The Trouble With Johnny Depp

By , Polling Stone

Multimillion-dollar lawsuits, a haze of booze and hash, a marriage gone very wrong and a lifestyle he can’t afford – inside the trials of Johnny Depp

Johnny Depp isn’t here yet. Still, his presence is all around the 10,500-square-foot rented mansion at 16 Bishopswood Road in London’s Highgate neighborhood.

He is here in the busy hands of Russell, his personal chef working up the Peking duck. He is here in the stogie-size joint left by the sink in the guest bathroom. He is here in the never-ending reservoir of wine that is poured into goblets. And he is here in a half-done painting upstairs that features a burning black house, a child Johnny and an angry woman who resembles his mother, Betty Sue.

Depp has come from a photo shoot for the Hollywood Vampires, his sometime band that features Alice Cooper and Joe Perry. Trailing behind is his lawyer Adam Waldman. Depp is dressed like a Forties gangster, jet-black hair slicked back, pinstripes, suspenders and spats. His face is puffy, but Depp still possesses the fixating brown eyes that have toggled between dreamy and menacing during his 35-year career. Now, Depp’s studious leer is reminiscent of late-era Marlon Brando. This isn’t a coincidence, since Depp has long built his life by imitating his legends – buying an island like Brando, becoming an expert on quaaludes like Hunter S. Thompson.

“Hey, I’m Johnny. Good to meet you.”

He reaches out a right hand whose fingers recently had their tats changed from “slim” – a reference to his ex-wife Amber Heard – to “scum.”

“So are you here to hear the truth?” asks Depp as Russell brings him a glass of vintage red wine. “It’s full of betrayal.”

This goes on for 72 hours.

It had taken a month and almost 200 e-mails for the message to become clear: Come to London; Johnny Depp wants to bare his soul about his empty bank accounts.

It’s estimated that Depp has made $650 million on films that netted $3.6 billion. Almost all of it is gone. He’s suing The Management Group, run by his longtime business manager, Joel Mandel, and his brother Robert for negligence, breach of fiduciary duty and fraud. The suit cites, among other things, that under TMG’s watch Depp’s sister Christi was given $7 million and his assistant, Nathan Holmes, $750,000, without his knowledge, and that he has paid the IRS more than $5.6 million in late fees. (Most of the ire is directed toward Joel, who had day-to-day responsibility for Depp’s account.) There are additional charges of conflict of interest, saying that TMG invested Depp’s money for its own purposes and returned it without profit. The suit seeks more than $25 million from TMG, accounting for “tens of millions” it claims TMG illegally took for its commission, plus any additional damages the court sees fit.

The Mandels categorically deny all wrongdoing and are countersuing, alleging that Depp breached his oral contract with the company. The suit suggests that Depp has a $2-million-a-month compulsory-spending disorder, offering bons mots like “Wine is not an investment if you drink it as soon as you buy it.” Depp was continuing to “concoct malicious and false allegations” against the company, according to TMG’s countersuit, because TMG had filed a private foreclosure notice on one of Depp’s properties, claiming Depp owes TMG $4.2 million in unpaid loans.

Over the past 18 months, there has been little but bad news for Depp. In addition to the financial woes, there were reports he couldn’t remember his lines and had to have them fed to him through an earpiece. He had split from his longtime lawyer and agent. And he was alone. His tabloid-scarred divorce from actress Heard is complete, but not before there were persuasive allegations of physical abuse that Depp vehemently denies. Depp’s inner circle had begged him to not wed Heard or to at least obtain a prenup. Depp ignored his loved ones’ advice. And there were whispers that Depp’s recreational drug and alcohol use were crippling him.

Depp seems oblivious to any personal complicity in his current predicament. Waldman seems to have convinced Depp that they are freedom fighters taking on the Hollywood machine rather than scavengers squabbling over the scraps of a fortune squandered.

One day, Depp shows me his artwork, and it strikes me that Depp is now a worn Dorian Gray. “I imagine Johnny doing a version of Jack Sparrow at 70, at 80,” his friend Penélope Cruz tells me. “It will be as charming and as great.” But the things that were charming when he was 28 – doing drugs and running around the scaffolding on a high floor of Atlantic Records’ L.A. building – seem disturbing at 54. (Cruz ends our conversation by telling me about Depp trying to pull his own tooth at a London restaurant while having dinner with her and Stella McCartney.)

