Whether buttoned up or down, the actress defies both expectation and categorization by LESLIE GORNSTEIN / photographs by JÖRGEN RINGSTRAND / styling by HAYLEY ATKIN / produced by HANNAH HARTE
Hollywood's young and beautiful actresses tend to dash around town in a similar uniform: oversize sunglasses, carefully tousled weaves, shredded jeans that cost way more than their appearance suggests. They also arm themselves with a certain nervy bearing: Do not bother me—seriously, do not.
For her part, Amber Heard prefers ruffled dresses and clean ponytails to the current contrived faux rumples. And her face, often nearly absent of makeup, frames a set of gray-green eyes so calm and trustful you have to wonder if she knows she's talking to a reporter.
To be clear: The unguarded Texas-born sylph sipping tea across from me is the same actress who harrowed hell itself with Nicolas Cage in Drive Angry, ramming her boot up the posterior of scuzball machismo. As the headstrong Chenault in this month's Rum Diary, based on Hunter S. Thompson's novelization of his younger years in Puerto Rico, Heard lights Johnny Depp's cigarette in a manner that hints of much naughtier habits. Even as the sweet-looking teenage girlfriend of Seth Rogen in 2008's Pineapple Express, Heard's lips are fully weaponized, treating Rogen to a four-alarm cuss-out in a high school hallway.
But here now, Heard is off the clock and well aware of her manners, apologizing if she made me wait, asking if she can buy me anything at a gourmet takeout shop in Larchmont Village. She's clearly someone who enjoys playing against type.
If you're confused by her, good: Heard does not enjoy being put in a box—not in her work and certainly not in her personal life, which in recent weeks has drawn even more attention than her myriad projects. "I exist in many different shades of gray," she says. "And I exist, in many aspects of my life, in much more complex ways than I believe a label allows." She smiles. "Not that I'm uncomfortable with one."
This season, Heard is especially hard to pin down. First, she's headlining The Playboy Club, a new NBC drama. Her character, Maureen the Bunny, seems like stock stuff: the new girl, freshly arrived in Chicago from corn country. But Heard's interpretation is decidedly more calculated—a fame-hungry climber biding her time among lovelorn salesmen and two-bit local capos. The result is an unusually unpredictable role for network television.
"Maureen started out more innocent and naive, but Amber brought something much bolder and proactive," says show creator Chad Hodge. "Most actors are just concerned with showing the best versions of themselves onscreen, but she wanted to make this character different."
“At the end of the day, I have to remind people I am playing a character. The show takes place in the 1960s. This is what these women wore. This club existed. I didn’t make it come into existence.”
As the only lead female in The Rum Diary, Heard is essentially required to look slinky and tempt Depp, drawing his idealistic reporter into a world of corruption. But once again, she manages to elevate an arguably underwritten part while delivering the unexpected and inhabiting the kind of smart, simmering bombshell Hollywood hasn't seen in decades.
"There's a scene with Depp in a sports car, and, in my view, it was as good as anything Marilyn Monroe ever did," says Diary director Bruce Robinson. "I remember saying, 'Jesus, that is so perfect.' There is just this multifarious quality. When we were casting, I was asked who I wanted for the part. I said Catherine Deneuve 25 years ago—and I kind of got that."
Such talk surprises Heard. It's not that she's insecure—she knows she can act. It's that she so rarely gets to discuss these matters. In recent weeks, the media has seized instead upon more salacious morsels, including Heard's views on love ("Amber Heard Gay," the Huffington Post trumpeted), organized religion (another site dubbed Heard the "friendly atheist") and women's rights (Google the phrase Amber Heard defends Playboy Club, and you'll see a string of stories pitting her against feminist icon Gloria Steinem, who has trashed the series before even seeing it).
For the record, it's all true: "I'm in a very, very successful relationship with a woman I love madly," she says. Heard is an atheist; in fact, she occasionally debates her fundie religious friends back home in Texas, trying to get them to see reason on evolution...not that it works.
And yes, thanks to The Playboy Club, the media has elected Heard the go-to defender of all things Bunny related. It's a position that stymies her: "At the end of the day, I have to remind people I am playing a character. The show takes place in the 1960s. This is what these women wore. This club existed. I didn't make it come into existence.
"Do reporters do this to males who play unfavorable figures? We don't ask the actor who plays Dexter how his parents feel about him being a serial killer. But my costars and I are placed with this burden to try and explain this show and its subject, when in the end people are going to write about my bone structure and my shoes."
It's an eternal juxtaposition. Playboy Club's Hodge calls Heard "funny" and "incredibly giving," while Robinson sees the actress as a bit of a sphinx. "She wasn't sitting down nattering with everyone," he says. "She's a truly reserved young woman" who, though consummately professional, often secreted herself to seek company with her "aggressive Chihuahua."
Keeping people guessing: It just may be what Amber Heard does best.
MAKEUP: Francesca Tolot
HAIR: Laini Reeves
MANICURIST: Jenna Hipp
FASHION ASSISTANT: Laura Mazza
POSTPRODUCTION: View Imaging