Interview with Johnnydeppreads.com – 6/12/09
I was blessed to be able to talk with Mike at great length over several days time that stretched over a few weeks. He is incredibly kind, generous, humble and giving. He plays Herbert Youngblood in the films and has pivotal scenes with Johnny, you can see Mike in many of the trailers. I hope you enjoy what he has to say to us and please thank him for his time and candidness with me. He’s a stand-up man and I am now a huge fan, I know you will be too.
Please be sure to take a few minutes to check out a site that is very dear to Mike,
Thanks so much for speaking with me Mike! This is incredibly generous of you. I’d also like to thank our mutual friend and your PUBLIC ENEMIES costar, John Michael Bolger for introducing us!
JDR: Can you tell us how the two of you met?
MB: We were in Chicago and I walked into the hotel lobby, I had checked in an hour or so before and I wanted to see what was going on downstairs, and bam! There was this guy looking very animated…and I wondered, who is this guy? LOL And he comes up to me and says “Are you Michael Bentt?” And of course I retired fourteen years ago from fighting and we starting talking and we talked some more and some more and we totally clicked and I see a lot of myself in John. Different races, cultural backgrounds were so similar in so many ways, pretty sensitive…I like to think of myself as being well rounded as John is, and John is very passionate and so we talked for about five hours about boxing.
JDR: Before we talk about your work in the movies, I’d like to ask you about your boxing. You still hold records to this day.
MB: I was born in London, my mom and dad were Jamaican and came to the states in 1972 so I came here at six years old and I had a very think English accent. So I go to school and I get beat up for it. There was one guy, and he was like a terror to me, he was like four or five years older than me and he beat me up man. So then I think was when I decided to try to blend in and lose the accent, you know? Then in about three or four years it was completely gone. (And it is.) And so my dad was a big fight fan, he fashioned himself as a Cassius Clay type, the old boy encouraged me to fight and I took up boxing at the age of ten. Looking back in retrospect, I don’t know if I really liked it, it was hard work. So I started boxing at like ten years old and lost my first three fights as an amateur and I wanted to mimic Ali at that point. Got trounced my first three fights and one day I came home and said “ya know what? I don’t want to box anymore” which my dad wasn’t very happy with, but I decided to take up baseball, was a huge Yankees fan. Three years later, one of my mentors as a boxer, a guy named George Pimentel, he was Dominican and was a fantastic fighter. George was allowed to travel with the World boxing team to Poland for a televised fight. And on his arrival at the Warsaw, Poland airport his plane crashed and everyone perished. Eighty seven people died and the whole USA Boxing team perished. A contingent of sixteen people died, that broke my heart. He was my first mentor, he was about five years older than me and I remember that morning, I said you know what, I’m going to fight again. Not for my father, but for George. I was fifteen – sixteen years old then and I went to a gym and I told my dad that I wanted to fight again and I didn’t tell him why but he was ecstatic. And I became good at it, you know? And it snowballed and I won the Central Junior Championships in NY and it kind of blossomed into me winning the Golden Gloves in 1984 after several tries, winning the Nationals five times, which is unprecedented. 3 time Amateur Boxing Federation Championship and twice the Nationals. Which makes 5. And I was Captain of the USA Boxing Team that went to Moscow for the first games, and Pan American games as an amateur.
JDR: WOW! Those are amazing records, now correct me if I am wrong, but you were the World Heavyweight Champion correct?
MB: Yeah, that was as a professional. And there was some drama involved in there. My first pro fight I got knocked out in the first round, and for an amateur of my stature, that was disastrous, that wasn’t supposed to happen. I had signed to turn pro with Emanuel Steward after the 1988 Olympic trials, and I lost to the guy who eventually won the medal Ray Mercer. I didn’t want to turn pro, but I thought you know what… but to get from underneath my father’s reign of tyranny, know what I mean, so I turned pro, got some money, moved to Detroit. That was a shock, I was raised in the suburbs in Queens, nice neighborhoods and then bam! Detroit, Michigan. Wow. So…turned pro with Emanuel, my first fight, I was knocked out in the first round and it was all of my worst nightmares combined. I took twenty two months off. You know as a fighter you are defined by your last fight.
JDR: That’s the same in the acting world too isn’t it Michael? You are only as good as your last film?
