Johnny Depp gets dark as FBI’s Most Wanted gangster

Lowell native Michael Swanson plays a uniformed Boston police officer in Black Mass.

By Zack Britten

The story of Boston’s notorious gangster hits theaters Sept. 18 with an all-star cast, including an unrecognizable Johnny Depp playing the lead role of crime boss James “Whitey” Bulger in Black Mass.

Based on the book of the same title by authors Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill, the film puts us smack in the middle of 1970s South Boston, where FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) persuades Bulger to collaborate with the FBI and eliminate a common enemy: the Italian mob. The alliance helped Bulger evade law enforcement, and consolidate power to become one of the most ruthless and powerful gangsters in Beantown’s history.

The 86-year-old Bulger, who faced charges for 19 murders, was finally captured after 16 years on the lam in 2011. In 2013, he was convicted of killing 11 people and was sentenced to two life terms plus five years in prison. He is now behind bars at a federal prison in Florida.

Bulger declined to meet with Depp and the film’s director Scott Cooper, so the character of Bulger was built by watching FBI surveillance tapes, pouring over photographs and interviewing Bulger’s family and people who knew him.

Depp, 52, stayed in character throughout filming, and the result is chilling, says Michael Swanson, a Lowell native who plays the role of a uniformed Boston police officer in the movie.

“He’d pull up in a black Escalade with three or four of his crew and just snap into character,” Swanson recalls. “There are many people who have achieved looking like somebody else but not necessarily their persona. Only the upper echelon of truly great actors can pull that off. Depp was mesmerizing.”

Swanson, who now resides in Hudson, N.H., left his longtime job as an art director at Boston College just last year to pursue acting full-time. He’s worked on and appeared in a number of films, including The Boondock Saints, Me, Myself and Irene, The Perfect Storm, Ted 2, and, most recently, played the part of a persistent reporter sticking a microphone in Melissa McCarthy’s face in the new Ghost Busters reboot slated for 2016. But he’s looking forward to ducking into a dark theater and seeing Black Mass unfold on a big screen.

“Whitey Bulger is a pretty despicable character and I don’t believe this film is going to romanticize him at all,” Swanson says. “Here you have a killer who rose to become a top criminal king pin and his brother is a top politician in the state. It’s just crazy. You can’t write fiction as good as this. ”

Need more made-in-Massachusetts movies? Grab some popcorn and check out Zack’s picks:

Hocus Pocus (1993): Three wicked witches (Bette Midler, Kathy Najimy and a pre-Sex In The City Sarah Jessica Parker) rise from the dead to wreak havoc on Salem. Every Halloween, it’s impossible to escape this movie and the spell it puts on you.

The Invention of Lying (2009) With an all-star supporting cast of Rob Lowe, Jonah Hill, Jennifer Garner, and Louis C.K., comedic genius Ricky Gervais produced, wrote, directed and starred in this comedy set in a world where people can only tell the truth — until Gervais discovers how to lie. Shot in Lowell and Andover.

The Departed (2006): An epic thriller about an undercover cop and a mafia mole that finally earned Martin Scorsese a Best Director Oscar. With a star studded cast including Matt Damon, Leonardo DiCaprio, Jack Nicolson, Martin Freemen, and Mark Walberg and filmed in a ‘wicked awesome’ location, this hit movie became an instant Boston classic.

Shutter Island (2010): Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio team up again to deliver this psychological thriller about a U.S Marshal and his investigation of the disappearance of a murderess in a hospital for the criminally insane.

Gone Baby Gone (2007): Yet another gritty detective movie made in Massachusetts, Gone Baby Gone, based on the novel by Dennis Lehane, is about two Boston detectives and their investigation of a little girl’s kidnapping, which in the end turns into a professional and personal crisis.

Jaws (1975): Filmed entirely at Martha’s Vineyard, this Steven Spielberg classic about a man-eating great white shark is still a great movie to show your annoying little brother just before you go to the beach. Don’t tell mom.

The Fighter (2010): This Oscar-winning biopic about retired welterweight boxing champion Micky Ward stars Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale, Amy Adams and Melissa Leo, and was filmed in Lowell.

Good Will Hunting (1997): This award-winning movie about a troubled, yet genius, M.I.T. janitor propelled its writers and stars — best friends Matt Damon and Ben Affleck — into Hollywood stardom.

Mystic River (2003): Clint Eastwood directed this Boston-filmed drama about childhood friends (Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, Kevin Bacon) united after a tragedy and the darkness that falls when one man considers taking the law into his own hands.

Boondock Saints (1999): An epic box office failure, this film about two Irish Catholic twin brothers ( Norman Reedus and Sean Patrick Flanery) who hunt down and kill Boston’s gangsters with their own brand of vigilante justice has become an epic cult classic.


About The Author

Zack Britten
Editorial Intern

From a distance Zack Britten may seem like an intimidating tall person, but as soon as you talk to him it’s clear he’s a goofy 8-year-old trapped in a 20-year-old’s body. When he isn’t working or writing, he’s chilling in his room, reading comic books and taking a crack at his third play-through of Mass Effect; because two play-through’s isn’t enough. Zack has a plethora of adorkable friends that constantly encourage him to eat really strange foods and car surf down country roads doing 30 (it’s as terrifying as it sounds). Zack is from the far-off land of Pepperell and has worked just about everywhere, from retail to construction, and attends classes at the fabulous Middlesex Community College as a communications major. Writing for Howl Magazine is Zack Britten’s first attempt at work in his field of study and you can count on him to bust his butt there and love every second of it.