What's next for Johnny Depp? How the Hollywood star might try to rebuild his career after libel loss
After being asked to resign from ‘Fantastic Beasts 3’ in the wake of his failed court case, can the actor's tarnished star shine again?
Days after his defeat in the UK courts over a libel suit he brought against British tabloid The Sun, Johnny Depp declared he was stepping back from Fantastic Beasts 3.
“I wish to let you know that I have been asked to resign by Warner Bros from my role as Grindelwald in Fantastic Beasts and I have respected and agreed to that request," the actor posted on Instagram.
As far as celebrity admissions go, it’s a unicorn – in that it is rare for a star to openly admit to having been asked to leave. The phrase “mutually and amicably agreed to part ways” has long been the go-to statement when it comes to public-relations image mitigation in Hollywood.
However, in an age of social media, when industry leaks are part and parcel of the communications landscape, if Depp had opted for the tried-and-tested “mutual agreement” formula, how long would it have been until the truth – that he was pushed, rather than jumped – came out?
In the conclusion of the case Depp, 57, brought against The Sun, which had branded him a “wife beater” in a 2018 article, judge Andrew Nicol wrote: "The defendants have shown that what they published in the meaning which I have held the words to bear was substantially true”.
Substantially true, meaning that Depp has been declared a "wife beater".
And, in a Hollywood still reeling from the allegations against Harvey Weinstein and the impact of the #MeToo movement, major studios are no longer prepared to alienate millions of customers for the sake of one actor.
So, Warner Bros did what any studio would do, and parted ways with the man who was once among the most bankable stars in the world. After all, they have their brand to think of. And with 97 years in the business and a $14 billion turnover to protect, Depp was not a hill Warner Bros was prepared to die on.
Depp, for his part, called the judgment “surreal” and said he "plans to appeal".
“For anyone to come out and say ‘I was fired’ is really diminishing,” notes Johanna Richmond, psychological therapist at CBT Dubai.
“This has never happened to Depp before, and I am sure the response had to be worded this way because the studio released a statement saying they had parted ways with him. It would have been a real blow to his idealised self which is why I am sure he will want to continue with his legal suits.
I had not only lost $650 million, but I was $100 million in the hole because (my previous business managers) had not paid the government my taxes for 17 years
“Losing the court case was losing his own self-perception, his ideal self being the famous, much-loved movie star. His self-esteem is based on his work, his identity is so interrelated with his movie star persona, that he cannot accept he was ever violent or aggressive, losing the love of fans and media.”
A question of reputation
“When in the midst of a PR crisis, the first step would be to formulate a strategy, brief your team and ensure everyone is on the same page,” says Momina Chaudhry, communications manager at Spread Communications, a Dubai agency that specialises in reputation management. “The next steps would be to draft your holding statements, be clear on messaging and also finalise the channel of communication. After which, all affected parties must be identified and managed accordingly.
“Moving forward, ensure the impact the crisis has had is fully understood by the client, continue monitoring the situation and react as needed.”
In Depp’s case, moving forward means shifting his focus to a $50 million defamation case he brought against his ex-wife, actress Amber Heard, over a piece she wrote for The Washington Post in December 2018. The trial is slated to take place in May 2021.
“Two years ago, I became a public figure representing domestic abuse, and I felt the full force of our culture’s wrath for women who speak out,” wrote Heard, who does not mention Depp anywhere in the piece. “I write this as a woman who had to change my phone number weekly because I was getting death threats.”
Notably silent about her leading man this time around is Fantastic Beasts and Harry Potter author, J K Rowling.
Back in 2016, Heard, 34, said in a sworn declaration: “During the entirety of our relationship, Johnny Depp has been verbally and physically abusive to me.”
Her declaration caused an outcry amid demands that Depp should not be permitted to reprise his role of Grindelwald in 2018’s Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, leading Rowling to say in a statement: “Based on our understanding of the circumstances, the filmmakers and I are not only comfortable sticking with our original casting, but genuinely happy to have Johnny playing a major character in the movies.”
However, fast-forward four years and Rowling has thus far stayed silent.
Business as usual, or pause for thought?
While Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen is said to be in talks to take over the role of Grindelwald, Depp is rumoured to have received his full salary for the film, some $10m.
And it is money he will need in order to maintain his famously lavish lifestyle, details of which emerged during the trial.
“It was put to me this way, because I had no idea about money,” he told his barrister in court. “Since Pirates [of the Caribbean] 2 and 3 ... apparently I had made $650 million, and when I sacked [my business managers], for the right reasons, I had not only lost $650m, but I was $100m in the hole because they had not paid the government my taxes for 17 years.”
While Depp blamed The Management Company for his financial woes, the company hit back, citing his purchase of an $18m 150-foot luxury yacht, his $300,000 monthly staffing bill and, of course, that private island in the Bahamas as evidence of his own financial mismanagement.
Those expenses, along with myriad others, combined to the tune of $2m a month that Depp has to find to keep himself in the lifestyle to which he has become accustomed. All of which means that stepping out of the spotlight for a while in order to recalibrate is probably not an option.
“After a PR crisis, in the case of an individual, the best practice would be to act in an empathetic, respectful and, most importantly, responsible manner, moving forward,” suggests Chaudhry.
“The best way to repair reputation is to accept and acknowledge the problem. The PR team must continue monitoring the situation, address each issue individually (whether a news article or media request) and provide the accurate reactive holding statement.
“Being transparent with your fans and followers, while putting in the hard work and staying 100 per cent committed to work projects, is the only way to gain back trust in public.”
His career aside, Depp will certainly have other reasons that preclude him from stepping back. Namely, fame.
“Fame affects how one would think about themselves rather than who they really are, their true identity can be lost in the wave of adulation and accolades,” says Richmond. “There seems a real discrepancy between Depp’s actual self and ideal self."
The actor is now 36 years deep into his career which began with 1984’s A Nightmare on Elm Street. A teen heart-throb who evolved into a respected actor, for years he successfully walked the line between bohemian bad boy in the mould of his muse, The Rolling Stones' Keith Richards, an elder statesman to Hollywood, whose inspired portrayal of Captain Jack Sparrow helped the Pirates franchise rake in more than $4.5 billion at the box office.
And, although his exit from Fantastic Beasts 3 leaves only one project remaining in development for him as an actor, according to his IMDb page, he has no fewer than 23 titles coming up in the role of producer.
A career-rehabilitating role behind the camera, therefore, might be his way back into Hollywood’s good graces.
After all, there’s nothing Tinseltown loves more than a second act redemption arc. As Depp’s idol, Marlon Brando, famously pointed out: “Most of the successful people in Hollywood are failures as human beings.”
Updated: November 17, 2020 12:02 PM