Johnny Depp’s Hollywood comeback? It takes more than its fans


JUNE 1st 2022: A Virginia jury finds both Johnny Depp and Amber Heard liable for defamation and awards Depp $15 million in damages in his libel suit against Heard while awarding $2 million to Ms. Heard in her countersuit. - APRIL 11th 2022: The Johnny Depp / Amber Heard second defamation trial gets underway in Fairfax, Virginia. - File Photo by: zz/DP/AAD/STAR MAX/IPx 2015 10/11/15 Amber Heard and Johnny Depp at the premiere of "Black Mass" held on October 11, 2015 during the 59th BFI London Film Festival in London, England, UK.

“Johnny is great for Dior ads and the occasional rock concert,” one executive wrote in an email, “but Mel Gibson’s status is about right.”

In this edition of Career Watch, IndieWire’s occasional career review of actors and directors and those who hope to, we take on Johnny Depp.

As a slandered victim of defamation, the 58-year-old’s recent appearance was well received by both the trial jury and the court of public opinion. He won $10 million in compensatory damages and $350,000 in punitive damages against his ex-wife Amber Heard, who wrote in a 2018 Washington Post op-ed a year after their divorce that she was a “public figure representing domestic violence.” The jury ruled that she could not prove that he had physically abused her.

Since then, Depp has embraced TikTok and gratefully calls his fans his “employers,” but of course they don’t write checks. Those who do are less likely to be swayed by viral social memes — or at least they should be, as Sony recently learned from the spectacular failure of the Morbius re-release.

bottom line: A solid draw in five Disney Pirates of the Caribbean films that have grossed more than $4.5 billion worldwide, Depp lost the role of Jack Sparrow in that franchise due to domestic violence allegations, as well as the recurring role of Grindelwald in Warner Bros. Fantastic Beasts series after losing his British libel suit to The Sun, who accused him of being a wife beater. Neither producer Jerry Bruckheimer nor Warner Bros. have any plans to reintroduce Depp into their respective franchises. While Depp gets a boost from winning his libel lawsuit, he’s more fundable for foreign-funded indie projects than for big-budget studio films.

Last misfire: Depp played a sad, alcoholic photographer making a career-launching play in the Berlin 2021 entry “Minamata” (Metascore: 55), which grossed $1.8 million worldwide. Thanks to Depp’s large following, the film took third place in the Oscars Fan Favorite competition at the 94th Academy Awards in 2022.

Career highlights: Since his early days in the mid-’80s, Depp has credited his prowess in indies such as John Waters’ Cry-Baby (1989), Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man (1996) and Terry Gilliam’s surreal Cannes entry Fear and Loathing in Las Proof of Vegas (1998) before breaking through in Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands (1990) and Lasse Hallstrom’s What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (1994). The actor worked with Burton on eight films: Ed Wood (1994), Sleepy Hollow (1999), Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005), Corpse Bride (2005), Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007), Alice in Wonderland (2010) and Dark Shadows (2012). Disney’s hugely lucrative Pirates of the Caribbean franchise began in 2003 with Pirates of the Black Pearl, transforming Depp from aspiring actor to movie star.

Awards Attention: Depp earned his first Oscar nomination for his outrageous portrayal of Keith Richards as the mischievously evil Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. Depp gained respect for taking risks with a bold, over-the-top performance that entertained audiences worldwide. His second Oscar nomination was for his touching role as Peter Pan author JM Barrie in Finding Neverland (2004) and his last for his uncompromising portrayal of Fleet Street’s murderous demon barber in Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd. ‘, which earned him a Golden Globe.

Biggest problem: Depp has long since passed his heyday as a movie star. Unlike Brad Pitt or Robert Downey Jr. (who cleaned up and embraced sobriety and robust fitness), Depp appears downtrodden and distracted from years of admitted drug and alcohol abuse. Having wrestled with managers and financial advisers in court, he also seems addicted to spending like a drunken sailor. The pursuit of hefty paydays led to Nic Cage-level overexposure and many bad reviews, from “The Ninth Gate” (Metascore: 44) to “The Tourist” (Metascore: 37). Depp’s last positive review on Metacritic was for Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them in 2016.

Long before his troubles with Amber Heard, Depp was known for his Marlon Brando-esque set behavior, from tardiness to no-shows to working. His former agent Tracy Jacobs, who has accompanied his career for decades, testified in the libel trial about Depp’s misconduct on the set of the fifth and final Pirates of the Caribbean film Dead Men Tell No Tales (2017, Metascore: 39), where he constantly was late and had to have his lines fed through earphones. She flew to Australia twice to intervene. “I was very honest with him,” she told the court. “[I] said, ‘You have to stop this, it hurts you.’”

