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Johnny Depp Trial: How Much Damage Did Amber Heard’s Op-Ed Do to the Fading Star?

Johnny Depp Amber Heard
Michael Buckner/Variety

The Johnny Depp and Amber Heard defamation trial has grabbed headlines due to the often grotesque and sordid details of the couple’s troubled marriage. But the jurors are also being asked to consider whether either of them suffered actual career damage from the other’s lies about them.

And while there is evidence that both of their careers have been hurt, it’s much trickier to try to connect that damage to specific defamatory statements.

Depp has alleged that he lost tens of millions of dollars because of 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 a series of legal setbacks made him virtually unemployable by major studios.

Depp’s former agent and former business manager testified that Depp’s unprofessional behavior had dimmed 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 frequently late and unprepared, relying on an earpiece to feed him lines.

“I was very honest with him and said, ‘You’ve got to stop doing this. It’s hurting you.’ And it did,” remembered Tracey Jacobs, the UTA agent who helped orchestrate Depp’s career rise over three decades of working with the actor. “His star had dimmed,” she added, bluntly.

Things had gotten so bad on the set of the last “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie that Disney, the studio behind the series, had a staffer stationed outside the house where Depp was staying to report on the actor’s movements and let the set know when he was awake and able to work. Production got scuttled after Depp’s fingertip was severed, which he claims happened after Heard threw a bottle at him. The studio had to rely on extensive CGI to cover up his injury, yet another example, one manifested in pixels and green-screens, of the drama surrounding Depp coloring his professional life.

Depp is far from the only star who has behaved in an entitled, boorish or profligate manner. His idol, Marlon Brando, used to terrorize studios with his lavish demands and quirky on-set antics, while everyone from Bruce Willis to Vin Diesel have had the kind of production clashes that make headlines.

When the movies work, studios are more indulgent. And, for a time, Depp was that rarest of commodities, an actor with such a magnetic screen presence that he could get butts in seats. Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland” with Depp as the Mad Hatter grossed over $1 billion, while the duo also scored a hit with their remake of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and “Sweeney Todd.” But over the last decade, Depp’s box office prowess had waned, with flops such as “Mortdecai,” “Transcendence” and “Black Mass” piling up and puncturing his commercial reputation. However, Depp had gotten accustomed to having studios cater to his whims and indulge him following the outsized success of the “Pirates” movies.  He confront his issues despite the diminishing returns that studios were enjoying from his movies.

“Initially crews loved him,” Jacobs said in her taped deposition. “He was always so great with the crew. But crews don’t love sitting around for hours and hours and hours waiting for the star to show up.”

Depp is suing over the 2018 op-ed that Heard published in the Washington Post, in which she described herself as a “public figure representing domestic abuse.” His team maintains that the piece cost Depp roles, accelerating his slide.

“After the op-ed, it was impossible to get him a studio film,” testified Jack Whigham, the talent manager who took over for Jacobs after she was fired in 2016.

But the op-ed was published two and a half years after Heard first leveled abuse allegations, which had already led studios to begin to turn away from the star. Heard initially accused Depp of physically abusing 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 had cost him “everything.”

“The second the allegations were made against me… I lost then,” he said.

But Depp signed a divorce settlement in which he gave up any right to sue Heard over the 2016 claims. So instead, Depp has been forced to sue over the December 2018 op-ed.

His team has attempted to show that it was the op-ed, and not the earlier claims, that did the real damage to his career. Depp did continue to work in 2017, but after “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald,” was shot in the fall of 2017, he did not make another studio film. Whigham 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 show that the op-ed damaged his Q Scores, which are used to gauge performers’ popularity. But that impact is hard to discern. Their own expert testified that Depp’s negative score had climbed five points — and his positive score dropped four points — after the 2016 allegations. But after the December 2018 op-ed, the impact was far more subtle. His positive score dropped just two points, while his negative score also dropped a point.

Depp’s expert also showed Google Trends data showing a spike in interest in Depp around May 2016 — but no spike around the op-ed.

