In his new sci-fi thriller, “Transcendence,” Johnny Depp plays Dr. Will Caster, the foremost researcher in the field of Artificial Intelligence who is working to create a sentient machine that combines the collective intelligence of everything ever known with the full range of human emotions. His highly controversial experiments have made him famous, but they have also made him the prime target of anti-technology extremists who will do whatever it takes to stop him. Opening April 18th, the film directed by Wally Pfister from a screenplay by Jack Paglen also stars Rebecca Hall, Morgan Freeman, Paul Bettany, Cillian Murphy and Kate Mara.
At the film’s recent press day, Depp spoke with a great sense of humor about his character, what Will Caster shares in common with Max Headroom, his thoughts on the concept of Artificial Intelligence, how the technology to upload a human consciousness is already in development, why he finds it more difficult to play characters where the transformation is not that far from real life, what it was like working with a first-time director and screenwriter, his recent visit to China to promote the film and how he enjoyed that cultural experience, his upcoming film, “Black Mass,” and the appeal of playing Boston gangster James Whitey Bulger.
Here’s what he had to say:
QUESTION: Johnny, when Will Caster becomes an image on the computer screen, did you feel a little bit like Max Headroom?
JOHNNY DEPP: I did feel a little bit like Max Headroom. I guess the worst part of it is I liked it. I liked being in my little dark room, and they were on the other side, and we couldn’t find each other sometimes. It was always done through video tape and sound. I essentially think this film is about a man who was chosen by God to grow a long beard, grab a few insects, a couple of animals, and know that the rest of the world will be slaughtered, but the animals will come to him and fall asleep.
Q: Isn’t that another movie?
DEPP: Oh yeah, “Noah.” Oh no, “Noah.” Sorry, I was in that one as well. I played Russell Crowe. That beard was a bitch, too. Seriously.
Q: Your character seems to age backwards once he’s in the computer.
DEPP: That’s “Benjamin Button.” I was in that too as Brad Pitt.
Q: What are your thoughts on Artificial Intelligence?
DEPP: Well, having no intelligence, I’m looking forward to gaining something, whether artificial, superficial, or super-duper, as in some of the names of the Chinese TV shows, like Super Happy, Fun Ship, Rocket Hour, Cowboy Time. I did that. Don Rickles is up after us, by the way. I thought there was something very beautiful to Wally’s idea of the disintegration of the character and to watch him slowly go out which was well researched by Wally. That’s pretty much the progression – to be uploaded and then finally brought to this. Essentially, I suppose, once he’s inside PIN, he could become anything. One of the things hopefully that came across is he got a little bit brighter, chipper, and a younger version of Will. He became the version of Will that Evelyn sees or wants to see as opposed to the Will who can’t button his shirt correctly and all that.
Q: I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit about your recent visit to China to promote the film?
DEPP: Super Happy, Fun Ship, Rocket Hour, Cowboy Time.
Q: What was that experience like for you?
DEPP: It was amazing. It really was an amazing experience on a cultural level. I mean, it was just constant information, something new everywhere you looked, something interesting, something different. I found a real warmth in the people. The people were very, very sweet, very welcoming. It was quite a turnout that we had. A lot of strange things went down that I’d rather not talk about ever again in my life. Such as the bold…those two gentlemen who were the guys on the television show that had these haircuts. I was bookended in by these hairdos. And then, it went from one place to the next. Four little quadruplet Chinese boys dressed in Shaolin priest outfits. “Transcendence” comes out to four Chinese characters, and they’d shaved those characters onto those little boys’ heads to bring them out on stage with me. I’m pretty shy. I tend to run from that kind of thing — little boys with their heads shaved into the name of a film. That scares me a little. But I trusted the little boys, so being bookended by these incredible hairdos that can’t be… I mean, the scientists would have to dissect them to figure how they got them there. And then, these little boys… Yeah, China was a great success. (Laughs) No, it’s a wonderful place. They took me to a place called the 798 District which started out as an abandoned factory from the times of Mao. It was a bomb factory, and this whole area has been derelict for years, and slowly but surely artists started moving in there, kind of squatting initially, and then more and more came. And then, they made a deal with the government to rent the space which is enormous, and they’ve turned it into this district called the 798 District, which is just artists and artisans, people who make flutes and giant sculptures and wonderful painting. It’s very diverse. Yes, that was a real eye opener for me. I’ve never seen an artistic community, a colony where people actually live, thrive, and get along. Everything works beautifully.
Q: In watching the film, I was reminded of Frankenstein when I saw Will.
DEPP: It’s because I was Frankenstein.
Q: Your character gets to be Dr. Frankenstein and the monster as well. Did you take any inspiration from that in playing the role?
DEPP: I didn’t. I wish I had because it really would have been a brilliant thing for me to say, so I’ll probably say that for the rest of the day. But I will admit to you people that no, I didn’t give it any thought at all. In about an hour and a half, it will have been the whole basis for my character, just so you know. Thanks for that.
Q: Johnny, would you say Will Caster was a man turned evil?
