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Originally published Tuesday, June 30, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Johnny Depp targets gangster John Dillinger in "Public Enemies"

An interview with Johnny Depp on the eve of the opening of the summer blockbuster "Public Enemies."

Los Angeles Times

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HOLLYWOOD — Actor Johnny Depp has fond memories of his first machine gun.

He was a kid growing up in Owensboro, Ky., and around age 5 or 6, began shooting .22s, then moved to .38s, .44s and .45s. Then he got his hands on a relative's Thompson submachine gun.

"I butted it up against the tree 'cause it tends to ride up on you," says Depp, 46, who relives the moment, complete with shooting sounds. "My pop came in and grabbed it, so it didn't go anywhere."

Guns are a topic of conversation for Depp, given that the superstar is talking about his new film, "Public Enemies" (opening at midnight tonight), the R-rated Michael Mann gangster epic in which he plays infamous 1930s bank robber John H. Dillinger.

It's an interesting role for Depp, one of few movie stars who didn't build his career on shoot-'em-ups.

Depp's done more than almost any other actor in Hollywood to expand the on-screen concept of masculinity, bringing "guyliner" to mainstream America well before Adam Lambert ever appeared on "American Idol" as well as a vision of male heterosexuality that maintains an element of the feminine and tons of rebelliousness.

Dillinger fits perfectly into Depp's personal canon of larger-than-life rebels and outsiders. The outlaw also holds sentimental appeal for the star, whose Kentucky hometown is but three hours from the gangster's birthplace in Mooresville, Ind.

Dillinger was just a punk when he was sentenced to nine years in the penitentiary for his part in a drunken mugging. He emerged as a hardened criminal, led a gang on a dozen bank robberies (hauling away $300,000 — about $4.8 million today), escaped from prison a couple of times, had a shootout with the FBI, and finally went down in a hail of bullets outside a Chicago movie theater.

While researching his role, Depp searched for a voice recording of the outlaw but couldn't find one, although a recording of Dillinger's father turned out to be revelatory.

"Hearing Dillinger's pop ... these are guys I know. I knew him then," says Depp. "I wanted to salute my grandfather through Dillinger and salute Dillinger through my grandfather. You know, my grandfather drove a bus by day back in the '30s and ran moonshine by night."

Depp says he felt a connection to Dillinger in old films Depp watched for hours on his family's black-and-white TV.

That was in Florida, where his parents ultimately moved and split up. Young Depp was enthralled with Dillinger as well as Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton.

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"I guess the era got me, the '30s, '40s and even the '20s. I was fascinated with the old Bogey movies, with Cagney movies, or even Fred Astaire."

Undeniably, Dillinger the myth remains bigger than Dillinger the man, even though "Public Enemies" is based on Bryan Burrough's nonfiction book about the gangster.

"The title of the film is 'Public Enemies,' but I don't see John Dillinger as an enemy of the public," says Depp.

He points out that Dillinger's prime antagonist, J. Edgar Hoover, wreaked more havoc and misery during his 40-year tenure atop the FBI than Dillinger did during his 18-month crime spree.

"I mean, who's the real criminal?" Depp asks.

The movie is "bloody and brutal," but it takes place during the height of the Depression, during a wave of foreclosures and bank failures. "People at certain points just had to take up arms, did they not?"

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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