Whatever earlier damage he sustained, Depp appears to have become truly unemployable after losing his 2020 libel trial in the U.K. That’s when Warner Bros. fired Depp from the “Fantastic Beasts” series and replaced him with Mads Mikkelsen. Warners had already been growing wary of being in business with him. A 2019 Rolling Stone article depicted the actor as drunk and high on drugs, and had raised alarms over the unwelcome publicity that he could bring to projects.

The jury is not limited to awarding “actual damages” — that is, damages that can be directly tied to defamatory statements. They can also simply “presume” damages to either side’s reputation, without direct proof, based merely on the inherently harmful nature of the defamatory statements. But they have been given very little guidance about how to award damages that can’t be directly linked to career harms.

For her part, Heard has claimed that Depp orchestrated a smear campaign that nearly cost her a role in the sequel to “Aquaman,” along with endorsements and other TV and film opportunities. She presented her own expert, who testified about spikes in anti-Heard tweets that were purportedly linked to claims from Depp’s lawyer that her allegations were a “hoax.” That expert, Ron Schnell, conceded that his analysis could only show mathematical correlations, and not clear causal links.

Testimony about the studio decision-making process was equally clouded. After Heard appeared in the first film and in “Justice League,” Warner Bros. weighed re-casting the role, Heard and DC Films head Walter Hamada testified. Heard said she had to “fight really hard” to keep her part as Aquaman’s love interest in the upcoming sequel and that even when she prevailed, she still had to contend with reduced screen time.

Hamada recalled things differently. It wasn’t negative publicity stemming from the Depp legal fight that nearly lost Heard the part, he argued in a taped deposition. Rather, it came down to a lack of chemistry with Jason Momoa, the film’s star.

“It’s not uncommon on movies for two leads to not have chemistry,” he said. Hamada said that deft editing and other movie tricks papered over the lack of sizzle.

“You can fabricate that chemistry,” he said. “I think if you watch the movie, they looked like they had great chemistry, but I just know that during the use of the post-production that it took a lot of effort to get there.”

Heard’s agent also pointed to an Amazon film that was taken away from her, but conceded it was hard to show she lost work specifically because of the backlash over her allegations.

“No one can say out loud, ‘We’re taking this away from her because of this bad press,'” said the agent, Jessica Kovacevic. “But there’s no other reason.”

Kovacevic said that “Aquaman” was a global blockbuster — grossing over $1 billion — and that Heard’s performance was favorably reviewed, and argued that she should have rocketed to stardom after that, citing Ana de Armas as a potential comparable career path. But the “Aquaman” reviews were not in fact uniformly glowing, with one calling out Heard’s “wooden” line delivery and another calling her character “one of the least interesting big-screen love interests in recent memory.”

Depp’s team took issue with a series of comps — including Zendaya, de Armas, Momoa, Chris Pine and Gal Gadot — offered by Heard’s side, noting that several of those actors had played lead roles and had far more established careers than Heard did.

Depp has claimed that Heard’s op-ed cost him a lucrative return to the world of “Pirates of the Caribbean,” losing him a $22.5 million payday. Though, here too, the cause and effect grows murky. Depp’s deal for the film, if it existed, was 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 had already stated that Depp was out of the franchise. Depp seemed to acknowledge that he could have been ousted prior to Heard’s piece, but still linked it to her initial allegations in the 2016 divorce filing.

“I wasn’t aware of that, but it doesn’t surprise me,” he said. “Two years had gone by of constant worldwide talk about me being this wife-beater. So I’m sure that Disney was trying to cut ties to be safe. The #MeToo movement was in full swing at that point.”

Disney’s representative testified there was nothing in the company’s files about Heard’s op-ed, and there was never a deal for Depp to star in the sixth “Pirates” film.

A verdict in the Depp and Heard case is expected in the coming days, but the “Pirates of the Caribbean” series that elevated Depp into the stratosphere is sailing on without him. In a recent interview, the franchise’s producer Jerry Bruckheimer acknowledged that Depp would not be returning. Instead, the studio is developing two potential sequels, one a female-centric adventure that would star Margot Robbie.

As for Depp, he says he would never apply Jack Sparrow’s mascara again, irrespective of the outcome of the trial or a rich offer.

“There was a deep and distinct sense of feeling betrayed by the people that I’ve worked hard for,” Depp said.