MB: That’s right, and so I took some time off, soul searched, was in that period when I was engaged in some destructive behavior. My life and myself image were in the gutter but I had a friend, a good friend who was still boxing and he gave me a place to fight, he said that I should go to Tampa, Florida and train with the British – European champion Gary Mason just to see if I still had it or not. So I’m in Tampa under the guidance of one of Britain’s premiere boxing promoters. And I followed Gary Mason, and I asked him if he was taking it easy on me. I do have something there. Now fast forward five years, and I fight a guy named Tommy Morrison. Tommy’s the WBO Champion that he just won from George Foreman the previous July,
I was a huge underdog despite my amateur credentials, despite that I was Evander Holyfield’s chief spar partner for like five years. I was such an underdog that the odds maker in Las Vegas officially booked the fight as exhibition. You’re scared and afraid of humiliation and it sort of charges your battery. So I ended up beating Tommy and capturing his championship but you know what though Karen? It’s weird; you’d think that I would be full of elation, right? And full of happiness and joy and you know what? I wasn’t. I was depressed.
JDR: Why the depression?
MB: I found myself sitting in the locker room after the fight with everybody congratulating me, saying that was a great fight, you’re the man, all of that. And I was thinking this is such bullshit. Like five years ago when I had lost, I would walk down the street and people who knew me, just looked at me with disdain. Wow. So that winning a championship made me realize that it didn’t really mean anything, ya know? The first night, I was like is that it? That’s all? No fireworks, no emotional fireworks. So as luck would have it I got probably the best gift I ever got in my life in retrospect for my next fight. Herbie Hide who was a young struggling heavyweight from Nigeria, and this was supposed to be my homecoming fight back in London (March 19, 1994). At 3am London time in their World soccer stadium I was knocked out in seven rounds. I went into a coma for ninety six hours. That man saved my life. If not for that fight, I’d probably be still fighting. It changed my life…for the better.
JDR: How did you get from there to films? That’s quite a bit of traveling.
MB: Good question. I’ve always been fascinated by words. I’m a high school dropout.
JDR: Johnny Depp’s a high school dropout, left school at about sixteen to start a band.
MB: School didn’t interest me at all, I would cut class and go to the library and steal books. Steal books by William Styron, Shakespeare, Langston Hughes and Bram Stoker…and cut out of school and ride the train and read books.
JDR: You and Johnny Depp have such a shared background. He has a love of books too.
MB: You know ultimately I think that was the artist in me trying to get out. But I was so committed to boxing, I was into boxing. I used to do commentary and translate the Dutch commentary into English. I was a commentator over there in Holland. My friend who was a reporter then for the British, Freddie Burcombe and I are talking, I had retired for a year and I didn’t know what to do. I had some money, not a lot, but some money and he said why didn’t I start writing? OK..I start writing, and I wrote a piece for Mark Breland who was probably America’s number one amateur (boxer) ever. And Mark and I are friends and Michael Katz was a sports writer for the Daily News and I sent Michael the piece, who said that this was good stuff, said “I’ll run it in the Daily News.”
JDR: What a charge that must have been, because this is the you that’s an artist, it’s in your soul.
MB: That’s right, and at that time I didn’t have a computer. I was taking courses at the community college and I would sneak into the school at night and use the lab computers to write my article. I wrote for the school paper for a while as well about for a year and wrote boxing profiles for a fight, I hated going too. My history with boxing is so ambivalent. My dearest friends though, people like Mike Katz, Bert Sugar, some of the fighters, Mike Jones…so I was at this press conference and Bert Sugar (Fight Game Magazine) walks in and says that he is starting a magazine and wants me to be a contributor. Great, so I did about four or five pieces for him and I get a phone call and he says he wants me to write a piece that only a boxer can write…he says “I want you to write about your experience getting knocked out, how it feels to knock somebody out.” I stalled for about five months on this thing. I was at a fight in I think 1995 and I run into Budd Schulberg who wrote “On the Waterfront” and contributed some things to “Fight Game” too. And he told me that I had to write this piece. So I had Bert Sugar and Budd Schulberg saying that I had to write this piece. So you dig down, at that point I had failed my mother, lost all my money doing irresponsible stuff. I think there comes a point in a writer’s life where once that identity is removed from you, of being a fighter, your world will self destruct. You are financially irresponsible, you engage in sexual irresponsibility. So I went back home and my sister had a computer. So I wrote the piece and I think I put my soul in that thing.
