It’s a well-trodden joke that it’s inadvisable to drive in the rain in LA due to the treacherous shortcomings of the city’s motorists. In fact, it’s often stated that any precipitation can bring Tinseltown to a grinding halt. And today it has. I’m supposed to meet actress Amber Heard at one of her favourite bookstores on Sunset Strip. Heard loves bookstores. Upon arrival, however, part of Sunset Boulevard has been evacuated due to a power outage. Heard’s assistant calls: “OK so Amber is in her car. She’ll pick you up. It’s a red Mustang. You cannot miss it.”
Indeed, you can’t. The engine alone is loud enough to drown out all sound – like a jaguar residing inside her glove compartment. “In the 15 years I’ve lived here, I’ve never seen rain like this,” she says, not looking at the road. Heard keeps her eyes locked on mine at all times despite careening round the bends of Sunset Boulevard during a biblical downpour. As she negotiates with the steering wheel, her blonde wet hair slicked behind her ears, her foot visibly wrestling the brakes, it’s like a scene from a 1950s film noir. Heard’s glamour is classic and death-defying.
“She’s my baby,” she says of the car. “When I found her she was for the scrap heap. She was un-drivable!” The charisma Heard wields keeps me here, while she explains that even valet drivers regularly refuse to get behind this wheel. Does she have a name? “She does,” says Heard. “But it has to remain off-the-record…”
Heard goes off-the-record several times over our two hours. You might expect her to pause around delicate legalities concerning her divorce from Johnny Depp in 2017. In the settlement Heard received $7m, all of which she donated to ACLU and the LA Children’s Hospital following her accusations of alleged verbal and physical abuse climaxing in an incident on May 21, 2016. An image of her reddened face was released by People magazine amid claims he’d thrown a phone at her. Depp is still trying to clear his name, and is suing The Sun for branding him a “wife beater”, countering Heard’s unwavering accounts with new “evidence”.
These are not the issues upon which Heard wants to remain off-record. Rather, as we pull up to the sanctuary of the Chateau Marmont hotel, she asks that frivolous details remain private so she can maintain some smoke and mirrors. For years the paparazzi have hounded her. Heard understands why. She’s a sucker for stories. Hers is one she wants to reclaim. Today it’s hard to tell where performance ends and reality begins, such is her charm. She holds doors open, she quotes Richard Dawkins, she transitions effortlessly into perfect Spanish to address all bellboys and waiters (“Well I’m from Texas,” she explains of her fluency), she extends invites to hang out after this, even to join her in a Talmud class she takes at UCLA (“I have a really good Rabbi if you’re interested…”). The question “really?!” must escape my mouth a dozen times. “You and I would get along,” she says, always making effort to establish common ground. And yet, she’s so inviting, so well read, such an intimate conversationalist that you question how there could be any performance to this at all.
Amber Heard is an actor and an activist. “I’m a public actor,” she explains. “Action!” Yesterday she was on the border in Tijuana helping children on the front lines of Trump’s wall war. Last week she was in Paris for fashion week. Tomorrow she flies to Japan and is greeted at the airport like an international pop-star. Later this afternoon she’s readying herself for imminent public speaking engagements. “Next month alone I have 10 speeches,” she says. She is an ambassador for women’s rights with ACLU. She works with the UN. Her recent tweets have taken on the gender pay gap, the next Presidential Election and trans rights. She brought trans activist Corey Rae as her date to the Golden Globes. She came out herself as being in a same-sex relationship at the GLAAD awards back in 2010 with long-term partner and photographer Tasya van Ree. Her latest enterprise is a L’Oréal campaign.
“It’s one thing to observe a problem,” she says. “It’s a whole other to do something about it. One is a fundamentally reactive posture, the other restores a power in you. Justice is not a zero sum game. It’s a win- win. So if you’re doing what’s right for others, you’re doing what’s right for yourself. That’s how I look at everything. Will I be on the right side of history?” Heard talks as much about justice and fairness as a politician. “People ask: how do you know what’s right?” She says. “Well there are some cheats. In my short 32 years I’ve lived a lotta life. I’ve been a passenger. That’s afforded me a complex, nuanced vision. I’ve met a lot of things that help me maintain a balanced perspective; as balanced as one could be while doing my job and finding a modicum of success.”
