As compelling, lurid, headline-grabbing dramas go, it’s proving to be his biggest blockbuster in years. Over four astonishing days this week, Hollywood A-lister Johnny Depp, once the highest-paid actor in the world, took the stand at London’s High Court in a libel trial against The Sun over accusations of domestic violence.
In suing the newspaper for labelling him “a wife beater”, the 57 year-old actor has already provided thousands more column inches of intimate, grisly revelations about his short, tempestuous marriage to 34 year-old fellow actor, Amber Heard. And she's not yet taken the stand, herself.
Their divorce (which she filed for after 15 months of marriage) was finalised in January 2017, with Heard receiving a reported $7 million settlement, which she donated to charity, and both parties signing a non-disclosure agreement, barring them from talking about their marriage.
Now, however, in front of the world’s assembled media, the bombshells have been falling thick and fast: Depp’s alleged epic drink and drug binges – including one 24-bender with rock star Marilyn Manson, after dropping his then 15-year-old daughter at school – and domestic violence on both sides.
Heard allegedly threw a bottle at Depp, cutting off the tip of his finger, after which he wrote on the wall in his own blood; he allegedly subjected her to repeated attacks, including headbutting her, giving her two black eyes and breaking her nose. Depp denies that he was ever violent to his ex-wife; she denies injuring his finger.
The court saw texts from Depp to his friend Paul Bettany, joking he should “burn Amber” as “a witch”, for alleged affairs with Tesla founder Elon Musk and actor James Franco. She accuses him of dangling her teacup Yorkshire terrier out of the car window; he accuses her of deliberately defecating in their marital bed. Whatever the eventual outcome of the trial, no one is coming out of this looking good.
The man whose extraordinary cheekbones once launched a million schoolgirl fantasies has arrived daily to give testimony in signature aviator sunglasses, his face obscured by a black bandana, better to mask the ravages of reported years of excess. A fellow journalist, based in Hollywood, who interviewed him in 2014, reports meeting a youthful-looking 50 year-old then, and admits that she’s “not quite sure what’s happened to him since.” He seemed sober and mentally sound at the time, she says, which was shortly before he was due to marry Heard.
According to a draft email read in court by The Sun’s lawyer, Sasha Wass QC, when the couple – who first met on the set of The Rum Diary in 2009 – started dating in 2012, he had, in fact, been sober. “A whole year. How could I know this lay in store for me?” Heard asked in the email, which she wrote in June 2013 but never sent. “How dare you make me fall in love with you, present this other self – your good half – only to rip the mask off once I was in?!” The email goes on to repeatedly call Depp “the monster”, and accuses him of assault. “You have hit me repeated [sic]. Something you should Never have done. What a f****** man you are.”
The email – which Depp describes as a ‘hoax’ – also accuses the reclusive actor, these days rarely seen outside his own 14 properties, of surrounding himself with enablers. “You pay people around you to prevent your feet from having to hit the rock bottom,” wrote Heard. “You cut out and resent (whether you realise it or not) everyone who isn’t an enabler.”
Certainly, the litany of lurid evidence suggests that the demons presented in court this week have been decades in the making. A 2018 Rolling Stone interview – which spanned 72 hours, many joints and endless bottles of wine – described its subject as “alternately hilarious, sly and incoherent,” and included details of deep financial problems. “Depp has made $650 million on films…almost all of it is gone,” the piece reported, while his former management team, with whom he was in dispute, accused him of harbouring “a $2-million-a-month compulsory-spending disorder.”
Along with his private island in the Bahamas, Depp’s property portfolio includes a 45-acre chateau in the south of France and a horse farm in Kentucky. He owns Basquiats, Warhols and Modiglianis, 45 vehicles, an $18 million yacht, runs a 40-strong staff, and once spent $3 million on a “specially-made cannon” to blast the ashes of his great hero, Hunter S Thompson, over Aspen, Colorado. When Wass asked in court if an interview where Depp said it was "nonsense" he spent $30,000 a month on wine, "because the truth is it was considerably more than that," he replied simply: "It was".
While a rubbernecking public devours every colourful detail of the marital mud-slinging across the High Court, should anyone really be that surprised? Kentucky-born Depp, self-described “white trash”, began smoking at 12 years old and, as he said in court this week, had taken “every drug under the sun” by the age of 14. This is, after all, a man who pivoted into acting from music, thanks to his notorious drinking buddy, Nicholas Cage.
He was soon starring in 21 Jump Street, the teen series that propelled him to pin-up status.
As his career took off, with Edward Scissorhands and What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?, he took to the off-screen role of Hollywood hellraiser just as easily, displaying a talent for serious largesse. He didn’t just visit the Viper Room nightclub on the Sunset Strip, he bought it. When his close friend, the fellow actor River Phoenix, died of an overdose at the club, there were wild claims that Depp had supplied the drugs himself.
His four-year relationship with actress Winona Ryder defined early Nineties pop culture. When they split up, Depp’s famous “Winona Forever” tattoo was amended to “Wino Forever” – another detail raised in court this week, as the actor denied slapping Heard for laughing at it. In the mid-Nineties, his relationship with supermodel Kate Moss made them one of the most photographed couples on the planet, with the requisite rock’n’roll lifestyle. Depp once presented Moss with a diamond necklace, “which he had hidden down the crack of his ass,’” and surprised her with a bathtub overflowing with $1,000 of champagne at a west London hotel.
In court this week, he admitted to trashing a room at The Mark hotel in New York, when staying there with Moss, and causing $10,000 of damage, but denied his rage was related to Moss or that they’d had a fight. “That was the assumption of the media at the time because it makes for better press, doesn’t it, but rather than assaulting a human being I assaulted a couch,” he claimed. When they broke up in 1997, reportedly because of Depp’s mood swings, Moss was devastated. “Years and years of crying. Oh, the tears,” she has said.
Depp appeared to settle down to some sort of domestic stability with French singer Vanessa Paradis, mother of their two children, the actress Lily-Rose, and musician son, Jack, but the pair separated in 2012, and he began dating Heard. The couple married in a $1 million wedding in 2014, held on Depp’s 45-acre Bahamian island, Little Hall’s Pond Cay.
Meanwhile, Depp appeared to be morphing ever more closely into his characters, most notably his Pirates of the Caribbean incarnation, Captain Jack Sparrow (whose persona is, in turn, borrowed from one of Depp’s idols, Keith Richards) sporting “pirate-homeless attire,” as described by one interviewer, and behaving in ever more eccentric ways.
Rumours began to circulate that Depp used an earpiece on set, the implication being that he could no longer memorise lines. He has since confirmed that the earpiece part is true, but claims it is a soundtrack of “bagpipes, a baby crying and bombs going off,” to allow him to “act with his eyes”. Observers cite it as evidence that he’s mirroring another of his great heroes, Marlon Brando's descent into bloated excess.
While Depp once chased a paparazzo with a plank of wood outside a London restaurant for photographing his children, a celebrity snapper I speak to in LA reports never having seen the actor become aggressive. “He’s passive-aggressive, and will mutter something about you under his breath. He’s antagonistic, but I’ve never seen him instigate anything.”
His relationship with Heard, however, appears to have been incendiary. In January 2017, the pair released a telling divorce statement: “Our relationship was intensely passionate and at times volatile but always bound by love. Neither party has made false accusations for financial gain. There was never any intent of physical or emotional harm.”
Whether Depp’s career and reputation can ever recover remains to be seen; Winona Ryder and Vanessa Paradis are both due to give evidence, and next week comes Heard’s turn on the witness stand. The entertainment industry’s productions might all be on pause, but the live-action Depp disaster movie still has another fortnight to run.