Maybe being a permanent Peter Pan is the key to Depp’s onscreen charm. But time has passed. Boyish insouciance has slowly morphed into an aging man-child, still charismatic but only in glimpses. If his current life isn’t a perfect copy of Elvis Presley’s last days, it is a decent facsimile.

Depp goes quiet, perhaps realizing the sadness of what he has just said. He wipes his eyes. “I loved him,” he says.

We sit down for dinner, and I ask if he remembers the first big purchase he made when he started making money. He rolls another joint that he first passes to me and then to Waldman. He wants me to know it wasn’t a Ferrari, but a house for his mama.

“My mom was born in a fucking holler in eastern Kentucky,” says Depp. “Her poor fucking ass was on phenobarbital at 12.”

Depp grew up the youngest of four, raised mostly by his mother, Betty Sue. His father was a civil engineer, but largely absent. They lived first in Kentucky and then Florida, moving, according to Depp, more than 40 times. His mom hurled things, but she was still his mom. “Yeah, there were irrational beatings,” says Depp. “Maybe it’s an ashtray coming your way. Maybe you’re gonna get clunked with the phone.” Depp pauses. “It was a ghost house – no one talked. I don’t think there ever was a way I thought about people, especially women, other than ‘I can fix them.’ ”

“Betty Sue, I worshiped her,” says Depp, but his smile quickly fades. “She could be a real bitch on wheels.” He tells me what he said at her 2016 funeral: “My mom was maybe the meanest human being I have ever met in my life.”

After buying the house for his mom, Depp treated himself to a 1940 Harley-Davidson, which he still owns. From 1986 to 2006, he made 32 movies, showing a once-in-a-generation range from Edward Scissorhands – beginning a lifelong collaboration with director Tim Burton – to an acclaimed portrayal of an undercover cop in Donnie Brasco.

Depp acquired a taste for the grandiose life along the way. He bought the Viper Room in the early 1990s, an old speakeasy once frequented by Bugsy Siegel, and turned it into a small rock club where everyone from Guns N’ Roses to Johnny Cash played. He suffered through the death of his friend River Phoenix from an overdose at the club, amid wild claims in the supermarket rags that he’d delivered the fatal dose to Phoenix himself. “Imagine living with that,” says Depp, his eyes clouding over.

He chafed against playing the standard, dashing Hollywood hero. An adviser yelled at him when he took the title role in Ed Wood.

“The guy told me, ‘Johnny, it is not about you doing black-and-white movies about a cross-dressing, D-movie director – it’s about fucking the girl and carrying the gun,’ ” Depp says. “ ‘You need to fuck the girl, and you need to carry a gun.’ ”

I try to probe deeper, but Depp is restless. The mansion is spookily quiet. It’s now three or four o’clock in the morning, and his cook and security guards have all retired. Despite the hour, Depp’s mind is a space-ball ricochet, moving through a random series of flashcards of his life. There was an incident last year at the Glastonbury Festival, where he asked, perhaps drunkenly, “Can we bring Trump here? . . . When was the last time an actor assassinated a president?” Depp was roasted in the press. “I was trying to connect it to Trump saying he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue, but it didn’t come out right,” says Depp with a shrug.

He moves to the couches in the living room and flips on the television. Depp has an affinity bordering on obsession with the bons vivants who had their late prime in the 1970s, whether it is Marlon Brando, Hunter S. Thompson or Don Rickles. “Rickles was the bravest comedian ever,” says Depp. “He’d say anything.” As proof, he finds a video of Rickles on a Dean Martin celebrity roast, turning to boxer Sugar Ray Robinson: “I want to thank Sugar Ray Robinson, who said to Rocky Graziano, ‘Hey, baby, you’re hurting me.’ Sugar Ray is a great champion. Sugar, we would ask you to talk, but you know the blacks, your lips lock.”

“Jesus,” says Waldman.

Depp insists it’s ballsy, not offensive. I mumble, “I don’t know about that.” Depp isn’t paying attention. He considers himself a funny man and tells me how in one of the early Pirates of the Caribbean movies Sparrow washes ashore and mumbles an incoherent curse.

