With acting roles hard to come by, Johnny Depp and Amber Heard are now starring in a legal drama about the collapse of their turbulent marriage. The script is lousy, the passages are unpredictable, and the lighting is harsh.
Claims and counter-claims of domestic violence, manipulation, obsession, drug addiction and alcoholism inform the duel defamation lawsuit is being tested in the Fairfax, Virginia, courtroom.
Depp and Heard, who have only been married for three years, still know how to appear even if they sit 15 feet apart, separated by lawyers and deep hatred.
Depp’s $50 million action against Heard, who Depp said defamed him in 2018 by writing an opinion piece on Washington Post that she believes wrongly portraying him as a domestic abuser, has signaled that the actor, who is effectively blacklisted by Hollywood, believes he has nothing to lose.
Depp, 58, accused Heard, 35, of making domestic violence allegations against him of “designed to shock” and “manipulate” the #MeToo movement. The jury had heard that he started the fight.
In a $100 million counterclaim, Heard’s attorneys claimed that Depp was a “vengeance-obsessed ex-husband”, who punched, kicked, and sexually assaulted his wife with bottles of vodka.
The Kentucky-born actor lost one libel trial against Sun newspapers last year when a British high court judge ruled that it was “substantially true” that Depp beat his Texas-born ex-wife.
But the US sequel to the London action is definitely different in character. Hollywood has come to the outskirts of Virginia. Fans, mostly Depp, were allowed in the courtroom and the proceedings were broadcast live to millions of people.
In addition to the plaintiffs and defendants – Depp and Heard – James Franco, Paul Bettany and Elon Musk are on Judge Penney Azcarate’s list to testify. They’ll be joined by employees, friends, doctors, and psychotherapists who have applied Hollywood sham qualities to the Azcarate courtroom.
Heard has maintained an air of cool composure against the daily attacks on his character and motivations.
Depp has also presented himself strategically. On the second day of the trial, Kate James, Heard’s assistant from 2012 to 2015, described the actor as a “total Southern man”.
One week into what is scheduled to be a seven-week trial, Depp’s presentation of witnesses in support of the defamation claim is only setting the stage for his later testimony.
It depends on whether the actor can sensibly present his ex-wife as a planner, and not, as he puts it, as a victim of his abuse.
Heard’s allegations of defamation, said her rep, “follow a pattern of her intricate and false claims that have evolved and evolved over time for Hollywood shock value purposes that Amber has mastered and used to exploit serious social movements”.
Both parties must agree to waive the right to privacy for relationship counselor Dr Laurel Anderson to testify that both Heard and Depp have a family history of domestic violence.
Depp had been “well controlled” for decades before meeting Heard, Anderson said. “With Ms Heard, she was triggered. They were involved in what I see as reciprocal harassment.”
On more than one occasion, he said, Heard had initiated incidents to stop Depp’s departure, stemming from his fear of abandonment.
“It was an honor for Heard, if he felt unappreciated, to start a fight. If he was going to leave her to settle a fight, he would attack her to keep her there. He would rather fight to keep her there. ”
Depp’s legal strategy, US defamation attorneys say, is to demonstrate vulnerability. “Obviously these two carry what sounds like a burden in a marriage. So the strategy is not to gain sympathy but to show the jury what’s more likely – that it’s him or her,” said New York defamation attorney Kimberly Lau.
Establishing that Depp was provoked does not in itself provide a defense against abuse. “Depp has to fight accusations that he is the culprit to make that statement false,” Lau said. “Building provocations can help undermine the credibility of the other party.”
At some point before Heard had a chance to present his side of the story to the jury, Depp would take a stand.
“Amber Heard is not the star of this drama, although she may like it,” said Hollywood journalist and attorney Allison Hope Weiner. “When he went up to the pulpit, it was him. This will be a difficult act to follow. He will be very well liked.
“Those movie stars are so professionally charming, and even when you steel yourself not to like them, when they want you to like them, you like them.”