A $600 Million Fortune Lost and a Career Implosion: Witnesses Describe Johnny Depp's Decline in Hollywood
Amber Heard’s lawyers depicted actor Johnny Depp on Thursday as a fallen idol undone by his substance abuse, profligate spending, and unchecked anger — and not by the 2018 op-ed his ex-wife wrote about being a victim of domestic violence.
Witnesses called by Heard, the defendant in Depp’s $50 million defamation case, said the Pirates of the Caribbean star went from the top of Hollywood’s A-list to someone struggling to find work and pay his bills despite having earned more than $600 million. “He was the biggest star in the world,” Tracey Jacobs, Depp’s former talent agent, said in a pre-recorded, videotaped deposition.
He wasn’t any longer by the time Depp fired Jacobs in October of 2016 “because his star had dimmed,” she said, a downfall she attributed to steadily worsening behavior on movie sets.
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“Initially, crews loved him because he was always so great with the crews,” Jacobs said in video played back to spectators, including Depp and Heard, in the Northern Virginia courtroom where the trial entered its 19th day. “But crews don’t love sitting around for hours and hours and hours waiting for the star of the movie to show up. And it also got around town. It made people reluctant to use him toward the end.”
Depp, 58, says Heard defamed him even without naming him in her 2018 Washington Post op-ed, which discussed sexual violence and the #MeToo movement not long after prosecutors in New York charged movie executive Harvey Weinstein with rape. Heard, 36, is countersuing Depp for $100 million claiming that a campaign of media slander by Depp and his first libel lawyer, Adam Waldman, damaged her career prospects after she had co-starred in Aquaman, a blockbuster movie in the lucrative superhero genre with Pirates-like franchise potential.
Heard’s legal team sought to show Depp was on a steep decline of his own making long before the op-ed ran, a point they underlined with a string of witnesses who had previously worked for Depp — including the talent agent he fired, his former lawyer, a business manager he replaced and sued, a psychiatrist he consulted with briefly, a longtime friend and former bandmate he cut loose, and a well-known actress, Ellen Barkin, whom he dated and broke up with in the Nineties.
As Depp’s roles got bigger, his income and his expenses rose in tandem, said his former business manager, Joel Mandel, who was compelled by a subpoena to give the pre-recorded deposition. Depp was paying personal staffers salaries ranging from $125,000 to $250,000 a year, and a security guard $10,000 a day, Mandel said. A doctor, David Kipper, whom Depp hired to help wean him off drugs and alcohol, charged $100,000 a month, Mandel said.
Even so, Mandel testified, “It became clear over time that there were issues with alcohol and drugs and that translated into more erratic behavior.” Mandel said it became increasingly difficult to reach Depp and talk candidly with him about his income failing to keep up with this spending.
Depp was so strapped by the fall of 2015, Mandel testified, that he didn’t have enough money to pay millions of dollars owed in taxes. Mandel said he recommended that Depp sell a home he owned in the south of France to cover what he owed the government. “My warnings in 2015 that we were in very dire financial circumstances were not met very favorably,” said Mandel. Depp fired Mandel’s firm, The Management Group, sued them for fraud and theft, and settled with the firm in 2018 for an undisclosed amount.
In his testimony, Mandel denied any wrongdoing and sounded incredulous to learn from Heard’s lawyers that in another proceeding, Depp had testified under oath that the firm hadn’t filed his taxes for 17 years.
Around the same time, late 2015, Depp went to his then-agent, Jacobs, and asked for $20 million with no strings attached from the firm she worked for, United Talent Agency. “The question was not asked as a loan,” Jacobs testified. Her bosses refused, but arranged a $5 million loan to Depp from Bank of America “when he was in financial desperation.”
Not long after, Depp left the firm, part of a pattern laid out in testimony of Depp becoming suspicious of and then shedding people in his circle. Bruce Witkin, a friend who came from South Florida with Depp in the Eighties to make it in the music business, testified that Depp ghosted him about four years ago. The two were bandmates in Depp’s on-and-off musical projects, and confidants who worked and partied together in a clique that competed for Depp’s favor.
Depp was apparently displeased by Witkin’s testimony about Depp using drugs in a lawsuit against a former lawyer, Jake Bloom. (Depp and Bloom settled in 2019.) “He wrote me this weird text saying I stabbed him in the back,” Witkin said in his taped deposition. “Pretty much I haven’t seen him since.”
The actress Ellen Barkin, who filmed 1998’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas with Depp, said they became lovers for several months around 1994 in the course of a 10-year friendship that she said ended abruptly. Barkin, deposed in November of 2019, testified that Depp was drunk “a lot of the time,” and regularly smoked marijuana and ingested cocaine in her presence. He once lobbed a wine bottle in her direction across a hotel room in Las Vegas during the Fear and Loathing filming, although the bottle missed her, Barkin said.
She also found Depp to be “a jealous man, controlling,” she testified. “I had a scratch on my back once that got him very, very angry,” she said, “because he insisted it came from me having sex with a person” who she said wasn’t in her life. After a teary parting of ways, she said she never heard from Depp again.
With his finances in disarray, roles disappearing, and his reputation tested by the protective order Heard had gotten against him in the spring of 2016, Depp began to fight back in the media, but with mixed results. His then-lawyer, Waldman — also testifying under subpoena by taped deposition — said he and Depp both approached Rolling Stone about a profile they hoped would be favorable.
Instead, Depp came across as a desiccated rock god with a cast of hangers-on and enablers to help feed his appetites and laugh at his jokes. Depp blasted the June 2018 article as a “sham.” But the damage was done. Jacobs, the agent, testified that the story further harmed Depp’s already battered reputation. A Disney executive, Tina Newman, testified in another tape played on Thursday that the Rolling Stone article circulated among executives at the studio that would decide whether or not to greenlight another Pirates sequel, the sixth, and whether Depp would have a role in the movie. In an internal Disney email, Newman called the story “depressing.”
Despite that setback, Waldman remained on as Depp’s lawyer when Depp sued a British tabloid that had labeled him a “wife beater.” Depp would eventually lose that case, with many of the same players in the Virginia libel case testifying. But before then he had Waldman as his fierce advocate. Waldman, who was banned from Twitter in April 2021 for violating its private information policy, worked social media channels to find posters favorable to Depp, and he blasted Heard as the author of an elaborate domestic abuse “hoax” in interviews with another British tabloid, The Daily Mail.
Testifying in person for Heard, a data scientist and data analyst, Ron Schnell, said he analyzed hundreds of thousands of tweets with pro-Depp and anti-Heard hashtags and found that in 2020 and 2021, the “hoax” language Waldman used was regularly picked up by pro-Depp tweeters.
An earlier judge in the Virginia libel case threw Waldman off of Depp’s team in 2020 after finding that he had shared confidential trial material — audio tapes of anguished conversations between Depp and Heard — with the press.
At the end of Thursday’s hearing, Judge Penny Azcarate, sent jurors home for the weekend with a reminder not to read or watch anything about the case. Azcarate also told Depp and Heard directly, “Please do not do any posts on social media over the weekend. And no public statements, please.” Testimony will resume on May 23 in what is expected to be the trial’s final week before jury deliberations begin.
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