DEPP: When we were doing the film, we were all very closely mapping everything out just to make sure that everything came together in the right order, especially for Will in terms of that map. It should be a little vague as to whether… Is he losing it? Is it like any of us? You could make an analogy to a security guard guy who three weeks prior to was mowing lawns for a living. The second he puts a uniform on, man that badge and everything, boing, he’s like a man. I imagine the majority of us have felt the kind of wrath of the overzealous security guard guy. Is there something lying dormant in the man that’s waiting to be pumped up with that kind of power? Don’t know. Does it reveal him? Don’t know. Does it change him? Don’t know. When Will is in the computer, as he’s growing along with the computer at this rapid pace, growing up through PIN, does any bad person think they’re doing bad things? Historically, they all thought they had a pretty decent cause. A few were off by quite a lot, and they were dumb. (Laughter) I think Will is dedicated to the cause and maybe the power when you realize that essentially you’re God. There ain’t nothing on Earth more powerful than you. You can do anything you want. You can transfer every cent from the Bank of England into an account in Syria. I mean, you could do anything you want. I think Will was just so focused on the cause. It’s like Che Guevara in a way. You get too far into it maybe.
Q: Will is so romantic but things went too far and go wrong. Have you ever had anything like that happen in real life that went wrong or went too far?
DEPP: (Laughs) Oh yes. So many things come into my mind. Oh God, I could really come up with a 45-minute doozy for you. We’d all go to jail. We’d all be implicated. Yes. I’ve done horrible things in my life. (Laughs) Things go wrong all the time, especially between me and technology. I’m just not familiar enough with it and I’m too old school, my brain, dumb, to be able to figure it out. But anything that I have to attack with my thumbs for any period of time makes me feel stupid. So, I try to avoid it as much as possible, to protect my thumbs, of course.
Q: When it comes to love and how far you should go, Evelyn does everything she can to save Will. Do you agree that you should go as far as possible or is there a limit and a line you shouldn’t cross?
DEPP: With a choice of that degree… Wally has spoken to a lot of the scientists and scholars and these incredible people, and we know that a great bit of the technology is active and it’s actually happening. The technology that we’re talking about in terms of uploading a human consciousness is probably not all that far away, to be honest. It will happen. It’s pretty close. Technology is moving and reshaping itself every day radically, and if her character was in that situation and the technology, the intelligence existed right at that second and she’s given a split second moment, we’re all capable of answering that question within ourselves. For the person that you love, would you do it? Would you be married to a hard drive potentially? (Laughter) And then, just think about how, because technology is moving so rapidly, things become obsolete very, very quickly. So, in 15 years’ time, Will Castor will probably be in some weird room in Vegas and people will be plugging quarters into him. (Laughter) Right? I mean, who has a Mini-Disc or a LaserDisc player? You know what I mean? It’s over.
Q: A trademark of a lot of your performances has always been the unique look you come up with for your character. In this, your character goes through a transformation, but in the end he keeps the same look. Does that make it harder or easier to take on this kind of role?
DEPP: For me, it’s always more difficult and slightly exposing to play something that’s close to the surface, something that’s close to myself. I always like to try to hide just because I can’t stand the way I look at first. But I think it’s important to change every time and come up with something as interesting as you can for your character. Also, in any case, it really depends on what the screenplay is asking of you and what your responsibility is to that character. You have the author’s intent to deal with. You have the filmmaker’s vision. And then, you have your own wants and desires and needs and things for the character. It’s collaborative. But I knew right off the bat certainly that there was no need to go into some sort of pink-haired, clown nose with Ronald McDonald shoes.
Q: What was it like working with Wally Pfister, a first-time director? Mr. Depp?
DEPP: My Dad’s here? Sorry, I was spacing out for a second. I thought it was an intervention. (Laughs) Alright, I feel better now. What was the question? No, I’m kidding. I met Wally ironically on a video clip for Paul McCartney that Paul had asked me to take part in. Wally was shooting it for Paul. I was certainly aware of Wally’s work as a director of photography because it’s legendary. I mean, he’s a legend. I was very familiar with that. On the McCartney thing, we’d set up a shot. Paul was directing. Wally would set up a shot, and then we’d go and play guitar. He and I would sit there and play guitar. And then, Paul would come over and we’d play guitar, and we’d subtly make him teach us things, Beatle songs and stuff. We just instantly got along. When the idea of doing this arrived, I was beyond thrilled because he had the drive. He had the passion. He had the answers, and even if he didn’t have all the answers, his quest was such that he would be damned if he didn’t get where he needed to go. He worked non-stop, and when you step into the ring with the guy, it’s just there. He’s definitely had enough years on set to sponge up the good bedside manner of a filmmaker and the bad and to recognize that. He came in like a champ. He was there with his crew that he’s been with for years supporting him. It was one of the greatest experiences I’ve had with a filmmaker, bar none. Again, he’s one of those guys that if he wanted to film me staring at something for an hour and a half, I’d be more than happy. In terms of first screenplay, literally my hat is off to Jack. I didn’t see any virgin blather in screen direction or anything like that. It was just a wonderfully executed piece and a complicated one. I mean, the mathematics involved in putting this film together, between Jack and Wally, and the great support of the Alcon men (Alcon Entertainment), it was not an easy little operetta.
Q: You’re starting a new film in a couple weeks, “Black Mass,” where you play Whitey Bulger, a real bad guy. What’s the appeal of that role?
DEPP: I’m finding it difficult calling him Whitey. I’m going to do a film called “Black Mass” where I play James Whitey Bulger. There was a reason to play it that was obvious to me. He’s a fascinating character. I don’t think it’s like anything I’ve done before on that level. So I’m very excited to slide into that skin for a little bit.