‘She’s coming off looking good’: the week Amber Heard finally spoke

Actor and ex-wife of Johnny Depp took the stand in her defamation trial, and made allegations of domestic and sexual abuse

Amber Heard was asked in court last week if she recognized the name Carly Simon, soon after her attorneys introduced an exhibit of a mirror that they say Johnny Depp had defaced in tight, punctuated script after severing part of his middle finger in what his former wife described as a drug- and alcohol-induced blackout.

The note read: “Call Carly Simon. She said it better. Bye.”

Heard testified she wasn’t familiar with Simon or her work. But , one can reasonably speculate, it was referring to You’re So Vain, Simon’s 1972 hit. Depp’s attorneys may take up the issue on cross-examination the week after next. Or the week after that.

So it goes with the Depp-Heard defamation case in Fairfax, Virginia. A cautionary tale, certainly, with disturbing allegations of domestic and sexual violence. But also a man-woman fight, part gender-switch Sunset Boulevard, part Mean Girls, with flashbacks and still images taken – appropriately enough given the sinister if not vampiric nature of the relationship – in Bela Lugosi’s old house.

Which narrative jurors choose will not be known until after 27 May, when attorneys will deliver closing arguments. For now, with the court out next week – the judge, Penny Azcarate, is at an unrelated judicial conference – jurors are left to mull the last two days of Heard’s take on her turbulent marriage.

“Two skilled actors on the stand as witnesses could be equally resonant without regard to exactly where the truth is in their narratives,” said Nancianne Aydelotte, a New Jersey lawyer. “This is very challenging for jurors, who might find what the plaintiff said to be compelling and is then equally moved by the defendant.”

Heard’s testimony, highly charged at times, has been delivered while keeping eye contact with jurors. Depp has kept his head down, occasionally consulting with his lawyers, usually when he seems to find something implausible – for example, that he ingested eight to 10 ecstasy pills in one sitting in Australia, or took quaaludes in Los Angeles.

Heard’s overall story is that she was courted and seduced, was bought a colt, and fell madly in love with a movie star – “when I was around Johnny I felt like the most beautiful person in the world” – while the world beyond their “bubble” was kept in abeyance.

“We weren’t doing normal life stuff,” Heard said. “We weren’t stuck in traffic with each other, we weren’t going to the grocery store and doing life. We were hiding in these places around the world.”

That bubble, she testified, started to deflate when Depp began to disappear and she didn’t know how to find or reach him. Heard argued that Depp became threatened by her career and jealous of her co-stars.

She testified that Depp threatened her life shortly after the pair were married, and that just weeks later, in Australia while filming the fifth Pirates of the Caribbean movie, he sexually assaulted her with a bottle of Maker’s Mark.

“I’ll fucking kill you,” Heard alleged that Depp yelled. “I was scared,” she added. “I had just married him.” Months later, Heard alleged, Depp broke her nose and ripped out chunks of hair in another violent encounter.

The mirror, shown in court, that Johnny Depp had defaced, with the Carly Simon reference in the bottom left corner.
The mirror, shown in court, that Johnny Depp had defaced, with the Carly Simon reference in the bottom left corner. Photograph: Court handout

Depp has testified that he never hit Heard, and that she was the one who was the abuser, including when she threw a bottle of vodka at him, severing his finger.

Heard testified that in her effort to help Depp get sober, she sought help through Al-Anon, and sought to distance herself from the relationship, but was drawn back in whenever Depp achieved brief periods of sobriety and when the “monster” that the pair called his intoxicated persona was subdued.

But at each turn, she said, his efforts were hindered by an entourage – his security team, assistants, hangers-on – who shielded him from the consequences of his drug and alcohol use. In London, she said, his security carried him into their rented home “like a baby”.

Some of the most interesting testimony of the past week came from Depp’s accountants. One estimated that Depp had lost $40m in earnings as a result of Heard’s 2018 Washington Post opinion piece, in which she described herself as “a public figure representing domestic abuse”.

Hollywood dealmaker Richard Marks, a Depp witness, told the court that the film-making community had interpreted Heard’s message loud and clear.

“That actor is synonymous with the product,” Marks said. “When hiring that actor or actress, you want a reputation that supports the value that you spent on creating that product. Especially in the last five years, with the #MeToo movement, you wouldn’t want negativity hiring an actor who, quote-unquote, had been canceled.”

Outside of the proceedings, Heard’s PR team have accused Depp of failing to take responsibility. “One of Ms Heard’s disappointments is Mr Depp’s inability to distinguish fact from fiction – a malady which appears to have spread to his legal team,” a spokesperson said in email to reporters on Friday.

A Depp flack countered that Heard had delivered “the performance of her life” and that his attorneys look forward to cross-examining her.

Public relations experts are divided over the consequences of Depp’s $50m defamation claim and Heard’s $100m counter-claim.

“This case should serve as a cautionary tale to high-profile people living in the public eye: when you decide to make an abuse allegation, or discuss your personal life in the form of an op-ed, a televised interview, or conversation with a reporter, you run the risk of having to publicly discuss all sorts of ugly private details,” says Evan Nierman at Red Banyan.

“It’s remarkable that Heard chose to author the op-ed that started this entire saga, and that Depp decided to pursue legal action, given that both have more skeletons in their closets than a haunted house.”

But Juda Engelmayer at Herald PR says that no matter what the verdict in the case, Depp has afforded himself the opportunity to make his case in the court of public opinion.

“He got to tell his narrative rather than have it be told by Heard in the Washington Post. He entertained, and ended up getting a lot of people, including female audiences members, on his side. That’s how he wins, whatever the verdict, because he wants the world to see that he is still capable of producing fans and producing entertainment.”

For Heard, the issue may be more complex. “She was considered a hero for putting out her narrative, so now she comes out more of a hero for taking the abuse in her marriage, if believed, and for taking abuse in court last week when he was entertaining, witty, taking it lightly and getting laughs.

“She’s coming off looking good also,” says Engelmayer. “She’s being strong, bold and unafraid, sitting up there telling her story. She’s straightforward, and not backing away from it, and fighting for what she believes is right.”

Depp, Engelmayer believes, will slowly find his way back into movies, though perhaps not as prominently as before. Heard, he says, also will find her way back.

“She’ll get recast in some films to test the waters to see if she has that moxie. She was never as big as Depp, but a lot of studios may think putting her in is a good draw for women, and for progressives who think she was strong and deserves a chance. She’ll get the roles, and the box office will tell if she can command them.”

• This article was amended on 13 May 2022 to clarify a detail regarding the mirror exhibit.


Edward Helmore in New York

The GuardianTramp

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