JDR: How long did it take you to write that?
MB: Oh… I think about five days.
JDR: Wow you were beat up at the end of that.
MB: Oh I was. For the first time, I had a copy of my last fight in my closet and I had never watched it. So for the first time I wanted to take some notes for the piece, so I put it into my mother’s VCR and I watched it. And you know? It was cathartic. I mean I suffered a really terrible graphic knockout. When I get knocked down my left foot pitches from under me and I fall face forward and my face slams against the canvas and it bounced maybe an inch off the ground. And as I’m watching it, maybe four or five years later, I’m like, you know what? This is liberating. I’m surviving it. And so fast forward a couple of years, I’m training a young man named Michael Berner. Michael Berner is the son of Fred Berner, the producer of “Law and Order” and Michael in his own right is a very talented musician and singer. So Michael was about twelve or thirteen years old when I was training him. I ran into Damon Bingham on the street, he’s the son of Howard Bingham and Damon is Muhammad Ali’s Godson. So I’m walking down the street in Manhattan and bam! I run into Damon Bingham. He says “Hey, what’s up?” and I say “What’s going on?” And he said that his dad was producing a film on Muhammad Ali and I think that I have to be a part of it…somehow.
I had started acting in college, when I went back to school in ’95, training and I’d taken some courses in New York as well. The next day, I was training with Michael and I said, “you know Fred, I don’t want to over step my bounds but there’s a film that’s being produced and Will Smith is attached to…do you think there’s a chance that maybe I can audition for a role? Can you maybe send out some feelers on my behalf?” And it just so happened that Fred Berner did a film with Ron Shelton called “Play it to the Bone” and Ron Shelton is a huge fight fan and he had read the piece that I wrote in Burt’s magazine “Anatomy of a Knockout” and Fred gave me Ron’s number and he said “Hey Mike, I read your piece…if you can act at all, come out here to LA and reach out to Vicky Thomas who’s casting “Ali”. Vicky cast “Play it to the Bone” for Ron, now see how small the world is.
I had an ex trainer, Eddie Mustafa Muhammad who was living in Las Vegas and I had trained in Vegas for my last couple of fights and his wife knew that I was in NY and miserable, and she said “Mike why don’t you come out and take the Las Vegas police test?” So she signed me up and I was on line to be tested, I borrowed some money, took a flight down and took the Vegas police test, passed it and was on line for the psych evaluation. In between those activities, I took a bus to Los Angeles, to see Vicky Thomas for “Ali”, got in LA, went to Vicky Thomas’ office on Olympic Blvd., she read me, and it was like, “Mike great job, don’t call us, we’ll call you.” She was real sweet. But went back to Vegas, finished the Vegas police exam and was online to go in to the police academy. I pack up my bags to move back to Vegas, as I land in NY, my phone rings and who was it? Michael Mann’s office. I’m like whoa! They want to see me tomorrow. Now I just had landed in NY and I was flat broke. I had a house in Pennsylvania that long ago, I had vacated. While I was in PA I had bought a hand gun just for protection. A 40 caliber. And I traveled with it then. But NY had a program that if you had a gun… turned it in, no questions asked they gave you like three hundred bucks for it. So I called them up and said I’m not a criminal, but I have the handgun that I own legally in PA, can I bring it in? Sure, bring it in. Sign the paper, no questions asked, three hundred bucks. But I needed a bit more ‘cuz like you know a flight the next day is not cheap. So I had a pair of boxing gloves and a friend had Oscar de la Hoya sign them and I had a friend who was a big fight fan and I told him that I was in a jam and that I had to be in LA the next day for an interview with Michael Mann, and he said “Mike what do you need?” and I said “a few hundred bucks so I can buy the plane ticket.” So he gives me more than I need, and so I that day I go to a shop in NY and buy a shark skin suit ‘cuz you know what Sonny Liston was like, he was a sharp dresser. And I go into a barber shop and I say look man, I want you to trim my moustache just like Sonny Liston’s mustache…the whole nine yards.
JDR, This is great!! You just had it in you to do this, you just knew!
