The defamation lawsuit against Johnny Depp and Amber Heard has made headlines for the often grotesque and sordid details of the couple’s troubled marriage. But jurors are also being asked to consider whether either of them suffered actual career damage from the other’s lies.
And while there’s evidence that both of their careers have been damaged, it’s much harder to try to link that damage to specific defamatory statements.
Depp has claimed he’s lost tens of millions of dollars over Heard’s domestic abuse allegations, which she alluded to in a 2018 comment. But testimony showed that even before the allegations, Depp was a star in serious decline, and a series of legal setbacks left him virtually ineligible for major studios.
Depp’s former agent and ex-CEO testified that Depp’s unprofessional behavior dampened Hollywood’s enthusiasm for the actor, resulting in serious financial difficulties for the spendthrift star. On the set of the fifth Pirates of the Caribbean and other films, Depp was frequently late and unprepared, relying on an earphone to provide him with lyrics.
“I was very honest with him and said, ‘You have to stop this. It hurts you.’ And it did,” recalled Tracey Jacobs, the UTA agent who helped orchestrate Depp’s career advancement over three decades of working with the actor. “His star had waned,” she added bluntly.
Things got so bad on the set of the last Pirates of the Caribbean movie that Disney, the studio behind the series, stationed a staffer outside the house where Depp lived to cover the actor’s movements and the Set to communicate when he was awake and able to work. The production was scuttled after Depp’s fingertip was severed, which he says happened after Heard threw a bottle at him. The studio had to rely on extensive CGI to cover up his injury, another example, manifested in pixels and green screens, of the Depp drama that colored his professional life.
Depp is far from the only star who has behaved legitimately, rudely or lavishly. His idol, Marlon Brando, terrorized studios with his lavish demands and quirky on-set antics, while everyone from Bruce Willis to Vin Diesel had the kind of production conflicts that grabbed the headlines.
When the films work, the studios are more forgiving. And for a time, Depp was the rarest of commodities, an actor with such a magnetic screen presence he could get asses in seats. Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, starring Depp as the Mad Hatter, grossed over $1 billion, while the duo also had hits with their remakes of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Sweeney Todd. But over the past decade, Depp’s box office performance had waned, with flops like “Mortdecai,” “Transcendence,” and “Black Mass” piling up and piercing his commercial reputation. However, Depp had grown accustomed to studios taking their whims and spoiling him after the outrageous success of the “Pirates” films. He faces his problems despite the diminishing returns the studios are getting from his films.
“At first the crews loved him,” Jacobs said in her taped statement. “He was always so great with the crew. But crews don’t like sitting around for hours waiting for the star to show up.”
Depp is suing over Heard’s 2018 comment published in The Washington Post in which she described herself as a “public figure who depicts domestic violence.” His team claims the play cost Depp rolls and hastened his descent.
“After the comment, it was impossible to get him a studio film,” said Jack Whigham, the talent manager who took over Jacobs after she was fired in 2016.
But the comment came two and a half years after Heard first raised allegations of abuse that had already caused studios to walk away from the star. Heard initially accused Depp of physically abusing her during their relationship when she filed for divorce and a restraining order in May 2016. In his testimony, Depp said that Heard’s 2016 allegations cost him “everything.”
“The second the allegations were made against me…I lost,” he said.
But Depp signed a divorce settlement in which he waived any right to sue Heard over the 2016 claims. Instead, Depp was forced to sue over the December 2018 comment.
His team has tried to show that it was the comment and not the previous claims that did the real damage to his career. Depp continued working into 2017, but after filming Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald in fall 2017, he did not make another studio film. Whigham testified that Depp intentionally didn’t work much in 2018 because he “wanted to take some time off to rest.”
His team also wanted to show that the comment corrupted his Q-Scores, which are used to gauge performer popularity. But this influence is hard to see. Her own expert testified that Depp’s negative score had gone up five points after the 2016 allegations – and his positive score had gone down four points. But after the December 2018 comment, the effects were far more subtle. His positive score only dropped two points, while his negative score also dropped one point.