That wasn’t the worst. Global Road Entertainment pulled Brad Furman’s LAPD detective thriller City of Lies (Metascore: 44) in 2018 after a location executive sued Depp for assault. Saban Films acquired the film and released it in 2021 in 501 theaters. It grossed $275,049 in its opening weekend.

“He has to take responsibility,” said a studio production executive, who asked not to be named. “He’s a smart guy with taste and good instincts. If he wants to act, he has to change his work habits and not be a diva.”

Johnny Depp as Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean


Financial assets: The guy can act. No matter how weird and grumpy he can be in person (he should stay away from TV interviews), Depp is a veteran who — if he’s careful — knows what he’s doing. Films from “The Score” and “Public Enemies” to “Black Mass” and “Don Juan de Marco” show what he can do when he gives it his all. He’s also an accomplished musician who can sing, from “Sweeney Todd” to “Into the Woods.” He has never been interested in romance, but he can take on drama (“Donnie Brasco”), the athletic demands of an action western (“The Lone Ranger”), broad comedy (“Dark Shadows”, “The Rum Diary”) and far-flung fantasy (“Alice in Wonderland”, “Hugo”, “The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus”).

Current gossip: Depp recently toured the UK with guitarist Jeff Beck and released his first TikTok video (10million followers so far) which included brief footage of the actor rocking out on guitar. Beck announced the release of a new album with Depp in July. The actor thanked his “most valued, loyal and steadfast supporters” after his trial victory. “From the beginning, the goal of bringing this case up was to uncover the truth, regardless of the outcome,” he said after the trial. “Telling the truth was something I owed to my children and to all those who have steadfastly supported me. I feel reassured knowing I’ve finally made it.”

However, the jury in the case also ruled that Depp defamed Heard and awarded her $2 million in damages. Her spokeswoman said: “As Johnny Depp says he’s moving ‘forward,’ women’s rights are moving backwards. The verdict’s message to victims of domestic violence is … fear to stand up and speak out.”

Next Step: Depp hasn’t made a feature film since Minamata, a sincere attempt to portray a troubled artist with a conscience. He continues to take part in various documentaries, music videos and short films. He has signed on to play alongside actor and director Maiwenn in Jeanne du Barry, about the King’s last official mistress as King Louis XV. This is a way forward for Depp, as it was for Woody Allen and Roman Polanski: foreign-funded indies. “This case did no harm [Depp] in Europe,” said an independent producer.

An independent distributor added: “He’ll be getting European B-movies for a while. It’s been a while since he’s had a great performance. He was great in The Rum Diary, which was too weird to do anything more than an art house deal. If he was really sober, he should have a good, strong role. The producers think they can get it for a lower price. I can’t imagine the streamers or Disney hiring him. It will take a long time.”

Hollywood is at odds over Depp’s potential for recovery. Awareness of Depp’s passionate fan base should drive some offers. And many cite his gentle warmth and generous charitable donations to Make-a-Wish and other foundations. But he never earned an Oscar like Cage, nor did he show much interest in occasional naturalistic performances. And he hasn’t shown any signs of making a serious effort to sober either.

EDWARD SCISSORHANDS, Johnny Depp, Kathy Baker, 1990. TM and Copyright (c) 20th Century Fox Film Corp.  All rights reserved.  Courtesy: Everett Collection"

“Edward with the scissor hands”

Everett Collection

“Johnny is great for Dior ads and the occasional rock concert,” one executive wrote in an email, “but Mel Gibson’s status is about right.”

“I think he has a chance to be more than Mel,” wrote a studio producer. “Downey is the best example. Although all he really hurt was himself. If I were in charge of Johnny’s career, I’d advise him to do some pure art house films that show how damn good an actor he is. After some time and a reminder of what he’s capable of, I would try to use him as a villain in a bigger movie… and see what happens.”

A retailer said Depp is not yet on the casting lists. “He’s viable,” she said. “You can tell by the support he received. He’s always been, and still is, a special actor.”

Career Advice: While fans were hoping Burton would cast Depp as Gomez in the upcoming TV series Addams Family, Depp’s best hope for the future is that Burton or another high-profile director will take a chance. Depp loves character roles, and meaty supporting roles should find his way. It’s unlikely a studio will rely on him to carry a big-budget film unless he proves himself – like Downey – by going to rehab and staying clean.

Fist-poking his victory over Heard didn’t play well in many areas. He should remain humble and not boast.

The best way for Depp to regain his status as an A-list movie star is to forget the paycheck and make fewer, higher-quality films. The more films he makes, the less likely they will be good.

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