How Did Johnny Depp Become the Good Guy?
Johnny Depp waves to his fans outside the Fairfax County Courthouse
Photo: Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images
For the final time, the side chats on the Fairfax County Courthouse livestreams lit up on Wednesday — a cascade of cheering from Johnny Depp fans celebrating like their team just won the Super Bowl: Gooooo Johnny! Justice for Johnny! We love you, Johnny! A Virginia jury had just delivered its verdict in the case that has cannibalized headlines for the past six weeks: Amber Heard, the jury found, had defamed her ex-husband in a 2018 Washington Post op-ed identifying her as “a public figure representing domestic abuse.” Depp had been a charismatic mainstay at the trial throughout — winking at his supporters and rewarding their enthusiasm with Captain Jack Sparrow impressions outside the courthouse. But when the jury read its verdict, he wasn’t there. He flew to England after closing arguments wrapped last week and has been enjoying standing ovations while guest-starring as a guitarist with Jeff Beck for the musician’s UK tour.
Not long after the news broke, Depp posted a statement on Instagram. In typewriter font, he denounced the “false, very serious and criminal allegations” made “via the media,” writing, “the jury gave me my life back.” Celebrities — including Naomi Campbell, Ashley Benson, and Ryan Adams, the latter of whom several women have accused of sexual misconduct and emotional abuse — rushed into the comments with heart emojis. The GOP’s House Judiciary Committee tweeted a GIF of Depp as a triumphant Sparrow while right-wing talking heads heralded the demise of Me Too. As celebs and certain Republicans celebrated, survivors’ advocates worried. Ruth Glenn, president and CEO of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, told the Daily Beast: “I would ask the nation and your readers, would you think twice about coming forward after witnessing what’s happened?” Watching the reactions unspool, I asked myself for the thousandth time whether we were all watching the same trial.
Judge Penney Azcarate guaranteed proceedings would become a spectacle when she made the unusual decision to welcome cameras into her courtroom. But it would be hard for anyone to anticipate just how far off the rails this train would run. Jurors saw Heard sob through a harrowing description of a fight in which she said Depp raped her with a liquor bottle. Depp made indelible claims about the time he said Heard revenge-pooped in their bed. The court heard from a parade of bit players seemingly ill-equipped to tell us anything about defamation: the owner of a California trailer park, Depp’s accountant, a former TMZ employee. But for the majority of people watching, the verdict was clear before the trial even began. On social media, Depp fans made a game out of calling Heard a liar and an inconsistent narrator. They argued that she didn’t bring credible evidence to the table — a baffling claim considering the numerous recordings, videos, texts, and photos that seemed to back up her testimony.
The unifying assessment among Heard’s critics seems to be that she is unlikable and this makes her hard to believe. But I struggle to understand how Depp emerged as the good guy. In the courtroom, attorneys dissected Depp’s cruel and graphic text messages, in which he called Heard an “overused flappy fish market,” “waste of a cum guzzler,” and “slippery whore,” among other creative insults. In one exchange, Depp mused about drowning Heard and setting her body on fire: “I will fuck her burnt corpse afterwards to make sure she’s dead.” Audio and video recordings of an allegedly drunk Depp showcase a similarly profane vocabulary and tinderbox temper. He once wrote threatening messages — “little reminders of our past,” he called them on the stand — to Heard on their walls in his blood. No one, not even Depp, contests that he did these things.
The most disorienting aspect of this trial was the fun-house-mirror quality of the evidence: The contours of the image shift and distort depending on your vantage point. Hundreds of thousands of people heard texts in which Depp seemed to fantasize (joked, he said) about murdering and raping his wife and still hold him up as a saint. A court in the U.K. looked at almost exactly the same exhibits and saw something totally different. Shortly before Depp sued Heard — over an article that did not name him — he filed a libel claim against The Sun for calling him a “wife-beater.” In November 2020, a judge ruled that the tabloid’s reporting was “substantially true,” finding that Depp had likely abused Heard in 12 of the 14 instances the court had considered. By that point, Heard had already lost her motion to have the Fairfax lawsuit dismissed and filed a countersuit for $100 million.
As The New Yorker’s Jessica Winter has observed, Depp’s libel argument felt tenuous at best. Winter notes that the language of Heard’s op-ed reflects “careful legal vetting.” Heard did not write that she is a survivor of domestic abuse but that she is a “public figure representing” it — a point that’s hard to argue. During the couple’s 2016 divorce, photos of Heard’s bruised face ran on the cover of People magazine. A video she’d filmed on her phone of Depp smashing glasses in their kitchen popped up on TMZ. Text messages leaked in which Depp’s assistant conveys the actor’s apologies for purportedly kicking Heard the night before. Depp’s lawsuit against The Sun surfaced new details, including Heard’s testimony that the relationship left her in fear for her life: “Some incidents were so severe that I was afraid he was going to kill me — either intentionally or just by losing control and going too far,” she told the British High Court.
