Amber Heard can certainly hold your attention. Waltzing into a London hotel suite, she is demure and relaxed, and as glamorously beautiful as one would expect of an actress required to play the object of Johnny Depp’s affections. That part is Chenault, the beautiful, rebellious socialite in Bruce Robinson’s The Rum Diary. A Hunter S. Thompson adaptation set in late 1950’s Puerto Rico, the film’s backdrop is the slow American corporate encroachment on the island, which Depp’s drunken journalist becomes a part of when Chenault’s boyfriend, crooked property developer Sanderson (played by Arron Eckhart), recruits him to write some articles promoting his latest venture.
Heard was obviously attracted to the strength of her character, not to mention the glamour of the film’s setting. But what also emerges from a long conversation is a fierce ambition that having starred in films like Drive Angry would make seem unlikely. Indeed, there is a sense that she is not really used to having to answer real questions, and she seems almost relieved when one comes her way. Her ambitions to also work behind the camera quickly come to the fore.
What attracted you to The Rum Diary?
Amber Heard: I did not think about it for too long, let’s put it that way! It was a beautiful story, written by one of my favourite authors, told by Bruce Robinson – who’s a genius, in my opinion, opposite Johnny Depp. I didn’t have a long list of cons. I also liked my character. I liked Chenault. I liked that she looks like this archetype of a leading lady, this 1950s housewife-in-the-making, the kind of iconic symbol of a woman at that time, this commodity or something that represents the elite status or what the elite status strives to obtain. She represents all these things very well on the surface but yet is not that underneath – she’s flawed and vulnerable and fiercely independent and rebellious and I relate to a lot of those qualities.
Bruce Robinson talks about your character as being a metaphor for the American Dream.
AH: On the surface she looks like she epitomises not only the American Dream but the class system, or the elite class that owns that dream. We’re seduced by it too in the audience, in the beginning of the movie, by the cars and the beautiful music and the women and the beaches and the parties. Chenault is very much a part of that system at the beginning. She’s just like those items, those commodities, those things that represent a certain system. She represents that on the surface but is not that on the inside. She’s the kind of girl that will sneak out of a party and go skinny dipping by herself in the ocean. I kind of liked that about my character. She’s a rebel, she just doesn’t look like it.
Do you think that’s what attracts Depp’s character to her?
AH: Every moment that we meet Chenault in her element, she’s rebelling in some way. She is struggling to free herself from Sanderson’s grasp in the nightclub because she wants to go dance with the locals, she’s escaping a party to go skinny-dipping in the middle of the ocean at night. She’s very much rebelling against the system but the cage is gilded, her handcuffs are like very nice gold bracelets and I don’t think she realises. I think that she, with the audience, takes a journey that is from one lifestyle to the other. She falls for the antithesis of that, which is Johnny Depp and his world, his madness.
Are you aware that Bruce says you had the part as soon as you walked in the room?
AH: Damn that Bruce Robinson! I swear. I’m plotting some sort of revenge for that, because it was such a gruelling process they put me through. It was many auditions, it was not the most relaxing of circumstances, to walk into a room with Johnny Depp and Bruce Robinson. But I’m charmed, I’m charmed, of course. It’s sweet.
How was Bruce Robinson as a director?
AH: He’s very laid back, and I think it comes from a confidence that he knows what he wants to create. He’s an artist, and I think true artists know where their strengths lie and they know where their weaknesses take them and I think he allows other artists to do their thing. At the end of the day he knows what he wants and will work around the various personalities that are his paint.
Had you seen Withnail & I?
Oh, yes! I saw Withnail & I a long time ago, long before I heard of this movie and I remember when they said Bruce Robinson…I thought to myself there could be nobody better to make this movie, and I think I was right.
The films has a very a stylised look doesn’t it?
AH: This movie and my performance, it was meant to be very stylised, much in the way that the classics were done, the To Have And Have Nots or the Casablancas. It was meant to feel like some sort of vision or some sort of otherworldly encounter. I love period pieces, I love things that have a vintage feel to them, just because there’s a certain texture to them that we just don’t have anymore. I think I’ve been stuck in the 50s or 60s for a while now! It’s a style, and I think we’ve lost a certain appreciation for style.
How do you think the film compares to the novel?
AH: I think what makes this movie so great is that it didn’t set out to change the book, it didn’t set out to compete with the book, it just meant to augment an already wonderful perspective on life. And I’ve made movies that were adaptations before and I’ve been frustrated by the process because, you know that old axiom ‘It’s never as good as the book’ – it’s often true because nothing competes with your own imagination. I feel like Bruce did so well because he didn’t try and compete with the book, he didn’t try and set any new rules – there’s an innocence and a sweetness to the book and I think he did that while still protecting the absurdity of the subject matter.
What about Johnny Depp?
AH: Anything I could have expected, he just far surpasses. He’s wonderful to work with. Everybody on set respects him and likes him and it’s because he brings so much to work with him. He’s such a wonderful presence, people are drawn to him in a way that I’ve really never seen before. Perhaps that’s why he is the movie star that he is. He’s a true character actor, trapped in a leading man’s body and I respect that.
Shooting in Puerto Rico must have been quite an experience.
AH: Puerto Rico is very much a character in our story. It provided the impetus for Hunter S. Thompson to write this novel in the first place. There’s this duality to Puerto Rico that very much encompasses the struggle that our book sets out to expose. Puerto Rico has two flags, and two anthems, and two songs, and two classes, and two kinds of people. There’s a duality, just in and of itself, just being half America, half not. It’s a weird place and that lends itself perfectly to the struggle in our story between art and commerce.
Do you have any kind of method of preparing for roles?
It’s a funny thing to me – I think the moment I decide to take on any sort of specific set of rules or guidelines or methods when approaching something as organic as acting is, it would be a struggle for me to try and commit to a set of rules, in any sense. Sometimes certain tricks work and other times you have to let all of that go. That’s kind of my job, being prepared for anything.
Do you find it hard that Hollywood rarely offers strong, interesting roles for women like this?
AH: It’s damn near impossible, because the parts aren’t there. We categorise women in one of two ways and if you’re seen as beautiful or sexy then your only options in terms of character descriptions are beautiful, sexy, cute – and that’s it, actually. And that affords you a certain amount of opportunity but that opportunity ultimately leads to a spark, never a flame. In the other category there’s so much more to do – you can be seen as witty, intelligent, independent, you can be seen as a bitch, you can be seen as vulnerable, you can be seen as smart….yet you cannot be beautiful or sexy. And because we compartmentalise women and our female characters in that way, it’s incredibly limiting.
So you would like to be both?
AH: Charlize Theron in Monster and Halle Berry in Monster’s Ball… both had to take all sex appeal away from their characters in order to be respected and seen in a serious light, and that’s frustrating. Although I would love the opportunity to gain some weight [laughs], part of me is frustrated by the fact that I would have to do that in order to be taken seriously. Why can’t I just be taken seriously?
Have you considered working behind the camera to create those roles for yourself?
AH: Yes. I’m developing something right now that I don’t know if I even will be acting in! It would be wonderful to see this movie come to life, but it will be my third movie to have produced. I think that’s the only way to get these good parts for women is to just make them yourself, I guess. We still make up like one, maybe two percent of the directors and until we make up a bigger or a more significant majority or proportion of the film-makers, or until we have a larger stake, then we won’t accomplish that representation.
The Rum Diary is out now.