“He’s Radioactive”: Inside Johnny Depp’s Self-Made Implosion

In the face of mounting bad publicity, Johnny Depp could still count on one friendly industry group — a Polish film festival.

On Nov. 21, the embattled star was poised to receive a career honor during the 28th EnergaCamerimage cinematography gala and had agreed to appear remotely from the U.S., with his virtual presence touted in the press. As an added seal of approval at a needed moment, the festival scheduled his latest film, the low-budget period drama Minamata, as its closing-night offering. But after a montage of clips showcasing Depp’s “unique visual sensitivity,” the 57-year-old actor failed to materialize onscreen. Instead, he sent along a bizarre picture of himself — open-shirted and with platinum blond hair peeking out from under a pair of colorful scarves. Inexplicably, he appeared to be standing behind bars in a Caribbean prison — resembling a carefree swashbuckler serving time for a crime that he doesn’t quite take seriously. Minamata, featuring Depp as real-life war photographer W. Eugene Smith, never screened. MGM, the film’s distributor, removed it during the seven-day festival citing piracy concerns.

Related Stories

Depp’s absence offered a fitting denouement to a month of reputational and career devastation. On Nov. 2, a U.K. court had ruled against him in his high-stakes libel suit against tabloid The Sun over its description of him as a “wife beater.” In fact, the judge made clear that he believed Depp had assaulted ex-wife Amber Heard on multiple occasions and that she frequently feared for her life. In the ensuing days, Warner Bros. excised him from its Fantastic Beasts franchise — a firing that played out publicly — while sources tell THR that he is no longer involved with a prestige Harry Houdini TV project produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, his most powerful remaining ally. Over the course of four short years, Depp has spiraled from an A-list star responsible for more than $10 billion in worldwide box office to Hollywood persona non grata, beginning when Heard’s abuse allegations first surfaced in 2016 and continuing through a scorched-earth legal strategy that has seen him sue everyone in his path. The result is a tsunami of tabloid fodder as sensitive texts, emails and drug-fueled and violent anecdotes spilled out into the public view. Despite multiple attempts to contact him, Depp could not be reached for comment.

There are few examples of a movie-star implosion of Depp’s magnitude that have been so sudden and spectacular. During the height of his stardom, a 13-year stretch ending in 2016, Depp earned some $650 million, including $55 million from his profit participation on 2010’s Alice in Wonderland, a Disney tentpole that earned $1.03 billion worldwide. For Minamata, which opens Feb. 21, he was paid just $3 million. The claims made in at least six recent suits, along with multiple interviews conducted by THR, paint a picture of an out-of-control Depp, a casualty of Hollywood’s sycophant culture in which his wild spending and substance abuse were rarely challenged. Or as one producer who worked on a recent Depp project notes, “He’s just never been told no for the past 35 years. That’s typical in Hollywood. But I’ve never seen it to this extent.” November 2020 simply offered the punctuation.

Though likely intended as a creative reset, Minamata appears to be something of a career humbling. When CAA was putting the film together in 2018, it wasn’t considering a list of auteurs like Tim Burton. Instead, CAA insisted that the Japan-set drama be helmed by an experimental sculptor turned director with only one unreleased family drama, Lullaby, to his credit: Andrew Levitas, who, unusually for an indie player, albeit one with an impressive career as an artist, has top industry agent Kevin Huvane on his team. When one project insider asked about finding a more seasoned director, the person was told it was Huvane’s call. (But another source says Huvane was hands off.) Depp was to be paid $6 million — light-years from the $40 million he earned on each of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies after profit participation, but financiers became skittish about even that figure after a lawsuit filed by a crewmember on the actor’s City of Lies, a crime drama about the unsolved murders of The Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac Shakur that was pulled before its September 2018 release by distributor Global Road Entertainment. (The crewmember claimed an intoxicated Depp punched him twice on set.) Depp’s Minamata salary was cut in half, and the film was shot mostly in Serbia instead of a more authentic-looking but also more expensive Asian locale, as originally envisioned. CAA had little luck finding a domestic presale, and the film sat unclaimed for nearly two years until MGM’s American International Pictures label acquired it in October. (A source says the film, which received some critical acclaim following its Berlin Film Festival premiere in February, was acquired for high seven figures.)

Things won’t likely improve for Depp anytime soon thanks to the havoc wrought in the U.K. case. Pick any spot in Justice Andrew Nicol’s 132-page ruling on Depp’s defamation claims against The Sun, and you’re bound to land on an embarrassing detail.

