Johnny Depp’s Hollywood Comeback? It’ll Take More Than His Fans

“Johnny is great for Dior ads and the occasional rock concert,” wrote one manager in an email, “but Mel Gibson status is about right.”
JUNE 1st 2022: A Virginia jury finds both Johnny Depp and Amber Heard liable for defamation and awards Depp $15 million in damages in his libel suit against Heard while awarding $2 million to Ms. Heard in her countersuit. - APRIL 11th 2022: The Johnny Depp / Amber Heard second defamation trial gets underway in Fairfax, Virginia. - File Photo by: zz/DP/AAD/STAR MAX/IPx 2015 10/11/15 Amber Heard and Johnny Depp at the premiere of "Black Mass" held on October 11, 2015 during the 59th BFI London Film Festival in London, England, UK.
Amber Heard and Johnny Depp

In this edition of Career Watch, IndieWire’s occasional vocational checkup of actors and directors and those who hope to get there, we take on Johnny Depp.

As a maligned victim of slander, the 58-year-old’s most recent performance played well with the trial jury as well as the court of public opinion. He won $10 million in compensatory damages and $350,000 in punitive damages against his ex-wife Amber Heard, who wrote in a 2018 Washington Post op-ed a year after their divorce that she was a “public figure representing domestic abuse.” The jury ruled that she failed to prove that he physically abused her.

Since then, Depp has discovered TikTok and gratefully calls his fans his “employers,” but of course, they don’t write the checks. Those who do are less likely to be swayed by viral social memes — or at least, as Sony recently learned through the spectacular failure of its “Morbius” re-release, they should be.

Bottom Line: A solid marquee draw in five Disney “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies that grossed more than $4.5 billion worldwide, Depp lost the role of Jack Sparrow in that franchise amid domestic violence allegations, as well as the recurring role of Grindelwald in Warner Bros.’ “Fantastic Beasts” series after losing his UK libel case against The Sun, which called him a wife-beater. Neither producer Jerry Bruckheimer nor Warner Bros. plan to restore Depp to their respective franchises. While Depp gets a lift from winning his defamation suit, he’s more bankable for foreign-financed indie projects than big-budget studio movies.

Latest Misfire: Depp played a sad-sack alcoholic photographer making a play at career redemption in Berlin 2021 entry “Minamata” (Metascore: 55), which drummed up $1.8 million worldwide. Thanks to Depp’s hefty fanbase, the film ranked third place in the Oscars Fan Favorite contest at the 94th Academy Awards in 2022.

Career Peaks: From his start in the mid-80s, Depp tested his mettle in indies like John Waters’ “Cry-Baby” (1989), Jim Jarmusch’s “Dead Man” (1996), and Terry Gilliam’s surreal Cannes entry “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” (1998), scoring breakout roles in Tim Burton’s “Edward Scissorhands” (1990) and Lasse Hallström’s “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape” (1994). The actor collaborated with kindred spirit Burton on eight movies: “Ed Wood” (1994), “Sleepy Hollow” (1999), “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” (2005), “Corpse Bride” (2005), “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” (2007), “Alice in Wonderland” (2010), and “Dark Shadows” (2012). Disney’s hugely lucrative “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise began in 2003 with “The Curse of the Black Pearl” and transformed Depp from rising actor to movie star.

Awards Attention: Depp earned his first Oscar nomination for his outrageous channeling of Keith Richards as impishly wicked Jack Sparrow in “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl.” Depp gained respect for taking chances with an audacious over-the-top performance that entertained audiences worldwide. He earned his second Oscar nod for his touching role as “Peter Pan” writer J.M. Barrie in “Finding Neverland” (2004), and his last for his all-out performance as the murderous Demon Barber of Fleet Street in Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd,” which won him a Golden Globe.

Biggest Problem: Depp is well past his movie-star prime. Unlike Brad Pitt, or Robert Downey, Jr. (who cleaned up and embraced sobriety and robust fitness), Depp appears seedy and dissipated from years of admitted drug and alcohol abuse. After wrestling in court with managers and financial advisors, he also appears to be addicted to spending like a drunken sailor. Seeking hefty paydays led to a Nic Cage-level of overexposure and too many bad reviews, from “The Ninth Gate” (Metascore: 44) to “The Tourist” (Metascore: 37). Depp’s last positive review on Metacritic was for “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” in 2016.

Long before his Amber Heard troubles, Depp had a reputation for Marlon Brando-scale set behavior, from lateness to not showing up to working high. His former agent, Tracy Jacobs, who shepherded his career for decades, testified in the defamation trial about Depp’s misbehavior on the set of the fifth and last “Pirates of the Caribbean” film, “Dead Men Tell No Tales” (2017, Metascore: 39), where he was constantly late and needed his lines fed to him through earpieces. She flew to Australia twice in an attempt to intervene. “I was very honest with him,” she told the court. “[I] said, ‘You’ve got to stop doing this, it’s hurting you.'”