MB: Yeah, I was taking some acting courses but I think just intuitively I knew. I wanted them to see not Michael Bentt but Sonny Liston when I walked in the door, into his office. And we met, and Michael went to school in London, the London School of Film, I believe. And we spoke about London and we spoke about Jamaicans, my mom and dad, Mike spent time in Jamaica, he was very, very engaging and non-threatening. I mean, you know, here I am, I’m an old beat up fighter and people don’t give fighters a chance….but you know as we’re talking, I hear someone talking outside, in a joking way and it’s Will Smith! I recognize his voice and Mike says to me, “let’s go outside and see Will.” I go outside, he sees me and he starts walking back to me and he’d doing his Ali imitation and I jump on him with my best Liston and Michael Mann turned and said “You know what? You’ve got the role.”
JDR: Well then you were meant to play Liston!
MB: Yeah,. I was very lucky, very lucky.
JDR: Michael Mann loves you! This is what, your fourth film with him?
MB: Third film and he also cast me in his Robbery Homicide TV series, fantastic series. You know I’ve had the privilege of working with really fantastic directors, Clint Eastwood, Ron Shelton, Michael Mann, these directors they are like psychologists, mentors, confidants, they know the role and they push. It all has to be expressed with in the right spirit, as an artist and as a boxer I was very sensitive. Look, I can’t get a film green lit, but I am a man and Michael Mann appreciates that and so nine years later here I am talking about “Public Enemies.”
JDR: So you played Sonny Liston, a real person and now you are playing Herbert Youngblood, another real person, so what kind of prep work did you do to “get” Herbert Youngblood?
MB: Well I think the most important thing for me is to get the written history, you know, I can pull stuff up on line, got to the library, but I think the challenge for was what do I have in common with this guy? I try to erase the culture…
JDR: Herbert Youngblood was, in real life, put away for murder, right?
MB: That’s right, he murdered an Italian guy in 1933 in Gary, Indiana over a card game. So I have to ask myself: what would make me murder an Italian man in 1933 given the way that society looked upon Blacks at that point. And just a lot of internal questions that I would constantly ask myself, why am I doing this? Why am I here? I mean while I’m in jail, what is it that I miss about outside life the most? You have to keep asking yourself the same questions. Ask yourself more questions as the camera is moving, when it’s not moving..
JDR: Because you had to stay in that mode –
MB: I tried to, I tried to. You know you meet a little girl who’s a huge fan of Johnny Depp and she sees me being a part of the process (being filmed), so enamored by that, obviously you can’t approach her with the same energy. You know Herbert Youngblood was a human being, so if a young girl smiles at him, guess what? Herbert smiles back at her.
So I’ve been acting for fifteen years now and I’ve had one of the best teachers in the world Rick Edelstein, and it wasn’t until I met Rick that I really understood what the process was like. Or what the process was about. Because I did Ali on my emotional fumes, and Rick taught me how to make the choices that the great actors make, the Jeffrey Wrights, the Brandos, the Ben Kingsleys, the Meryl Streeps. You do your exhaustive investigative work and you make your choices based on that work. It can’t always be pleasant, nice choices.
JDR: Because in this instance you’re not only playing a character in a movie, in this particular case, you’re playing a real person who is now a fictionalized character in a movie.
MB: That’s right.
JDR: Now if I remember right, it was in Crown Point where you all bust out of the same prison they did in real life.
MB: Yes, the same exact jail. That was eerie. I think it was on the third floor where we shot the actual break out scene and one day we a break period for lunch and I’m very curious, like most actors are and went to the other part of the jail that was still in the original state. The production company refurbished the third floor to look exactly like it did back then in 1933. The rest of the floors weren’t refurbished at all. I went up to the fourth floor and I stood there and it was creepy as hell. I had to flee, I got nauseous. The energy was so thick, I could feel it.
JDR: You felt the souls of the people who had been there?
MB: I sure could. You know as an actor you have to open yourself up to all those doors. And you have to be careful because society says look this is how we’re taught, so at a young age we’re taught don’t do that. You have to mind your manners and this and that, but Herbert Youngblood, this guy was a hustler and a survivor and… people look to survive.
JDR: So helping Dillinger break out was his opportunity to get the hell out of Dodge.
MB: Exactly, he’s step on, or break the neck of anyone who gets in his way, and as an actor to seriously, seriously delve into that?? Whew…..
JDR: What happened to Herbert Youngblood after the breakout?
