Amber Heard meets me on a sunny morning at Gemma, the copper-toned Italian brasserie next to Manhattan’s Bowery Hotel where she’s currently staying as she shoots Syrup, an indie drama set in the dog-eat-dog world of corporate advertising. The 25-year-old actor is tall and slender, her blonde hair slicked back and still wet from the shower, and, if she’s to be believed, there’s not a pinch of makeup on her face. “Can you tell that I just woke up?” she asks. Aside from the two soy lattes she guzzles in under an hour, I cannot. Heard is dressed in head-to-toe vintage—a black lace top exposing her sun-kissed shoulders, an eggshell-white, high-waisted skirt, and gold slip-ons—a style that not only suits her pinup physique, but also that of Maureen, the Bunny she plays on NBC’s new ’60s-era drama The Playboy Club.
To the average moviegoer, Heard might look familiar, if not quite recognizable. (Isn’t she the girl whose face decomposed at the beginning of Zombieland, right before treating Jesse Eisenberg’s brain like an amuse-bouche?) Her pinup good looks have served her well in roles that usually call for a slight twist on the all-American dream girl. I’ll admit that before this assignment, I’d considered Heard to be just another perfectly symmetrical actor clawing her way up the Hollywood employment ladder, mostly in thankless roles in genre movies—as Seth Rogen’s girlfriend in the hardcore stoner-art romp Pineapple Express, or as Nicolas Cage’s Daisy Dukes–wearing passenger in the equally hardcore action wig-out Drive Angry 3D. Somehow, these parts have led her to The Rum Diary, an adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s long-lost novel about a journalist—played by Johnny Depp—in 1960s Puerto Rico, and Heard’s first film aimed at high-minded adults hungry for cinematic brain food.
Asked if The Rum Diary feels like her first film for grown-ups, Heard soaks her response in sarcasm: “Well, The Informers is certainly a kids’ movie,” she says, referring to one of her earlier projects, an adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’ coke-tome of the same name brought to excruciating life in 2009. But unlike that roundly panned film, The Rum Diary works. As Chenault, the striking and provocative object of Depp’s affections, Heard manages to breathe strength and vulnerability into a character that feels both out-of-reach and somehow obtainable. It’s a role she could play in her sleep. “Chenault is free-spirited and rebellious,” she says. “I can relate to that.” To get the part, Heard fought tooth-and-nail—a process that included four auditions and a handwritten letter to director Bruce Robinson—eventually beating out some of Hollywood’s alpha actresses. “I heard names of people who were going in, so I think part of me was resigned to not getting it,” Heard says, obliquely referring to Scarlett Johansson and Keira Knightley, whose auditions for the role were widely reported.
Heard talks about her Rum Diary experience like she still can’t wrap her head around it. She punctuates the story of her first audition for Depp with bursts of incredulous laughter. Was she intimidated meeting one of the world’s great silver-screen icons? “I guess I must have been,” she says. “I just don’t know if I thought about it that way. Luckily, we’re built so we don’t really remember that kind of pain.” Laughter. “I can just assume it was there.” More laughter. Regarding a steamy shower scene with Depp, Heard plays it cool, sort of. “I grew up watching his movies, so it was a little surreal, but I very much become my characters while I’m working. I’m not Amber Heard making out with Johnny Depp in the shower. I mean, that’s awesome, but I am Chenault, and he’s Paul Kemp, and we’re embroiled in a love story in Puerto Rico, and it’s easy to get lost in that. Love scenes are weird, but if they’re right for your character, I let go of the weirdness and jump into them.”
She worked closely with Depp to develop the character of Chenault, who was based on Thompson’s first wife, Sandy Conklin (who later changed her name to Sondi Wright). “I’m playing somebody who still exists, who had a major role in the life of one of Johnny’s dear friends, and who is in more than one way important to him,” she says. “So there was a lot of pressure.” She need not worry. From her very first scene, in which she emerges from the sea like a siren, beckoning Depp’s character to plunge in and join her, Heard’s luminosity fills the frame. Despite the newfound respect that will surely accompany her Rum Diary role, Heard doesn’t see it as a career turning point. “Don’t get me wrong,” she says. “It feels great, but none of my films feel like they’re going to be my big break. I do the job, work really hard on the project, and go home and do the next one. They’re kind of all stepping stones built on one another.”
Last December, however, Heard’s on-screen work took a backseat to her private life, when, at The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation’s 25th anniversary celebration, news began circulating about her long-term relationship with photographer Tasya van Ree. Suddenly, her personal life, which Heard says she fiercely guards, was exposed, a choice with which she wrestled. For Heard, talking openly about her relationship with a woman wasn’t an attempt to grab media coverage, but instead, she says, an ethical and social responsibility. “I talked about my relationship because there’s a difference between being a private person and being part of the problem,” she says. “I knew that I had a responsibility to young people, who right now are without many role models, to kind of step out of my comfort zone and acknowledge that I have a girlfriend without being ambiguous about it.” Echoing what she’d said at the time, Heard adds, “At the end of the day, if you’re hiding something, then you are inadvertently saying it’s wrong, and I don’t feel like it’s wrong. Millions of people aren’t born wrong.”
Since that day, Heard has been disturbed by the way her sexuality has been reported. A headline on the Huffington Post, one of the first links that comes up on an Amber Heard Google search, reads, “Amber Heard Gay: Actress Comes Out as a Lesbian.” But, according to Heard, she never came out. “I’ve always been out,” she says. “Way before that event, there were pictures of me walking to press events holding my girlfriend’s hand. Those have been on the internet for years.”
Heard’s spirit of activism—her official website is as devoted to gay rights as it is to her magazine covers—is a by-product of coming of age in Austin, Texas, amidst a wave of what she calls religious hypocrisy. Heard, a proud atheist, left home at 17 for Hollywood after dropping out of high school. “I felt very alienated,” she says of that time in her life. “I was not a religious person, and I didn’t think the things around me were righteous, even though that’s what they claimed to be. I felt compelled to go against the grain, so I took my GED, took my SAT, and I got the hell out of there.” It’s partly what drew her to her character in The Playboy Club. “You don’t know where she’s come from, and in many ways I relate to that, that alienated person against the masses. I don’t know how my character is going to grow, but I have a feeling I want to be there for her when she does.”
More and more, Heard is becoming known as an actor willing to take risks. She’s neither shied away from nudity nor from Nic Cage movies, but she also speaks her mind. “My PR people should be on a steady supply of prescription medication,” she says with a subtle Texas twang, buried beneath years of Hollywood refinement. “It’s lonely to stand up for what’s right,” she says. “I am alone in Hollywood in many ways, and that’s scary. It’s better for my career if I stay quiet, but I’ve just never been that person. I didn’t get into this business so I could shut up.”
AMBER LIKES, Gemma
Photography by Kate Orne. Styling by Christopher Campbell.