The Johnny Depp disaster movie

Jane Mulkerrins
Johnny Depp's Hollywood story started in 1987 – and has taken many twists and turns since
Johnny Depp's Hollywood story started in 1987 – and has taken many twists and turns since

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. 

Johnny Depp arriving at the High Court in London for his libel case against the publisher of The Sun newspaper News Group Newspapers for labelling him a "wife beater" - Heathcliff O'Malley
Johnny Depp arriving at the High Court in London for his libel case against the publisher of The Sun newspaper News Group Newspapers for labelling him a "wife beater" - Heathcliff O'Malley

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.

Johnny Depp with wife Amber Heard in 2015 - Jonathan Brady/PA
Johnny Depp with wife Amber Heard in 2015 - Jonathan Brady/PA

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. 

Johnny Depp had a relationship with model Kate Moss - Barry King/WireImage
Johnny Depp had a relationship with model Kate Moss - Barry King/WireImage

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.

Johnny Depp with his ex-wife Vanessa Paradis in 2004 - Jim Ruymen/Reuters
Johnny Depp with his ex-wife Vanessa Paradis in 2004 - Jim Ruymen/Reuters

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. 

More From

  • Covid border patrols could destroy escape networks used by North Korean defectors, activists warn

    The impact of the coronavirus combined with an unprecedented crackdown on defector-run groups by a South Korean government focused on improving relations with Pyongyang may destroy networks refugees have long relied on to escape the authoritarian North, activists have warned. This year, the number of North Korean defectors escaping to the South plummeted to an all-time low of 147 as of June, mainly because the North sealed its borders to keep the coronavirus from ravaging its ailing health sector. NGOs operating in South Korea have also claimed that increased government controls stymieing their work across the border has crushed rescue networks to the point where they may never recover. For decades, groups in the South have built up a so-called “underground railroad” to offer shelter and safe passage for escapees fleeing oppression and starvation. However, Seoul’s Unification Ministry said last month it would “inspect” 25 defector-run NGOs, citing their failure to file necessary documents, and check if 64 others are following conditions to stay registered. On Wednesday, the ministry expanded the investigation to a total of 289 organisations.

  • New Zealand PM weighs postponing election as investigators say new cases may have been imported via freight

    Jacinda Ardern is considering delaying New Zealand’s general election as investigators probe whether a cluster of new cases in Auckland was imported via freight. Health authorities rushed to implement a rapid lockdown in the country's largest city Auckland, where four more probable infections have been uncovered, which would bring the outbreak's total to eight. With 1.5 million people under three-day stay-at-home orders, and millions more at risk of a wider outbreak, Ms Ardern said she was seeking advice on delaying the September 19 election. Parliament was due to be dissolved on Wednesday to allow the election to take place, but the centre-Left leader held off the move until Monday to monitor how the crisis evolves. The prime minister’s Labour Party is expected to win the election in September. It currently dominates the polls on 55 per cent, with the opposition National Party on 28 per cent.

  • Fanny & Stella, Garden Theatre, review: outdoor theatre returns to London in flamboyant style

    Despite being flattened by Covid-19, then steamrollered by the top-down insistence on social distancing, theatre in London is starting to push back through the cracks. Jesus Christ Superstar will open on Friday at the Open Air Theatre in Regent’s Park. And that’s the second musical to open in a week. Second, because pipping the big boys to the post – and marking the first sustained run of a show in the capital since lockdown – is a flamboyant curiosity about an undersung chapter of Victorian life with music by Charles Miller, and book and lyrics by Glenn Chandler, the Scottish writer behind the long-running TV procedural Taggart. Fanny & Stella inaugurates “The Garden Theatre”, a semi-covered al fresco auditorium that currently seats 50, in the backyard of The Eagle pub on Kennington Lane. It’s an apt location for theatre’s first green shoots. From the late 18th century, Vauxhall’s verdant acres were a byword for pleasure-seeking, nocturnal illuminations and romantic assignations. That activity is history now, but amid today’s urban grime, the flowering of LGBTQ+ venues such as the Royal Vauxhall Tavern and Above the Stag point to a residual air of subversive revelry and sexual freedom. Fanny & Stella had its premiere at Above the Stag in 2015, something which passed me by – as did a decent body of other theatre work by Chandler, including a play about 1930s exchange visits between the Hitler Youth and the Boy Scouts. And I have to confess, as well, to ignorance of the fascinating subject here: the case of Thomas Ernest Boulton and Frederick William Park, who were arrested in 1870 while leaving the Strand Theatre “in drag” – apparently the first instance of the word entering the public domain – and charged with conspiracy to “commit sodomy”. In a court battle that prefigured Oscar Wilde’s downfall 25 years later, the Boulton and Park case proved a cause célèbre for polite yet prurient Victorian society. As with Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas, the habitually cross-dressing friends – who fashioned a living through their stage appearances together – drew their aristocratic connections into the limelight. Boulton, who went by the soubriquet “Stella”, counted among his lovers Lord Arthur Clinton, the Liberal MP for Newark. The latter, who also acted with the pair, died before the case came to court – and while Boulton and Park were eventually acquitted, the jury is still out as to whether he killed himself.

  • Scottish Highland lay-bys to be kitted out with trowels in bid to tackle countryside toileting

    Lay-bys across the Scottish Highlands are to be equipped with garden trowels in an attempt to tackle people toileting in the countryside. Around 150 plastic tools are to be made available at roadside areas around tourist hotspots near Ullapool and Dundonnell under plans announced by councillors. While tourists are typically encouraged to use public toilets, the trowels will provide an emergency, last resort solution for visitors, who will be able to use the tools to bury their waste. The area covered by the scheme is part of the popular North Coast 500 which, in recent weeks, has seen an influx of visitors who have opted for staycations rather than travelling abroad. So far 90 plastic trowels have been ordered by the Lochbroom Community Council, and there are plans to order 60 more. The council has also printed maps of toilet facilities in the area surrounding lay-bys to inform visitors. The community council has been granted £990 from the North Highland Initiative, which helped establish the North Coast 500 as a popular tourist route. Topher Dawson, chairman of Lochbroom Community Council believes that the rural area's lack of toilet facilities combined with a sharp rise in visitors has caused an upsurge in tourists needing to use the bathroom outside. He said: "It's easy to get outraged about this but I actually feel sorry for visitors to the Highlands who need to do the toilet outdoors." "We've got around 60 or 70 miles of road in the area and there's a gap of about 50 miles with no toilet at all." Lochbroom Community Council oversees a large part of the north west Highlands. As the number of visitors has increased, there have been growing tensions between neighbouring residents and visitors. Locals living along the NC500 route have criticised wild campers for allegedly leaving rubbish around and ruining idyllic beauty spots. It is hoped that the latest initiative - aimed at helping both visitors and locals - will improve community relations. Mr Dawson added: "We want to make visitors and locals free from contamination." "This is to offer help and assistance to people who're caught short - we're just trying to improve the situation for everybody.” "It's not a great situation but we're just trying to do the best we can to make it better.” The latest moves by Lochbroom Community Council follows growing concern on the strain placed on local resources as tourists flock to popular destinations in the UK. In July, visitors to the Western Isles were asked to plan their bathroom trips carefully following warnings that the majority of public toilets within the area were closed. Local authority Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, NHS Western Isles and Outer Hebrides Tourism made the request following reports of increased littering and outdoor toileting. The comhairle told the BBC: "We are reminding people to check which facilities are open when planning their trip and make sure to 'go' before you go. "Please carry hand sanitiser, toilet paper and bags with you in case you get caught short so you can dispose of your waste safely."