After an explosive six-week libel trial followed by millions on social media and live TV, Johnny Depp and Amber Heard each face an uphill battle: trying to rebuild their images and careers. Depp already has a head start, with a jury verdict Wednesday largely favouring his narrative, that his ex-wife defamed him by accusing him of abusing her.
“Depp has a hill to climb. Heard has a mountain to climb,” said Eric Dezenhall, a crisis mitigator in Washington with no involvement in the case. “If Depp keeps his expectations proportional and understands that he’s unlikely to hit his former heights, he can have a solid career if he takes things slowly. After all, he was vindicated in court, not declared a saint.”
The challenge for Heard, Dezenhall said, is that rightly or wrongly, some believe she abused and perhaps even tarnished a worthy movement, #MeToo.
With a he said-she said edge to the drawn-out trial, the verdict handed down in Fairfax County, Virginia, found that Depp had been defamed by three statements in a 2018 op-ed piece written by Heard, who identified herself as an abuse victim. The jury awarded the Pirates of the Caribbean star more than $10 million. Jurors also concluded Heard was defamed, by a lawyer for Depp who accused her of creating a hoax surrounding the abuse allegations. She was awarded $2 million.
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Given that such cases are notoriously hard to win, was the defamation route the way to go? Some observers with experience in high-profile cases believe Depp’s decision to sue — even though it meant dragging his and Heard’s personal lives through the mud — was a last-ditch attempt to bolster his star power after his failed London libel lawsuit against The Sun for describing him as a “wife beater.”
“I think the defamation case was a Hail Mary,” said David Glass, a Los Angeles family law attorney with a Ph.D in psychology.
Married just 15 months, Depp sued Heard for $50 million over the op-ed for The Washington Post in which she called herself “a public figure representing domestic abuse.” She didn’t identify Depp by name and it was published two years after she began making public accusations against him.
Heard countersued for $100 million, accusing the star of defaming her via the hoax accusations of attorney Adam Waldman. Many of the waning days of the trial focused on the aftereffects of both claims, with Depp testifying: “I lost nothing less than everything” and Heard accusing him of trying to erase her ability to work.
“Now as I stand here today, I can’t have a career,” Heard testified at the close of the trial. “I hope to get my voice back. That’s all I want.”
But does a verdict of any kind hold the power to reverse the courtroom accusations: of Depp as a physically and sexually abusive aging drunk and drug addict, and Heard as unhinged and capable of faking bruises allegedly inflicted by the man she said she stayed with out of love?
Despite it all, Depp’s fan base remains solid. Fans often camped out overnight for the chance to attend proceedings. But unlike rockers and stand-up comedians ensnared in #MeToo moments who can still earn through live shows, Depp and Heard need the crisis-averse studio machines to make big money.
Rehabilitation is necessary for both, whether it’s dueling traditional sit-down interviews or another secret weapon in their PR teams’ arsenals.
Heard, who was in the room for Wednesday’s verdict, plans to appeal. Depp, who wasn’t in court, said “the jury gave me my life back. I am truly humbled.”
Danny Deraney, who’s done crisis PR for some of Hollywood’s #MeToo accusers, said men in general are more likely than women to find new work in the entertainment industry “when it comes to forgiveness and when it comes to the things that they’ve done.”
He added: “I think it’s going to be easier for Johnny. For Amber, whether she’s innocent or guilty or whatever it is, it’s going to be difficult. I don’t think her career is necessarily over. But I’m sure it’s going to take a nice hit because I think everyone now is going to look at her as a difficult woman to work with, seeing her emotions the way they’ve been, whether wrong or right. I think they’re going to look at that and say, ‘Do we want this on our set?’”
Danielle Lindemann, a Lehigh University associate professor of sociology who researches gender, sexuality and culture, said Depp’s ability to earn big had already been affected, whether due to his own self-destruction or fallout from Heard’s accusations.
“But I don’t think he’s ‘canceled,’” said Lindemann, author of True Story: What Reality Says About Us.
The damage to his career is also likely to be a lot less severe in Asian and European markets, where his popularity remains strong. And he is likely to still get work on indie productions like those that helped along his 38-year run.
Since the former couple began slinging allegations, Heard has faced intense backlash on social media. She said Depp fueled campaigns to get her fired as an ambassador for L’Oreal and cut as the character Mera from an “Aquaman” sequel, though a production executive testified she remains in the film due out next year.
Mads Mikkelsen replaced Depp as Gellert Grindelwald for Fantastic Beasts 3. Depp’s future is also uncertain in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, something he blamed on Heard’s allegations. Producer Jerry Bruckheimer has revealed that two more Pirates scripts are in development, but neither will include Depp’s Capt. Jack Sparrow, a role that earned the actor an Oscar nomination. His last appearance in the Disney-owned franchise was in 2017’s Dead Men Tell No Tales.
Dior has long used Depp to promote a men’s fragrance, Sauvage. The fashion house has been silent on the abuse allegations and is still using him in ads.
Attorney Brett Ward, a family law specialist in New York, said it could take years to know whether Depp’s case will eventually lead to his return as an A-list actor.
“And if he doesn’t? I think he’s made a terrible mistake because most people aren’t going to remember his rather distinguished Hollywood career. They’re going to remember this trial. It’s like O.J. Simpson. People know him more for what happened in that trial than they did for his football career.”
Dezenhall disagreed. He said the case that captured the world’s attention might just be a bellwether for people and corporations facing existential threats to their reputations and livelihoods. The old logic that bringing defamation suits was riskier than any benefits no longer necessarily applies, he said. They’re too hard to win because proving malice is so tricky, traditional thinking went. Why publicly recycle the negative when people are likely to forget?
Today, he said, the stakes have become too high to avoid such defamation court fights. He wrote on Substack, “If you’re already covered in muck that is suspended online forever, what’s a little more muck if your life has been ruined?”