Johnny Depp’s attorneys say that in publishing her Washington Post editorial on domestic abuse, Amber Heard took the good, clean name of a fine actor and ground it into the dirt. The Post editorial did not name Depp, but readers who knew the troubled couple’s history could easily connect the dots, as Heard had obtained a temporary restraining order against Depp at the conclusion of their brief marriage, in 2016.
Obviously, she was writing about Depp, who had already denied hurting her.
“A false allegation can devastate a career and it can devastate a family,” Depp attorney Benjamin Chew said during opening arguments at the defamation trial against Heard that has been playing out in Virginia.
But in day after day of testimony ― six weeks this trial has slogged on, with more to come ― what the public has been shown is just how much Depp’s name had already been marred by the awkward open secret of his alcohol and drug abuse and erratic behavior.
“I never said to him, ‘You’re a difficult client,’” his former agent Tracey Jacobs said in videotaped deposition showed in court Thursday. “I never used those words. But I was very honest. I said, ‘You’ve got to stop doing this. It’s hurting you.’”
“And it did,” she said.
Jacobs didn’t seem eager to be giving testimony, offering clipped responses to Heard’s lawyers. By the end of her decadeslong time representing Depp, she said, “His star had dimmed.”
That was late 2016.
Heard’s editorial was published in December 2018.
This past week of testimony, led by Heard’s team, was heavy on ex-friends and industry insiders who knew the couple, or who had previously worked closely with Depp, building on past testimony that treated Depp’s substance abuse as fact ― the only room for debate seemed to be just how much maleffect it had.
One of Heard’s witnesses this week, the actor Ellen Barkin, told a story about Depp’s overindulgence that long predated his marriage. In Barkin’s telling, Depp was “drunk all the time” during production of the 1998 film “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” and once threw a wine bottle across a room during an argument on set.
The behavior issue had leaked out into the press in recent years. In late 2020, The Hollywood Reporter published a piece declaring Depp “radioactive” and “out-of-control,” calling him “a casualty of Hollywood’s sycophant culture in which his wild spending and substance abuse was rarely challenged.” Depp earned hundreds of millions through the wild success of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise, although his fortune had largely been squandered. As a producer who worked on a film with Depp told the outlet: “He’s just never been told no for the past 35 years. That’s typical in Hollywood. But I’ve never seen it to this extent.”
The current defamation trial proceedings, all streamed live online, allow curious members of the public a peek inside that world.
“It’s a strange thing around people like him — everybody wants something,” music producer Bruce Witkin said in testimony played in court Thursday.
Witkin, who played in a band with Depp in late 1970s Florida, testified that the two had been close friends for years until they lost contact in 2018. He wasn’t sure what he’d done wrong, but said he suspected there were “some people behind the scenes talking shit about me.”
Witkin said he’d tried to get Depp help with his substance issues.
“I got him a therapist, but never tried an intervention or nothing like that. We would just talk about it, and he’d be like, ‘Oh, yeah, I’ll be all right, I’ll be all right,’” he said. In Witkin’s telling, Depp’s sister Christi was “always concerned with his well-being, whether it was the substance abuse or not.”
Heard testified that she had seen Depp take all manner of drugs: speed, opiates, Adderall, cocaine, quaaludes, MDMA, marijuana and, of course, alcohol. One of his tattoos reads “Wino Forever.” Depp has a particular fondness for reds, according to witnesses. Some, including Heard’s sister, Whitney Henriquez, testified that they had taken drugs with the actor in the past.
Depp admitted to using drugs recreationally on the stand ― memorably, at one point, when he said he once gave Marilyn Manson a pill “so that he would stop talking so much.” But he pushed back on the idea that he was out of control. Heard’s descriptions, Depp testified, were “grossly embellished.”
“I am not some maniac who needs to be high or loaded all the time,” he told the court.
Messages shown to the jury told a different story. In text after text, Depp referenced his “monster” ― the ugly side of him that came out when he had consumed too much ― and made apologies or regretfully acknowledged that he had imbibed too heavily.
“Pills fine. Booze, my capacity is too large and I won’t stop. Ugly and sad. Oh, how I love it,” he wrote in one text message to a friend. In another message, sent during a period of sobriety, Depp told Heard’s mother that her daughter helped him get through “a hell of my own doing.”
Jacobs called her former client “extraordinarily talented,” but said that he had “fundamental issues with anger” and “romanticized the entire drug culture.”
“Everybody I think deep down inside was [concerned],” Witkin testified. “But, like I said, the people on payroll won’t really say much.”
“They’ll try, but they don’t want to lose their job,” he said.