When she was 17, Heard moved to LA to pursue acting. At the age of 32, she’s now front-and-centre in the Justice League action universe of Aquaman, playing Mera (“a strong, fierce, motivated, intelligent, proactive, kickass superhero who happens to be a woman”). Prior roles came in Drive Angry opposite Nicolas Cage (2011) and in The Rum Diary (2011) during which she met Depp. Despite her extensive hustle, however, Heard doesn’t feel widely perceived as an actor or an activist. “Often what I am known for is different from my life contributions,” she says, before adopting sarcasm. “Obviously I’m known for saving babies and being an angel saint and martyr…” She looks quizzed. “It’s like beauty and brains can’t go together. You know, your brain is as physical as your face.”
Since Depp, it’s Heard’s perceived victimhood that has threatened to overshadow her artistic and altruistic endeavours. She insists that she approaches her encounters with the media optimistically though. “It’s never felt like a battle,” she says of interviews since. “It might seem foolish that I would adopt such a chosen naiveté but as an indulgent person who likes to enjoy life, I enjoy people. I can’t enjoy people unless I trust them. So I’ve always said what I meant and meant what I said. It’s never been a problematic stance to be open.”
The other day someone called Heard “controversial” to her face. Her mother reassured her over the phone that she’s not controversial. Perhaps it’s that Heard’s celebrity — not her controversy — has smothered her purpose. It’s hard not to feel like you’re in the presence of someone when you dine with her. Inside the Chateau, everyone knows Heard but never addresses her by name. The maître d’ points out a 6PM dinner reservation. Heard reassures it’s not a mistake. She’s back later. “Don’t you know I live here now?” They laugh. She admits to relishing the fruits of her notoriety.
“I think everything’s gendered,” she says, continuing to analyse her own public image. “Our reluctance to admit that has kept us in a reactionary posture.” Digressing off-topic, Heard says she thinks of women as “endurers” by nature. “I think a lot about female and male anatomy with regards to our strength and how that’s laid the framework for behaviour. Do you like Dystopian sci-fi?”
When Heard was a young teenager in Austin, Texas, she found the works of philosopher Ayn Rand, George Orwell and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. “I discovered the magic in it,” she says. “I’d look around the room wondering: does nobody else get this? It resonated with me.” The books’ anxious questioning of the status quo left her with her own scepticism. She hazards a guess that at the age of eight she awoke to the fact that society’s expectations for her were going to be different from its expectations of men. “And I was aware that there were less reasons as to why.”
Anyone who’d argue that Heard’s politicisation conveniently chimes with these Trump times, and/or her divorce is mistaken. Heard’s search for justice ventures far back. Her first case appealing to the power of the ACLU was as a 16 year old taking a stand against her school prom who denied a same-sex couple entry. Rather than vocalise where this passion for activism stems from, she takes her hands and starts pressing down on my shoulders. “If you are happy to stay seated here then this won’t bother you,” she says, while pushing her weight on me. “But if you have to pee or leave, or if you just don’t want my fucking hands on your shoulders, then it’s a problem.” The lesson — she says — is that if she can physically pin you down, then you can retaliate in kind. “It would take a significant amount of cognitive dissonance to not realise that.”
Heard’s father would hire migrants in his small construction company, so she grew up crossing the Mexican border with him, seeing other barefoot kids her own age selling trinkets, recognising her own humble privileges. It seemed unfair. “I was born in South Central Texas by the accidental geography of miles,” she says. “I didn’t have those arms on me but I saw that they were there.”
An independent thinker, she didn’t graduate from her Catholic high school. She rejected it. “Our educational system is one of the most abhorrent, overlooked, underserved problems we’re faced with,” she rants. “Formulaic factory line education is outdated and serves only a tiny slither of people lucky enough to be born with a certain set of mental and physical proclivities at the right age, time and district.” While at school, she stirred up what she could, fighting against uniform policy. “It seemed inherently unfair to be told I had to dress a certain way,” she explains. “Why is it my burden what a boy might be distracted by? Why is it not incumbent on our young men to be taught to behave? I have been a feminist always, ever since I could make an opinion, because I’m a humanist.”
Re-composing herself, Heard explains that she adores learning but objects to how we’re socialised. “I didn’t ever look around at my social setting and go, I want to be popular in this. And thank goodness.” Travelling from the wrong side of town to school every day, Heard found it hard to make friends. “I wasn’t from the same socio-economic background. I didn’t fit in, nor did I see the need to want to.” As she says this, a group of leisurely young women at a neighbouring table call Heard over enthusiastically. “Babies!” She screams and jolts away. For five minutes or so Heard and friends effuse about weekend trips away, ear jewellery and boyfriends. She ushers me to join, like the Jack Dawson to a more new-moneyed Rose DeWitt Bukater.
