Fans wait for the arrival of Depp outside the courthouse in Fairfax, Virginia, on 11 April.

Depp-Heard trial: are court streams the new celebrity sit-down interview?

His late mother derisively called him “one eye”. He keeps cocaine in a jar. He wrote on a wall in blood with a severed finger, and his ex-wife Amber Heard thought it’d be funny if she pooped in their bed and blamed it on the dogs.

These are some of the sordid details about Johnny Depp that have been “spread on the world like peanut butter” (his words) since the actor’s defamation trial began unfolding on live TV last month.

Depp (who claims to be broke) is seeking $50m from Heard, whose 2018 Washington Post op-ed, he alleges, obliquely and intentionally characterizes him as a physically abusive spouse – an explosive charge that he further argues has cost him $40m in lost wages and put him in league with a vast rogue’s gallery of high-profile Hollywood men canceled by the #MeToo movement.

But money isn’t the point here. Reputation is. That Depp, a top earning A-lister and famously private before all this, chose to air all of his dirty laundry – the surreptitious recordings, the ribald texts, the prolific substance abuse – simply to remove the stain of #MeToo from his person at the very least shows how deeply committed he is to restoring his good name.

No doubt, Depp risks overexposure by untangling his mess of a personal life for wider consumption. So why is he putting himself through such intense scrutiny? Well, for four decades he’s established himself as a fallible star who isn’t easily embarrassed. In court, he doesn’t have to worry about his side of the story being condensed for space, clarity or context.

With help from his legal team, Depp can take his time stippling a narrative that rings true to his ear and resonates with skeptics. In these modern times, snarky as it seems, there’s really no such thing as too much information.

Depp might feel he caught a major break when Fairfax county judge Penney Azcarate (Fairfax is where the online edition of the Post, which ran Heard’s op-ed, is published) allowed Court TV to broadcast this tragic affair, effectively setting an actual stage for one of the best actors of his generation to play to the camera and milk his closeups. Perhaps he thinks he can pull off the role of a lifetime.

As PR moves go, this isn’t just an extreme gambit for Depp. It’s the Hollywood equivalent of a nuclear bombing run, with no guarantees that anyone involved will emerge unscathed. Yet here he is smashing the self-destruct button. And, interestingly, he’s not the only one exploiting the nuclear option.

While he was battling it out with Heard in Fairfax, former reality TV star Blac Chyna was leveling a $100m defamation lawsuit in Los Angeles against the Kardashian family, alleging that sisters Kim Kardashian, Khloé Kardashian, Kylie Jenner and mother Kris Jenner conspired to break up Chyna’s marriage to Rob Kardashian, which Chyna alleges resulted in the cancelation of their E! network reality show, Rob & Chyna. This Kardashian production was (mercifully) not televised, but both sides seemed reliant on the guarantee of press surrounding the case to redeem or uphold their reputations.

That proceeding brought forth tales of Chyna holding a gun to Rob Kardashian’s head, wrapping a phone charging cord around his neck and beating him with a metal rod – all gags, she testified. But the jury wasn’t amused and ruled for the Kardashians, leaving Chyna’s reputation in even smaller tatters.

Gone are the days when celebrities washed away their stains in soft-focus network TV interviews. It used to be that when a celebrity’s brand was suffering, they sat down with Barbara Walters, Oprah Winfrey, Katie Couric or Diane Sawyer and over the course of an hour or so on their home turf, calmly answered pre-vetted questions explaining what exactly the world had gotten so wrong about them. But with Walters retired, Sawyer MIA, and Winfrey and Couric not really doing reputation rehab any more, only Gayle King is left as the last sympathetic ear on network TV. And she barely has the airtime or the patience for wayward personalities.

The glossy print interview, too, was once a viable outlet for image repair; Depp has been down that well time and again. In 2018 he invited British GQ to his lavish home in the south of France to refute Heard’s domestic violence allegations. But the 8,000-word cover story, which called him an “outlaw”, was roundly criticized for glamorizing domestic abuse.

When all else fails, social media is another image repair tool. But it hardly has the nuance or the bandwidth to reckon with an affair as complicated as the doomed one between Depp and Heard.

At a glance, the court system wouldn’t seem any better equipped to redeem Depp, especially in light of how decisively he lost his 2020 libel lawsuit against the Sun when he sued the British newspaper for calling him a “wife beater”. But where that trial unfolded behind closed doors, this one has played out on Court TV four days a week for the past three weeks (it’s expected to go three more). Depp and his attorneys have been accorded great swathes of daylight hours to cast the one-time sex symbol as a deeply wounded child of abuse who’d sooner run and hide than strike a woman, and the backdrop and formalities of the courtroom to vouch for his authenticity.

Fans wait for the arrival of Depp outside the courthouse in Fairfax, Virginia, on 11 April. Photograph: Shawn Thew/EPA

Viewers have been introduced to a coterie of business associates who look out for Depp and speak to his fundamental good nature. They’ve seen the carnival-like atmosphere at the Fairfax county courthouse – complete with alpacas and Depp fans camping out overnight to secure a spot in the gallery; one day of testimony was nearly interrupted when a galley member’s phone broke out into the Pirates of the Caribbean-themed ringtone.

As these images have beamed across the world, the hashtags #justiceforjohnny and #istandwithjohnny have gotten more traction. Each new wave of support for Depp would seem to give studios cover to hire him again, regardless of the trial outcome.

Meanwhile, Heard, who risks losing her role in the Aquaman franchise and future work if indeed she’s the one found to have been physically abusive, recently sacked her PR team and moved to have Depp’s lawsuit dismissed.

Obviously, it’s still early days. Heard has only just taken the stand Wednesday and already accused Depp of grooming her as they filmed The Rum Diaries, and cried through recollections of alleged slaps and kicks and Depp supposedly breaking her nose after the 2014 Met Gala. But for now his nuclear lawsuit appears to be doing the job of restoring his good name in the eyes of his fans and proving that the only way out of crisis is through.

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