Johnny Depp enters the room as what he wants to remain: a Hollywood star. He looks relaxed, sporting sunglasses, a three-piece suit, and a pirate smile. Before sitting down, he raises a toast with a silver thermos to those attending the defamation trial against his ex-wife, actress Amber Heard. It is Thursday at 9:55 in the Fairfax (Virginia) court and the actor is about to testify for the third consecutive day. He doesn’t seem to care, but today will not be an easy day.
When the two ended their marriage in 2016 after 15 months (and three years of dating), she requested a restraining order and accused the actor of ill-treatment that Depp, 58, has since denied. He has not been convicted of them either, although in 2020 a London judge ruled against the actor in a libel claim against the tabloid. The Sun for calling him a “wife beater” in a headline. Then, the magistrate found “overwhelming evidence” that the actor assaulted his ex-partner. In the divorce suit, which was settled by mutual consent, Heard said that he had slapped her, head butted her, grabbed her by the hair and kicked her in violent episodes aggravated by her alcohol and drug abuse.
In the first day of his testimony in the Fairfax court, the actor assured Tuesday that he has never hit Heard, nor “any other woman.” The next day, questioned by his lawyer, he defended that he was the true victim of verbal and physical abuse by the couple, to which he reacted as he did when his mother “mistreated him as a child”: “putting blank mind”. Audios were also heard that the actor began to record when he saw that the end was approaching and feared that “people would not believe the parade of insults” in which she, she said, turned a relationship plagued by discussions during which he used to lock himself up in the bathroom.
In the recordings, she is heard criticizing him for his cowardice and commenting on an altercation between the two in this way: “I hit you, but I didn’t punch you.” “[Las broncas] They could start with a slap, with a push, or throwing the TV remote at my head or a glass of wine at my face, “said Depp, who also accused her of having cut off his middle finger with a bottle of vodka during a fight in Australia. Heard denies all those allegations.
The seven members of the Fairfax jury are not called, however, to judge these episodes, nor the secrets of a marriage that, there is no doubt, was tumultuous (a psychologist who treated both during their break defined the relationship in the trial as “mutual abuse”). What they examine is whether an article of The Washington Post of 2018 caused irreparable damage to his reputation as an actor. In it, Heard, 35, defined himself, without mentioning Depp, as “a public figure who represents domestic abuse” and said that he had verified in his flesh that “institutions protect men accused of abuse.” The lawsuit also makes her responsible for the millionaire cancellation of the saga Pirates of the Caribbean, his most sustained success.
Heard’s lawyers have tried to dismantle that cause-effect relationship by showing the jury press articles that spoke of the possible cancellation months before the date of the grandstand of the Post. “When the allegations against me went around the world, my career was over,” the actor said from the stand this week. “Suddenly, in my mid-50s, I became a menace, a high-cocaine drunk who beats women. I’ll carry that for the rest of my life.”
For all this, Depp asked Heard in 2019 for compensation of 50 million dollars (48 million euros). She counterattacked with a claim of 100 million for the damage that, she assures, the statements of a lawyer who no longer works for his ex-husband and who described the accusations of mistreatment as “bullshit” have caused his career.
The astronomical figures and what has been seen so far in the process speak as much for the society of the American judicial spectacle as for the culture of fame (subgenre: the unpleasant world of star divorces). Although this anger knows no borders: in London many of the dirty rags have already been aired and are now hanging again for all to see, despite the fact that the Fairfax judge has aborted the attempts of Heard’s lawyers to return to that process . This time, both have met in a town near Washington that gives its name to an opulent county because the Post and because the newspaper also has its digital servers there.
“Depp could have sued her in Los Angeles, but then it would have turned into a trial to it Hollywood”, explains the lawyer Jesse Weber, presenter star of the chain Crime & Law. In charge of distributing the theater signal, this week they have opted for a performance in the style of those films with the split screen (on the left, Depp; on the right, Heard), which could be titled Autopsy of a toxic relationship. The actor’s decision was also influenced by the fact that the Virginia regulations were more favorable to the plaintiff’s aspirations until a recent legislative change that put an end to the practice known as SLAPP, which allows the powerful with money to deactivate the First Amendment, which guarantees the freedom of expression, based on threatening million-dollar lawsuits.
Weber was already queuing at around 6:30 on Thursday along with 57 other people (members of the press like him, or not) who were waiting to obtain, strictly on a first-come, first-served basis, an access bracelet for that day’s session, in which Depp faced questions from the opposing party. The first in line, Yvonne and Debbie, said they show up every night at 1:30. Fans of the actor? “Oh, only for about 36 years,” they said. In the queue was another woman, who had arrived from Australia for the six weeks that the trial is expected to last; a teenage “wannabe lawyer” accompanied by her mother; and a therapist expert in abuse who had taken advantage of a day off to come from Washington and see for herself what she suspects when she follows the trial on television: “That Heard has traces of narcissism and, perhaps, a borderline personality disorder” .
Once inside, the show did not disappoint the hundred citizens who passed the court. Benjamin Rottenborn, Heard’s lawyer, questioned Depp in detail about his drug and alcohol abuse and his addiction to opiates, which a doctor prescribed after he was injured on the set of the fifth installment of Pirates of the Caribbean. He shared private messages sent to famous friends, family members, doctors or bodyguards in which he expressed his anger against Heard or his dependence on her, depending on whether or not he was close to the “Monster” (a code word in the couple to refer to cocaine and other drug abysses). She also showed audio, video and images collected by the ex-wife, such as one in which Depp is seen breaking kitchen furniture and spilling a glass of wine. “Yes,” he said, “I took it out on that furniture, but I never laid a hand on it.”
Detox on your island
Rottenborn sought to build for the jury a case according to which Depp verbally abused her in front of others, as well as to show that Heard was above all a good influence on him and to make it clear that, if his career went to hell, it was not for the tribune of the Post, but because of the addiction to drugs. According to the lawyer, they transformed him into an unpredictable being and a liar, even after detoxifying on the private island that Depp owns in the Bahamas, where the couple married after meeting in 2011 on the set of The Rum Diaries.
the protagonist of Edward Scissorhands He was somewhat more tense on Thursday than in the previous days, in which he seemed happy to be able to tell his version of events in a deliberately calm tone. Even in the most tense moments with Rottenborn, he made the audience smile by talking ironically about, for example, his addictive history. Like when the lawyer asked him if a photo – in which there were four lines of something that looked like cocaine, a Keith Richards CD, a copy of Los Angeles Times and two whiskeys next to a small wooden box with the inscription “Property of JD” – it had been taken early in the morning. “Is not every hour the happy hour?”, he responded before praising the “beautiful composition of the image.” (The actor was referring to the happy hour, that dead moment in the late afternoon when bars lower the price of alcohol to attract customers).
The third degree to Depp will continue on Monday, and it remains to be heard from her and her experts, as well as the flashy witnesses (Elon Musk or James Franco) that the actress has announced that she will summon. Legal experts quoted by the US media these days agree that both are likely to lose their respective lawsuits in a system where defamation is a slippery concept. What do they want then? It seems clear that Depp, who hasn’t been in a major studio movie since 2018, wants to clean up her image. And that both are embarked on a reckoning about their relationship at a price that is certainly high: the one marked by the minutes of those two armies of lawyers, who are also typical of Hollywood stars.