MB: He died. He got shot two and half weeks later in Port Heron, Michigan stealing a pack of cigarettes. He was shot in the back by an off duty police officer. He actually killed a cop in that confrontation as well. Killed a cop and got shot in the back, and as he was dying he said that the cop who shot him asked him where Dillinger was? He said that he was with Johnny (Dillinger) last night and that he was going to Chicago. And that was a complete lie. He was trying to throw the cop off. Think about it, 1934? You know relationships between blacks and whites were not as they are now. And for John Dillinger to embrace this black man back then, he was truly John’s muscle and for John to embrace that, it just speaks about the guy’s character.
JDR: Are you carrying around any of (the character) Herbert Youngblood with you today?
MB: Not any more, I was. I buried him with honors. Although we all have a piece of Herbert Youngblood in us, obviously mine is more identifiable because I lived with this guy for like four months. You know? But I will say that society says look, this is how we act, we shouldn’t be uncivilized or sexual deviants or murderers but that’s what makes this stuff interesting! That’s what makes drama interesting and safe for the audience: it up on the screen.
JDR: That’s right, if Dillinger hadn’t robbed banks why would anybody remember him?
JDR: Being a former World Heavyweight Boxer, I’d like to share this with you, I’ve come in contact with many people in all aspects of the film industry through my Depp site and I’ve learned that so many share a love, background or interest in boxing. Isn’t that amazing?
MB: You know what? I’ll share an interesting story with you, I’m on set with Johnny (Depp) on PUBLIC ENEMIES and we had some break time, so ( he said) you know what Mike, he knew about my boxing, he said tell me about your boxing, so give him back ground stuff and he said that he’d had a fascinating experience about four years ago, he was somewhere, I think in France and a lady came up to him and said that “in your previous life you were a boxer.”
JDR: Now, this was Johnny Depp that she was talking to?
MB: Yeah, Johnny Depp, yeah, and he’s telling me this, right? And he says that he got chills, wow this was interesting… and she said that “in his previous life he was a boxer” and she said that he was the boxer Stan Ketchel, he fought in the 1920s and he looks just like Johnny Depp. Ketchel was the middleweight champion that moved up in weight to fight Jack Johnson for the heavyweight championship. And Stan Ketchel was a hell raiser. He got shot in the back by one of his wife’s lover’s or girlfriend’s lovers, something like that? He died a very tragic death. Google Stan Ketchel, that’s Johnny Depp, it’s frigging uncanny. You can check out the fight on youtube. Do you know who Jack Johnson is??
JDR: I’m hangin’ my head in shame, no Mike, I don’t.
MB: (laughing) Jack Johnson was the first black heavyweight champion in this country. Of course, this being the early 1900’s he had to brazenly lobby for a fight with the incumbent champion, Jim Jeffries. Any way, Jeffries wouldn’t ‘cross the racial lines’ and fight Jack so he gave the championship up and retired rather than fight Jack. Johnson then petitions for a fight with, Tommy Burns, who picked up the championship after Jeffries abandoned it. Jack beat Burns on Dec.26,1908 in Australia. Jack Johnson and Stan Ketchel were like boys, like hangin’ buddies and like-minded hell raisers. So they agree to fight and as the story goes it was supposed to be nothing more than a cruising light workout where no one got fresh or hurt. Let’s just pack the house and run to the bank after. Fine, sound like a plan, right. Only, it gets a little heated and in the course Stanley gets fresh with Jack and nails him with a vicious clubbing overhand right and knocks Jack down. Johnson is visibly hurt by the punch but in Stanley’s over enthusiasm to finish the job he runs into a right upper from Jack and the fight ends. Anyway I’m like Johnny, you should play this dude. man. You can play him. It’s a very, very tragic, tragic life… and death.
JDR: I was told to ask you “who was Charlie Burley?”
MB: Charley Burley was a fantastic fighter, many people say that he is one of the uncrowned champions in boxing lore; many people assert that he was ducked by the great Sugar Ray Robinson, which probably had more to do with finances but Charlie Burley was a wonderful boxer. Charley Burley lived across the street from playwright August Wilson when Wilson was a adolescent. In one of the books I have about him he said that the first….you know his father was white and his mom was black and they lived in an area called “the Hills” in Pittsburg. And apparently his dad was very abusive to his mom and his dad eventually leaves and August Wilson says that the first role model, black or white that he saw was a garbage man who lived across the street from him. This man was always clean, on the weekend was always the model of decorum …and eventually August Wilson goes on to meet this man. And this man would be his mentor in many ways. This was Charley Burley the fighter. He was THE Charley Burley and he influenced one of our greatest playwrights. There again are the links of boxing to the arts. Amazing.
