The latest act in the very public unraveling of Johnny Depp began last week in a courtroom in northern Virginia, pulling back the curtain on the secretive world of celebrity enablers and hangers-on.
Depp is suing his ex-wife, Amber Heard, for $50 million for describing herself as a “public figure representing domestic abuse” in a 2018 Washington Post opinion piece. That revived allegations she made when the couple divorced in 2016 — about which they had each promised to remain silent — and in Depp’s view the public characterization could not go unchallenged.
But after Depp lost a similar case in London in 2020, his public reputation — and career — are in tatters. He has not appeared in a major studio film since “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald” in 2018, although he has starred in smaller indies such as “Minamata.” Relitigating these issues, which entails resurfacing text messages in which he called Heard a “c—” and fantasized about her “rotting corpse,” is unlikely to turn things around.
“Maybe a part of him feels like, ‘What do I have to lose? I’m going down. I’m bringing her down with me,’” says Hollywood divorce lawyer Judy Poller.
Reports of Depp’s erratic behavior on set, extravagant spending and drug abuse were not in conflict with the rakish persona that helped him earn $650 million over three decades in the film business with hits like “Pirates of the Caribbean” and “Alice in Wonderland.” But Heard’s assault claims — once validated by a U.K. judge — made him virtually unemployable.
And that is why 11 citizens of Fairfax County have been compelled by a jury summons to hear six weeks of testimony about their relationship — and more about the troubled private life of a star who first broke through in 1987 with the “21 Jump Street” TV series and has remained in the public eye for decades.
The Depp trial also comes as other A-listers have had their own brushes with ignominy. From Will Smith’s Oscars slap to the arrest of “The Flash” star Ezra Miller, it’s been a rough period for Hollywood’s leading men and the studios that employ them.
“It’s always dangerous for celebrities when there’s a crack in the veneer that lets in an unpleasant reality,” says Derek Long, assistant professor of media and cinema studies at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. “When that crack happens and bad behavior or human frailty or imperfections come to the fore, it explodes the illusion.”
As the trial got underway, Depp’s lawyers set about rebuilding his public image. Their first witness was his older sister, Christi Dembrowski, who runs his production company, Infinitum Nihil. She is her brother’s most loyal protector.
Recalling their days growing up, she described Depp as a “very typical, happy little boy.” She also sketched the family dynamics — an angry mother who would beat her children with a switch and a timid father who tried to keep the peace. The goal was to explain Depp’s instinct to hide from conflict.
But on cross-examination, more-troubling dynamics of the grown-up sibling relationship emerged. In February 2014, Dembrowski texted her brother: “Stop drinking, stop coke, stop pills.” But she struggled to acknowledge his drug problem on the stand.
“I wrote those words,” she said in court. “But I don’t know the context of those words.”
Dembrowski said that at the time, she believed that Heard was exaggerating about Depp’s drug and alcohol use, and urged her not to challenge him so much, saying that “confrontation unfortunately doesn’t help.”
For her part, Heard framed her 2018 op-ed as a lesson in power. She alluded to Depp’s career as “a huge enterprise,” likening it to the Titanic and saying that a lot of people had a vested interest in patching up the holes.
Another witness for Depp, Isaac Baruch, told jurors that Depp invited him to live rent-free in a penthouse in downtown L.A. Depp wanted Baruch, a childhood friend, to be free to focus on his painting, and supplied him with $100,000 over several years in a “patronage” arrangement.
Depp and Heard lived in a nearby penthouse, and Baruch said that he never witnessed violence between them. After the breakup, Depp sold the penthouses, forcing Baruch to move to another of Depp’s properties. In one message to Baruch, Depp lamented that “that c— ruined such a f—ing cool life we had for a while.”
On the stand, Baruch said he believed that Heard was lying about the abuse but that he wasn’t angry.
“I want this all to end — her to go heal, him to go heal,” he said. “So many people have been affected by this malicious lie that she started, and she created, and it’s gone out the door and around the world. I can’t even paint anymore.”
Monday’s testimony descended into ever more macabre terrain, as a nurse and doctor recounted in bloody detail the search for Depp’s missing fingertip following a 2015 fight with Heard. Depp claims Heard severed the top of his middle finger after throwing a bottle at him; Heard counters that the actor likely cut his finger smashing a telephone.
In its early days, the trial has felt like sifting through the wreckage of a royal court after its ruler has been deposed. In the age of superheroes, Hollywood has found that it doesn’t need to cater as much to stars like Depp and Smith. Both reached their zenith around the turn of the century, but in recent years their box office powers waned.
“A film’s star was a big part of the way that a movie used to be identified,” says Will Scheibel, associate professor of film and screen studies at Syracuse University. “Now it seems like companies like Marvel or intellectual property like ‘Star Wars’ or even directors like Christopher Nolan are how people determine what they want to see.”