Who is the real Amber Heard?

"Oppressive": journalist Leaf Arbuthnot did not enjoy her interview with Johnny Depp's ex-wife and actress Amber Heard - Stephane Cardinale - Corbis
“Oppressive”: journalist Leaf Arbuthnot did not enjoy her interview with Johnny Depp’s ex-wife and actress Amber Heard – Stephane Cardinale – Corbis

I was cycling past the Royal Courts of Justice last week when I saw a group of people tightly packed on the pavement. I Googled what was going on. Amber Heard had arrived for a libel trial at the High Court where her ex-husband, Johnny Depp, is suing the Sun’s publisher and one of its journalists for an article in which Depp was called a “wife-beater”.

Photos of Heard entering the courts whisked briskly around the internet. I noticed, with a small shock of recognition, that she was wearing a jumper dress cinched at the waist by a belt, just as she had when I was flown to the Hague in 2018 to interview her for The Sunday Times.

In fact, she looked exactly the same: beautiful and ineffably enigmatic. Depp, arriving separately at the London court, looked more crumpled: his hair curtained and unkempt, his face-mask the one that Captain Jack Sparrow would surely have chosen out of a lineup. It was odd to think of the pair, who have been locked in contention for long, in such close proximity to one another.  

The court has yet to hear from Heard, who is likely to give evidence next week. We have, however, heard (if barely audibly) from Depp, who denies the allegation that he physically abused his former wife. They met on the set of the 2011 film, The Rum Diary (the 2011 film based on Hunter S. Thompson’s novelin which their characters marry following a whirlwind romance) and married at a private ceremony in 2015.

The pair soon raised eyebrows after they illegally flew Heard’s pocket-sized terriers by private jet to Australia. They released an apology video that seemed to confirm that they were two self-absorbed oddballs who’d found kinship in one another.   

But within 15 months of the wedding, the fairytale was over: Heard – who was raised Catholic but, she claims, turned atheist when her best friend died in a car crash aged 16 – filed for the dissolution of the marriage, and secured a restraining order against Depp. Photos of her apparently bruised face caused a sensation.

The divorce itself, when it finally came through, hardly settled anything. In 2018, Heard wrote an opinion piece in the Washington Post headlined: “I spoke up against sexual violence – and faced our culture’s wrath. That has to change”. Heard wrote that, “like many women”, she had been harassed and sexually assaulted by the time she reached college age, but kept quiet about her experiences.

“Then 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.” She claimed that she was dropped by a global fashion brand and that a film she was attached to recast her role.

A flash fairytale: Depp and Heard in 2015 - Getty
A flash fairytale: Depp and Heard in 2015 – Getty

“I had the rare vantage point of seeing, in real time, how institutions protect men accused of abuse.” Depp filed for defamation. Now, he has turned his attention to The Sun, whose defence draws on Heard’s allegations of 14 incidents of violence by Depp between 2013 and 2016.

A good deal is known about Johnny Depp. As Heard said in a gushing 2011 interview promoting The Rum Diary (below), he has been a “cultural icon” for what feels like forever. When asked what it was like “making out with Johnny Depp,” she twinkled.

“I have such a strange job,” she smiled. “It puts me in the most interesting circumstances and I certainly wasn’t complaining about this one.”   

Less is known about Heard, who got her first proper break as a film actress in the 2008 stoner comedy, Pineapple Express, in which she played Seth Rogan’s stressy high-school girlfriend. In 2010, she came out on the 25th anniversary celebration for GLAAD (the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation), and is a vocal supporter for gay marriage and other LGBTQ issues. 

A still from The Rum Diary
A still from The Rum Diary

I had no idea what to expect when I turned up at The Hague two years ago, praying she’d not flake – the interview had been tricky to secure, and I was unsure how much time I would end up getting to spend with her.

But eventually she floated down the hotel staircase. Heard was in The Hague to give a speech about the US-Mexico border at One Young World, a youth leadership summit. I’d been given permission to spend some of the day with her. As she settled on the sofa, apologising for being late, I was rather floored by her beauty.

They say A-listers don’t look like ordinary human beings, and while I’m usually sceptical, the principle certainly applies to Heard. She was croaky from her flight and nervous about luggage that had been misplaced by the airline, but keen to establish an immediate intimacy with me that I soon found oppressive as a sewn-up English journalist.

She touched my hands, holding my gaze intensely as she talked about women’s rights. She allowed her eyes to fill with tears when I mentioned the recent Brett Kavanaugh hearing in the US. Her sentences were labyrinthine and didn’t reach the bulls-eye you hoped they would. She never said Depp’s name or referred straightforwardly to her marriage, but she did circle around the subject.

The evidence against Depp used in court - PA
The evidence against Depp used in court – PA

“The results [of trauma] are sneaky,” she told me. “They’re not as obvious as you think. I don’t hide under a table when I hear a loud bang, though that happens to certain people with PTSD. Trauma sneaks up on you in weird ways, where all of a sudden you find yourself in a puddle on the floor.”