Among the lowlights is a text from Depp to CAA agent Christian Carino, who previously repped Heard, in which he wrote: “[Heard is] begging for total global humiliation. She’s gonna get it. I’m gonna need your texts about San Francisco brother … I’m even sorry to ask … But she sucked [Elon Musk’s] crooked dick and he gave her some shitty lawyers … I have no mercy, no fear and not an ounce of emotion or what I once thought was love for this gold digging, low level, dime a dozen, mushy, pointless dangling overused flappy fish market … I’m so fucking happy she wants to fight this out!!! She will hit the wall hard!!! And I cannot wait to have this waste of a cum guzzler out of my life!!! I met fucking sublime little Russian here … Which makes me realize the time I blew on that 50 cent stripper … I wouldn’t touch her with a goddam glove.”

In another text to actor Paul Bettany, Depp writes, “Let’s burn Amber!!!” To which Bettany, apparently taking it as a joke, responds, “Having thought it through I don’t think we should burn Amber — she’s delightful company and easy on the eye, plus I’m not sure she’s a witch. We could of course try the English course of action in these predicaments ­— we do a drowning test. Thoughts?” Depp adds, “Let’s drown her before we burn her!!! I will fuck her burnt corpse afterwards to make sure she’s dead.”

It also appears that Depp attempted to interfere with the career of Heard, whom he met on the set of the 2011 drama The Rum Diary and married in 2015. “I want her replaced on the WB film,” he wrote to his sister, producer Christi Dembrowski, who previously had a deal with the studio and was influential there. During the trial, he admitted that this was a reference to the Warner Bros. film Aquaman, in which Heard starred.

“He has suffered immense reputational carnage from a reckless set of choices that has left him in septic muck,” says Eric Schiffer, a crisis PR rep whose clients include a number of high-profile Hollywood and sports figures. “Can he come out of that? It really comes down to Johnny’s choices. He still has a fan base that in many ways is like Donald Trump’s with their emotional intensity and commitment to a star icon. It’s not based around principles. It’s about charisma and their identification of the range of characters that he’s played.”

But Hollywood decision-makers may be less forgiving in light of the U.K. trial’s copious drug references — cocaine, alcohol, Xanax, Adderall, Roxicodone, magic mushrooms and ecstasy. Depp had been earning his $20 million-plus up-front paydays from the major studios, all owned by increasingly risk-averse and reputationally sensitive publicly traded media giants. And while shooting Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales in Australia, Depp swallowed eight ecstasy pills at once, according to testimony in the U.K. case, and embarked on a campaign of terror aimed at Heard. It culminated with the tip of his finger being sliced off, which resulted in his being flown back to Los Angeles for surgery. Pirates was forced to shut down production for two weeks, costing the studio some $350,000 a day. Depp claimed that Heard threw a bottle of alcohol at him, injuring his finger.

By far the most damaging hit from the trial was that Justice Nicol said he believed Heard’s abuse allegations. “I have found that the great majority of alleged assaults of Ms. Heard by Mr. Depp have been proved to the civil standard. … I also accept that Ms. Heard’s allegations have had a negative effect on her career as an actor and activist.” Adding insult to injury, Nicol refused permission for Depp to appeal. But Depp on Dec. 9 applied directly to Britain’s court of appeal in an effort to overturn the ruling. In short, publications that refer to Depp as a wife beater would have much less fear of legal retaliation. (British standards for defamation make it more difficult for journalists to prevail than in American cases, giving The Sun‘s victory all the more significance.) And in Hollywood’s #MeToo era, that presents a PR nightmare that no studio is eager to invite.

“You simply can’t work with him now,” says one studio head. “He’s radioactive.”

The fact that 20th Century Fox and Warner Bros. continued to work with Depp on Murder on the Orient Express and a Fantastic Beasts sequel, respectively, in the wake of Heard’s allegations becoming public in May 2016 raised eyebrows around town. The Warners case was particularly baffling. At Comic-Con 2018, the studio brought Depp onstage in costume as the eponymous villain at the end of the Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald segment. The fans weren’t the only ones surprised. Sources say Heard, who also appeared onstage as part of Warners’ presentation the same day for Aquaman, was blindsided. Despite Heard having once filed a restraining order against Depp, marketing chief Blair Rich approved Depp’s inclusion, say sources. Backstage, tensions erupted between Depp and Rich, according to eyewitnesses, and Rich later complained to colleagues that Depp spoke to her in a menacing manner. Nevertheless, Warners — then headed up by CEO Kevin Tsujihara — brought Depp back for a third outing in a move approved by creator J.K. Rowling and gave him a pay-or-play contract that did not contain a morality clause. As a result, the studio was stuck paying his entire $16 million payday for the film even after firing him in the wake of the U.K. verdict. (He had shot only one scene.)

Disney had already backed away from a Pirates future with Depp well before the U.K. trial, even if it never formally severed ties. Bruckheimer, who has been one of Depp’s biggest champions and once suggested the finger injury happened because “he got it caught in a car door,” was hoping to at least bring the Captain Jack Sparrow character back briefly in the next outing — said to be a female-centric incarnation fronted by Margot Robbie. Disney balked.

