What defences of Johnny Depp in Fantastic Beasts tell us about Hollywood post-Weinstein

Clearly, Hollywood still finds allegations of domestic violence easier to swallow than workplace harassment.   

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The debate about Johnny Depp’s casting as Grindelwald in the Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them franchise rages on. A quick recap: Depp was cast as Grindelwald a few years ago, but it was kept under wraps, as his casting was part of a big twist at the end of the first film.

But last summer, just before Fantastic Beasts was released, Amber Heard, his now ex-wife, accused Depp of domestic abuse. Videos of Depp throwing bottles and glasses and shouting at Heard, photos of Heard’s bruises, and text exchanges between Heard and Depp’s manager, all made their way into the press. The couple later released a joint statement saying neither party had lied for financial gain and that there was “never any intent of physical or emotional harm”. 

The latest developments come as the press for the second Fantastic Beasts film, The Crimes of Grindelwald kicks into gear. The title, and images of Depp in character, reignited a debate over whether someone accused of domestic abuse should be given such a high-profile role, especially in a progressive children’s franchise. Depp has continuously denied all allegations since the divorce as salacious false stories”. 

On Tuesday, in an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Fantastic Beasts director David Yates explicitly defended Depp’s character, calling the concerns of audiences “a dead issue”. Yates attempted to positively contrast the allegations against Depp’s with those made against Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey.

“Honestly, there’s an issue at the moment where there’s a lot of people being accused of things,” he said. “[But] with Johnny, it seems to me there was one person who took a pop at him and claimed something.

“It’s very different [to instances] where there are multiple accusers over many years that need to be examined and we need to reflect on our industry that allows that to roll on year in and year out. Johnny isn’t in that category in any shape or form. So to me, it doesn’t bear any more analysis. It's a dead issue.”

Yates also seemed to find it relevant that he has had no direct experience of Depp being abusive towards him. He added: “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.”

It’s an interesting departure from Yates’s previous take on the issue, which emphasised Depp’s talent over his private actions, separating art from artist. “The whole principal of casting the movie was go with the best actor,” he said last year. “In this business, it’s a weird old business. You’re brilliant one week, people are saying odd things the next, you go up and down. But no one takes away your pure talent. Johnny Depp is a real artist.”

It’s possible that after the widely commended decisions from studios and directors to have both Harvey Wenstein and Kevin Spacey removed from their cinematic projects, Yates has felt the need to change tack. Instead of saying that the personal actions of an actor are irrelevant to their professional roles – an argument that Hollywood and the public seem to have moved beyond – he tries to separate Depp from those men by emphasising the differences in the actions themselves.

In 2016, J K Rowling simply said of Depp’s casting,“I’m delighted. He’s done incredible things with that character,” again ensuring the focus stayed solely on talent rather than Depp’s character as a colleague or friend.

Those comments cause some controversy, and in the days after, she tweeted a couple of cryptic quotes seemingly referencing the situation. First, “’Those only who can bear the truth will hear it.’ - Arthur Helps”. Then, “Arguments cannot be answered by personal abuse; there is no logic in slander, and falsehood, in the long run, defeats itself - R G Ingersoll”. When a fan messaged her to say, “We know you'd never support abuse”, Rowling, whose first husband Jorge Arantes has admitted to acting abusively, replied “Thank you x”. It’s impossible to say from these quotes what her position actually is. Is the “truth” she references a belief that Depp is not really an abuser? Or is she hinting that she would like to re-cast the role, or condemn Depp’s casting, but is contractually unable to?

Since then, she’s been silent on the issue. Although Rowling’s actual thoughts on the situation are unclear, supporters of Depp see these cryptic tweets, the casting, and her general lack of condemnation of Depp, as evidence that she supports him. If you look up the hashtags #JohnnyDeppIsInnocent and #JohnnyDeppIsMyGrindelwald, J K Rowling immediately appears as a related person and related search term, as so many Depp supporters are mentioning the two in the same breath – either thanking J K Rowling for her support, or using her name to argue that Depp must be innocent if even J K Rowling herself thinks so. Some have even used the hashtag #JohnnyDeppIsJKRowlingsGrindelwald.

Domestic violence is by nature a more difficult crime to discuss that serial instances of documented workplace sexual harassment – it happens at home, with few or no witness, to people in complex existing romantic relationships.

In Amber Heard’s own words, “When it happens in your home, behind closed doors, with someone you love, it’s not as straightforward as if a stranger did this.” Clearly, Hollywood still finds allegations of domestic violence easier to swallow than workplace harassment.   

Anna Leszkiewicz is the New Statesman's deputy culture editor.