My ex-boyfriend and I had a fight in front of Amber Heard, and she took my side. Hang on, hang on. Let me start over.
I am in Los Angeles to meet the actress for lunch. Your standard celebrity-profile lunch. The arrangement is fairly routine: I was afforded 90 minutes to meet a famous actress, talk about her role in _____ (in this case, Justice League and Aquaman), get to know her, get to know her well, and, ultimately, define her character and convey who she is as a human in 3,000 words or less. Reductive? Absolutely. Actually possible? I had my doubts.
Heard is running late — traffic on the 101, you know how it is — so I have a pre-interview glass of wine. When she arrives, we choose a table outside and settle into the approximated anonymity of a leafy patio and blazing sun. Dressed in a black linen dress and a black hat, she could almost go unnoticed. Almost. Up close, she has that glowy movie star complexion that radiates fame. (I later learn that the radiation is also due to Becca highlighter and Chanel concealer.) She wears lots of earrings — five in one ear, three in the other — and rings and bracelets and nothing matches and it’s all this cool, eclectic, la vie bohème jumble. I instantly want to be her.
Also, her right hand is covered in a huge white bandage. So I open with: “HiNiceToMeetYouWhatTheHell HappenedToYourHand.” (Glass of wine, empty stomach, don’t judge.)
“Turns out that decorative plastic trees are almost as flammable as their organic counterparts,” she says wryly. “I’m renting a place in Australia [while filming Aquaman], and it has one of those trees — and my assistant was lighting candles.” Pause. “I like a lot of fire around me.” (OK, reader, I know what you’re thinking: Was she speaking literally or metaphorically? I don’t know! Maybe I knew! I kind of had a hunch! But I couldn’t tell for sure!) “I smelled something burning, and the next second the whole house was full of black smoke.”
Heard clicks into superhero mode. “I’m rushing to the kitchen; I’m soaking towels; I’m yelling at the people who are blowing on the fire and making it worse. There were little pools of molten plastic that had coagulated — effectively, little bonfires under the tree. I managed to put out the fire quickly, but what I didn’t notice is I had my hand underneath a source of dripping plastic. I thought it was ash or debris. I basically napalmed myself.”
Then story becomes parable: “You know you’re getting too good at putting out fires when you notice others’ ineptitude. It’s starting to cause me worry. Why am I so good at this?” Perhaps not surprisingly, “My friends call me Calamity.”
Calamity lets me sit with that one for a minute as 10,000 questions rush to the front of my brain. That’s when the waiter shows up. She orders a glass of 2015 Walt Santa Rita Hills pinot noir. I see no reason to stand on ceremony. “How about a bottle?”
Let’s pause for a brief recap on Amber Heard, Famous Actress: She’s from Texas and moved to Los Angeles when she was 17. Her first major movie role was Friday Night Lights, and her first leading role was All the Boys Love Mandy Lane. She starred in Drive Angry opposite Nicolas Cage and The Rum Diary opposite Johnny Depp. This month, she plays Mera in Justice League and then will reprise the role in Aquaman.
To get into (insanely good) shape for Mera, “I trained with Gunnar Peterson here in L.A.,” she says. “I’d wake up, train, eat my hard-boiled egg and some kale and then go stunt or martial arts training. I spent about five hours of my day training. For my next movie I should be in sweatpants.” I ask Heard if she ever feels like she has an absurd life. “I have that moment a lot,” she says. “When I’m suspended over a set in a bright blue Lycra onesie attached to these wires and a harness and I’m flying over the ocean and I’m asking questions like ‘Have I already done my hydrokinesis or are we speaking in a bubble?’ ” Yes, there is a lot of fantasy. But there’s also reality. Falling under basic facts about Amber Heard: She was married to Johnny Depp. Past tense.
If you’ve read anything about the 31-year-old actress in the past couple of years, aside from the news of her recent breakup with Elon Musk, you have read that she was a victim of domestic violence in a previous relationship, which is an antiseptic way of saying that she was beaten. And when your husband is maybe the most famous actor in the world, things get complicated. Which is an antiseptic way of saying torturous. After denials and failed attempts to destroy Heard’s credibility, Johnny Depp paid her $7 million. She has donated all of it to the ACLU and the Children’s Hospital Los Angeles.
As a famous person — and a person who has been on the receiving end of domestic violence — is it incumbent upon her to help others? Does she have to use her power for good?
