Johnny Depp and Amber Heard’s defamation trial made headlines for the often gruesome and sordid details of the couple’s troubled marriage. But the jurors are also asked to consider whether either one experienced actual job damage because of the other’s lies about them.
And while there is evidence that both of their jobs have been damaged, it is much more difficult to attempt to correlate this damage with certain defamatory statements.
Depp claimed he lost tens of millions of dollars to Heard’s allegations of domestic violence, which she alluded to in a 2018 op-ed. But the testimony showed that Depp was a star in serious decline even before the allegations, and that a series of legal setbacks had left him virtually out of work. Before the major studios.
Depp’s former agent and former business manager testified that Depp’s unprofessional behavior had dampened Hollywood’s enthusiasm for the actor, leading to severe financial distress for the free-spending star. On the set of the fifth “Pirates of the Caribbean” and other films, Depp was often late and unprepared, relying on an earpiece to fuel his lines.
“I was very honest with him and said, ‘You have to stop doing this. It hurts you. She remembered Tracey Jacobs, the UTA agent who helped orchestrate Depp’s career over three decades of working with the actor. She added frankly: “His star is faint.”
Things got so bad on the set of the recent Pirates of the Caribbean movie that Disney, the studio behind the series, had an employee stationed outside the house where Depp was staying to report on the actor’s movements and let the group know when. He was awake and able to work. Production was cut short after the tip of Depp’s finger was cut off, which he claimed happened after Heard threw a bottle at him. The studio had to rely on extensive CGI to cover up his injury, and another example, the pixels and green screens, of the drama surrounding Depp that color his career.
Depp isn’t the only star who has acted extravagantly, miserably, or lewdly. His star, Marlon Brando, used to terrorize studios with his lavish demands and antics, while everyone from Bruce Willis to Vin Diesel faced the kind of production clashes that made headlines.
When movies are working, studios are more lenient. And for a while, Depp was a rare commodity, an actor with a magnetic screen so he could get butts in seats. Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland” with Depp as the Mad Hatter has grossed over $1 billion, while the duo have also been a hit with their remakes of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and “Sweeney Todd.” But over the past decade, Depp’s box office prowess has waned, as he built up his trademark reputation and bore such as “Mortdecai,” “Transcendence,” and “Black Mass.” However, Depp was accustomed to having studios that catered to his desires and indulged him in the wake of the massive success of the “Pirates” films. He’s facing his problems despite the declining revenue the studios have been enjoying from his films.
“At first, the crews loved him,” Jacobs said in her recorded testimony. “He was always so great with the crew. But the crews don’t like to sit for hours and hours and hours waiting for a star to come out.”
Depp is suing a 2018 opinion piece that Heard published in the Washington Post, in which she described herself as a “public figure who represents domestic violence.” His team asserts that the piece costs Depp’s roles, accelerating his slide.
“After the opinion piece, it was impossible to get a studio movie for him,” said Jack Wiggam, a talent manager who took over Jacobs after she was fired in 2016.
But the opinion piece was published two and a half years after Heard first made allegations of abuse, which already led to studios starting to turn away from the star. Heard initially accused Depp of physically assaulting her during their relationship when she filed for divorce and for a restraining order in May 2016. In his testimony, Depp said that Heard’s 2016 allegations cost him “everything.”
“Secondly,” he said, “the allegations were brought against me… then I lost.”
But Depp signed a divorce settlement in which he gave up any right to sue Heard over the 2016 claims. So, instead, Depp was forced to file a lawsuit over the December 2018 editorial.
His team tried to show that it was the editorials, not the earlier allegations, that did the real damage to his career. Depp continued to work in 2017, but after filming “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald” in the fall of 2017, he did not make another studio film. Wigham testified that Depp didn’t work much in 2018 on purpose, because he “wanted to take time off to rest”.
His team also sought to prove that the editorial hurt Q scores, which are used to gauge the popularity of performers. But this effect is difficult to discern. Their expert testified that Depp’s negative score jumped five points – and his positive score fell four points – after the 2016 allegations. But after the December 2018 opener, the effect was more subtle. His positive result decreased by only two points, while his negative result also decreased by a point.
The Depp expert also showed that Google Trends data shows a sharp rise in interest in Depp in May 2016 – but no big spike around the opening article.
