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Can Johnny Depp Stage a Hollywood Comeback After Legal Victory?

PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: ON STRANGER
©Walt Disney Co./Courtesy Everett Collection

Johnny Depp scored a clear and unexpected victory in court last week. His attorney, Ben Chew, implored the Virginia jury to restore his name, his reputation and his career, and the jury responded — finding that Depp’s ex-wife, Amber Heard, had defamed him when accusing him of domestic violence.

But while jury verdicts are binary — liable or not liable, guilty or not guilty — Hollywood does not work that way. Depp has suffered tremendous reputational damage, much of it self-inflicted, and still has a lot of work to do if he wants to revive his career.

“It’s not a light-switch,” says Howard Bragman, a crisis consultant to celebrity clients. “It’s a road back.”

In Depp’s favor, the trial mobilized a passionate, digitally savvy fan base and gave him a platform to triumph while owning his flaws. But even if the general public accepts the jury’s verdict, he was still revealed to be self-pitying, drug-addled and profoundly entitled. His over-the-top misogyny may also hurt his appeal with many women, who once comprised an important part of Depp’s fandom.

“We don’t have to guess whether there is a potential for backlash,” says Howard Breuer, a PR consultant. “If producers are thinking, ‘Is anybody going to pounce on us if we’re the first to cast Johnny Depp?’ — the answer is yes. He’s still polarizing.”

Even before the domestic abuse allegations, it was becoming harder and harder to justify Depp’s $20 million paydays. He had suffered through a series of flops and had grown increasingly erratic on set, culminating in the disastrous production of 2017’s “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales,” which made studios wary of entrusting him with a blockbuster franchise. Insiders say that Depp was more professional during the shooting of “Murder on the Orient Express” and “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald” shortly thereafter, but as his former agent Tracey Jacobs admitted in a taped deposition, “His star had dimmed.”

While Depp did arrive punctually to court every day, nothing else about the trial necessarily puts those concerns to rest.

“I don’t know that this helps him in any way,” says producer Gavin Polone. “People need to see he’s reliable and will show up to work on time.”

Disney has no plans to include Depp in any future “Pirates” films and Warner Bros. may scrap the “Fantastic Beasts” franchise because of its declining box office fortunes. At any rate, Warner Bros. already replaced Depp with Mads Mikkelsen in this spring’s “Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore,” so it’s something of a moot point even if the series continues.

On June 2, the day after the verdict was announced, guitarist Jeff Beck announced that Depp would appear with him on a forthcoming album. But Depp’s former agent testified at trial that Depp’s music career is not lucrative and the real money is in making studio films. Depp also announced that he will star as King Louis XV in the next film directed by “Polisse” filmmaker Maiwenn, but that movie is a French production, not a Hollywood affair.

Hollywood can be exceptionally forgiving to major stars, especially for substance abuse issues. And the verdict certainly helps offset some of the damage done when a British judge found Heard’s allegations to be “substantially true” in November 2020.

“He’s been kind of washed by this,” Bragman says. “We all have short memories. This gives permission for a large indie to say, ‘We want to be in the Johnny Depp business.’”

Studio executives declined to speak publicly about Depp’s future, but privately they charted a potential path to career redemption. He could make a series of independent films, delivering compelling performances. With good reviews and a little luck, that might eventually embolden a studio to take a chance on the controversial performer.

There’s also the possibility that Depp could leverage his celebrity to land lucrative roles in lower-budget, lower-quality action films produced outside the studio system, movies financed with foreign sales. That’s a path other actors, such as Nicolas Cage and Mel Gibson, who still have passionate fanbases abroad, have blazed in recent years as their commercial appeal diminished in the U.S.

Given that Depp has been so famous for so long, some are skeptical that he’s interested in undertaking a long slog back to a kind of stardom that may remain elusive. He may just opt for some easier paydays.

“I don’t know if he wants to do the kind of hard work he needs to do to come back,” says a studio executive who has worked with Depp on several projects. “It’s been a long time since he’s had to do that.”