Johnny Depp, victorious in defamation battle, capitalizes on trial notoriety

Johnny Depp monopolized public attention for six weeks during his televised defamation trial against ex-wife Amber Heard — and it appears the actor is in no rush to cede the national limelight.

In the days since a seven-person jury in Fairfax County, Virginia, mostly sided with Depp in his high-profile legal battle against Heard, the actor has flooded social media with a wave of new creative ventures.

He created a TikTok account, which amassed more than 11 million followers by Thursday morning. He ramped up Instagram promotion of his NFT project Never Fear Truth, selling a portrait of Marlon Brando in ethereum cryptocurrency. The Instagram account on Thursday commemorated Depp’s 59th birthday, teasing “celebrations” on Discord, a messaging platform.

Depp also announced a new album he recorded over the last three years with Jeff Beck, the English rock guitarist who welcomed the actor on stage at a concert in the United Kingdom during jury deliberations.

The “Pirates of the Caribbean” actor is likely eager to rebrand himself in public consciousness following a contentious legal spectacle, said Brooke Erin Duffy, an associate professor at Cornell University who specializes in social media, the creator economy and gender identity.

“In the wake of the outcome of this trial, this is a pivotal moment for Depp’s reputational management,” Duffy said. “I think this is a very calculated self-branding machine.”

During the trial, Depp tested that he lost “nothing less than everything” after Heard, whom he married in 2015 and divorced in 2017, published an op-ed essay in 2018 calling herself a “public figure representing domestic abuse.”

[Depp] is turning outwards and trying to establish a more robust creative presence that belies the reality of the trial and its implications

-Brooke Erin Duffy of CORNELL UNIVERSITY

The essay never mentioned Depp by name, but Depp’s attorneys said it indirectly referred to allegations Heard made against him during their 2016 divorce.

Duffy said she interpreted Depp’s recent increase in social media activity as a form of “deflection” — ways to shift focus away from the troubling accusations at the heart of the trial to less divisive subjects, like his paintings of Heath Ledger and Keith Richards.

During the trial, Heard tested in graphic terms about an alleged sexual assault as well as various incidents of alleged physical abuse over years.

Depp previously lost a libel case in the United Kingdom two years ago over claims that he physically abused Heard. Justice Andrew Nicol ruled against Depp in 2020, saying the British tabloid had presented substantial evidence to show that Depp was violent against Heard on at least 12 of 14 occasions.

Depp has denied all allegations of abuse.

The Virginia jury awarded Depp $15 million in damages in his lawsuit against Heard. Fairfax County Circuit Court Judge Penney Azcarate reduced the punitive damages the jury awarded Depp to $350,000 — the state’s statutory cap or legal limit — making his total damages $10.4 million. Heard, who had countersued, was awarded $2 million in compensatory damages but $0 in punitive damages.

“Tea [defamation] trial is over and he [Depp] is no longer on the defensive, so rather than continue to engage in these debates … he is turning outwards and trying to establish a more robust creative presence that belies the reality of the trial and its implications,” Duffy said.

In the eyes of Depp’s defenders — some of whom rallied under the hashtag #JusticeforJohnny — his new media pursuits will likely be warmly received. But there are risks that the post-verdict branding campaign could backfire, according to one communications expert.

“The upside of Depp flooding the zone with all his new projects is that he’s already got a lot of media momentum and he is now capitalizing,” said Eden Gillott, the president of Gillott Communications, a crisis communications firm that represents businesses, athletes and celebrities.

“The risk is that these new projects will remind the public of the allegations and give his critics shiny new objects to aim at,” she added, referring to Heard’s accusations of physical, sexual and emotional abuse.

Depp’s film career remains up in the air

TikTok and NFTs aside, though, it remains to be seen whether Depp can regain his stature in the film industry, where he was once a major star and reliable hit-maker at the center of Disney’s lucrative “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise and other successes.

In recent years, the Oscar-nominated actor’s Hollywood career seemed to be on the wane, particularly following the release of commercial misfires like “The Lone Ranger” and “Transcendence.”

He is not slated to act in any films set for release this year, and he has just one movie in pre-production, according to IMDbPro, a subscription-based website used by industry professionals.

“I’m sure there will be some factions in Hollywood who will be cautious [about working with him] as long as they know there are people out there who think Amber Heard was telling the truth,” PR veteran Howard Breuer told NBC News after the verdict.

However, Depp is a key interview subject in “Boston George,” an upcoming five-part documentary series about George Jacob Jung, a drug trafficker the actor portrayed in the 2001 crime drama “Blow.” (The series debuts on the streaming service Fandor in July.)

In a way, though, Depp could be setting himself up for a future where he is less reliant on Hollywood or corporate-linked production companies for work and exposure, some experts said.

Instead, he would be able to connect directly with fans through social media, without the mediation of studio chiefs or talent agents.

“It appears that Depp is taking control of the narrative,” Gillott said. “[And] getting away from being held in big studios.”

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