The author of a universally adored YA series about the triumph of good over evil is defending her decision to employ an accused domestic abuser. Welcome to Hollywood, kids.
In May 2016, actress Amber Heard filed for divorce from Johnny Depp, declaring at the time, “During the entirety of our relationship, Johnny has been verbally and physically abusive to me…I endured excessive emotional, verbal, and physical abuse from Johnny, which has included angry, hostile, humiliating, and threatening assaults to me whenever I questioned his authority or disagreed with him.” In the wake of these explosive allegations, The Daily Beast’s Kevin Fallon wrote a piece titled “Amber Heard Says Johnny Depp Beat Her. It Will Ruin His Career. Just Kidding!”, in which he argued that Depp, like so many accused A-listers before him, was destined to emerge from this scandal professionally unscathed.
Last month, Warner Bros. fulfilled the final stage of Fallon’s prophecy, confirming that Depp was slated to star in 2018’s Harry Potter prequel, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald. Subsequent posters confirmed a casting that’s almost too oblivious to be true, featuring an accused abuser who only has to answer to fictional crimes. Despite the accusations against Depp, the powers that be clearly felt that the inevitable backlash would be worth it. They bet on the star who had recently reached a $7 million divorce settlement and, unlike Heard, who split her settlement money between the American Civil Liberties Union and the Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, Depp has no stated intention of donating his massive Harry Potter paycheck to a worthy cause.
One could argue that Depp’s original casting took place in a different climate than the one we’re in now. Allegations of rape and sexual misconduct against Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein have opened the floodgates, and the established script for rehabilitating accused abusers has been rendered outdated. In the midst of #MeToo, Bad Men no longer get a free pass—right? Well, not exactly.
If Depp’s situation is at all illustrative, accused men are still eligible for major roles; only now, their employment will have to be continuously answered for. We saw this last month, when Fantastic Beasts director David Yates described the allegations against Depp as a “dead issue.”
“Honestly, there’s an issue at the moment where there’s a lot of people being accused of things, they’re being accused by multiple victims, and it’s compelling and frightening,” Yates told Entertainment Weekly. “With Johnny, it seems to me there was one person who took a pop at him and claimed something. I can only tell you about the man I see every day: He’s full of decency and kindness, and that’s all I see. Whatever accusation was out there doesn’t tally with the kind of human being I’ve been working with.”
For the record, Yates is acting as a character witness for a man who stands accused of physically and emotionally abusing his ex-wife. Plus, according to The Hollywood Reporter, Depp is an all-around terror to work with. Reporting on the Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales shoot, THR disclosed that, “Sources close to the production report tales of excessive drinking, physical fights with [Amber] Heard and constant lateness on set, which often left hundreds of extras waiting for hours at a time. Time and again, Bruckheimer, an assistant director and a flotilla of Disney executives led by production chief Sean Bailey were forced to huddle and debate how to handle their star’s tardiness.” One anonymous source confessed, “Everyone was an innocent bystander watching this train wreck.”
Naturally, the Harry Potter crowd’s decision to stick with Depp come hell or high water or intimate partner violence sparked anger and disappointment among franchise fans. J.K. Rowling, author of the original Harry Potter books and both Fantastic Beasts screenplays, was quickly called upon to justify keeping Depp onboard, given her history of championing progressive causes on social media. She was less than receptive to fans’ concerns.
One woman, who goes by Lindsey B on social media, tweeted in November that she had been blocked by Rowling for even questioning Depp’s casting, along with a screenshot proving she no longer had access to the author’s tweets. The day before, Lindsey had tweeted the following at Rowling: “So if I understand correctly the actor who played Crabbe, a minor character, was fired from Harry Potter for doing drugs. Yet Johnny Depp, who abused his wife, gets a major role in your movies? Correct me if I’m wrong.” After sharing the screenshot, Lindsey wrote, “Me: correct me if I’m wrong JK: *blocks me*…I guess I wasn’t wrong.”
Of course, the longer Rowling waited to release an official statement, the clearer it became that Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald would probably proceed as planned. Today, the author finally spoke out and, as expected, confirmed that the prequel still intends to feature Depp front and center.
“When Johnny Depp was cast as Grindelwald, I thought he’d be wonderful in the role,” Rowling began, in a statement posted on her website. “However, around the time of filming his cameo in the first movie, stories had appeared in the press that deeply concerned me and everyone most closely involved in the franchise.”
“For me personally, the inability to speak openly to fans about this issue has been difficult, frustrating and at times painful,” the author continued. “However, the agreements that have been put in place to protect the privacy of two people, both of whom have expressed a desire to get on with their lives, must be respected. Based on our understanding of the circumstances, the filmmakers and I are not only comfortable sticking with our original casting, but genuinely happy to have Johnny playing a major character in the movies.”
“I accept that there will be those who are not satisfied with our choice of actor in the title role,” she concluded. “However, conscience isn’t governable by committee. Within the fictional world and outside it, we all have to do what we believe to be the right thing.”
On the one hand, Rowling has inarguably found herself in a difficult position, and it’s hard to watch as female creators are asked to answer for the alleged misconduct and immorality of their male collaborators. In her statement, Rowling acknowledges the seriousness of the allegations against Depp, and appears to have taken the pressure to potentially recast seriously. But, make no mistake: she is supporting and defending Johnny Depp. And, in doing so, she is calling his accuser’s testimony into question.
The most damning sentence here is when Rowling cites “our understanding of the circumstances” to justify the fact that she is “genuinely happy” with Depp’s starring role; it sounds like she’s implying that, if we knew what she knew, we would feel comfortable dismissing Heard’s story too. Rowling is, finally, saying “I believe you”—but the person she’s acknowledging in this scenario is Johnny Depp, not Amber Heard.
At the end of the day, it’s difficult to denounce a friend or rethink an actor’s casting mid-production—it’s emotionally taxing and potentially costly. But it’s the right thing to do, and any attempts to defend an accused abuser will come across to many as cowardly, no matter how self-reflective or articulate the statement. Given Rowling’s full-throated defense of Depp’s casting—again, she’s not just “comfortable” with it, she’s “genuinely happy”—it seems that the brunt of her internal agony surrounding this situation was over the bad optics of employing an accused abuser, not the decision itself. Instead of placating critics, it seems inevitable that Rowling’s statement will only further fuel the backlash.