The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Among his biggest fans, Johnny Depp has already won his case

Depp “stans” who gather each day in Fairfax County are following the modern rules of devotion, while others play online offense on the movie star’s behalf. Those who support his ex-wife Amber Heard are, so far, heavily outnumbered.

Fans wait for the arrival Johnny Deep at the Fairfax County Courthouse, where his defamation suit against ex-wife Amber Heard is being tried. (Shawn Thew/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)
9 min

The excitement was palpable on the sidewalk behind the Fairfax County Courthouse on a recent Thursday morning, even in 39-degree temps with a below-freezing wind chill. That didn’t matter to the steadily growing group of spectators who start gathering here in the early-morning hours, because they would soon get the briefest glimpse of Johnny Depp’s face. He arrives every day in a black Cadillac Escalade. Fans have learned that he will roll down the window and wave.

The anticipatory buzz of the crowd, as well as the delighted screams when he shows up — “We love you, Johnny!” “You’re beautiful!” — is a stark contrast to the disturbing allegations made over the past several weeks in court, as Depp and his ex-wife Amber Heard have accused each other of abuse, which both have denied. Depp is suing Heard for $50 million for defamation after a 2018 op-ed in The Washington Post in which she stated she had become a public figure representing domestic abuse. (This was two years after she filed for divorce and a restraining order, alleging he abused her.) Heard countersued Depp for $100 million for defamation after his attorney called her claims a hoax.

Depp’s attorneys wrapped up their witness testimonies on Tuesday; Heard, 36, is expected to testify in the coming days.

Johnny Depp sued Amber Heard for defamation over an op-ed she wrote for The Washington Post about being a survivor of domestic abuse. The trial began April 11. (Video: Allie Caren/The Washington Post)

The trial has now shifted into Heard’s version of events, which may well mean that Depp’s fans — some of whom have been previously admonished by Judge Penney Azcarate to quiet their vocal support for the 58-year-old actor while sitting in the courtroom — will have to summon even more discipline to hold back their feelings about Heard. Some of them have been rooting for Depp since his “21 Jump Street” days in the late 1980s. To say the least, they don’t believe her.

Heard has faced a wave of vitriol for years online, but the animosity toward her has recently reached a new high, especially during Depp’s appearance on the stand last month for more than seven hours of testimony. The hashtag #justiceforjohnnydepp has received nearly 7 billion views across TikTok and regularly trends on Twitter, as fans create supercuts from trial footage which are edited to make Heard’s accusations seem unfounded. Image-based memes of the trial, complete with demeaning jokes about Heard, circulate online (even sparking top 10 lists), which has unnerved some viewers, given the seriousness of the claims.

By comparison, the hashtag #justiceforamberheard, which includes a mixture of clips defending the actress and outlandish jokes aimed at both Depp and Heard, has about 25 million views. Late last week, Heard hired a new public relations team, reportedly because of the amount of negative coverage she’s received. Both Depp’s and Heard’s representatives declined to comment for this story, but one person close to Heard who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the case said, “Too often when a woman is abused and keeps quiet, people criticize her with ‘Why didn’t you say something?’ Well, she did. And now she’s being attacked for it.”

Meanwhile, Depp, whose movie-star status began with films as far back as 1990′s “Edward Scissorhands” and sustained itself through Disney’s blockbuster Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, is benefiting from the 21st-century version of having an all-volunteer army, a.k.a. “stans” — people whose fandom for celebrities reaches past admiration and into the realm of fervent devotion. Once they commit, little will sway their opinions: Neither a string of panned films and box-office flops in the last decade (“Mortdecai,” “Alice Through the Looking Glass”) nor the trial’s more sordid details (such as Depp’s profane text messages and audio recordings) can quell their enthusiasm.

The driving force for Depp’s fandom is likely his long and varied career, said Seth Lewis, director of the journalism program at the University of Oregon. He points to the “sympathetic nature of the characters he’s played, particularly Captain Jack Sparrow. It’s hard to overcome that built-in association and what that means for the way they see Depp as a person.”

In some ways, Lewis said, what we’re witnessing is the “apotheosis of participatory culture,” the idea of fans taking an active and communal role in the object of their fandom. And because it’s played out on social media, the trial “feels like reality television, played out across TikTok and Twitter and YouTube,” Lewis said, which can make Depp and Heard feel “more like avatars than real people.”

