Toby Emmerich‘s 2020 decision to fire Johnny Depp from the Fantastic Beasts franchise is looking prescient. (Why he hired Depp in the first place, given the well-known behavior issues, is another question.) Secrets of Dumbledore may not light up the box office next weekend—overseas, it’s already way down from 2018’s Crimes of Grindelwald—but imagine marketing a family movie when your star is on Court TV debating whether he abused his wife. Nightmare scenario.
Depp’s televised $50 million defamation trial against Amber Heard is set to kick off tomorrow in Fairfax, Virginia, and if that sounds familiar, it’s because this is the second public airing of these sordid claims. Depp already lost a U.K. case against Murdoch’s The Sun, which called him a “wife beater.” The judge there issued a brutal ruling, finding “overwhelming evidence” that Depp assaulted Heard many times during their 15-month marriage—not exactly the outcome Depp envisioned when he sought to take advantage of Britain’s stricter libel laws.
Instead of moving on, however, Depp sued again, this time over a Washington Post op-ed that Heard wrote in 2018, in which she didn’t name Depp but referred to herself as a “public figure representing domestic abuse.” I won’t get into the detailed back-and-forth here, but in short, Heard attorneys Elaine Bredehoft and Ben Rottenborn have claimed Depp punched Heard and hit her in the face with a cellphone; Depp’s lawyers, Kathleen Zellner, Camille Vasquez and Ben Chew, call her allegations an “elaborate hoax” to boost her career by becoming a “darling of the #MeToo movement,” and Team Depp says she’s the abuser, once throwing a vodka bottle at him that smashed and severed his finger. The Times has a good preview of the case here, and the details are ugly.
What’s more interesting to me is the damages question. Libel claims mean nothing unless the person suing can prove he or she has been hurt financially, and a big chunk of the pre-trial litigation has centered on the question of how both Depp’s and Heard’s careers have been impacted by this years-long saga. I’d argue they’ve both been irreparably harmed, so whatever the 12-person jury decides in Virginia, they’ve both kinda already lost.
It’s true that Depp was pretty radioactive even before he and Heard started lobbing verbal bombs at each other. The substance abuse; the bizarre behavior; paying $5 million to shoot Hunter S. Thompson’s ashes out of a cannon. The Pirates 5 shoot was a nightmare, and before that, I was in the audience at the first televised Hollywood Film Awards in 2014, where Depp showed up drunk and could barely speak on stage. Les Moonves almost immediately canceled the show, even though CBS had agreed to air it for two years, and I remember asking him outside the Palladium what he thought. His blunt reply: “What the f— was up with Johnny?”
Many wondered. But what really caught the industry’s attention was when Depp left his longtime UTA agent Tracey Jacobs for CAA in 2016, and sued his business managers and lawyer Jake Bloom, claiming they defrauded him. It was a sad end to one of the industry’s most lucrative talent-rep partnerships. Jacobs’ and Bloom’s crafty deals had helped make Depp phenomenally wealthy—the business managers once claimed Depp had earned $650 million in Hollywood, yet Depp eventually had trouble meeting his $2 million-a-month obligations. Bloom was so close to Depp that he accompanied his client for a sweaty induction ceremony into the Comanche nation when Depp played Tonto in Disney’s The Lone Ranger. That’s attorney-client privilege.
So Depp’s reputation damage seemed to be mostly self-inflicted, even before Heard first got a restraining order in May 2016. Still, domestic violence is in another league, and when I talked to Depp’s team this week, they maintained that the physical abuse allegations were simply too much to tolerate. “This is about clearing his name, and about his children,” one of his reps told me. “That’s why we are here.”
Because the abuse claims go so far beyond the usual Johnny Depp craziness, Depp argues that the Heard op-ed irreparably damaged his reputation and livelihood. And indeed, one of the biggest movie stars in the world hasn’t worked in a studio movie since 2018, the year she published her piece. But at least from my perspective, the bigger career impact came with the U.K. court’s 2020 decision—a ruling, remember, in a case that Depp himself brought. Warner Bros.’ Emmerich fired Depp from Fantastic Beasts just days after that decision, and CAA cut ties right around then too. Disney is now developing Pirates 6 without him.
Heard’s damages claims are also interesting, especially since Team Depp has turned the tables and alleged abuse by her, an accusation that caused her to file her own counterclaim seeking as much as $100 million. “A movie I was attached to recast my role,” Heard wrote in her op-ed. “I had just shot a two-year campaign as the face of a global fashion brand, and the company dropped me. Questions arose as to whether I would be able to keep my role of Mera in the movies Justice League and Aquaman.”
That last part is definitely true. Amid the scandal, Warner Bros. initially declined to pick up Heard’s option for Aquaman 2, I’m told, despite the first film grossing $1.1 billion. Walter Hamada, president of DC Films, sat for a three-hour deposition on this issue as part of the Depp case. (The depo is not public, but attorneys are planning to introduce it in the trial.) Hamada is said to have testified that Heard was initially not picked up because there were concerns about her chemistry with star Jason Momoa. Indeed, the duo have publicly referenced issues on set during the first film. But Heard’s team believed the Depp scandal was the real cause of the reluctance.
Regardless, Heard was eventually picked up, and has shot the Aquaman sequel, but she wasn’t able to negotiate a fee increase commensurate with co-stars like Momoa, as might be expected on the follow-up to such a runaway hit. That’s a direct financial consequence of the Depp lies, she says, and expert testimony could back up her claim. She also hasn’t booked additional lucrative roles or endorsements due to the Depp taint, she claims.
Will a jury agree? We’ll see. They first have to figure out which side of the abuse story they believe. And that is expected to take about six weeks, with testimony expected from both parties. Both Elon Musk, a Heard pal, and James Franco, are on the witness list, but they were never served subpoenas and are not expected to appear. She got a big win last month when Judge Penney Azcarate ruled Heard can lean on the state’s new anti-SLAPP law that protects people who speak about public issues—a law that was enacted in Virginia in part because of this case.
Given the stakes and issues, First Amendment lawyers are certainly watching how this case proceeds—and thanks to Depp pushing for cameras in the courtroom (over Heard’s objection), they can watch live on TV. The two sides have already spent millions in litigation fees, and trials like this generally cost about $1 million a week for both sides. Heard has legal insurance; Depp doesn’t. If the jury rejects his claims, he might even have to pay her attorneys’ fees.
The whole thing is sad, and if I had to predict an outcome, I’d say Depp will probably lose again, just like he did in the U.K. But the bigger question is why he brought the second case in the first place: Depp is either standing up for principles or, more likely, he’s got nothing else to lose.