Amber Heard shakes off the season’s first snowflakes as she walks into Bauman Rare Books, a shop on New York’s Upper East Side that keeps its front door locked as it specializes in highly collectible, extremely pricey first editions. The Texas native isn’t exactly dressed for the mini blizzard rocking the city. Wearing a black velvet suit with gold lions, gold turtleneck and black patent leather shoes, her hair is wet — not unlike when Heard makes her first appearance as superheroine Mera in Aquaman — after walking the last few blocks without a hat. The 32-year-old actress is carrying a new copy of Meg Wolitzer’s The Female Persuasion (she picked it up right before our meeting while visiting her agent at WME) but is eyeing a first edition of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. She knows it’s a first edition because the book is dedicated to Rand’s husband, Frank O’Connor, and her lover, Nathaniel Branden. Heard whispers conspiratorially that Rand removed Branden from later editions after he dumped her.
Though she lives in Los Angeles, the shopkeepers here know her, having sold Heard books in the past. To give me a quick visual, she whips out her phone to show pictures of the stacks of books that line the walls of every room in her home.
“You might have read Huckleberry Finn, but what’s amazing is that this book has its story, too,” she says, pointing to a Mark Twain first edition. “Think of the rooms it was in, the conversations that happened around it, the hands that it’s lived in. I love the smell especially.”
If I’m taken aback by the fact that a high school dropout deemed the most beautiful woman in the world by a scientific algorithm can recite the literary classics like a savant, speaks fluent Spanish, is the first American actress to be named Human Rights Champion of the UN Human Rights Office (alongside Nobel Peace Prize winner Nadia Murad) and hangs with fellow Rand aficionado Elon Musk, I’m not alone.
“I don’t know why I am surprised, but she is such a well-read person,” says Aquaman director James Wan. “In between takes, every time I saw her she would have just finished a big thick book and was on to a new thick book.”
With Heard, perhaps it’s too easy to judge the book by its cover.
As 2018 comes to a close, the actress finds herself at a crossroads. Over the past two years, she has withstood one of the most contentious Hollywood divorces (she’s legally barred from discussing ex Johnny Depp thanks to their settlement), rebounded with a tabloid-friendly romance with the enigmatic Musk (they called it quits in August 2017) and now is single (“I’m in a relationship with me”).
But her thus far uneven career is poised to take off with Aquaman, marking her first female lead in a studio film. The stakes are huge for the movie, which cost $200 million and is Warner Bros.’ first Justice League stand-alone since 2017’s Wonder Woman. The studio is taking the unconventional approach of opening the film first in China, two weeks before it bows Dec. 21 in the U.S.
According to strong early tracking, the film is expected to earn an impressive $65 million in its domestic debut and top Mary Poppins Returns and Transformers spinoff Bumblebee. That number gave Warner Bros. Pictures Group chairman Toby Emmerich enough confidence to begin talks on a sequel (though no writer has been commissioned yet). Heard, who sources say earned a low-seven-figure salary, would see that payday balloon.
After making her entrance, Mera appears in nearly every scene in the film. “Amber and I would always joke that the movie should be called The Adventures of Mera With Her Sidekick Aquaman,” says Wan. “She has way more superpowers.”
Momoa made sure to assert his dominance off-camera, albeit with a prank.
“She stepped away, and I ripped out the last 10 pages of her 800-page book, like the last chapter,” he says. (The book in question was Yuval Noah Harari’s Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, actually 464 pages.)
Having a strong rapport with Momoa was important given the physical demands of the film. Because Wan was simulating an underwater world, Heard and Momoa suffered through long hours in itchy, uncomfortable suits and in harnesses.
“I really just assumed she would bitch. Like, I whine and moan and cry more than she does,” Momoa adds. “She was such a trooper.”
For better or worse, much of the fascination surrounding Heard stems from her romances. From 2008 to 2012, she was in a same-sex relationship with celebrity photographer Tasya van Ree. As that union was winding down, she met Depp on the set of The Rum Diary in 2011 and began living with the then-A-list actor a year later. They married in 2015.
But after 15 months as a married couple, things turned ugly, and in 2016, she filed for divorce from Depp amid claims that he physically and verbally abused her, including throwing a cellphone at her head and leaving a gash under her eye (Depp denies the allegations). Despite the fact that the pair signed confidentiality agreements, Depp continues to lambast her in the press. In a recent British GQ profile, he implied that the domestic abuse allegations were part of a larger conspiracy tied to his legal troubles with his business managers. Still, Heard won’t take the bait.
“I’m not going to talk about Johnny. I’m more interested in talking about the work I’m doing and the things I feel proud of. I stood up for myself, for what was right,” she says, quickly turning the conversation to a rare James Joyce Ulysses on display.
Heard donated her entire $7 million divorce settlement to the ACLU, for which she serves as an ambassador, and Children’s Hospital Los Angeles.
“I don’t think anyone would have looked differently at her if she kept the settlement money that was due to her, but she knew that money could do more for others than it could for her,” says Jessica Herman Weitz, director of artist engagement at the ACLU. “What that money was able to do to help protect women and other gender-based violence victims will go a long way to make a difference for the people that we serve. That was my first interaction with her, which is pretty bold. It was not, ‘I’ll throw you a tweet.’ It was, ‘I’m putting my money where my mouth is.'”