A 2018 Rolling Stone piece on Depp’s grim financial situation ended on a note of melancholy as writer Stephen Rodrick observed, after visiting Depp at a rented London mansion, “There is no one around him who isn’t getting paid.”
Such was the dynamic when, according to Heard, Depp became blackout drunk on a plane, accusing her of having an affair with actor James Franco. He allegedly slapped her in front of multiple other people.
“No one said anything. No one did anything. You could hear a pin drop on that plane,” Heard said. “You could feel the tension, but no one did anything.”
(Depp testified that he was on opioids during the 2014 plane ride and not in any condition to act as the aggressor, rather, he locked himself in the bathroom to get away from Heard. But a text message indicated that he had been drinking and taking substances like cocaine.)
Heard alleged that Depp’s team helped to cover up his misconduct. Security personnel would ignore him when, she alleged, he yelled at or smacked her, and they would change him out of soiled clothing when he passed out.
Among the witnesses called by Depp’s legal team was his current bodyguard, Malcolm Connolly, who testified that Heard liked to “wear the pants” in her relationship with her famous husband and “could get frosty at the drop of a hat.” Connolly admitted he was very loyal to his boss.
The question of Depp’s finances has presented itself in different ways at the trial. His lawyers called his current business manager to testify as to the millions Heard demanded in the couple’s divorce settlement, while her lawyers called Depp’s former business manager, Joel Mandel ― the one he sued for supposedly defrauding him. The case settled in 2018, but not before evidence came to light showing how Depp had been in dire financial straights since at least 2009. One email from that year showed how Depp had offered to sell some of his properties and other belongings to meet financial obligations until he could cash the checks from then-upcoming film projects, which promised him “20 mil,” “35 mil” and “another 20 mil,” in his words.
The overall picture has been one of increasingly worsening behavior.
Mandel testified that Depp began spending “very, very, very large” sums of money ― he said the actor shelled out $300,000 per month on staff ― and with the spending came a volatility.
“My experience was that Mr. Depp became increasingly less constrained, less concerned with whether he was going to upset someone’s feelings,” Mandel said.
“It began to change in about 2010, and it increased over time,” he said.
Depp allegedly began showing up late to set.
“Initially, crews loved him because 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 of the movie to show up,” Jacobs said. “And it also got around town,” she added. “I mean, people talk. It’s a small community.”
In 2015, Jacobs said she took two trips to Australia, where the fifth “Pirates” installment was being filmed, in order to deal with Depp.
It was in Australia that Depp and Heard got into a massive fight at the mansion he’d rented. The incident resulted in the tip of Depp’s finger being sliced off ― and production on “Pirates” being temporarily shut down ― although each party blames the other for the injury. Depp said that Heard cut his finger when she threw a bottle at him. In her time on the stand, Heard outlined the course of a three-day bender in which Depp allegedly took an unknown quantity of drugs and consumed an unknown quantity of alcohol, and sliced his finger off while destroying a telephone. He blamed her for “ruining” his life, she said. Photographs displayed at the trial show cryptic messages written on mirrors and furniture in what Heard says was blood and paint ― Depp’s blood, from his finger.
“Good luck and be careful at top,” read a message scrawled on a lampshade.
Toward the end of her working relationship with Depp, Jacobs said, studios were “reluctant to use him.”
“People were talking,” she said, “and the question was out there about his behavior.”
During his time on the stand, Depp gave the jury a primer on his psychology. He spoke at length in his calm drawl about what he described as a verbally and physically abusive upbringing where he and his sister “tried to stay out of the line of fire,” Depp said, describing an environment where he would regularly watch his mother attack his father, who did not react. He compared his relationship with his mother to his relationship with Heard, saying that he used drugs in similar ways to deal with the temperamental nature of each relationship.
At one point, he said, “The only person I’ve abused in my life is myself.”
Depp’s fans ― a rabid and allegedly human bunch who ensure view counts on pro-Depp TikToks reach into the millions and tags like #AmberTurd continue to trend on Twitter ― are working overtime to sway public opinion in his favor.
Still, it is not clear whether the jury will side with Heard or come down against her to declare the editorial defamatory for implying that Depp was violent when he drank and used drugs.
It wasn’t that long ago that another celebrity courtroom drama showed how the entertainment industry can enable abuse ― albeit in reverse. In the case of Britney Spears, whose father controlled a legal arrangement requiring her to get express permission to make many of her own life decisions, everyone told her “no.” In Depp’s case, apparently no one did. For both stars, an amorphous group of professionals ― people who ostensibly put the celebrity’s best interests first but also draw their collective salary from that individual’s success ― made sure the gears kept grinding onward. Spears put on shows, Depp starred in films. The entertainment machine went brrrrr. Until it didn’t.
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) for the National Domestic Violence Hotline.