Insiders say Depp’s relationship with Bruckheimer has frayed in recent months. Sources say the actor was poised to play the iconic illusionist Harry Houdini in a Bruckheimer-produced high-end production, offering a career jump-start after multiple pricey bombs like 2016’s Alice Through the Looking Glass, which earned a brutal $300 million worldwide and cost Disney hundreds of millions, as well as 2014’s Transcendence, costing $100 million and making $109 million worldwide, and 2013’s The Lone Ranger, which cost $250 million-plus and grossed just $261 million worldwide. The Houdini series, which had not yet found a home, would mark Depp’s first foray into TV since his 21 Jump Street days. But the defamation ruling may have made his casting untenable.

One studio executive who has worked with Depp in recent years says his inner demons had long ago bled into his professional life, making him “a huge liability” thanks to frequent tardiness and costly behavior, all cataloged in the U.K. suit.

“The discovery that came out in that trial alone would be enough to scare any studio,” says the executive.

To many observers, Depp’s negative press was largely avoidable and stemmed from his aggressive legal tactics. The chief architect behind Depp’s sue-’em-all strategy is Adam Waldman, a handsome Washington lawyer with his own sheen of controversy given a clientele that has included Russian oligarchs and Julian Assange. Waldman, who is married to Berlin-based jet-setter and luxury skin-care entrepreneur Barbara Sturm, conducts himself in an unorthodox manner, mocking his legal opponents on Twitter. Sources say Depp met Waldman through Saudi Arabian Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman, the country’s powerful minister of energy, in summer 2016. (Depp spent time aboard the prince’s megayacht in the past.) Waldman quickly became a Svengali figure in Depp’s life, with the actor axing most of his inner circle.

“Never mind Svengali. He’s Depp’s Rasputin,” says one insider. Waldman declined to talk for this piece.

In short order, the actor severed ties with his agent of more than three decades, UTA’s Tracey Jacobs. With Waldman as his attorney, he also sued his longtime business manager, Joel Mandel, for $25 million for gross misconduct and failing to pay his taxes, along with his entertainment lawyer for decades and father figure, Jake Bloom, for $50 million for malpractice. Both cases settled privately with Depp receiving some payout, but at a steep cost, given that the details of his finances and private life were laid bare.

“The abuse and drinking and drugging are one thing — certainly horrible — but then to top it off by going after the very people who were the closest business and personal relationships for years, shows a level of toxicity rarely seen,” says one industry figure who has faced off against Depp.

What’s remarkable is that Depp is about to embark on the same mission with his $50 million defamation suit against Heard in Virginia. The process will likely be even more intrusive and end up sucking other high-profile figures into the vortex. (Depp is obligated to produce “all responsive communications” with former romantic partners including Angelina Jolie, Keira Knightley and Marion Cotillard.) His odds are even worse than they were in the Sun suit because, unlike the U.K. case, the burden of proof will be on Depp. The case is expected to go to trial in early 2021.

“It is really hard to imagine why anyone would ever decide to pursue a strategy like that, especially now that — after a three-week trial with dozens of witnesses testifying and hundreds of exhibits — the U.K. judge dismissed every unfounded attack on Amber’s credibility and concluded that Depp did indeed assault Amber on 12 separate occasions,” says Time’s Up Legal Defense co-founder Roberta Kaplan, who stepped down from Heard’s team in June but continues to advise the actress. “Amber Heard did not bring this on herself. She sought a [temporary restraining order] back in 2016 so that she could change the locks on her front door and be safe. All the litigation since then … [has] been generated by Johnny Depp himself.”

Meanwhile, a judge in Virginia has kicked Waldman off the case for leaking confidential material to the press. As such, Waldman has gone silent on Twitter since Oct. 16. His last tweet in the matter attempted to draw a conspiratorial connection between positive articles written by a journalist about Heard and Musk’s current partner, the singer Grimes.

The City of Lies crewmember suit also is scheduled to go to trial early in the new year, COVID-19 restrictions permitting. Even before Waldman entered the picture, Depp was engaged in legal drama on all fronts, much of it playing out of the public eye. Sources say he paid his first wife, Lori Anne Allison, $1.25 million to keep quiet after he allegedly left a long ranting message in which he repeatedly used the N-word. The previously unreported settlement was accomplished using fictitious names to avoid scrutiny, with Richard Green serving as the stand-in for Johnny Depp.

But Depp has his backers. Former partner Vanessa Paradis, the mother of his two children, Lily-Rose and Jack, defended him in the U.K. trial, as did former fiancee Winona Ryder. (Depp previously made a multimillion-dollar split settlement with Paradis.) But in a deposition in the Virginia case, ex-girlfriend Ellen Barkin said that Depp threw a wine bottle in her direction. Other explosive suits were settled quietly, including one filed by two former bodyguards, who claimed they were subjected to unsafe conditions and duties like dusting drug residue off Depp’s face in public.

