Johnny Depp enters the room as what he wants to remain: a Hollywood star. He looks relaxed, sporting sunglasses, a three-piece suit, and a pirate smile. Before sitting down, he raises a toast with a silver thermos to those attending the defamation trial against his ex-wife, actress Amber Heard. It is Thursday 9.55am in the Fairfax court in the US state of Virginia and the actor is about to testify for the third consecutive day. He doesn’t seem too bothered, but today will not be an easy day.
When Depp and Heard ended their marriage in 2016 after 15 months (and three years of dating), she requested a restraining order and accused the actor of physically abusing her. Depp, 58, has denied the accusations. Nor has he been convicted of harming his ex-wife. That said, in 2020 a London judge ruled against the actor in a libel claim he made against the tabloid The Sun for calling him a “wife beater.” In that case, the magistrate found “overwhelming evidence” that the actor assaulted his ex-partner. In the divorce suit, which was resolved by mutual consent, Heard said that he had slapped her, headbutted her, grabbed her by the hair and kicked her in violent episodes aggravated by his alcohol and drug abuse.
On the first day of his testimony in the Fairfax court on Tuesday, Depp said that he has never hit Heard, nor “any woman in his life.” The next day, questioned by his lawyer, he claimed that he was the true victim of verbal and physical abuse, explaining he reacted to the violence in the same way as he did when his mother mistreated him as a child: “retreat.” The court also heard audios that the actor began to record when he saw that the end was approaching and feared that people would not believe the “endless parade of insults” that, according to Depp, she subjected him to. The actor said that he even had to hide in the bathroom from her verbal attacks.
In the recordings, she is heard criticizing him for his cowardice and saying: “I was hitting you, it was not punching you,“ in reference to an earlier altercation. “It could begin with a slap. It could begin with throwing a TV remote at my head. It could be throwing a glass of wine in my face,” said Depp, who also accused Heard of severing his middle finger with a bottle of vodka during a fight in Australia. Heard denies all allegations.
The seven members of the Fairfax jury are not called, however, to judge these episodes, nor the secrets of a marriage that, without a doubt, was tumultuous – a psychologist who treated both defined the relationship as “mutual abuse.” What the jury must decide is whether a 2018 op-ed in The Washington Post article caused irreparable damage to Depp’s reputation as an actor. In the article, Heard, 35, defines herself as “a public figure representing domestic abuse,” but does not mention Depp by name. The lawsuit also blames Heard for Disney’s decision to drop Depp from the sixth installment of the million-dollar movie saga Pirates of the Caribbean.
Heard’s lawyers have tried to dismantle that cause-and-effect relationship by showing the jury press articles that spoke of the possible cancellation months before the date of The Washington Post article. “When the allegations were made, when they were circling the globe, telling people I was a drunken, cocaine-fueled menace who beat women, suddenly in my 50s, it’s over. You’re done,” Depp told the court. “I’ll carry that for the rest of my life.”
In response, Depp filed a lawsuit against Heard in 2019 for $50 million (€48 million) in compensation. She countersued for $100 million, claiming that statements made by Depp’s former lawyer, who described her accusations as a hoax, damaged her career.
The astronomical figures and the trial so far say as much about the interest in US courtroom dramas as for the culture of fame (subgenre: the unpleasant world of star divorces). Although this dispute knows no borders: in London, much of the couple’s dirty laundry was already aired and is now hanging for all to see, despite the fact that the Fairfax judge has aborted the attempts of Heard’s lawyers to return to that trial. This time, both have met in Fairfax, a town near Washington. This location has been chosen because The Washington Post is printed there and because the newspaper also has its digital servers in the town.
“Depp could have sued her in Los Angeles, but then it would have turned into a Hollywood-style trial,” explains attorney Jesse Weber, the star host of The Law and Crime Network. This network is in charge of broadcasting the courtroom drama. This week they have opted to show the trial on split-screen – Depp on the left, Heard on the right. Depp’s decision to file the suit in Fairfax was also influenced by the fact that Virginia is considered to have looser SLAPP laws. SLAPP, an acronym for Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation, is a civil lawsuit filed against an individual to essentially silence criticism.
Weber was already queuing at around 6.30am on Thursday along with 57 other people who were waiting to obtain, strictly on a first-come, first-served basis, an entry bracelet for that day’s session. First in line were Yvonne and Debbie, who said they show up every night at 1.30am. Are they Johnny Depp fans? “Oh, only for about 36 years,” they said. Also in the line, was a woman who had arrived from Australia; a teenage “wannabe lawyer” accompanied by her mother; and a therapist specializing in abuse, who had taken advantage of a day off to come from Washington and see for herself what she suspects when she follows the trial on television: “That Heard has traces of narcissism and, perhaps, a borderline personality disorder.”
Once inside, the show did not disappoint the spectators. Benjamin Rottenborn, Heard’s attorney, cross-examined Depp in detail about his drug and alcohol abuse and his addiction to opiates, which a doctor prescribed after he was injured on the set of the fifth installment of Pirates of the Caribbean. Rottenborn shared Depp’s private messages to famous friends, relatives, doctors and bodyguards in which he expressed his anger against Heard or his dependence on her. He also showed audio, video and images collected by Heard, such as one recording, in which Depp is seen breaking kitchen furniture and spilling a glass of wine. “I did assault a couple of cabinets but I did not touch Miss Heard,” said Depp.
Detox on your island
Rottenborn intended to convince the jury that he verbally abused Heard in front of others, and that, if his career went down the sewer, it was not due to the op-ed in the Post, but because of his addiction to drugs. According to the lawyer, drugs transformed him into an unpredictable person and a liar, even after he detoxed on the private island he owns in the Bahamas, where the couple got married after meeting in 2011 on the set of The Rum Diaries.
Depp was somewhat more tense on Thursday than on the previous days, in which he seemed happy to be able to tell his version of events in a deliberately calm tone. Even in the tensest moments with Rottenborn, he made the audience smile by talking ironically about, for example, his addictive history. For instance, when the lawyer asked him if a photo, in which there were four lines of something that looked like cocaine, a Keith Richards CD, a copy of the Los Angeles Times and two whiskey glasses next to a small box of wood with the inscription “Property of J. D.”, had been taken early in the morning. “Isn’t happy hour anytime?” he replied, before praising the “beautiful composition of the photograph.”
The cross-examination of Depp will continue on Monday, and the court still needs to hear from Heard and high-profile witnesses, such as Tesla founder Elon Musk and actor James Franco, that the actress has announced that she will summon. Legal experts quoted by the US media agree that both are likely to lose their respective lawsuits given that defamation is a slippery concept in the US. What do they want then? It seems clear that Depp, who hasn’t been in a major studio movie since 2018, is aiming to clean up his image. And that both are embarked on a reckoning about their relationship at a high price, one determined by the billing hours of the two armies of lawyers, who are also Hollywood stars in their own right.