The Depp expert also showed Google Trends data showing a spike in interest in Depp in May 2016 – but no spike around the comment.
Whatever previous damage he suffered, Depp appears to have been truly incapacitated after losing his 2020 defamation suit in the UK. At the time, Warner Bros. fired Depp from the Fantastic Beasts series and replaced him with Mads Mikkelsen. Warners already had reservations about doing business with him. A 2019 Rolling Stone article portrayed the actor as drunk and addicted to drugs and had sounded the alarm about the unwelcome publicity he could bring to projects.
The jury is not limited to awarding “actual damages” — that is, damages directly attributable to defamatory statements. They may also simply “presume” damage to both sides’ reputations, with no direct evidence, based only on the inherently harmful nature of the defamatory statements. But they have been given very little guidance on how to award damages that cannot be directly linked to career harm.
For her part, Heard has claimed 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 introduced her own expert, who testified about spikes in anti-Heard tweets allegedly linked to claims by Depp’s attorney that her allegations were a “hoax.” This expert, Ron Schnell, acknowledged that his analysis could only show mathematical correlations and not clear causal relationships.
The testimony of the studio’s decision-making process was equally murky. After Heard appeared in the first film and Justice League, Warner Bros. considered recasting the role, Walter Hamada, head of Heard and DC Films, testified. Heard said she had to “fight really hard” to keep her role as Aquaman’s love interest in the upcoming sequel, and even when she got her way, she still had to contend with reduced screen time.
Hamada remembered differently. It wasn’t negative publicity stemming from the Depp lawsuit that Heard nearly lost, he argued in a recorded statement. In fact, Jason Momoa, the film’s star, lacked chemistry.
“It’s not uncommon in movies for two leads to have no chemistry,” he said. Hamada said clever editing and other film tricks covered up the lack of sizzle.
“You can fabricate that chemistry,” he said. “I think when you watch the film they looked like they had great chemistry, but all I know is that while using post-production it took a lot of effort to get there.”
Heard’s agent also pointed to an Amazon film that was taken from her, but acknowledged it was difficult to show she’d lost a job, particularly given the backlash to her allegations.
“No one can say out loud, ‘We’re taking this away from her because of this bad press,'” agent Jessica Kovacevic said. “But there is no other reason.”
Kovacevic said that “Aquaman” was a global blockbuster — grossing over $1 billion — and that Heard’s performance received positive reviews, arguing that she should have been a star thereafter, citing Ana de Armas as a potential comparable career path . But the “Aquaman” reviews were actually not uniformly glowing, with one calling Heard’s “woody” lines and another calling her character “one of the least interesting big-screen love interests of recent memory.”
Depp’s team struggled with a number of competitions — including Zendaya, de Armas, Momoa, Chris Pine, and Gal Gadot — offered by Heard’s side, noting that several of those actors had played leading roles and had far more established careers than Heard .
Depp has claimed Heard’s comment cost him a lucrative return to the world of “Pirates of the Caribbean” and cost him a $22.5 million payday. However, cause and effect are also blurred here. Depp’s deal for the film, if any, was never committed to writing.
Heard’s op-ed piece was published in December 2018, but a report in October this year in the Daily Mail had already stated that Depp had left the franchise. Depp seemed to acknowledge that he could have been ousted before Heard’s play, but still linked it to their initial allegations in the 2016 divorce filing.
“I wasn’t aware of that, but it doesn’t surprise me,” he said. “Two years had passed, in which the world was constantly talking about me being this woman bully. So I’m sure Disney tried to cut the connection just to be safe. The #MeToo movement was in full swing at this point.”
The Disney rep testified that there was nothing in the company’s files about Heard’s guest commenting and that 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, which launched Depp into the stratosphere, sails on without him. In a recent interview, franchise producer Jerry Bruckheimer admitted that Depp would not be returning. Instead, the studio is developing two potential sequels, one a female adventure starring Margot Robbie.
As for Depp, he says he would never wear Jack Sparrow’s mascara again, regardless of the outcome of the trial or a rich offer.
“There was a deep and distinct feeling of being betrayed by the people I worked hard for,” Depp said.