How will Johnny Depp and Amber Heard rebuild their careers and restore their public images?
- While this week’s jury verdict was largely in favour of the Pirates of the Caribbean star, both Johnny Depp and Amber Heard must rebuild their tarnished images
- Legal and PR experts believe it will be an uphill climb for both, though some say it will be easier for Depp, a man, for Heard
After an explosive six-week libel trial followed by millions on social media and live television, Johnny Depp and Amber Heard each face an uphill battle: trying to rebuild their images and careers.
“Depp has a hill to climb. Heard has a mountain to climb,” says Eric Dezenhall, a crisis mitigator with no involvement in the case. “If Depp keeps his expectations proportional and understands that he’s unlikely to hit his former heights, he can have a solid career if he takes things slowly. After all, he was vindicated in court, not declared a saint.”
The challenge for Heard, Dezenhall says, is that, rightly or wrongly, some believe she abused and perhaps even tarnished a worthy movement, #MeToo.
With a he said-she said edge to the drawn-out trial, the verdict handed down in Fairfax County in the US state of Virginia found that Depp had been defamed by three statements in a 2018 The Washington Post op-ed piece written by Heard, who identified herself as an abuse victim.
The jury awarded the Pirates of the Caribbean star more than US$10 million. Jurors also concluded Heard was defamed by a lawyer for Depp who accused her of creating a hoax surrounding the abuse allegations. She was awarded US$2 million.
Given that such cases are notoriously hard to win, was the defamation route the way to go? Some observers with experience in high-profile cases believe Depp’s decision to sue – even though it meant dragging his and Heard’s personal lives through the mud – was a last-ditch attempt to bolster his star power after his failed London libel lawsuit against the British tabloid The Sun for describing him as a “wife beater”.
“I think the defamation case was a Hail Mary,” says David Glass, a US family lawyer with a PhD in psychology.
Married just 15 months, Depp sued Heard for US$50 million over the op-ed in which she called herself “a public figure representing domestic abuse”. She didn’t identify Depp by name and it was published two years after she began making public accusations against him.
Heard countersued for US$100 million, accusing the star of defaming her via the hoax accusations of lawyer Adam Waldman. Many of the last days of the trial focused on the aftereffects of both claims, with Depp testifying: “I lost nothing less than everything”. Heard accused him of trying to erase her ability to work.
“Now as I stand here today, I can’t have a career,” Heard testified at the close of the trial. “I hope to get my voice back. That’s all I want.”
But does a verdict of any kind hold the power to reverse the courtroom accusations: of Depp as a physically and sexually abusive ageing drunk and drug addict, and Heard as unhinged and capable of faking bruises allegedly inflicted by the man she said she stayed with out of love?
Despite it all, Depp’s fan base remains solid. Fans often camped out overnight for the chance to attend proceedings. But unlike rockers and stand-up comedians ensnared in #MeToo moments who can still earn through live shows, Depp and Heard need the crisis-averse studio machines to make big money.
Rehabilitation is necessary for both, whether it’s duelling traditional sit-down interviews or another secret weapon in their PR teams’ arsenals.
Heard, who was in the room for the verdict, plans to appeal. Depp, who wasn’t in court, said: “The jury gave me my life back. I am truly humbled.”
“I think they’re going to look at that and say, ‘Do we want this on our set?’”
Danielle Lindemann, an associate professor of sociology at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania who researches gender, sexuality and culture, says Depp’s ability to earn big had already been affected, whether because of his own self-destruction or fallout from Heard’s accusations.
“But I don’t think he’s ‘cancelled’,” says Lindemann, author of True Story: What Reality Says About Us.
The damage to his career is also likely to be a lot less severe in Asian and European markets, where his popularity remains high. And he is likely to still get work on indie productions like those that helped along his 38-year run.
Since the former couple began slinging allegations, Heard has faced intense backlash on social media. She said Depp fuelled campaigns to get her fired as an ambassador for beauty company L’Oreal and cut as the character Mera from an Aquaman sequel, though a production executive testified she remains in the film scheduled for next year.
Producer Jerry Bruckheimer has revealed that two more Pirates scripts are in development, but neither will include Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow, a role that earned the actor an Oscar nomination in 2003.
His last appearance in the Disney-owned franchise was in 2017’s Dead Men Tell No Tales.