Whatever the damage he inflicted earlier, it appears Depp became truly unemployed after losing his 2020 libel trial in the UK when Warner Brothers kicked Depp out of the ‘Fantastic Beasts’ series and replaced him with Mads Mikkelsen. Warners was already increasingly concerned about working with him. Rolling Stone’s 2019 article portrayed the actor as drunk and high on drugs, and raised concerns about the unwelcome publicity he could bring to projects.
A jury is not limited to awarding “actual damages” – that is, damages that can be directly linked to defamatory statements. They can also simply “assume” damage to the reputation of either side, without direct evidence, based solely on the inherently harmful nature of the defamatory statements. But they were given little guidance on how to award damages that could not be directly linked to occupational damages.
For her part, Heard claimed that Depp orchestrated a smear campaign that nearly cost her a role in the “Aquaman” sequel, along with endorsements and other TV and film opportunities. She provided her own expert, who has testified about a rise in anti-hearing tweets allegedly linked to allegations from Depp’s lawyer that her allegations were a “hoax.” That expert, Ron Schnell, admitted that his analysis could only show mathematical correlations, not clear causal ones.
The testimony about the studio’s decision-making process was equally cloudy. After Heard appeared in the first movie and in “Justice League,” Warner Bros. Reprising the role, Heard and DC Films president Walter Hamadeh testified. Heard said she had to “fight hard” to keep her role as Aquaman’s love interest in the upcoming sequel and that even when she won, she still had to deal with reduced screen time.
Hamada remembers things differently. It wasn’t the negative publicity stemming from Depp’s legal battle that nearly lost the segment’s hearing, he argued in a recorded testimony. Instead, it came about due to a lack of chemistry with movie star Jason Momoa.
“It is not uncommon in films that there is no harmony between two leading threads,” he said. The skilful editing and tricks of the other films masked the lack of sizzle, Hamadeh said.
“You can make up that chemistry,” he said. “I think if you watch the movie, they look like they have great chemistry, but I just know that during post-production use, it took a lot of effort to get there.”
Heard’s agent also cited an Amazon movie that was pulled from her, but acknowledged that it was difficult to show that she had lost business precisely because of the backlash to her allegations.
“No one can say out loud, ‘We’re taking this away from her because of this bad press,'” said the agent, Jesica Kovacevic. “But there’s no other reason.”
Kovacevic said that “Aquaman” was popular worldwide – grossing over $1 billion – and that Heard’s performance had been reviewed favorably, and argued that she should have reached stardom next, citing Ana de Armas as a similar potential career path. But reviews of “Aquaman” were actually not uniformly glowing, with one calling Heard’s letter “wooden” and another calling her character “one of the least interesting big-screen love interests in recent memory.”
Depp’s cast objected to a string of casts—including Zendaya, de Armas, Momoa, Chris Pine, and Gal Gadot—that Heard’s side had, noting that many of these actors had played lead roles and had more established careers than Heard did.
Depp claimed that Heard’s article cost him a lucrative return to the “Pirates of the Caribbean” world, losing $22.5 million a day. Though, here too, cause and effect becomes ambiguous. Depp’s deal for the film, if any, never committed to writing.
Heard’s opinion piece was published in December 2018, but a report in October of that year in the Daily Mail already stated that Depp was out of the franchise. Depp appeared to admit he could have been impeached prior to Heard’s article, but still links her to her initial allegations in the 2016 divorce file.
“I wasn’t aware of it,” he said, “but that doesn’t surprise me.” “It’s been two years of constant talk all over the world about me being this wife. So I’m sure Disney was trying to cut ties to be safe. The #MeToo movement was in full swing at that point.”
A Disney representative testified that there was nothing in the company’s files about Heard’s editorial, and there was never a deal with Depp to star in the sixth Pirates movie.
A verdict in Depp and Heard’s case is expected in the coming days, but the “Pirates of the Caribbean” series that lifted Depp into the stratosphere is sailing without him. In a recent interview, franchise producer Jerry Bruckheimer acknowledged that Depp will not be returning. Instead, the studio is developing two potential series, one of which is a female-centric adventure that would star Margot Robbie.
As for Depp, he says he will never apply Jack Sparrow mascara again, regardless of the outcome of the experiment or the rich presentation.
“There was a deep and distinct sense of betrayal by the people I worked so hard for,” Depp said.