CANNES, France -- Just a year ago, the image of Johnny Depp smiling and waving atop the Palais steps at the Cannes Film Festival would have been unthinkable to most — including to Depp, himself.
“When you hit the bottom, you hit the bottom, you hit the bottom, then you find the basement to the bottom,” Depp told The Associated Press the day after “Jeanne du Barry," in which he stars as King Louis XV, opened Cannes.
This time last year, Depp was immersed in a libel trial he brought against Amber Heard, his ex-wife, based on a 2018 Washington Post op-ed piece in which she referred to herself as “a public figure representing domestic abuse.” A British court had ruled in 2020 that a tabloid labeling Depp “a wife beater” were “substantially true.” Soon after the ruling in the U.K., Hollywood had largely cut ties with Depp, jettisoning him from both the “Fantastic Beasts” and “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchises.
“When it all went down, confusion is a good word. Befuddled. Because it does almost reach the Bugs Bunny experience,” Depp says now. “You say to yourself: Is this my life? What happened?”
Some greeted Depp’s feting in Cannes with similar degrees of befuddlement.
A Virginia jury eventually ruled that Heard had defamed Depp on three counts and awarded him $15 million in damages. In a countersuit, Depp was found guilty of one charge of libel and Heard was awarded $2 million. Depp may have won in court, but public opinion remains divided on the actor who was once one of the most bankable stars in movies — with many supporters of abused women and the #MeToo movement wondering if sexual assault victims would be more reticent to come forward if they might be sued for defamation.
Outside the premiere of “Jeanne du Barry” in Cannes, fans grasped for autographs and signs read “Viva Johnny!” On social media, the reception was more fraught. Supporters of Heard rallied around the hashtag #CannesYouNot, arguing that Cannes — which has been criticized for welcoming men accused of misconduct — shouldn't have invited Depp.
“If you support Cannes, you support predators,” posted Eve Barlow, a journalist and friend of Heard. Heard herself hasn't commented on Depp's Cannes premiere.
Depp has seldom spoken in public since the trial, but he granted an interview with the AP on Wednesday after a day of interviews with mostly French media. (Depp remains very popular in France where he has sometimes lived and where the film industry is contending with its own #MeToo reckoning.) He was eager to cast his own battles in the light of Hollywood scandals of the past.
“Never boring but unpleasant, curious years. Escapades. Rumors. Accusations,” Depp said. “I read far too much about Fatty Arbuckle but I didn’t see any (Buster) Keaton coming my way to save my ass.”
“One of the things that kept going in my head was Hunter,” he continued, invoking longtime mentor Hunter S. Thompson. “I could hear his voice: ‘Buy the ticket, take the ride.’”
“I don’t think Marlon would have survived,” Depp said, referencing Brando. “I don’t think he came close to going through something like this. Had he been alive to watch this happen, he would have gone sideways. He would have killed somebody.”
One thing that’s been unclear was if Depp had any remorse for how the trial — a bitter and often theatrical legal battle played out in front of cameras — unfolded. Depp became a hero to some right-wing critics of so-called cancel culture. Asked if he had any misgivings about the supporters he attracted, Depp responded:
“I did notice that people actually opened their mouths about it. At that time, that was brave.”
“Not for a moment will I regret anything unless I’ve done something horrible to someone, which I haven’t,” Depp added. “I’m not going to regret being taken down a strange road for that period of time because I learned so much more about myself.”
“Jeanne du Barry,” directed by the French filmmaker and actor Maïwenn, is Depp’s first film in three years. Maïwenn stars as Jeanne Vaubernier, a working-class woman who becomes Louis XV’s mistress. Depp speaks French in the film, which doesn’t yet have U.S. distribution. Maïwenn, too, is a controversial figure. She recently admitted to assaulting prominent French journalist Edwy Plenel at a café, yanking his hair back and spitting in his face.
It’s not the only business Depp has in Cannes. He's seeking financing for “Modi,” a biopic of Italian artist Amedeo Modigliani that he hopes to shoot this fall, with Al Pacino attached. Depp, who will perform next week at a London tribute for the late Jeff Beck, a close friend, also recently renewed his contract with Dior in a $20 million deal.
“I don’t know the image of Johnny Depp in the U.S.,” Cannes director Thierry Fremaux said Monday. “If Johnny Depp had been banned from acting in a film, or the film was banned, we wouldn’t be here talking about it.”
And there’s been plenty of conversation generated by Depp’s appearance in Cannes, even in reviews haven’t been good. Time’s Stephanie Zacharek called it “less a comeback than a tepid lurching into a very small spotlight.” But the overall reception has been warm. Depp, who said he lives 45 minutes away, was taken aback by the thrall.
“I didn’t know what planet I was on,” he said, smiling.
Speaking to reporters in the festival press conference, Depp mocked the idea that he has many critics, likening anyone who protested his presence in Cannes to “some species, some tower of mashed potatoes, covered in the light of a computer screen, anonymous, with apparently a lot of spare time.”
Sitting on a terrace overlooking the Cannes’ Croisette later, Depp appeared relaxed and jovial, though his thoughts remained fixed on his legal battles with Heard.
“You’re not powerless but you’ve been postponed,” he said of how he felt before the trial. “At that point, I just thought: F--- it. I’ve been lucky. I’ve been around for a long time. I’ve made a lot of films. That’s, I suppose, my legacy. Alright. I can live with that. I didn’t do anything wrong.” But he said after years of swimming through “that horrible molasses,” he came out much stronger.
Depp said in the press conference that he has “no further need for Hollywood.” In the interview, he said he remains intent on making more films but outside the studio system. At the same time, Depp rejected that he was ever really a movie star in the first place.
“That’s the last thing to call me,” he said. “For 20 years they never mentioned that until ‘Pirates 1.’ Oh, he’s a movie star now! We like him!”
Many have portrayed Depp’s Cannes return as an attempt to win back moviegoers after a thoroughly revealing trial. Depp says he’s not trying to convince anyone of anything. To him, there’s no such thing as an unsullied movie star.
“You mean people’s obsession that everybody must be Doris Day? Even Doris Day wasn’t Doris Day. They have to know that,” Depp said. “And Rock Hudson certainly wasn’t Rock Hudson. I can only try to offer that I feel like might be interesting or different.”