“I don’t have to; I have to. If I didn’t have a platform, I would stand on my toes,” says Amber. (I’m switching to her first name now because, come on, we’re talking about some heavy shit.) “I have a semifunctioning brain and a semifunctioning limbic system, and as a human being, it is incumbent on me to make the world a better place in any small, insignificant way I can. I’ve always tried to do the right thing. I used everything I was given. I had to make it better for the next person.”
When you’re talking to Amber Heard, she’s incredibly focused; she’s a fiercely deep listener, like she’s staring into your soul. It’s easy to assume a connection with her. And yes, I know this is what movie stars do for a living, but with her, it just feels real. There’s nothing disingenuous here.
Whatever happened between her and her former husband is not what gave rise to her sense of justice. “I have supported the ACLU since I was 16,” she says. “When I was growing up, my friends had ’N Sync posters, and I collected feminist propaganda from World War II. Our mothers and grandmothers worked to make an environment that was deceptively comfortable. I took it for granted. By comparison to other places or previous generations, we’re doing great. Yeah, sure, there have been some sexist things here.” She shakes her head at her own naïveté. “I was so wrong. I was so fucking wrong.”
There’s no way to talk about misogyny or feminism without addressing the current national discourse. Whether you think Harvey Weinstein and Donald Trump and Roger Ailes and Bill Cosby are predators, superpredators, or, you know, just…misunderstood, you can’t deny that women’s rights are the subject of a national dialogue in 2017. Amber, as you might imagine, has something to say about that.
“Before the Grabber in Chief, before the reeling back that we collectively had as women, I had already had my own reeling back. I had already realized the roots of misogyny reach far deeper and are far more ubiquitous.” Just to be clear: Amber is not talking about society in general; this shit is personal. “I didn’t realize that until about a year and a half ago. I had been living with my head in the sand because I was comparing it to other places or to the past. I did not realize how far we have to go to be equal. [And by equal] I mean fair.”
Yes, there are people who will say, “Boo-hoo, the millionaire Hollywood actress is sad — give me a break.” And to those people, I would say this: She was born poor, and whatever happened, she is where she is now. She has just as much right to be an injured person as anyone else. (Amber, if you’re reading this, I did not just call you a victim. There’s not a drop of victim in the woman.) As she puts it, “Same shit, nicer furniture.”
To give her a break from talking about anything uncomfortable or difficult (something the best reporters always try to do!), I ask what she’s reading. You want to know what she’s reading? Currently, Cleopatra: A Life. Yesterday, she read a biography of Catherine the Great. The day before she read a history of the Romanovs: “I fully recommend the Romanovs. You cannot create more salacious, incredible, unbelievable page-turning fiction than that of the history of the czars.” Who cares about the history of the czars because this woman reads a dense, historical nonfiction tome a day. “I have a lot of downtime on set.”
OK, fine, back to salacious: Does she identify as bisexual? As soon as the question is out of my mouth I feel like an idiot. “I don’t identify as anything.” As tempted as I may be to explain Amber’s sexuality, I’m going to let her do it:
“I’m a person. I like who I like. I happened to be dating a woman, and people started taking pictures of us walking to our car after dinner. I [was] holding her hand, and I realized that I have two options: I can let go of her hand and, when asked about it, I can say that my private life is my private life. Or I could not let go and own it.” Guess what she did.
That’s when the Hollywood Industrial Complex rumbled to life.
“Everyone told me: ‘You cannot do this.’ I had played opposite Nicolas Cage [in one movie], and in another I was playing opposite Johnny. And everyone said, ‘You’re throwing it all away. You can’t do this to your career.’ And I said, ‘I cannot do this any other way. Watch me.’ ” At this point, I decide with absolute certainty never to cross her.
“They pointed to no other working romantic lead, no other actress, that was out. I didn’t come out. I was never in. It’s limiting, that LGBTQ thing. It served a function as an umbrella for marginalized people to whom rights were being denied, but it loses its efficacy because of the nuanced nature of humanity. As we become more educated and expand the facts of our nature, we keep adding letters. It was a great shield, but now we’re stuck behind it. It’s so important to resist labels. I don’t care how many letters you add. At some point, it’s going to spell ‘WE ARE HUMAN.’ ”
I pour more wine. I start to see Amber as my sage. A woman who is a generous, open soul; a compatriot; a fellow traveler. She rummages through her bag for lip balm and can’t find any. I offer her my Yves Saint Laurent Rouge Volupté Shine Oil-in-Stick Ready to Care & Shine Lip Colour and Oh My God How Is This Name Still Going On. I tell her to keep it. It’s what best friends do.
