Johnny Depp’s victory in his legal action against Amber Heard, and his victory in one of the counts of her countersuit against him, may have ended the six-week spectacle of the pair trading bitter and often alarming accusations of abuse and assault. Now, however, attention will turn to the aftermath, including the possible repercussions for their careers.
In fact, each actor’s future prospects were central to the trial itself: it bears pointing out that the legal action was not a criminal case, or a child residence battle, but for defamation, in which each side attempted to show that their reputations were so damaged by the other that harmed their career and earning potential. Both Depp and Heard called witnesses to testify to the effect the other’s allegations had on exactly this issue, and witness testimony put considerations of each star’s career status in the public arena.
Depp launched this defamation action after Heard published an article in the Washington Post in 2018 in which she described herself as “a public figure representing domestic abuse”, without mentioning Depp’s name; Heard counter-sued, also for defamation, and both claimed lost contracts and income.
The trial has exposed the short-term consequences for both actors’ careers and has offered a rare insight into the inner workings of Hollywood. Depp’s agent, Jack Whigham, described the impact of Heard’s article as “catastrophic” for Depp’s career, testifying the actor lost the chance to appear in the sixth installation of the Pirates of the Caribbean series for which he would have earned $23m. Another witness, accountant Michael Spindler, said that Depp had lost about $40m as a result of Heard’s allegations. Depp also resigned from the third Fantastic Beasts film after he lost a libel action against the Sun in 2020 after the newspaper called him a “wife beater”.
Heard, likewise, said that her career had been badly affected by Depp’s allegations, saying that she had to “fight” to retain her role as Mera in the sequel to the 2018 superhero film Aquaman, and that she has been cast in only one other film in the last two years.
In both cases, however, industry figures have suggested other factors were at play in the reduction of their acting work. Depp’s former agent, Tracey Jacobs, testified that his participation in Pirates of the Caribbean 6 was already at risk due to his “behaviour”, including lateness on set: “Crews don’t love sitting around for hours and hours and hours waiting for the star to show up.” Moreover, Depp admitted while being cross-examined by Heard’s lawyer that he would not work on a new Pirates film even if it was offered.
Conversely, senior Hollywood executive Walter Hamada, president of Warner Bros’ DC Films unit, testified that Heard’s role in Aquaman 2 was reduced due to a “lack of chemistry” between her and the film’s star, Jason Momoa.
In actuality, the delivery of a verdict is not likely to dramatically improve the future prospects of either. Hollywood studios will be wary of hiring an actor with so many distressing abuse accusations against him and so Depp – by far the more successful and high-profile actor of the two – is not likely to find work in a big-budget mainstream film in the foreseeable future, not because their own workforces are increasingly activist and could well refuse to work on a Depp project, as Hatchette’s did with Woody Allen’s autobiography.
However, the same strictures will not apply to independent producers: the examples of Mel Gibson and Kevin Spacey show that it is possible for actors to continue to secure roles in smaller-scale films despite being mired in scandal. Throughout his career, Depp has shown a predilection for smaller, unusual films and will no doubt continue to make them, albeit commanding reduced fees. Inevitably, perhaps, the large numbers of fervent supporters of Depp on social media would lead producers to conclude a market for a Depp product undoubtedly exists.
Heard, on the other hand, is in a different position: her acting career has largely comprised a string of supporting roles, with occasional leads in smaller films such as the 2006 slasher All the Boys Love Mandy Lane. Her most recent lead role, as Nicola Six in the Martin Amis adaptation London Fields, collapsed into ignominy after the director and producers fell out and launched legal claims against each other, with Heard also sued by the producers, reaching a settlement in 2018. Heard’s acting career was enhanced by her association with Depp (although she firmly rebutted claims that Depp “got her” the role in Aquaman), and since that connection has severed her career momentum has consequently diminished.
Heard’s long-running outspoken defense of domestic abuse victims is more likely the key to her future activities: as with, for example, the actor and campaigner Rose McGowan, she now has a considerably higher profile as an activist than an actor and may well wish to concentrate her efforts in that sphere.
Depp still commands considerable support in Hollywood, although few are prepared to go on the record. One insider told the Guardian: “I believe that he will work again. People love him and with the right project, he can still open a movie.” However, the situation for Depp may well change if, as with Spacey, criminal charges are brought against him as a result of Heard’s allegations of assault.