“I say ‘Dirty Sanchez,’ ” says Depp, using slang for an obscene sex act. “Before the DVD, they dropped it out.”

Depp has a great affinity for Sparrow, whose persona is borrowed from Keith Richards, another Depp idol. He’s protective of the character and claims he battled with Disney screenwriters repeatedly.

“Why must you have these fucking heinous subplots?” asks Depp. “It’s convoluted. There is not a fucking soul that wants to see Captain Jack Sparrow sad.”

 He flips through the news and comes across a report on Harvey Weinstein. He shakes his head and calls him an asshole for burying his film Dead Man because director Jim Jarmusch refused to give up his contractually mandated final cut. “He was a bully,” says Depp. “Have you seen his wife? It’s not a wide range. It’s not like he went, ‘I must go to the Poconos to find some hairy-backed bitch.’ ”

Depp pauses, ruminating on whether he is being unkind. He mentions that once he tagged along as Weinstein was picking up his kid from school and that he could tell Weinstein really loved her. “The image that took my breath away was Harvey Weinstein, a goliath Shrek thing, bending down to put on his daughter’s raincoat.”

Outside, the London dark is giving way to a gloaming predawn. Everyone is exhausted except for Depp. He disappears for a few minutes and returns reanimated, and then proclaims that we have to watch his good friend Marilyn Manson’s “KILL4ME” video, starring Depp in a series of lewd poses with barely clad women. Depp cranks the television’s volume and shouts above the industrial guitars, “Marilyn’s the best. He’s such a good friend. He’s played Barbies with my daughter.” Waldman groans at the Manson music and buries his head under a pile of throw pillows. This doesn’t dissuade Depp, who turns the sound up until the screen reads 99.

“What the fuck?”

Depp laughs.

“That’s just one of my security guys. He’s got the flu. He’ll make sure you get out safely,” he says and gives me a half-hug.

“We’ll talk injustice tomorrow.”

It was Adam Waldman who first contacted Rolling Stone about writing a story about the injustice being done to Depp’s reputation and bottom line. He pointed to what he perceived to be an anti-Depp story in the Hollywood Reporter, where the Mandels were cast as eminently reasonable men who repeatedly tried to warn Depp about his precarious financial positioning. Nobody from TMG was quoted, but Waldman was convinced its fingerprints were all over the story.

Waldman made it clear he was doing an end-run without the involvement of Robin Baum, Depp’s formidable publicist of many years. I started looking into the case and Waldman to see if he was legit. There was stuff about him being Cher’s lawyer – the singer is godmother to his daughter Pepper – but the first hit was a Business Insider story that read “Here Are the American Executives Who Are Working on Behalf of Putin.” Waldman was the first on the list, which detailed his service for Oleg Deripaska, an aluminum magnate and Russian oligarch with strong ties to the Russian president.

According to Business Insider, Waldman has been paid more than $2.3 million for his work on behalf of Deripaska. Meanwhile, Deripaska became a bit player in the Russian-collusion scandal when it was reported by The Washington Post that then-Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort offered to give Deripaska private briefings on the campaign shortly before the GOP convention. Waldman had his own cameo in the Putin-Trump meshugas. In February, none other than Trump would accuse him in a typically factually distorted tweet – without naming him – of trying to broker a meeting between Trump-dossier writer Christopher Steele and Democratic Sen. Mark Warner. In April, Deripaska was placed on Trump’s sanctioned list, making it exceedingly difficult for Deripaska’s holdings to do business in the United States.

Waldman joined the game in October 2016, having been told by a client that Depp needed help. TMG had just slapped the foreclosure notice on his L.A. homes for failure to make payments on a $5 million loan from the company. TMG had filed it as a nonjudicial foreclosure so there were no public filings. The public at this point had no idea of Depp’s financial situation.

Waldman was about to change that. He says he joined Depp for dinner at the Bel Air home of Ed White, Depp’s new accountant. Waldman says that White mentioned that he believed TMG had taken a cavalier approach to Depp’s accounts. Waldman listened closely and said he’d investigate the situation.

Waldman and Depp quickly became compadres. When Waldman would find a friend he thought was on the Mandels’ side, he’d call the star and just say, “Tessio,” after the Abe Vigoda character who betrays the Corleones in The Godfather. Depp instantly understood and would mutter back, “Fucking Tessio.”

