Depp v Heard sequel turns Hollywood drama as actors prepare to take stage | Johnny Depp

With acting roles hard to come by, Johnny Depp and Amber Heard are now starring in a legal drama about the collapse of their volatile marriage. The script is ugly, the walk-on parts unpredictable, and the lighting harsh.

Claims and counter-claims of domestic abuse, manipulation, obsession, drug addiction and alcoholism inform the duelling defamation lawsuits being tested in a Fairfax, Virginia, courtroom.

Depp and Heard, who were married for just three years, still know how to put on a show even if they are sitting 15ft apart, separated by lawyers and a deep expanse of resentment.

Depp’s $50m action against Heard, whom Depp claims libelled him in 2018 by writing an opinion article in the Washington Post that he believes falsely portrayed him as a domestic abuser, has signalled that the actor, effectively blacklisted by Hollywood, believes he has little left to lose.

Depp, 58, has accused Heard, 35, of making allegations of domestic abuse against him “designed to shock” and to “manipulate” the #MeToo movement. Jurors have heard that she initiated the fights.

In a $100m countersuit, Heard’s attorneys claim that Depp is an “obsessed ex-husband hellbent on revenge”, who punched, kicked and sexually assaulted his wife with a vodka bottle.

The Kentucky-born actor lost one defamation trial against the Sun newspaper last year when a British high court judge ruled that it was “substantially true” that Depp beat his Texas-born ex-wife.

But the US sequel to the London action is perceptibly different in character. Hollywood has come to the Virginia suburbs. Fans, mostly of Depp, are permitted in the courtroom and the proceedings are being livestreamed to millions.

In addition to the plaintiff and defendant – Depp and Heard – James Franco, Paul Bettany and Elon Musk are on Judge Penney Azcarate’s list to testify. They will join employees, friends, doctors and psychotherapists who have superimposed a Hollywood make-believe quality on Azcarate’s courtroom.

Heard has maintained an air of cool composure against daily assaults on her character and motivations.

Depp, too, has presented himself strategically. On the second day of the trial, after a series of witnesses accused him of behaving aggressively, Kate James, Heard’s assistant from 2012 to 2015, described the actor as “a total Southern gentleman”.

One week into what is scheduled to be a seven-week trial, Depp’s presentation of witnesses to support his libel claim is merely setting the stage for his testimony later on.

That depends if the actor can plausibly present his former wife as schemer, and not, as she contends, a victim of his abuse.

Heard’s alleged libel, his representatives say, “follows a pattern of her elaborate, erroneous claims which have continued to change and evolve over time for the purpose of Hollywood shock value of which Amber has mastered and used to exploit a serious social movement”.

Both parties would have had to agree to waive privacy rights for relationship counsellor Dr Laurel Anderson to testify that both Heard and Depp had family histories of domestic violence.

Depp had been “well controlled” for decades before meeting Heard, Anderson said. “With Ms Heard, he was triggered. They engaged in what I saw as mutual abuse.”

On more than one occasion, she said, Heard had initiated incidents to stop Depp leaving, stemming from her fear of abandonment.

“It was a point of pride to Heard, if she felt disrespected, to initiate a fight. If he was going to leave her to de-escalate a fight, she would strike him to keep him there. She would rather be in a fight to keep him there.”

Depp’s legal strategy, say US libel lawyers, has been to show vulnerability. “Clearly these two individuals brought what sounds like baggage to the marriage. So the strategy is not to gain sympathy but to show the jury what is more likely – that she’s the abuser or he is,” said New York libel lawyer Kimberly Lau.

Establishing that Depp was provoked does not in itself provide a defence to abuse. “Depp has to combat allegations that he is the abuser in order for the statements to be false,” Lau said. “Establishing provocation could help to undermine the credibility of the other party.”

At some point before Heard has an opportunity to present her side of the story to the jury, Depp will take the stand.

“Amber Heard is not the star of this drama, though she might like to be,” said Hollywood lawyer and commentator Allison Hope Weiner. “When he goes on the stand, it’s him. It’s going to be a hard act to follow. He’s going to be very likable.

“Those movie stars are professionally charming, and even when you steel yourself against liking them, when they want you to like them, you like them.”

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