While Depp’s legal challenges are expensive, one attorney involved with Depp litigation says that he has plenty of money and owns most of his properties outright, including three islands in the Bahamas. Still, he has long courted a reputation as a wild spender. According to legal documents in the Mandel case, Depp has purchased 14 residences. He dropped $30,000 a month on wine alone. And in perhaps the most extravagant move of all, he spent $5 million to have Hunter S. Thompson’s ashes fired from a cannon hoisted atop a 153-foot tower in a fleeting tribute to the gonzo journalist.

But those who’ve worked with him say Depp’s expectations of how much his employers pick up the tab are excessive, including on smaller indie movies. THR has obtained Depp’s extravagant perks list — the requests worth up to $3 million — for several of his recent films, including 2015’s Black Mass. His rider called for “fully licensed and qualified security personnel for JD and JD’s residence while JD is on location on a 24/7 basis … for JD’s companion and children while JD is on location on a 24/7 basis (whether or not JD’s companion and children are on location).” That was provided in addition to “adequate on-set security.”

According to a source familiar with Depp’s contract, “Celebrities have security, but not teams doing overlapping, 24-hour shifts.” In addition to a personal sound technician to handle his earpiece needs — “so he doesn’t have to learn lines,” adds the source — Depp required two personal assistants as well as a $200,000-a-year “exclusive assistant” during prep, principal photography, postproduction and for a period of six months surrounding the release of the film, and who travels first-class. On Minamata, a film with a modest $13 million budget, he commanded private air travel — G5 or Global Express — as well as the sound technician. (Another source pegged the budget at $11 million and Depp’s salary closer to $1 million.) Depp is so reliant on his earpiece that he promoted one of his previous sound technicians, Sam Sarkar, to CEO of his production company, Infinitum Nihil.

One of the perks a distributor can count on with Depp is his social media army of fans. They are among the most loyal and shrill on Twitter. They heap praise on the actor, eviscerate anyone associated with Heard, and have posted exclusive audio recordings of the couple fighting (albeit edited in a way that favors the actor). But many who have battled Depp question whether the army is real or high-end bots. Kaplan believes it’s a combination of the two, with bots amplifying what real fans post.

“My firm is involved in a lot of controversial cases,” she says. “Our clients are suing the white supremacists and neo-Nazis responsible for the violence in Charlottesville. I have clients who are suing Donald Trump. But, by far, the one case [of ours] that has generated the greatest amount of hostile social media attacks is Johnny Depp v. Amber Heard. Not even close.”

The matter of whether bots or humans make up Depp’s social media army is significant because it touches on whether the actor’s legal chaos and reputational hit is registering with the general public at large. According to Marketing Evaluations Inc., a New York-based company that compiles Q scores (a measure of the familiarity and appeal of a brand, star or company), Depp continues to rank in the top 20, hitting his zenith in 2012 at No. 3, behind Tom Hanks and Sean Connery, and falling to No. 20 in 2020.

“He remains one of the more appealing actors, although there has been somewhat of a slide,” says Marketing Evaluations president Steven Levitt. “Frankly, there are some people who pay attention to his private life. And some people tend to disregard that and all they care about is, ‘Does this person entertain me?’ But unless there’s another Jack Sparrow ahead, which really works to his advantage, I would not expect his positive Q score to go up in the next year or two.”

Still, he remains the face of Dior’s Sauvage fragrance, for which he is paid millions. Outside the U.S., personal controversies may have less impact on Depp’s bankability, especially in markets where #MeToo and abuse allegations hold less sway.

“It’s like with Mel Gibson. Nobody is saying we’re not seeing this film or we’re not buying the DVD because it’s Mel Gibson,” says Erik Engelen, a German acquisitions executive at Splendid Film who released Gibson’s big comeback, 2016’s Hacksaw Ridge. “The general audience is not that much into the whole persona of things as we sometimes think. Johnny Depp is still a very big star. And the fact that he is coming back to the independent world is maybe a good thing for this career. From a creative point of view, there is probably more to do there than in the studio world.”

That’s precisely where Depp started, by carving out a lane for himself as the quirky antihero of such unconventional fare as Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood and Chocolat before morphing into an unlikely tentpole star. But the Minamata-type paydays won’t keep the lights on in Depp’s 14 homes. And for now, the door appears to be closed on studio blockbusters.

“Johnny Depp is a worst-case scenario for handling bad PR,” says one top crisis communications specialist. “I use him as the model for telling my clients what not to do. It’s not a case of shooting himself in the foot. He shot himself in the face.”

A version of this story first appeared in the Dec. 9 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.