By contrast, Heard is more forthcoming on the subject of Musk, who began pursuing the actress when she was with Depp on the 2012 set of Robert Rodriguez’s Machete Kills, according to an email exchange between the Tesla founder and director Rodriguez that THR published in August 2016. “Can you send her a note saying I would like to get together for lunch in LA?” Musk emailed the Rodriguez team. “Am not angling for a date. I know she’s in a long-term relationship, but … Amber just seems like an interesting person to meet.”
“Elon and I had a beautiful relationship, and we have a beautiful friendship now, one that was based on our core values,” Heard says. Such as? “Intellectual curiosity, ideas and conversation, a shared love for science. We just bonded on a lot of things that speak to who I am on the inside. I have so much respect for him.”
As for his meltdowns and stepping down as Tesla chairman (he remains CEO), Heard says with a laugh, “He’s not boring.”
Much of what defines Heard today can be traced to her upbringing in Texas, the middle child of three daughters. Her younger sister, Whitney, lives nearby in Los Angeles and is about to give birth to her first child. Brimming with pride, Heard shows me a picture of her dog, Pistol, sitting atop Whitney’s very pregnant stomach.
“She’s my best friend. She’s my partner in crime,” she says.
Back in Texas, Heard spent long hours at the Austin Public Library, becoming a voracious reader of dystopian sci-fi. “That’s what helped structure a lot of my thoughts, feelings, attitudes, convictions in a way that was relevant politically,” she notes.
One of her first activist moves was donating to the ACLU. “She was a high school student, and she heard about this ACLU case of a high school student who was denied the ability to take the person that they love to the prom,” says Herman Weitz, who learned of the story when she began working with Heard. “It was a same-sex couple, and she saw, ‘Oh man, there is an organization that cares for queer people like me. I’m going to throw them $25.’ Which for a high school student is like all the money in the world.”
By her late teens, she moved to Los Angeles and landed small roles in TV series like Jack & Bobby. Her first film role came via Peter Berg’s Texas football hit Friday Night Lights. And she once worked with her father, David Heard, in Machete Kills (though he’s a contractor, not an actor, David Heard was cast because he has a great Texas look). Over the years, she’s worked with some of Hollywood’s top directors, like Tom Hooper in The Danish Girl, Niki Caro in North Country and Nick Cassavetes in Alpha Dog. But like the career of a young Charlize Theron, she mostly was relegated to looking beautiful while the action revolved around others.
Now, with strong early buzz on Aquaman, Heard is poised to move high up the studio wish lists. In the meantime, she’s making plenty of money as the new global spokesperson for L’Oreal Paris. Even more fulfilling for Heard is her philanthropic work. In the runup to the midterms, she was on the ground, canvassing for Democrat Beto O’Rourke in his bid to unseat Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. In October, she visited the United Nations in Geneva, where she addressed diplomats about women’s rights and the scourge of gender-based violence.
“She’s passionate about the issues that she’s defending,” says Laurent Sauveur, head of external relations at the United Nations human rights office. “She really feels them because of her personal history. This is something that is not a theory for Amber. This is real life here she’s talking about.”
In between Aquaman promotional duties that have taken her from China to London, she embedded with the so-called caravan of asylum seekers in Mexico.
“I was working behind the scenes with some of the people giving humanitarian aid to the caravan and went to Mexico City when [the migrants] first started to arrive,” says Heard. To embed, “I got in contact with the heads of certain nonprofits. I prefer not to say which ones out of concern for their safety, as this has become extremely volatile and political.”
Though she spends much of her activist time outside of Hollywood, she says the industry, too, needs plenty of fixing. “Hollywood is the slowest to change. It’s ironically held up as some bastion of progressive ideals, and yet the reality is the exact opposite,” she says. “It’s deeply risk-averse and reliant on maintaining the status quo.”
Given the glacial pace of progress, the best thing Heard can do is pick roles that don’t objectify women. She recalls Aquaman producer Zack Snyder’s initial call describing his vision for the character “as a warrior queen, with a crown and a sword” she says. “A strong, independent, self-possessed superhero in her own right. I was like, ‘That’s the kind of character I can get behind.'”
Somewhere in between the caravan and lending time with Operation Smile, she flew to Jordan to work with Syrian American Medical Society, helping refugees along the border. While there she rescued a dog that was dying on the side of the road and was mistaken for a rock.
“When you travel and spend so much time on the road and in such a nonconsistent, go-go-go way, one country this day, shooting a movie or in a refugee camp and you’re doing all these things and going everywhere, you can find yourself sometimes at the end of a month realizing that, while you’re never actually alone, you’ve just gone a month without being around a single person who knows you,” she says.
With that, Heard lifts up her turtleneck and reveals the left side of her back, covered in verse tattoos. Omar Khayyam and Pablo Neruda. Next will be Baudelaire. It’s something of an explanation for wanting some permanence in her gypsy life.
“Living out of a suitcase, collecting books is not the most convenient thing for me to be doing,” she says as she looks longingly at a Robert Graves collection that contains the love poem The Thieves. “Because I have very little consistency in my life, I feel like I need a piece of me that reminds me of home or some version of that. It needs to be some object.”
For Heard, a book will do.
A version of this story first appeared in the Dec. 5 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.