It wasn’t relaxing being in Heard’s orbit. She had a jolting way of jumping from one subject or activity to the next. As we chatted she told me suddenly that she had band-aids on her chest, because her bra had been lost in transit. When she decided that her dress would look better pinched in, a henchman wordlessly took the belt from his own trousers and gave it to her. I watched mesmerised as she looped it around her minute waist. I spoke to her for about half an hour, then got in her car to go to the conference centre.

As we drove she put on Middle Eastern music so loud I could barely hear myself think. She reminisced about her wild Texan childhood, which she spent driving pick-up trucks without a licence and riding horses that her father broke in. Eventually she’d dropped out of school to make it as a model, then an actress.

She talked at length about a recent trip to a refugee camp, where she’d met a girl with a cleft lip. I was struck by her lack of self-awareness: she had no idea that she sounded like a parody of an entitled white actress, jetting off to hold hands with unfortunate kids in war-torn countries.

“Even though I didn’t come from a privileged background by American standards, I have had incredible luck and we are all burdened by it,” she told me. “I don’t feel embarrassed about it. Do something about it, is what I would say.”

Traipsing around after her all day, snatching minutes alone together, gave me a strong sense of how isolating and damaging fame can be. Wherever Heard went, people wanted something from her: one of her million-volt smiles, an autograph, the promise of a future meeting.

Heard at court on July 13
Heard at court on July 13

I had the impression that she was desperate to be seen as more than Depp’s estranged ex-wife; she wanted to be taken seriously as an intellectual and activist. She admitted to me that she got “nervous” in crowded rooms, when she felt the weight of others’ “preconceived notions”. She also seemed to need to link her own experiences with a larger pan-female narrative. 

“I feel that as soon as you get to know me, you know I’m on your side, as a woman,” she told me ardently. “I don’t care how you feel I look. Just like you, I struggle with the same iniquities, personal discomfort, insecurities, strengths and weaknesses as you do.” Heard genuinely thought that she and I had comparable worries and insecurities – but to me she seemed from another planet. I might have been flattered had I not been perplexed.

In the weeks after my profile interview was published, I was trolled to high dudgeon by both Depp’s fans and Heard’s. Mostly I had to duck online while the two groups pelted virtual rocks at one another. Both tribes are convinced that they know what really went on in that marriage.

Heard’s admirers see her as a courageous survivor. Depp’s clan think she is a devious sociopath. They have fought for her to be axed from roles. It’s clear where Depp stands, or at least has stood, on his ex-wife. In a text sent after their separation, he rued that he had ever loved “this gold-digging, low-level, dime-a-dozen, mushy, pointless dangling overused flappy fish market”.

At the heart of Depp’s suit against the Sun is his argument that it is untrue to describe him as a “wife-beater”. The court will soon hear from Vanessa Paradis, the woman with whom Depp shared his life for over a decade, and Winona Rider, another former flame who is expected to testify that Depp was never violent towards her.

Amber Heard - PA
Amber Heard – PA

To me, the battle between Heard and Depp, which has bedraggled both their reputations, is a depressing lesson in how difficult it is to establish the truth in some domestic violence cases. There is plenty of compelling evidence that Heard was hurt by Depp, but it has also been suggested that she was abusive towards him (last week in court he alleged that she had thrown a bottle at him and severed his finger).

Depp’s aspirations as a “Southern gentleman”, however, can be roundly laughed at: whichever end of the telescope you peer through, it’s hardly gentlemanly to describe your former wife as a “flappy fish market” or to bash around a kitchen slamming cabinets, as he was shown doing in a video. But then again, it’s hard to hold onto an image of Heard as a paragon of virtue, when allegations arise of her having derided Depp for being a “baby” and defecated in the marital bed (“Amber Turd”, Depp allegedly joked afterwards).

At the end of my day with Heard, I was left more unsure about who she was than at the start of it. It felt inappropriate, even absurd, to form robust conclusions about what had happened during her marriage, or to decide who was lying and who was the wronged party. On the plane back to London, I couldn’t quieten my sense of pity: whoever Heard was, she seemed searingly lonely. (When I’d asked her if she was happy, mark you, she’d said “yes” twice, in a dreamy film star voice that left me totally unconvinced.) 

Last week, she walked to the court hand arm in arm with a female entourage: her sister Whitney, and her lawyer Jennifer Robinson. I remembered what Heard had told me about women: that we are natural “connectors, community builders, mothers, sisters, friends”. At the time it sounded like guff. Maybe it is, but whichever way the dust settles on this ugly period, I hope Heard finds solace in that mystical sorority she held so dear when we met.

Read more:

Robbie Collin: ‘I miss the old Johnny Depp’

The Johnny Depp disaster movie

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