JDR: This is all just truly amazing! Can I ask you about some of your other projects?
MB: I shot a TV pilot called “Redemption” which is about the life of a teenaged embezzler, who embezzled millions from Wall Street types and serves eight years in Federal Prison. Hopefully it’ll get picked up.
I want to continue my writing, be it screenwriting or prose, you know, writing brought me out here with Sonny, so I need to get back to that.
JDR: Have you ever thought about writing your own life story?
MB: Whoa…I’ve toyed with the idea. I think ultimately I’m a frustrated writer, because when I talk, I see the words and I see the words that I’m moved by, either with they’re power, candidness or delicacy, if that makes sense. I see what I want to say but sometimes my tongue can’t catch up with it. (he laughs)
JDR: And that reminds me of a quote that I read in one of your interviews where you are quoting actor William H. Macy, “No one acts because they had a happy childhood.” Now, would you say that’s the same for boxing?
MB: Oh Karen, absolutely! When you grow up trying to please people, trying to please your first hero and in my case that was my father, and that person is abusive verbally and physically, emotionally vacant and uses you as a little mascot, brings you to homes of women and you have to go back to your home and lie about where you’ve been. That creates some stuff. For the actor, writer that’s wonderful material, it’s what August Wilson, Mamet ,Shakespeare, it’s what they write about. But for me to tap it, thankfully I found this dude named Rick Edelstein. Because he showed me that it’s OK to tap into that stuff and how to tap into it. And all that stuff, I mean my father’s my father. I love him and I hate him and I like him and I don’t like him. Those relationships are in all of us. That’s life. But you know? How wonderful that I have the access to all this stuff. You know what I mean?
JDR: Yes, because that stuff makes us all who we are, for better or for worse.
MB: Yeah, and how wonderful and liberating to have the availability to it. I can write about it, I can use it for Herbert (in Public Enemies) because if I’m really honest with myself there’s nothing that’s ever been written that I can’t identify with. I’m not saying that I’m a great actor and that I can access it, but I can identify with it. So if I can identify with it and access it, I can write about it at least, from my point of view. I am so glad that I found acting and so glad that Michael Mann trusted me.
JDR: What do you think there is about you, that he calls on you time and time again for his films?
MB: Oh…I don’t know but I think I have an intensity, a physicality and a focus from my life as an athlete that I don’t apologize but equal to that is my trained intensity as an actor, it’s not uncultured I work really hard at being good at this. I am there? No, but think that Michael relates to it and see where I have to potential to go. Or maybe I deluding myself and he just hires me to have some eye candy on set. Just kidding…. All of the actors that I admire have a danger element to them. And also have a charm element to them. I get a chance to see Denzel Washington occasionally work out in a boxing gym, he’s another huge fight fan. He boxes, as does my dear friend Terence Blanchard. Now, Terance is a world renowned trumpet player, and a film composer. He’s the average looking guy walking down the street, right? Cool, jazzy New Orleans persona, fly understated clothes…but the man is LETHAL with his hands, LETHAL!! I see those artists, I see myself in them. Denzel Washington, he’s charming, has a fantastic smile, a handsome dude but he also has an intelligent element of danger. That speaks to me and to others as well because we have to have the element of danger, Barack Obama has that element of danger but you never see it because it manifests itself differently. I have the power, why show it?…There I go reading people again…. I’m just glad that I found something that really speaks to me and that I can dive into and embrace it for what it is. I love the process and the process is painful.
JDR: If Michael Mann came to you and said you could play your dream character, who would you want to play?
MB: That’s such a good question Karen, the obvious choice is…well there are two choices, the obvious choice is and not to put myself in a box but I’ve always wanted to play Jack Johnson. Of course the great James Earl Jones played him in “The Great White Hope”. But it would be a wonderful challenge to bring to life the complexity and drama of his sixty eight years on the planet. I read a book that Jack Johnson authored, it was published in France, and was outlawed here in the states until fairly recently. He was a wonderfully complex, freaky dude man. And that’s a wonderful character to play, outside of the boxing. This guy allegedly had an affair with Mae West, dated white women exclusively…uh and demanded a fight with the heavyweight champion when interracial fighting was outlawed.