That wasn’t the worst of it. Global Road Entertainment pulled the 2018 release of Brad Furman’s LAPD detective thriller “City of Lies” (Metascore: 44) after a location manager sued Depp for assault. Saban Films acquired the film and released it in 2021 in 501 theaters. It grossed $275,049 in its opening weekend.

“He has to take responsibility,” said one studio production executive who asked not to be named. “He’s a smart guy with taste and good instincts. If he wants to act, he has to change his work habits and not be a diva.”

Johnny Depp as Jack Sparrow in “Pirates of the Caribbean”Disney

Assets: The guy can act. No matter how strange and mumbly he can be in person (he should stay away from TV interviews), Depp is a veteran who — when he’s paying attention — knows what he is doing. Movies from “Public Enemies” to “Black Mass” and “Don Juan de Marco” show what he can do when he gives his all. He’s also an accomplished musician who can sing, from “Sweeney Todd” to “Into the Woods.” He’s never been interested in romances, but he can handle dramas (“Donnie Brasco”), the athletic demands of an action western (“The Lone Ranger”), a broad comedy (“Dark Shadows,” “The Rum Diary”), and far-flung fantasy (“Alice in Wonderland,” “Hugo,” “The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus”).

Current Gossip: Depp recently toured the UK with guitarist Jeff Beck, releasing his first TikTok video (10 million followers so far) that featured brief shots of the actor rocking out on guitar. Beck announced the July release of a new album with Depp. The actor thanked his “most treasured, loyal and unwavering supporters” after his trial win. “From the very beginning, the goal of bringing this case was to reveal the truth, regardless of the outcome,” he stated after the trial. “Speaking the truth was something that I owed to my children and to all those who have remained steadfast in their support of me. I feel at peace knowing I have finally accomplished that.”

That said, the jury in the case also ruled that Depp defamed Heard and awarded her $2 million in compensatory damages. Her spokeswoman said: “As Johnny Depp says he’s ‘moving forward,’ women’s rights are moving backward. The verdict’s message to victims of domestic violence is… be afraid to stand up and speak out.”

Next Step: Depp has not filmed a feature since “Minamata,” a sincere effort to portray a troubled artist with a conscience. He continues to participate in various documentaries, music videos, and shorts. He has signed to star as King Louis XV for actor-director Maiwenn in “Jeanne du Barry,” about the king’s last official mistress. This is one route forward for Depp, as it has been for Woody Allen and Roman Polanski: foreign-financed indies. “This case didn’t damage [Depp] in Europe,” said one independent producer.

An independent distributor added, “He’ll get European B movies for a while. It’s been a while since he had a great performance. He was great in ‘The Rum Diary,’ which was too weird to do more than arthouse business. If he was really sobered up, he’d have to have a good, strong part. Producers are thinking they can get him for a lower price. I can’t see the streamers or Disney hiring him. It’s going to take a long time.”

Hollywood is mixed on Depp’s potential for recovery. Awareness of Depp’s passionate fanbase should fuel some offers. And many cite his gentle warmth and generous charity-giving for Make-a-Wish and other foundations. But he never earned an Oscar like Cage, nor has he shown much interest in the occasional naturalistic performance. And he hasn’t shown evidence of a serious effort to get sober, either.

EDWARD SCISSORHANDS, Johnny Depp, Kathy Baker, 1990. TM and Copyright (c) 20th Century Fox Film Corp. All rights reserved.Courtesy: Everett Collection"
“Edward Scissorhands”Everett Collection

“Johnny is great for Dior ads and the occasional rock concert,” wrote one manager in an email, “but Mel Gibson status is about right.”

“I think he has a shot to be more than Mel,” wrote one studio producer. “Downey is the best example. Though all he really hurt was himself. If I was in charge of Johnny’s career, I would tell him to do a couple of pure art-house movies that showcase how damn good he is as an actor. Then with some time gone by and some reminder of what he is capable of, I would try and put him in as a villain in a bigger movie… then see what happens.”

One specialty distributor said that Depp is not yet showing up on casting lists. “He’s viable,” she said. “You can tell from the amount of support he’s gotten. He was always a special actor, and still is.”

Career Advice: While fans were hoping that Burton would cast Depp as Gomez in the upcoming “Addams Family” TV series, Depp’s best hope for the future is for Burton or another top-flight director to take a chance. Depp loves character roles, and meaty supporting roles should come his way. It’s unlikely that a studio will count on him to carry a big-budget movie unless he proves himself — as Downey did — by going into rehab and staying clean.

Fist-bumping his victory over Heard did not play well in many quarters. He should stay humble and not gloat.

The best way for Depp to regain his status as an A-list movie star is to forget the paycheck and make fewer movies of higher quality. The more movies he makes, the less likely they will turn out well.


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