Everything you need to know ahead of the Johnny Depp-Amber Heard defamation trial
Johnny Depp, once one of Hollywood's most bankable stars, appearing in one Pirates of the Caribbean movie after another, seems to have fallen and can't get up. His recent roles have been in little-seen films, rather than his traditional blockbusters. How did we get here? Depp is alleged to have verbally and physically abused his wife. Now he's trying to get his reputation back and the defamation lawsuit against his ex-wife Amber Heard is heading to trial.
What has Amber Heard accused Johnny Depp of?
In 2016, actress Amber Heard filed for divorce from Johnny Depp, whom she married in 2015 after they met on the set of the film The Rum Diary. She alleged Depp was "verbally and physically abusive to me" during the "entirety of our relationship," and a judge granted her a temporary restraining order. She received a $7 million settlement later that year, and Depp and Heard said in a joint statement "our relationship was intensely passionate and at times volatile, but always bound by love," adding, "There was never any intent of physical or emotional harm."
In 2018, Heard published a Washington Post op-ed, in which she wrote that "two years ago, I became a public figure representing domestic abuse" and "felt the full force of our culture's wrath for women who speak out."
That same year, Depp sued the British tabloid The Sun over an article that called him a "wife beater" in reference to Heard's allegations, and as part of a libel trial in the UK, Heard testified that Depp physically abused her. She also alleged he "explicitly threatened to kill me many times" and that "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."
What has Depp said?
Depp also alleges Heard is the one who physically abused him during their relationship. He said during the libel trial that she assaulted him and claimed she severed his finger tip by throwing a bottle of vodka at him. "Rage-filled violent incidents on planes were common with Amber," he said. Depp's legal team also played a tape in which Heard tells Depp she hit him and that she "can't promise you I won't get physical again." She testified that "when I felt my life was threatened, I tried to defend myself."
What was the outcome of the libel trial?
Depp lost the libel case after a judge ruled that what The Sun published about him was "substantially true." The judge concluded that the "great majority of alleged assaults of Ms. Heard by Mr. Depp have been proved to the civil standard."
The fallout was swift, and days later, Depp announced that Warner Bros. asked him to resign from his role in the Fantastic Beasts films. His character of Grindelwald is now played by Mads Mikkelsen in the latest sequel, Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore. Supporters of Depp demanded Warner Bros. also remove Heard from the upcoming Aquaman sequel, but producers declined to do so.
In March 2021, Depp was denied appeal of the "wife beater" libel lawsuit. As part of his request for a new trial, his lawyers alleged Heard didn't donate the entirety of her $7 million divorce settlement, as she said she would, claiming her promise to do so gave her a "considerable boost to her credibility" and "tipped the scales" against him. Heard says she was "delayed" in donating the money due to the costly legal battle with Depp.
Why is Depp suing Heard?
In 2019, Depp filed a $50 million lawsuit against Heard in Virginia, accusing her of defaming him with her 2018 op-ed in The Washington Post. "The op-ed depended on the central premise that Ms. Heard was a domestic abuse victim and that Mr. Depp perpetrated domestic violence against her," the lawsuit said. Heard failed to get the lawsuit dismissed in 2021. She countersued Depp for $100 million, accusing him of orchestrating a "false and defamatory smear campaign" against her.
Depp's lawsuit against Heard is scheduled to finally go to trial in Virginia on April 11. In March, a judge said Heard's attorneys can argue she has immunity because she spoke out about a matter of public concern with her op-ed, according to The Associated Press. Her legal team plans to cite Virginia's anti-SLAPP law providing immunity in civil cases based on statements made about "matters of public concern that would be protected under the First Amendment," per the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.
Heard's attorneys have also noted her Washington Post op-ed does not mention Depp's name, though his lawyers argue it was implied she was referring to him.
What other celebrities are caught up in the trial?
Tesla CEO Elon Musk and actor James Franco may be called to testify, according to Deadline. Depp has claimed Heard had an affair with Franco while they were married, and Page Six reports "lawyers for Depp also want to ask the actor if he saw the alleged bruises to Heard's face." A photo in the UK libel trial showed Heard with bruises on her face, allegedly after a fight with Depp, and she said Franco asked her, "What happened to you?" Musk also dated Heard, and Depp has alleged they had an affair. Musk and Heard have denied this.
Marvel star Paul Bettany may be called to testify, as well. As part of the previous libel trial, a text message exchange between Depp and Bettany was revealed in which Depp writes of Heard, "Let's drown her before we burn her!!! I will f--k her burnt corpse afterwards to make sure she is dead." Bettany wrote that "I'm not sure we should burn Amber" and that "we could of course do the English course of action and perform a drowning test."
Representatives from Disney, which releases the Pirates of the Caribbean films that Depp says he was removed from, and Warner Bros, the studio behind Fantastic Beasts, may also be brought into the trial, Deadline says.
How likely is Depp to succeed in the lawsuit?
Syracuse University Newhouse School associate dean Joel Kaplan told Poynter Depp's case is weaker legally than Sarah Palin's defamation lawsuit against The New York Times, which the former Alaska governor ultimately lost. Feminist researcher and journalist Nicole Froio argued to Poytner that should Depp win the case, it could "give abusers ideas as to how to handle abuse charges or legal suits for things that they should be held accountable for" and "give them legal avenues to silence their victims."
Arbitrator Winter Wheeler, who is not involved in the case, argued to The Guardian, though, that even if Depp wins, it won't "restore his reputation," as "people have already made a decision about how they feel about him, and I don't think that that's going to change." Wheeler added, "Dragging your alleged victim back into court doesn't sit well with your average person."