Since his notorious legal battle with Amber Heard, Johnny Depp has had an eclectic career, which has seen him go on tour with the musician Jeff Beck, announce his intention to direct a film about the painter Modigliani (in which he will reunite with his Donnie Brasco co-star Al Pacino, who will play the art collector Maurice Gangnat) and take on the role of Louis XV in the equally controversial actor-cum-director Maïwenn’s biopic of the king’s mistress Jeanne du Barry. The latter film, which premiered at Cannes this year, is widely regarded as Depp’s comeback after the bruising revelations in the court case — which he won, but with such damage done to his reputation that to large sectors of public opinion, he is now little more than a pariah.
Nonetheless, when it was announced that Depp would be appearing at Cannes this year, both at the red-carpet premiere for the opening of Jeanne du Barry and participating in a press conference the next day, the world media’s attention was drawn to La Croisette. The actor’s high-profile reappearance in public life has attracted a vast amount of attention, far beyond what the film would otherwise have drawn. He duly appeared at the premiere in what might be called pirate-made-good attire, with lavish gold earrings setting off a typically smart, bespoke suit, and spent a few minutes signing autographs and posing for selfies with some of his most committed admirers: the kind of people who take to social media to defend him and to denigrate Heard with equal vehemence and passion whenever either of them returns to the public eye.
The film received a seven-minute standing ovation (less impressive than it sounds; even the most dismal picture can expect such an accolade at a Cannes opening night), and Depp, who was in the balcony for the screening, was said to be emotional at the reception that his mostly silent role received. (Rumors, denied by Maïwenn, suggest that she and the actor fought on set, and that she cut most of his dialogue as a result.) Yet it was his presence at the following day’s press conference for the picture that was far more eagerly awaited, as Depp would break his silence for the first time and discuss the stories that have been circulating about him. Would he denigrate the media? Announce his retirement? Do a Captain Jack Sparrow voice?
It would not be a Depp press conference without some drama or incident, and the delayed event initially began without him, as the actor was said to be stuck in traffic. It was initially feared that he would not be present at all, but when he finally appeared, putting paid to whispers of a no-show, he was on characteristically trenchant form. When asked to discuss his rejection by the industry, he replied, “Did I feel boycotted by Hollywood? You’d have to not have a pulse to feel like, ‘No. None of this is happening. It’s a weird joke.’” Alluding to his high-profile ousting from the Fantastic Beasts movie, for which he was still paid a $10 million fee because the studio had neglected to include a so-called “morality clause,” Depp said “When you’re asked to resign from a film you’re doing because of something that is merely a function of vowels and consonants floating in the air, yes you feel boycotted.”
The press did not escape censure, as Depp he declared, “The majority of what you read is fantastically, horrifically written fiction. It’s like asking the question: ‘How are you doing?’ But the subtext is, ‘God, I hate you.’” Yet Depp also suggested that he has made his peace with the end of his mainstream movie career, something that started, somewhat to the industry’s surprise, with 2003’s first Pirates of the Caribbean film, and has come to an ignominious end now. “I don’t feel boycotted by Hollywood, because I don’t think about Hollywood,” Depp said. “It’s a strange, funny time where everybody would love to be able to be themselves, but they can’t. They must fall in line with the person in front of them. If you want to live that life, I wish you the best.”
There are certain actors — most obviously Kevin Spacey — whose cancellation by the industry for real or rumored wrongdoing clearly rankles, because appearing on screen or on stage is clearly their greatest passion. Yet in the case of Depp, he seems unruffled by a miasma of scandal that would have left most actors in the dust. There will probably never be a Pirates of the Caribbean 6, and Depp will never be a leading Hollywood star again. And, judging by his reaction to the new act of his career, this most quixotic of performers doesn’t seem at all bothered by it. He may — spoiler alert! — expire horribly from smallpox in his latest picture, but Depp remains alive — and like Mel Gibson before him, his continued career remains a provocation to his detractors and solace to his admirers alike.