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Johnny Depp’s friendship with Prince Mohammed bin Salman (and Depp’s future in Saudi Arabia)

An article in ‘Vanity Fair’ uncovers the relationship between the actor and the prime minister, who looks to become a player in the film industry, and is attracting Hollywood personalities with his massive sums of cash

Johnny Depp y Mohamed Bin Salmán
Johnny Depp attends the opening night screening of the Red Sea Film Festival on November 30, 2023 in Yeda, Saudi Arabia.Tim P. Whitby (Getty Images for The Red Sea Int)
El País

Among the producers behind Jeanne du Barry (2023), a historical drama set in Versailles, in which the actor Johnny Depp plays King Louis XV, one finds the Red Sea Film Foundation. The film, which was screened at last year’s Cannes Film Festival to more embarrassment than critical praise, nonetheless served as a comeback for the actor, whose last starring role was in the defamation case he brought against his former partner, Amber Heard, which wound up becoming a rather filthy media extravaganza. The same week that Depp presented the film in Cannes, the renewal of the Pirates of the Caribbean star’s multimillion dollar contract with the renowned French fashion house of Dior was made public, serving to crown Depp two times over, at least in France.

And now, Vanity Fair has published an article that reveals how this support of the Red Sea Film Foundation, a Saudi non-profit cultural organization, is no coincidence, but rather, part of the country’s plan to make itself into a film industry player. Of course, that’s not the main focus of the report, which spotlights instead the curious friendship that has developed between Depp, 60, with Prince Mohammed bin Salman, also known as MBS. “Over the past year, Depp has spent more than seven weeks in Saudi Arabia, staying in royal palaces and camps, traversing the country by yacht and helicopter, and even flying to London and back on MBS’s personal 747 for a quick trip to attend the Jeff Beck Memorial Concert at the Royal Albert Hall,” writes journalist Bradley Hope, who is the author of the book Blood and Oil: Mohammed bin Salman’s Ruthless Quest for Global Power (Hachette Books, 2021). Over this same period of time, the journalist writes, Depp and MBS have become real friends. People around the actor say that, “Depp is now weighing a seven-figure annual contract to promote Saudi Arabia’s cultural renaissance.”

Depp neither denies nor hides the friendship. To the contrary, when contacted for the Vanity Fair article, he confirmed and detailed his relationship with the country: “Though I admit I was somewhat naive at first to what was transpiring in the region, I’ve since experienced firsthand the cultural revolution that is happening there — from emerging young storytellers radiating fresh ideas and works of art to a blossoming film infrastructure and a newfound curiosity for innovation. I’ve had the opportunity to meet people from various parts of the region who have been most welcoming in sharing with me their culture, their traditions, and their stories.” The Red Sea Film Foundation is already backing Depp’s next project as director, Modi, a biographic film about the life of Italian artist Amedeo Modigliani, starring Al Pacino.

El presidente francés, François Hollande, da la bienvenida al príncipe heredero, Mohammed Bin Salmán,
French president François Hollande welcomes crown prince Mohammed bin Salman at the presidential palace on June 27, 2016, in Paris, France.Chesnot (Getty Images)

“Both men knew how it felt to suddenly go from golden boy to outcast,” writes Hope in the piece. For Depp, this refers to the court battle between him and his ex, Amber Heard, which despite ending in a judgement in his favor that found the actress guilty of defamation and that Depp did not abuse Heard, generated its fair share of bad press, and ended some of his film contracts. When it comes to MBS, Hope is alluding to the assassination of the critical journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018 at the hands of Saudi agents. The murder aroused the sentiment of the world, “irrevocably tainting the crown prince’s carefully cultivated image as a brilliant young reformer,” writes Hope. According to the article, Depp asked MBS about the episode and “with an earnest expression, MBS began laying out his argument that Khashoggi had become a rogue operative working with the country’s enemies to undermine the crown prince’s reform agenda.” The prince insisted that he did not see Khashoggi as a journalist, but “as a corrupt enemy of the state, putting its future at risk for hidden motives.” But Saudi agents apparently had misinterpreted an order from MBS to arrest Khashoggi. “Consistent with his public statements, MBS told Depp he didn’t order the murder but nonetheless took responsibility,” explains the article.

Nonetheless, MBS’s interest in Depp has less to do with their common interests as with what has come to be known as Vision 2030, a program that looks to promote the country’s economy through industries that minimize its dependence on oil. These industries are varied, and included fields such as mining, real estate, sports — in January, Rafa Nadal was named as Saudi Arabia’s new ambassador of tennis — tourism and a series of new cultural policies. Here, we have its famous film festival, the most visible face of the Red Sea Film Foundation, and its work with figureheads from that world, such as Depp.

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