JDR: In just the short time that we’ve been talking, did you realize that many of your references and people that you’ve spoken about are coming out of the 1930s?
MB: No I didn’t.
JDR: I wonder what it is about the people in that era that have inspired you?
MB: Most of my mentors have been older cats, who are like seventy, eighty years old. They speak to me. The other role that I would like to try, and this is a stretch, Humbert Humbert.
JDR: Tell me a bit about the experience of this Public Enemies movie.
MB: Working with Michael Mann? Each time I learn something, the first time I learned how to be disciplined in a certain craft, acting is a craft just like boxing, or learning how to hit a baseball, it’s a craft. I had some training with ALI but not a lot, particularly not on that big stage, so I learned how to reinvent a moment during a different take. If Michael Mann gives me an emotional adjustment, how to adjust to it. I think those are of some of the things I learned since ALI and also from ALI and what Michael expects in general. And I think also, working with Mike, he showed me how maniacally prepared you have to be so that you can create controlled anarchy, if that makes sense. I mean this guy has his hands into every facet of the production. From seeing how the background actors are wardrobed, to how the makeup is on them and is the hairline right on Herbert Youngblood and Zarkovich. This guy is like so inspirational and he never stops working. We were shooting a scene in PE and Mike was holding the camera and he was driving in a car maybe thirty – thirty five miles per hour and he tumbles off the car, there’s an apparatus that extends off the car to hold the camera, and the dude tumbles off the car. SO the car stops and everyone gets out like “Mike are you OK man? And he’s like yeah, yeah let’s go again.’ I like this man, he is my hero. I can’t name them all, but the great directors are like great coaches. And I’ve been exposed to my share of some of the greatest boxing trainers of the past half century. With Mike? You know you’re giving him what he wants when he says nothing. He may give you like a little nod or thumbs up. I had to learn that, boxers or people in general need that validation. How was that?
You know being around people like JD and like great actors man, it’s a big production, you have to bring your “A” game, you know you have to be prepared.
JDR: Can you tell us a bit about what Johnny Depp was like when you first met him?
MB: Listen, Karen, the dude is beautiful man, inside and out! I mean he is, he’s a major, major global attraction! But you would expect a guy like that, you know coming from the sports world, guys like that, outside of someone like an Ali who was also insanely humble, maybe Jim Brown, outside of them? Guys like that are typically pricks, pardon me, but … He comes into the car the first time I encounter him, (in the trailer, you can see Michael Bentt seated in the rear of the car with Depp as Dillinger in the front seat) I’ve worked with Michael Mann before so I’ve plugged in all my work on the character. I know why I’m there, how I got there, I know my relationship with the people in the car. I got it, let’s go. And Johnny…honed in on me through the rear view mirror like a laser beam. Perfect 1934. July 7th..7am I’m there, I got your back Mr. John… The guy comes into the car, Johnny Depp and he says like hey Mike, how’re ya doing? Then he says Mike, wanna arm wrestle? (He cracks up telling this) And I’m like what? WHAT? You wanna arm wrestle? So totally broke the tension, but it was like that’s the relationship between Herbert and Dillinger. So the guy’s just a sweet dude, even when the cameras weren’t rolling we talked about boxing, our children.
JDR: SO he knew about your Championship?
MB: Michael Mann should be my publicist, (laughs) he made sure that everyone on set knew like of my achievements in the ring. That’s always sweet as it shows an appreciation for my travels.
JDR: I was so thrilled when I saw the trailer, I think you’re in two scenes.
MB: yeah, yeah I’m thrilled about the film and having the privilege to work with Michael Mann once again and meeting and working with Johnny Depp and John Michael Bolger. You couldn’t meet three more deeply impassioned stand up men.
JDR: And then there was Marion Cotillard!
MB: Did I tell you about my first time meeting her?
JDR: No, tell me.
