Depp lost $22.5m Pirates of the Caribbean role after op-ed, trial hears

Actor set to play Jack Sparrow again before Amber Heard article, talent manager says

Actor Johnny Depp is suing his ex-wife Amber Heard for libel over an op-ed piece she wrote in 2018 referring to herself as a ‘public figure representing domestic abuse’. Photograph: Steve Helber/Pool/AP

Johnny Depp's talent manager testified on Monday in the actor's defamation trial in the United States that Mr Depp lost a $22.5 million deal to star in a sixth Pirates of the Caribbean movie after his ex-wife, Amber Heard, published an op-ed in which she called herself a "public figure representing domestic abuse".

The exact timing of when Mr Depp was cut from the "Pirates" franchise has become a pertinent question in the trial because Mr Depp's lawsuit against Ms Heard claims that her op-ed, published by the Washington Post in December 2018, "devastated" his reputation and career.

Although the op-ed does not mention Mr Depp by name, he has argued that it clearly referred to their relationship. Ms Heard has accused Mr Depp of assaulting her repeatedly during their relationship, which Mr Depp denies.

At Fairfax County Circuit Court in Virginia, the talent manager, Jack Whigham, testified that the actor had a verbal agreement with The Walt Disney Co to reprise his role as Captain Jack Sparrow in a proposed sixth film, but that in early 2019, it became clear that Disney was "going in a different direction".


“After the op-ed, it was impossible to get him a studio film,” said Mr Whigham, who has represented Mr Depp since 2016.

Lawyers for Ms Heard have argued that it was not the actress’s op-ed that undermined Mr Depp’s career but rather his own actions that led to bad publicity, seeking to prove during cross-examination of Mr Whigham that Mr Depp lost the Pirates job before the article was published.

Elaine Charlson Bredehoft, a lawyer for Ms Heard, pointed to a previous deposition by Mr Whigham in which he said it had been the autumn of 2018 – before the op-ed was published – when he came to understand that it was becoming unlikely that Mr Depp would appear in the next Pirates movie.

Mr Whigham testified that around that time, Disney had not yet made a decision about whether Mr Depp would appear in the movie and it was "trending badly", but he and film producer Jerry Bruckheimer were still seeking to persuade the company to keep Mr Depp in the franchise.

“We had hope,” Mr Whigham said, “and it became clear to me in early 2019 that it was over.”

The op-ed

In the op-ed, Ms Heard asserted that her own career had been affected by becoming a “public figure representing domestic abuse”, saying she was dropped as the face of a fashion brand and a movie had recast her role.

The idea for the op-ed came from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and a communications department employee from the non-profit organisation drafted the article, according to earlier testimony from Terence Dougherty, general counsel for the ACLU.

Initially, the op-ed draft referenced Ms Heard’s relationship with Mr Depp directly. However, those references were later edited out after a back-and-forth between ACLU personnel and Ms Heard’s lawyers about a non-disclosure agreement associated with the couple’s divorce, Mr Dougherty testified.

Actress Amber Heard talks to her attorneys in the courtroom on Monday. Photograph: Steve Helber/Pool/EPA

Alleged abuse

Aside from discussions about the op-ed on which Mr Depp’s lawsuit is based, much of the trial has focused on diverging accounts of physical abuse in Ms Heard and Mr Depp’s relationship.

Mr Depp testified that he has never hit Ms Heard and that she was the aggressor, accusing her of punching him in the face and kicking a bathroom door into his head.

Ms Heard, who has not yet testified in the trial, has said in court papers that she never hit Mr Depp except in self-defence or in defence of her sister, and that Mr Depp tended to perpetrate violence against her when he was under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

On Monday, Ms Heard’s lawyers sought to undermine Mr Whigham’s claim that Mr Depp had a formal deal for the sixth Pirates movie at all. “Do you have any explanation for why there exists nothing – no piece of paper – nothing suggesting that Mr Depp ever had a deal with Disney for ‘Pirates 6’?” Ms Bredehoft asked.

Mr Whigham said it was not unusual for an actor to have a verbal agreement for a movie that is later put into writing.

Ms Bredehoft also pointed to other possible precursors to Mr Depp’s reputational decline other than the op-ed, citing a headline from the Sun newspaper in Britain that called Mr Depp a “wife beater”.

That article was published in April 2018, she said, and Mr Depp sued the newspaper for it in June 2018 – both months before Mr Whigham’s recollection of Disney’s declining interest in Mr Depp for Pirates of the Caribbean.

Ms Heard's potential witness list includes Tina Newman, a Disney executive. – This article originally appeared in the New York Times