That feeling was probably exacerbated when Drew Barrymore called the trial “a seven-layer dip of insanity” on her syndicated TV talk show last week. She has walked those statements back with a perfunctory apology on Instagram, in which she referred to the backlash as a “teachable moment.”

But the ones who show up to the courthouse — they travel from all over the country and the world — feel like they truly know the actor. They call him a “sweetheart” or “down to earth” or say that he just always seemed like a really nice guy: He visits hospitalized children while dressed as Jack Sparrow. He’s kind to animals.

Chrissy Maye of Leesburg is in her 40s and recalls first noticing Depp among all the other heartthrobs of the day in Tiger Beat magazine. Someone once told her that Depp lived on a private island (his Bahamas residence has come up throughout the trial), and she thought that seemed anti-social in a good way. “I liked that he was famous, but he wasn’t always flashing it in people’s faces,” she said. “He didn’t need the stardom.”

They also simply don’t (or can’t) believe he did anything wrong. Multiple people interviewed for this story at the courthouse refuse to entertain the idea that Heard’s allegations are true, and they dismiss the details of Depp’s drug and alcohol use, which have been discussed at length by Heard’s attorneys. While they may be surprised during the trial to see his vulgar text messages calling Heard all manner of expletives, or hear audio clips where you can hear him get angry, some identify more with Depp than Heard.

Pamela Jablonski of Chantilly, Va., who got close enough to Depp’s car to slip him a supportive note, said she was a bit taken aback to hear some of the details; such as when the top of his finger was sliced off during an incident in March 2015 — Depp alleged Heard threw a vodka bottle at him, which she says did not happen — and how he then dipped it in paint and started writing on lampshades. “But I get it. I understand that dynamic,” Jablonski said, adding she has been in a “crazy” relationship too. “He doesn’t have a history. So I think he’s innocent.”

For a small minority of Depp’s vocal supporters, Lewis said, this might be a “sort of backlash against woke-ism” and the #MeToo movement. One fan at the courthouse, Natalia Burton of Charlottesville, cited “the impact of false accusations on the #MeToo movement” as one of the main reasons for her support, adding, “I also think it’s important because there are many male victims of domestic violence and abuse.”

On the Internet, one of Depp’s most prominent defenders is “The Walking Dead” star Laurie Holden, who recently tweeted the hashtag to her nearly half a million followers, along with the message “The truth is now being revealed and there will be justice.” It’s led to a petition on to remove Heard from the upcoming sequel to “Aquaman.” Signed more than 3 million times, it was created by author Jeanne Larson, who writes under the pen name Jeannie Depp and who did not respond to The Post’s request for comment.

“We don’t have a lot in our world that we’re in control over,” said Eric Wesselmann, an Illinois State University psychology professor who studies fandom. “This type of social media activist, for whatever someone is being active for, can fulfill that need for control or agency.”

Even so, it might seem odd for anyone to care so deeply about a celebrity, but as Wesselmann noted: “Just like any relationship we have with persons in our day-to-day lives, we bring this into our self-concept. If someone insults — or if there’s a perceived threat to — one of our regular relationship partners, we experience that as a threat to ourselves, to some degree. So it’s reasonable to assume people feel similarly if they perceive a threat to their favorite band or celebrity or so on.”

Taylor Anne Swartz from Chicago said she met Depp when she was in middle school in 2008, after waiting for him outside an Aurora, Ill., location where he was filming “Public Enemies.” When Depp saw a drawing Swartz made for him, she said, the actor wouldn’t take it because he said he felt like he didn’t deserve it. Swartz said that moment changed her life.

“Meeting him was basically my biggest dream at the time, so I was like, okay, if he made me feel that way and that was my biggest dream, I was like, what else can I do with my life?” she said. “So I think that moment kind of catapulted me believing in myself a bit.”

Swartz closely followed the 2020 libel trial that Depp lost against the Sun, a British tabloid, for calling him a “wife beater,” and much of the same evidence is being used in this case against Heard. She looked at both sides, she said, but like many of his fans, she remains convinced: “I’m still completely on Johnny’s side.”