Edgerton. EW caught up with the Australian actor to talk about all things Bulger, Connolly, and that tricky Boston accent. 

The movie has been getting such great early buzz and I’m so glad because I think it’s really great. 

Edgerton: I’m not allowed to say that I think it’s great. [Laughs]. But it is one of those rare movies that I watched and I thought: ‘God, I’m glad I’m in this movie.’ Scott exceeded my expectations. I thought it would be good but I think he sort of outdid himself.

It must have been strange to be shooting in Boston, when so many of the real life players were around who knew the real John Connelly. Cooper told EW that the real life federal prosecutor Fred Wyshak [played by Corey Stoll in the film] came to the set one day and he said it was uncanny how much you sounded and moved like Connelly.

I remember that day. It was so weird because by that stage of the movie I was so into it I almost didn’t want to meet that guy He was the one who put John away! He went to a bar around the corner and someone called me up and was like, ‘Do you want to go down there?’ And I wasn’t sure I wanted to meet him. [Laughs] John, of course, has an opinion of what went down and the movie says something different.

What does he say happen?

Well I think like most people in prison he says that they’re in there because people accused them of things they didn’t do.

He considers himself a fall guy?

Definitely. It was a very pointy spear that he fell on. But he helped raise that spear. I’m sure there are other guys who probably should have been a shish kabob with him.

It’s weird, in the movie you almost end up feeling sorry for him.

Good. That was the intention. All the guys tended to be corrupt — it’s an interesting film because there’s not a hero to root.

Cooper told EW that you were constantly watching footage of Connolly throughout production.

Yes, there’s a lot of footage of John and I could hear the way he sounded and I could look at how he moves, how he dressed and how he did his hair. He was sort of like a gene splice of an FBI agent and mafia gangster. He liked to wear pinky rings and fine suits.

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Johnny Depp stayed in character for most of the shoot, right? That must have been unsettling.

Yes. Total transformation. And because of that transformation it felt unusual to find the real Johnny who is already a mysterious character. He has a certain kind of rock star aura about him — there’s a sort of untouchable quality to people like him. What’s interesting is that I would see him roll up to work in the morning and get out of the car and walk to the makeup trailer and all day I’d spend my time with what felt like a different person. I realized by the end of the experience that I’d spent more time with his Whitey Bulger than I’d spent with Johnny. You sort of started to forget what he really looked like because he was hidden under all this stuff, it was a transformation that was sort of organic.

It was very still, very chilling what he was doing. Everything you read about Whitey is that he could freak people out with his silence. The silence was almost more intimidating than anything he could do or say because it was that anticipation — what could happen next?

Considering you and Benedict Cumberbatch aren’t even American, your Boston accents seem even more impressive.

Oh we were terrified if we got it wrong we’d get chased out of town. [Laughs]

Did you guys ever think you should sneak out for a beer and try to pass a Bostonian?

I think with Benedict if he did that people would be like, ‘Uh…what are you doing, Sherlock?’

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