Depp and Waldman believe his lawsuit will change Hollywood forever. The suit swings for the fences and claims TMG owes Depp more than $25 million in ill-gotten five-percent commissions because, among other reasons, they claim TMG had acted not only as financial managers but also as lawyers, meaning it needed to enter a new agreement with Depp for each movie deal. (The same charge would be eventually levied against Bloom, who has filed a countersuit, denying all the claims.) Since this didn’t happen, the suit alleges, Depp is entitled to recoup millions in commissions. The TMG suit points to this as being among the most ridiculous of Depp’s claims, that they never acted as attorneys since he already had high-priced Hollywood lawyers Bloom and Marty Singer on retainer.

This alleged violation of Section 6147 of the California statute particularly jazzes Waldman and, in turn, Depp. Waldman says when he first contacted TMG, Joel Mandel kept muttering that Depp’s situation was all about “Hollywood math,” where the star spends what they think they’ve made, not taking into account taxes and agent and manager fees. (TMG denies this conversation ever happened.)

Waldman is Depp’s self-styled avenger. “No one challenges the monster of Hollywood and survives,” Waldman tells me. “Everyone is too afraid. Johnny’s not afraid.”

Mandel’s camp says he learned of Depp’s lawsuit when a reporter called him asking for comment, a rarity since it is common in legal circles to contact opposing counsel before filing a suit.

The two warring sides met a few days later in a conference room for a settlement meeting at the law office of Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, the law firm that employed Ben Chew, one of Depp’s litigators. Waldman was on the phone from Europe, and Chew was on video conference from Washington.

To Mandel’s side, it wasn’t clear why the meeting had been called: If Waldman had wanted to try to work out a settlement, it would usually be attempted before dropping a legal bomb on the opposing counsel. Mandel eventually spoke up.

“The facts are there, you can read them,” Waldman recalls saying via speakerphone from Munich. “You’re welcome to respond to them.”

Mandel lost it, according to two people in the meeting.

“You’ve cost me tens of millions of dollars,” said Mandel. “Now it’s my turn. I’m gonna destroy Johnny. They’ll know everything.” (Both Mandel and his attorney, Michael Kump, adamantly dispute that Mandel ever said any of that.)

The Mandel team got up to leave, but in the hall, they say they could hear Waldman’s voice questioning the rest of his legal staff if they had carefully gone over the complaint.

Asked what he thought about all the legal shenanigans, Depp shrugs. “I’m just a small part of this,” he says. “It’s the fucking Matrix. I didn’t see the movie, and I didn’t understand the script, but here’s what it is.”

Kump pressed on, arguing that “Depp has also spent millions to employ an army of attorneys” – in addition to his longtime personal attorney Bloom – “to bail him out of numerous legal crises” and pay “hush money.” Some of the charges seem like cheap shots. TMG offered no specifics about the hush money and legal crises. His taxes? The suit alleges that they were paid late because Depp was chronically cash poor.

Then things got personal. According to the suit, Depp kept a sound engineer on the payroll so he could feed him lines through an earpiece while filming. This Depp does not deny, saying the sounds fed to him made him act with just his eyes.

“I’ve got bagpipes, a baby crying and bombs going off,” says Depp. “It creates a truth. Some of my biggest heroes were in silent film,” Depp tells me, lighting another cigarette. “It had to be behind the eyes. And my feeling is, that if there’s no truth behind the eyes, doesn’t matter what the fucking words are.”

But that didn’t explain the 12 storage facilities for his Hollywood memorabilia, heavy on Brando and Marilyn Monroe. Mandel alleged Depp spent $1.2 million to keep a doctor on call and another $1.8 million a year on round-the-clock security, including for his elderly mother. (When asked why his mom needed security, Depp responded that it was in case she needed an ambulance, according to sources with intimate knowledge of the conversation. TMG tried to convince Depp a nurse would be cheaper, but he couldn’t be persuaded.) Kump suggested the source of Depp’s problems was psychiatric: “In retrospect, it appears that Depp may suffer from a compulsive-spending disorder, which will be proven in this action through a mental examination of Depp.”

There are a few things Depp insists TMG got wrong – for example, the $30,000 a month the Mandels claimed he spent on wine.

“It’s insulting to say that I spent $30,000 on wine,” says Depp. “Because it was far more.”

