Depp vs Heard: Inside the explosive trial at the heart of Channel 4’s documentary

A new documentary about the fraught legal battles between Hollywood actors Johnny Depp and Amber Heard will air on Channel 4 this weekend.

Depp vs Heard is a three-part series from Bafta-nominated director Emma Cooper, and investigates the defamation trial brought by Depp against his ex-wife last year, which gripped viewers for three months. The documentary is being billed as the first “in-depth” look at the case, which Depp won on 2 June 2022.

Dubbed the world’s first “Tik Tok trial”, the legal battle – which was broadcast live – raised a number of questions about justice in the post-truth era, as well as the way society treats accusations of domestic violence. Depp vs Heard will blend courtroom footage with news sources, interview footage, and user-generated content to explore some of the trial’s biggest moments.

Depp and Heard were once considered one of Hollywood’s most glamorous couples. They are believed to have begun dating in 2012, after Depp split from his longtime partner, the French actor and singer Vanessa Paradis. She and Depp share two children, son Jack and daughter Lily-Rose.

Depp, a film star known for his role as Captain Jack Sparrow in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, as well as his many collaborations with director Tim Burton, met Heard on the set of 2011 film The Rum Diary, in which they both starred.

He confirmed their engagement in 2014, joking during promotion for his film Trancendence that the “chick’s ring” he was wearing was “probably a dead giveaway”. He and Heard married the following year, reportedly with one ceremony at Depp’s LA home and another on his private island in the Bahamas.

A year later, in 2016, Heard filed for divorce and was granted a restraining order by a judge due to allegations of domestic violence on his part. Depp denied the allegations, and his lawyers accused Heard of “attempting to secure a premature financial resolution by alleging abuse”.

A settlement was reached by the former couple in January 2017, with representatives for each stating that they were pleased to be able to “move on” with their lives. Heard withdrew the restraining order, and she and Depp released a joint statement stating that their relationship was “intensely passionate and periodically volatile, but always bound by love. Neither party has made false accusations for financial gain. There was never any intent of physical or emotional harm.”

Just over a year later, however, Depp sued The Sun’s publisher News Group Newspapers for alleged libel, over an article published in April 2018 that featured the headline: “Gone Potty: How can JK Rowling be ‘genuinely happy’ casting wife beater Johnny Depp in the new Fantastic Beasts film?”

Depp lost the case in 2020, with Justice Andrew Nicol saying the defendants proved their allegations were “substantially true”. The actor was denied permission to appeal the case.

Johnny Depp and his ex-wife Amber Heard (Jonathan Brady/PA) (PA Wire)
Johnny Depp and his ex-wife Amber Heard (Jonathan Brady/PA) (PA Wire)

Around the same time as Depp’s lawsuit against The Sun’s publishers, in 2018, an op-ed by Heard was published by The Washington Post, titled: “I spoke up against sexual violence – and faced our culture’s wrath. That has to change.”

Heard did not name Depp in the article, but spoke of how, in 2016, she became “a public figure representing domestic abuse, and I felt the full force of our culture’s wrath for women who speak out”. Depp’s $50m lawsuit against Heard accused her of defaming him, with the complaint calling any claim of domestic abuse “categorically and demonstrably false”. Heard then filed a $100m countersuit, accusing Depp of orchestrating a “smear campaign” against her.

Depp v Heard went to trial in Fairfax, Virginia, on 11 April 2022. Over six weeks, viewers were glued to the livestream, with Law&Crime Network reporting audience figures of 9 million each day, and CourtTV saying its viewership had “practically quadrupled”.

Depp and Heard during the defamation trial (AP)
Depp and Heard during the defamation trial (AP)

Meanwhile, social media was flooded with clips of Depp and Heard, along with their respective attorneys and witnesses, taking the stand. Viral moments included Depp being amused by the description of him drinking a supposed “mega pint” of wine, and his lawyer Camilla Vasquez achieved internet fame of her own. Heard, meanwhile, gave emotional testimony where she made allegations of physical and sexual abuse against Depp, which he denied.

Depp won the case against Heard on 1 June 2022, after two days of deliberating by the jury, and was awarded compensatory damages of $10m dollars (£8m) and a further $5m dollars (£4m) in punitive damages.

Following the verdict, Depp said in a statement that he was “humbled” that the jury had “given me my life back”.

“From the very beginning, the goal of bringing this case was to reveal the truth, regardless of the outcome,” he said. “Speaking the truth was something that I owed to my children and to all those who have remained steadfast in their support of me. I feel at peace knowing I have finally accomplished that.”

He continued: “I am, and have been, overwhelmed by the outpouring of love and the colossal support and kindness from around the world.

“I hope that my quest to have the truth be told will have helped others, men or women, who have found themselves in my situation, and that those supporting them never give up.

“I also hope that the position will now return to innocent until proven guilty, both within the courts and in the media.”

Amber Heard outside court following the jury’s verdict in favour of her ex-husband, Johnny Depp (Getty Images)
Amber Heard outside court following the jury’s verdict in favour of her ex-husband, Johnny Depp (Getty Images)

Depp was not present for the verdict, having joined musician Jeff Beck onstage for three nights in the UK.

Heard, who was present, was awarded $2m (£1.6m) in damages after her counterclaim against Depp over comments made by his lawyer Adam Waldman, who allegedly referred to her abuse claims as a “hoax,” was also found to be defamatory.

Following the verdict, the actor said she was “heartbroken”, but “even even more disappointed with what this verdict means for other women”.

“The disappointment I feel today is beyond words,” she said in a statement delivered outside the courthouse. “I’m heartbroken that the mountain of evidence still was not enough to stand up to the disproportionate power, influence, and sway of my ex-husband.

“I’m even more disappointed with what this verdict means for other women.”

Since the trial, Depp has been embarking on a career comeback, and appeared at Cannes Film Festival this week to promote Jeanne du Barry, his first feature film in three years.

Amber Heard was recently pictured in Madrid with her two-year-old daughter, Oonagh, amid unverified reports that she is planning on stepping away from the film industry. She is next set to appear in DC’s Aquaman sequel opposite Jason Momoa in the title role. The film is scheduled for release later this year.

The first episode of Depp vs Heard will air on Channel 4 on Sunday 21 May at 9pm. The following episodes will air on Monday 22 May at 10pm, and Tuesday 23 May at 10pm.