As tempting as it might be for Depp to embrace his status as a leader of the anti-MeToo movement, the veteran movie producer says he should resist. “He needs to represent Johnny Depp as an actor trying to come back from years of lack of sobriety. The narrative that he beat #MeToo would be very bad for him.”
Once one of America’s biggest and most magnetic movie stars, Depp was the kind of actor who could make any movie—even one based on a theme park ride—worth seeing. His career has encompassed serious indie films and blockbusters. As he grew older, he transformed into a bit of a cartoon-character version of a rebel, in the mold of his gonzo hero, Hunter S. Thompson. During the trial, there was discussion of whether Depp had gained a problematic reputation in the industry that dimmed his work prospects even before Heard’s op-ed. In a video deposition, UTA’s Tracey Jacobs, a top talent agent who represented Depp for 30 years until he fired her in 2016, testified about his increased substance abuse and suggested that, in her final decade working with him, Depp tarnished his reputation by consistently showing up late to set. “People were talking,” she said. “The question was out there about his behavior.”
A prominent Hollywood publicist and awards strategist sees a bumpy road ahead for Depp. “Once you go too far down this path, the legitimate studios are not going to hire him. He’s still slightly kryptonite. But what does he care? He will continue to make money off marginal video-on-demand things and be fine with that.”
A talent agent at one of the major agencies believes that since Depp’s “dangerous artistic image” was already a given, audiences may be forgiving. “I think it’s just going to take one studio hiring him. Maybe he has to make an independent film or make something that’s outside the studio system for it to be acceptable to hire him again.”
A development executive who has worked on several Depp projects agrees that the actor’s reintegration into Hollywood will be a gradual process: “I don’t think he immediately goes back on the Harry Potter franchise or goes immediately back onto Pirates of the Caribbean. The jury and the public seem to be on his side, so it’s less controversial than many of these other celebrities who’ve been guilty of #MeToo accusations, because he did win the case largely.”
The executive disagrees with Depp’s former agent’s assessment that issues like substance abuse and emotional volatility had already hampered Depp’s projects. “That kind of stuff never really affected his ability to show up on set and give a performance. It wasn’t an industry problem like, ‘we can’t get him bonded because he won’t show up on set for big chunks of time.’ Whatever those problems were, it’s not like they had a massive impact on his ability to actually perform in big films.”
Still, the abuse accusations will remain a factor in whether he gets hired, the development exec admits. “It’s a question of executives within the business determining: Do they want that headache? My guess is more likely he’s going to be doing sort of smaller, Rum Diary kinds of movies that might kind of get him back on the map.” Depp may also find himself being offered less compensation because of his reputational damage. “Johnny is part of a group of superstars that used to command these gigantic salaries,” the development exec continues. “That’s a shrinking demographic. So any excuse Hollywood could use to not pay those figures, they’re gonna take it.”
Depp does have other financial footholds, like his role as the face of Dior’s Sauvage cologne. The company chose to stand by him through the trial, a decision that seemed to be rewarded by fans, some of whom went out of their way to buy the product as a sign of support for Depp. “It’s a win for Dior,” says a luxury fashion brand executive and consultant. “There’s obviously a lot of articles out there [saying] that nobody has won, but clearly Johnny is the winner in our public opinion.”
As for Heard, most sources V.F. spoke to agree that her reputation has been badly damaged by the grueling trial. Although never as massive a star as Depp, Heard is set to appear in blockbuster sequel Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom alongside Jason Momoa next year. But Depp fans, who have showered Heard with disgust and fury, mounted a campaign to remove the actor from the movie; as of this writing, their change.org petition has more than 4.5 million signatures.
Insiders are divided about Heard’s prospects going forward. “I think, for Amber, her career is over,” says the talent agent. “She didn’t really have a viable career in the last year or two or so before this, so I don’t know how she comes out of that.” The development exec concurs: “She had her day in court, quite literally, to prove the case that she was trying to make, and the jurors didn’t find it as compelling and the public didn’t find it as compelling. At the end of the day, I think she walked away being less trusted and less liked than she was before.”
The publicist is more sanguine about Heard’s future: “Her career as a big studio star is done, but I do think she’ll find appropriate producers who are going to be all about working with her—women who actually want to send the elevator back down for people.” The veteran movie producer isn’t quite ready to make a bet. “It really depends on the kinds of choices that she makes. I think there will be people that are willing to work with her. And if she did a terrific indie with a terrific part and showed her chops, I think she could come back from this.”
Hollywood has recently forged a mini trend out of reckoning with the tabloid demonization of women like Monica Lewinsky, Pamela Anderson, and Britney Spears; yet Heard’s treatment on social media grimly echoes the way these women were publicly mocked and undermined. “The harassment and the humiliation, the campaign against me that’s echoed every single day on social media, and now in front of cameras in the showroom—every single day I have to relive the trauma,” Heard said in her testimony. Current hashtags include #amberheardisapsychopath, #WeJustDontLikeYouAmber, and #DontBelieveAllWomen.
“I think this trial fell into a zeitgeist crisis,” says the movie producer. “There’s an appetite for allowing complications to enter the picture, where it’s not all ‘victim’ and ‘victimizer.’ The craziness [aimed at Heard] was a kind of pent-up anger at women. I think it really stirred up a lot of deep-seated resentment that hasn’t been allowed expression since #MeToo.”
The verdict may test one of Hollywood’s ongoing quandaries, the producer says: “How canceled is canceled?” Other than Harvey Weinstein, it seems that all bets are off. “I think it will be determined by the market, not the executives. If the market really wants an actor, they’ll get it. I don’t think the market is begging for Kevin Spacey. They certainly are begging for Dave Chappelle.” And judging by Depp’s army of followers, he retains a boisterous fandom. His post-verdict Instagram statement currently has more than 18 million likes, some from celebrities, including filmmaker Taika Waititi.
So would you cast either Depp or Heard right now, if you had the right part? “I would probably wait six months to figure that out,” the producer says. “Right now the studios and the buyers don’t know what’s going to happen. You have to wait for this to sort of settle in the culture. But I would certainly put them on the list.”
Meanwhile, Hollywood will have to let the grimness of the trial dissipate. “I think they abused each other,” says an industry veteran who watched the trial compulsively. “I think they were toxic. I don’t think he’s a serial abuser. He didn’t abuse Kate Moss. He didn’t abuse Vanessa Paradis. But there are some combinations of people that are like chemicals that are completely benign when they’re on their own, but you put them together, and they blow up your kitchen.”
Additional interviews by Anthony Breznican, Rebecca Ford, and Britt Hennemuth.