Depp says they got the Hunter S. Thompson cannon story wrong too. “By the way, it was not $3 million to shoot Hunter into the fucking sky,” says Depp. “It was $5 million.”

Depp elaborates. He says the cost of the rocket launch increased when he decided he wanted Thompson’s arc to be at least one foot higher than the Statue of Liberty’s 151-foot height. That part could be true, but I checked around about the price tag and Depp seemed to be bullshitting. Multiple reports said that the cannon stunt did cost $3 million, but perhaps Depp wanted the number to be even bigger, taking a cue from Thompson, who could never resist taking a good, true story and juicing it up with imaginary details.

It doesn’t take a psychiatrist to figure out that Depp has been greatly influenced by Brando and Thompson, two father figures who did not give a fuck about what the world thought about them. Depp and Brando had been friends since the 1995 film Don Juan De Marco. When Depp bought an island in the Bahamas, it was Brando, owning his own Tahitian island, who advised him to make sure his house is above sea level.

His connection to Thompson was more visceral, spanning ‘ludes and literature. Depp had been a fan of the gonzo journalist for years and courted friendship as he played Thompson in Terry Gilliam’s 1998 adaptation of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. During the filming and afterward, the two became drug-taking companions.

Waiting for dinner, Depp tells a story about Thompson picking Depp up at the Aspen airport. Doing a dead-on impression, Depp mimics Thompson’s mumble: “Uh, there’s something I want you to try when we get to the house.”

Thompson had a pipe filled with a sticky resin waiting for him. Depp did a hit, and the room spun. Hunter was shocked, says Depp. “He was like, ‘Damn, some kids brought that over, and I took a hit and puked my guts out.’ ”

“They’re made with just a little bit of arsenic, or strychnine,” says Depp. He stands up and a grin spreads across his face. “So the high was far more immediate.” Once, Depp asked a Florida bouncer to punch him while on ‘ludes just for kicks. “You either wanted to smile and just be happy with your pals, or fuck, or fight,” he says.

Depp is evangelical in the uses of narcotics and thinks they could have expedited the capture of Osama bin Laden.

“You get a bunch of fucking planes, big fucking planes that spray shit, and you drop LSD 25,” he says. “You saturate the fucking place. Every single thing will walk out of their cave smiling, happy.”

With the deaths of Brando and Thompson, Depp lost the two people who could understand his fantasyland existence.

Here in London, he turns melancholy, musing about going through his recent travails without them, a fucked-up genius missing his fucked-up genius fellow travelers. As Depp’s life unraveled, he no longer had his closest confidants. Depp goes glassy-eyed thinking about his loneliness. “Marlon and Hunter,” he says. “I needed my guys.”

During the good times, Mandel told Depp his goal was to make him financially secure enough that he would never have to take a part just to pay the bills. They never got to that point. According to TMG’s lawsuit, Depp never had more than six months of savings in the bank. This grew exponentially worse after the Pirates of the Caribbean series began, earning him approximately $300 million. Depp had always been critically acclaimed, but it was Jack Sparrow who turned him into a global brand with action figures and $30-million-per-film paychecks coming in. But Depp’s tastes grew wilder, and daily conversations between Mandel and Christi revolved around either trying to stop Depp from buying another house or finding a project that would pay for the new house.

Except for Christi, Depp couldn’t count on his actual family for guidance – they seemed at the core of many of his financial fiascoes. Over some tuna-fish-and-corn sandwiches – Depp’s favorite – he talks of the money pit that Betty Sue’s farm in Owensboro had become. Soon after its purchase, he tells me, Depp’s other sister and her husband moved in and were hired to manage the property. Eventually, their son joined the payroll. (Meanwhile, Depp was supporting his ex-partner Vanessa Paradis and their two children, Jack and Lily-Rose, in their own French villa that Depp bought for them.)

According to Depp, after years of keeping him in the dark, Mandel communicated to him that the Kentucky branch of his family’s spending was out of control. So Depp asked him to send a file with all their expenses. He was in makeup on a Pirates of the Caribbean movie when the file arrived, and he asked his assistant to print it. His assistant said he couldn’t do it.

“It’s over 200 pages,” the assistant said.

Depp called Mandel and asked him what the hell was going on.

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