Hollywood's New Screen Siren
In The Rum Diary, Amber Heard nearly steals the show from Johnny Depp as the glamorous femme fatale. She talks to Marlow Stern about her road to stardom and her decision to come out.
Midway through The Rum Diary, filmmaker Bruce Robinson’s screen adaptation of gonzo legend Hunter S. Thompson’s debut novel, a lipstick-red 1953 Corvette convertible races down the coast of San Juan, Puerto Rico. It’s a beautiful summer day. A dapper-looking Johnny Depp is at the wheel. He arches his head to his right, and his eyes soak up the breathtaking beauty in a red, skin-hugging dress riding shotgun—from her blonde hair dancing in the wind all the way down to her tan, glistening legs. In this moment, we don’t question for one second that the world’s biggest movie star would fall head over heels for this glamorous vixen.
“That was a moment where I could step outside of myself and appreciate the absurdity and incredible nature of my work,” said the mystery blonde, actress Amber Heard, in an interview with The Daily Beast. “I just might have to retire! It would have been a decent way to go out.”
Heard plays Chenault, a seductive siren caught in a love triangle with a shady real-estate tycoon, played by Aaron Eckhart, and Paul Kemp (Depp), a perpetually drunk journalist struggling to find his voice. The 25-year-old native of Austin, Texas, beat out many of Hollywood’s top actresses—including Scarlett Johansson and Keira Knightley—for the role, undergoing what she calls a “grueling” series of screen tests with Depp. It’s not hard to see why. Her timeless look, retro style, and wounded, coquettish gaze recall classic film stars like Grace Kelly.
As it happens, Heard isn’t your typical dame. She drives a 1968 Mustang—and before that, a 1963 Mercedes and a 1962 Checker Cab—dresses entirely in vintage clothes, and owns a .357 Magnum revolver (“I’m from Texas, what can you expect?” she explains matter-of-factly). She admires Lauren Bacall, citing her performance in To Have and Have Not as one of her favorites, and you’ll rarely catch her sans cherry-red lipstick.
“I think the contemporary attitude towards women, and the attitude more women have now, is certainly different, and I think there’s an instance of having lost the appreciation for style or grace,” said Heard. “I seem to be stuck in the ‘60s, and my favorite music, cars, and women’s fashion come from that era. And the sense of social rebellion. It was a good time for a lot of things.”
Heard, an avowed atheist, dabbled in a bit of social rebellion herself when, having already wrapped filming on The Rum Diary, she came out at GLAAD’s 25th anniversary party in December 2010—revealing that she’s dating her longtime partner, photographer Tasya van Ree. With the recent exception of Zachary Quinto, it’s not often you see a young actor in the prime of his or her career take a stand.
“I just decided to lift the veil of ambiguity and the shadow it creates on those in the media who choose to ‘keep it a secret’ or just simply don’t talk about it,” said Heard. “It’s still not [fully accepted] but the necessity for doing that is all the more prevalent, important, and necessary.”
Growing up in Texas, Heard has always possessed what she calls a “rebellious spirit.” Her acting career began at St. Michael’s Catholic Academy in Austin, where she participated in drama competitions where you would select a piece of material—prose, poetry, or a duet—and act it out onstage. Heard chose a duet, and acted it out with her best friend at the time.
“That was a moment for me because I got to write, direct, and produce this short play,” said Heard. “It was about two different women imprisoned in the same person”—a plot she’d later act out on the big screen in John Carpenter’s horror film The Ward. “Perhaps it was a precursor,” she chuckles.
At 16, Heard experienced her first taste of personal tragedy, losing her best friend in a car accident.
“It was a traumatic experience and it taught me what real pain is, and what real loss is,” said Heard, her voice getting very quiet. “I imagine it would be way more intense to lose a child, but for me, that was the most intense pain I had ever gone through.”
When an opportunity was presented for Heard to model in New York and strike out on her own, she took it, placing out of high school at 17 by completing dual-credit classes at a local community college, taking her SATs, and acquiring a GED. In New York, she worked as a ‘fitting model’ for various fashion labels—essentially acting as a live mannequin while designers check the fit and appearance on a real person. After stops in Miami and Europe, she landed back in Austin, Texas, in what she calls a “transitional period,” curious about what her next step would be. She discovered an acting class through her modeling agency, and loved it. Then, through her class, she found out there were auditions for a film shooting in Texas—2004’s Friday Night Lights—so she auditioned and won the role of Maria, Don Billingsley’s (Garrett Hedlund) squeeze. She also met her current agent on-set, and it was off to the races.
After supporting roles as the younger version of Charlize Theron’s sexually harassed miner in North Country and a party girl opposite Justin Timberlake and Bruce Willis in Alpha Dog, Heard was cast as the lead in CW’s TV series Hidden Palms, by Dawson’s Creek creator Kevin Williamson. The show was canceled after just eight episodes, but Heard rebounded in 2008 with back-to-back roles in the hits Pineapple Express and Never Back Down, raising her profile considerably.
Recently, she starred as a naïve Playboy bunny, Bunny Maureen, in NBC’s TV series The Playboy Club. After receiving low ratings and being savaged by critics as a slice of revisionist history—depicting Playboy bunnies as empowered females—the show was canceled after just three episodes. Heard, however, didn’t buy the critical community’s harsh view of the show.
“I think that was just sensational spin,” said Heard. “They made it seem like our show was single-handedly socially responsible for using bunnies to empower women. We were just trying to tell a story about a group of women that really did exist, and have a good time doing it.”
Since both of her big forays into TV have experienced sudden deaths, Heard is understandably reluctant to return to the small screen, saying with a laugh, “I will probably wait a while before I jump back into television.”
There’s no rush. Heard just experienced what she calls “the best experience ever” filming The Rum Diary opposite the inimitable Johnny Depp. For her birthday, Depp and director Bruce Robinson purchased Heard a bicycle and she rode it all over San Juan. “I drank lots of rum and tried not to fall off my bicycle,” she said with a laugh.
The outspoken young actress also had no problem calling out Hollywood’s biggest star when she deemed it necessary.
“He mentioned, ‘When I was on my island,’ and I stopped him, touched his arm, and said, ‘I have to bring up the absurdity of the statement you just said.’ And he said, ‘I know, I know. But it’s true!’ And I said, ‘Nonetheless, I should mention my obligation to point out how absurd it is that you can casually mention ‘your island.’” She laughs loudly, pauses, and then says plainly, “I have always been very rebellious and gone against the grain. I’ve always challenged the standards set before me.”