All of this attracted media attention when it happened, but none of it appeared in Heard’s op-ed. And none of it appears to have made an impression on Depp’s fans. While listening to the “burnt corpse” conversation read aloud in court, one participant in a livestream chat acknowledged that it did sound bad — but Heard had still married him. Others encouraged Heard to shut up and find some dignity while she recounted the night Depp allegedly assaulted her with a bottle. On TikTok, committed supporters took courtroom clips out of context — creating a scroll of highlight reels that cherry-pick evidence in Depp’s favor. If you have opened Instagram in the past several weeks and wondered why your “Explore” page is suddenly suggesting that Heard did cocaine in court (she didn’t), you have the Depp fanship to thank for that narrative. Depp fans have been circulating conspiracy theories about Heard online — alleging she lifted lines of her testimony from The Talented Mr. Ripley (no) and even that she killed her own mother to keep her from testifying in Depp’s U.K. trial (also no).
On the stand in Fairfax, Depp waved away his more damning asides as examples of his quirky, dark humor. He tried to shirk responsibility for messages sent from his phone — going so far as to suggest that Heard’s team had illegally “typed” up new evidence the night before. One thing that has become clear, through the barrage of Depp messages read aloud in court since April, is that the actor possesses a distinct voice as a writer. “NOW I will stop at nothing!!!” he wrote in a text to his and Heard’s former talent agent in 2016 — referencing Heard’s new relationship with Elon Musk. “Let’s see if mollusk has a pair … I’ll show him things he’s never seen before … Like, the other side of his dick when I slice it off.” In another text, Depp expressed the hope that Heard’s “rotting corpse was decomposing in the fucking trunk of a Honda Civic.”
Depp’s lawsuit claims that Heard’s op-ed brought “new damage” to his “reputation and career,” though he has actually added several credits (as an actor and producer) to his IMDb page since the essay came out. He has retained his Dior campaigns — the brand removed one from social media not over the abuse allegations but because people complained that it was racist — and did not lose his last big gig, as Gellert Grindelwald in Warner Brothers’ Fantastic Beasts franchise, until days after the U.K. trial closed. (Though The Sun lambasted the choice to cast a “wife-beater,” writer J. K. Rowling had remained “genuinely happy” to have Depp stay on.)
Meanwhile, Depp has been the subject of plenty of negative headlines that have nothing to do with Heard. The actor cultivated a reputation for hard partying as an ingenu in the early 1990s; by 2014, episodes of apparent intoxication in professional settings had worked their way into the news cycle. His substance use had reportedly gotten so out of hand by the time he shot the fifth Pirates of the Caribbean movie in 2015 that his chronic lateness would leave “hundreds of extras waiting for hours at a time,” to quote a Hollywood Reporter feature from 2017. More bad press came in June 2018 — when Rolling Stone profiled Depp’s allegedly unbridled spending and rumored financial ruin. According to a Hollywood Reporter feature published in December 2020, Depp’s newfound love of litigation was just one of the things that had made him “radioactive” in the industry. Unnamed film executives told THR that Depp’s multimillion-dollar paychecks became increasingly difficult to balance against a string of big-budget titles that barely broke even. Depp’s drug and alcohol consumption had reportedly become a liability: The original distributor for City of Lies (which was initially slated to premiere in September 2018) pulled the movie after a crewmember sued Depp — alleging the actor punched him while drunk on set. Tracey Jacobs, Depp’s former agent of 30 years, testified at trial that whispers about his behavior made it hard for her to get him contracts. “He’s just never been told no for the past 35 years,” one unnamed producer told THR. “That’s typical in Hollywood. But I’ve never seen it to this extent.”
Notably, Depp did not sue Rolling Stone or The Hollywood Reporter — two outlets that chronicled his career’s collapse long before Heard’s op-ed was published. Nor did he sue the Washington Post, which published statements the jury found defamatory. Nor the ACLU, which ghostwrote them. Those cases probably would have been harder to win — and wouldn’t have offered the same opportunity to open a referendum on Heard’s character. Throughout all of this, Heard says she has been getting death threats. “People want to kill me, and they tell me so every day. People want to put my baby in the microwave, and they tell me that,” she said during her final turn on the witness stand.
Regardless of who you think told the truth, that is a chilling response to a person who spoke publicly about alleged abuse. The prevailing knee-jerk reaction was to shout her down. To bully her. To shred her reputation. Meanwhile, the man who brought her to court left the building each day to swarms of screaming fans. Despite Depp’s claims that Heard destroyed his employment prospects, he was back at work before the case even wrapped. That doesn’t sound so much like getting his “life back” as simply returning to it — walking onstage confident in the expectation that the crowd would applaud like they always do. For his fans, Depp has always been innocent — a testament to his enduring influence even without the big film studios behind him. Online, Depp’s stans remain convinced that he was the “real” victim. But if the trial demonstrated anything, it’s how incredibly powerful Depp and his image remain.