Returning to the table she apologises for what she conceives as her own over- intellectualising. “I go on and on,” she says. If Heard is self-conscious about her wordiness it’s only because she wants to project an air of control over what she can and can’t say. Her male counterparts don’t think twice, of course…
In an open letter to The Washington Post last December, Heard revealed the levels of public intrusion upon her private life following the Depp fiasco. She was stalked by paparazzi and told she’d never work again in Hollywood. Arguably, it was a response to British GQ’s November cover. It featured Depp in an 8000-plus word profile titled “Johnny Depp will not be buried”. It cast doubt on Heard’s abuse allegations – allegations that were settled when the divorce was finalised in January 2017. Heard’s legal team deemed it “outrageous”. It was emblematic of cultural sexism. An institution like British GQ giving space to the male point of view just as the women’s movement makes strides to galvanise is absolutely the wrong choice.
“It’s encouraging,” says Heard of the cover. “It shows us how much work we have to do. There’s this idea that violence against women is a women’s issue. I take issue with that. Half of the homicide victims who are women die at the hands of their intimate male partners. Half!” Her eyes widen. “In many countries it’s not even seen as a civil issue but private. If nearly half the women who die on this planet by homicide are dying at the hands of their intimate partner, and if men make up a disproportionately large number of the aggressors in all of sexual and domestic violence cases then I challenge how it’s a women’s issue. That seems like a men’s issue to me.”
One of the most poignant moments in the Washington Post letter was her opening line: “I was exposed to abuse at a very young age.” It’s important to Heard that her advocacy isn’t linked to Depp, that it isn’t a path she’s chosen post-divorce. “The good and bad news is that as a woman past adolescent age, life has not been conservative in giving me examples of how much the deck is stacked against us,” she says. “It wasn’t just one thing I survived. I survived a lifetime before anything the press cared about. And I’m lucky. I’m American. I’m white. If it was this hard for me, imagine what my sisters and brothers of colour face.”
The UN is an organisation with the same love-thy-neighbour nostrum as Heard. She works with them to listen to women far less privileged than she. “Violence against women is the most prevalent, under-reported, widespread, long-lasting, endemic issue known to man,” she says. “It transcends time, race, socio-economic, geographical borders and standards.” Her major focus at the moment is on breaking down internal divisions, particularly when it comes to survivors of sexual assault, to unite female-identifying people of all cultures and creeds in order to find solutions.
“This Administration has given us a beautiful gift by serving us an overt display of the subversive ways in which we’ve been kept down for so long,” she continues, before talking directly at me like she’s staring down a camera lens. “Thank you so much to the Grabber-in-Chief and all of the opportunistic followers that have echoed his divisive, polarising and dangerous homophobic, Islamophobic, racist, xenophobic, chauvinistic rhetoric. It was nothing but a healthy wake-up call to some of the more ubiquitous and subversive realities that have kept women, people of colour and LGTBQ people in the margins for so long.”
In her work, Heard has had a lot of dialogue with survivors. What has she learned from those diverse conversations? “I’ve learned that surviving something doesn’t make you a victim,” she says. “I’ve learned that in surviving one thing you realise how much you’ve survived so many other things. The implications of that elucidate how much community you have out there.” While listening to others’ stories she’s been bamboozled as to why this hasn’t been at the forefront of discourse until now, why the momentum didn’t continue after, for example, the Suffragettes, or the Clarence Thomas scandal of the 90s. “We’ve advanced steps dramatically after those moments, but then we go back to enduring. I’m here to continue throwing myself at people. I used to pick my friends by how much much fun we had, and now my friends are people I learn from.”
Suddenly Heard notices her phone’s lit up like a Christmas tree, but she doesn’t want to cut anything short. “I’m happy to keep talking,” she says. “I just have this thing. We could drive back to my house…” One joyride in the Mustang later and we’re standing in her self-described “humble little abode”, a generously art-filled, characteristic home, oozing with as much warmth as Heard.
Before departing, a final question. How does it make her feel to be endlessly brandished a victim despite all the work she’s doing? “I’m not a victim,” she says quietly. “It’s my job to change how we see a victim.” She smiles and offers an apology. “I’m sorry. I just don’t think what happened to me with regards to anybody I’ve been with is the interesting thing. That’s why I don’t talk about it.”