“Equality shouldn’t be up for debate,” she says earnestly. “Are you for equal treatment of persons? I’ll let you think about it,” she says, the opposite of earnestly.
“History tends to favor those on the right side of it. Whether it’s civil rights in 1962 or suffrage in 1914 or gay rights in 2007. All of these debates seemed specific at the time, but if you pull back to the macro, there’s a trend: fairness. Justice is not as nuanced or delicate as it’s made out to be. And as the texture of our culture changes, [equality] will manifest differently in our debates.”
We are well past our allotted time. More than likely, there’s another bottle of pinot noir. But really, when you’re as close as we are, when conversation flows this freely, when everything is this fluid, how can you quantify something as pedestrian as bottles of wine? By now, I am certain of one thing: Amber Heard is my soul mate. What can I say? The heart wants what the heart wants.
Behind me, a young woman in a long, flowing bright orange skirt and purple heels walks into the restaurant. Amber does something I’ve never seen a famous person do. She calls out to her: “I love your skirt! You look beautiful!”
It’s a nice moment, a gracious gesture. And I point out that we, all women, don’t tell one another enough that we are beautiful.
“It’s true. We don’t,” she says, pausing in a way that (I am learning) means she is about to tacitly disagree. “I was wired from an early age: I don’t want to be the princess. I want to be the prince. I want to do the fun stuff. I would rather be brave or smart than pretty.”
Easy for the pretty girl to say that, I say.
“They’re not mutually exclusive, my face and my brain. We have this medulla approach to humanity. We separate the soul from the body.” Well, we do and we don’t. I point out the adage that you get the face you deserve at 50.
“What an honor to grow into your face,” she says, “to have the things that aren’t ephemeral speak the loudest.”
There’s a running narrative in Amber’s life. I’ll call it the Adjective Problem. I ask her, a former model, a remarkably trite but crucial question: Is being called beautiful problematic?
“[As a kid,] seeing princesses in my books called beautiful was frustrating. I found the same frustration in Hollywood. I read 5 to 10 scripts a week, and 4 out of 5 have nothing else to say about the female lead. Always the same adjectives: beautiful or sexy or some version of it. I started saying to my agents, ‘Don’t send me scripts where the first adjective in the female description is “beautiful.” And if the second is “enigmatic,” throw it in the trash.’ The word ‘enigmatic’ means ‘Her backstory doesn’t matter.’ I fell for that so many times.”
What’s the first adjective for the male lead?
“There isn’t one — it depends on the movie and the story. And that’s the key.” Her voice drops, presumably mimicking how a script would sound if it came to life. “Rugged. Man has seen action in his day. He’s used to giving orders and not taking them.” Then she’s Amber again. “There are these nuanced descriptions of what would be called a character. Women aren’t afforded the same luxury. When I first came here, and being young and on my own and having a Southern accent — I was just treated much dumber than they normally treat you, which is really saying something. I love being told I’m smart, but can you imagine saying that to a guy?”
That’s when the ex-boyfriend (also my ride) arrives to pick me up. Only I have no plans to ever leave this table. Which is how I arrive at a very weird moment: fighting with an ex who, until the day before, I hadn’t seen in 18 years while a famous actress plays referee.
Alex (at this point I’ll give him a name): “You’re mad because I called someone a pussy.” Me (remembering why we broke up): “I don’t accept female-anatomy slang as a synonym for weakness. Amber, do you ever say it?” Amber (diplomatic yet decisive and lovely in every way): “My dad taught me to break horses, and he’d yell at me, ‘Don’t be such a pussy!’ I was like, ‘Dad, I’m eight.’ No, I don’t say it. I don’t equate anything feminine with being weak.”
Eventually, it really is time to leave. I consider this smart, beautiful woman across the table. In 31 years, she has gone through a lot. And a whole bunch of it has sucked, and a whole bunch of it is because she’s famous. I ask her if she has any regrets.
“I’m bad with regrets,” she says. And then she explains the one thing that has driven everything else. “I want to squeeze the juice from the motherfucking orange. I was given one orange. You have one life, and I just couldn’t, I just can’t imagine not squeezing every ounce of juice I could possibly get from it. Is there anything worse than a life not lived? If I could write one honest sentence, it would be this: I have not wasted a single second.”