MB: Oh my God, about a month of two prior to me going up to Chicago to film, my wife says Mike, come look at this movie. You know is was some French subtitle-y thing, my wife is a foreign film connoisseur …I love my share of foreign films as well, but . And OK.. cool, and it was ” La Vie en Rose ” and I’m like ,whoa…she was scary in her brilliance. And then two months and I’m sitting in the hair and makeup chair on the set of PE and I knew that Marion Cotillard was in the cast. And there I am in the hair and makeup chair and who walks in? Marion Cotillard. And I’m like WOW! Ok…I got down on one knee, and I took her hand, I think it was her left hand, she was sitting down in her hair and makeup chair and I kissed her hand. and I said to her “You know, based on your performance in La Vie en Rose I should take a pair of scissors to my SAG card”.…she totally, completely morphed into Edith Piaf. There are so many scenes in that film…her choices!
JDR: Mike, how long were you on set?
MB: I was on set, let’s see…three and half weeks. I think I shot nine or ten days.
JDR: There were some amazing actors on set, what was that experience like? Bale, Cotillard and of course Depp…what a cast!
MB: I didn’t have any interaction with Bale, when you get into a certain space when acting. To me, you have to go into some dangerous spaces, like fighting. A fighter can’t afford to be vulnerable, right? Can’t afford to show any inkling of weakness, or being vulnerable, but an actor has to. You know what I mean? These actors, they are doing so much work, accessing old wounds, they are actually changing their DNA and giving birth to something else. It’s painful man.
JDR: That’s a really brilliant description of what actors do!
MB: You have to really go for it. You have to invest in it the first moment, you have to experience pain and not make it easy on yourself. I read this stuff on Brando, that actors and directors who call themselves artists don’t know shit.
JDR: I disagree with him about that, I think actors are artists, they create a picture and tell a story.
MB: That’s right and you’re using your body to demonstrate sorrow or triumph, lust, or envy at the expense of your body and mind to bring comfort to others and yourself it that makes sense.
JDR: I’m assuming you’ve seen something of Johnny’s work before this film.
MB: Absolutely! I want to share one thing with you now, as a fight guy , I was like a student of the fight game. Anything that could help me, I’d dive into it from the standpoint of a student. I’m a student of film. I adore Dante Spinotti’s work and when I found out that Dante Spinotti was the cinematographer of Public Enemies I was thinking this is heaven to me. Johnny Depp? Yeah. Yeah. I absolutely knew his work.
JDR: When you work with someone like Depp or Will Smith, these are huge guys who’ve created other characters that are memorable and in your brain. How do you, as an artist and actor, get past what you’ve seen them do before on screen? Because they are now coming to you as Ali and Dillinger.
MB: The first thing that I do is something I learned from my coach Rick Edelstein. What I do after preparation and I’m ready to go to work. Accept the tension, being nervous is part of the process. But I know that I’m prepared and that I’ve been before. You know, it’s not natural to act. You now have a camera in front of you that detects everything. Sometimes you can use the tension, sometimes you can’t, I always accept it, trust my preparation, relate to what’s going on in the scene or whoever is in the scene with me. Grip person over here, light person over here, hair and makeup over there? I make them vanish and relate to them privately but in public. That’s not natural. But, I admit everything, my apprehension, my nervousness, like I’m hungry right now… and ten times out of ten, whatever you are feeling, that character felt at some point. Who’s to say that Herbert Youngblood didn’t have to take a leak as he’s driving in the car with John Dillinger? Just admit everything. It seems real simple, but those aren’t if your in your way. This whole acting… it’s so invigorating, it makes me feel alive.
JDR: What did you as Mike Bentt do to get back into the real world at the end of a day’s filming as Herbert Youngblood?
MB: Of course the world is going to impact you, so you’re walking around as “Herbert” in 2008, but I try to stay in that place. Because I’m certain Herbert had to switch gears too. He laughed, cried, nearly pissed his pants with laughter. It just wasn’t shown. And I’m sure Herbert liked to have a good time, bullshit with his buddies – with his friends, you know what I mean? Like to take walks outside, smell the fresh air and clear his head, so I didn’t go that far from Herbert, he was always with me. I did let myself rest, though. It’s exhausting. There’s a reason Daniel Day Lewis, who’s what fifty-two years old (?) has only done a certain amount of films. He’s only done under twenty films, he gives birth. When you invest like he does? I marvel at people like Johnny Depp, that go to the well and constantly have full, three dimensional characters. Because the workload is enormous. That’s one of my fears, playing it safe and not pushing to unearth other parts of myself that may be illuminated by a performance. I think we are all wired the same way, so we chose what part we’re going to expose to the world.
That’s why acting workshop for me are so important.
It’s going to the gym.