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J.K. Rowling is “genuinely happy” Johnny Depp is in the Fantastic Beasts films. Fans are not.

Depp, who’s been accused of domestic abuse, plays the villain Grindelwald — but his casting and the role are complicated.

Warner Bros./J.K. Rowling
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

After weeks of backlash over Warner Bros.’ confirmation that it had cast Johnny Depp in the sequel to Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, J.K. Rowling has issued a statement defending the move, writing in a note to fans posted on her website that she is “genuinely happy” to have Depp in the role.

Controversy over the choice to cast Depp in the role of villainous wizard supremacist Gellert Grindelwald began to brew last month, in response to an Entertainment Weekly spread previewing Depp’s Grindelwald opposite co-star Jude Law as Dumbledore in Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, the upcoming continuation of the Harry Potter prequel series. Depp was initially revealed as Grindelwald at the end of 2016’s Fantastic Beasts, but many fans had hoped Warner Bros. would recast the role in light of renewed cultural conversations about sexual assault and violence against women.

Last year, actress Amber Heard filed for divorce from and a restraining order against Depp, documenting numerous incidents of physical, verbal, and emotional abuse throughout their marriage. Still, despite the serious and public nature of Heard’s accusations, Depp has continued to star and be cast in major films like the Fantastic Beasts sequel — a trend that’s led to growing frustration within a cultural conversation that’s actively questioning how Hollywood and other industries protect abusers.

Support of Depp indicates willingness to disbelieve an abuse victim

In her note about the casting, Rowling stated that while she understood why fans were upset, she and the filmmakers were positive about bringing Depp back on board.

Harry Potter fans had legitimate questions and concerns about our choice to continue with Johnny Depp in the role. As David Yates, long-time Potter director, has already said, we naturally considered the possibility of recasting. I understand why some have been confused and angry about why that didn’t happen.

The huge, mutually supportive community that has grown up around Harry Potter is one of the greatest joys of my life. For me personally, the inability to speak openly to fans about this issue has been difficult, frustrating and at times painful. However, the agreements that have been put in place to protect the privacy of two people, both of whom have expressed a desire to get on with their lives, must be respected. Based on our understanding of the circumstances, the filmmakers and I are not only comfortable sticking with our original casting, but genuinely happy to have Johnny playing a major character in the movies.

Rowling’s note refers to Fantastic Beasts director David Yates’s November 28 defense of Depp’s casting to EW, which characterizes Heard’s allegations of assault as “one person who took a pop at him.”

“With Johnny, it seems to me there was one person who took a pop at him and claimed something,” Yates said. “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.”

In fact, Heard’s allegations against Depp, most of which are heavily documented, span about two years and cover a range of serious claims, including physical assault with a cell phone, which left Heard visibly bruised and filing a restraining order; texts detailing alleged physical abuse; a leaked video of Depp smashing a wine bottle in front of Heard; photographs implying that Depp physically assaulted her; and photographs of Depp allegedly cutting off part of his finger to spite Heard.

In court documents last year, Depp’s former managers confirmed many details of these allegations. Multiple people witnessed Depp abusing Heard, including a friend, iO Tillett Wright, who called 911 and later described Heard’s account of the incident as a “195-pound man throwing the full weight of his body into head-butting his 120-pound wife in the face in a fit of rage.”

The 2016 divorce settlement between Heard and Depp ultimately involved a joint statement saying “our relationship was intensely passionate and at times volatile, but always bound by love ... There was never an intent of physical or emotional harm.” Lest this be interpreted as a negation of Heard’s claims, however, the statement goes on to clarify, “Neither party has made false accusations for financial gains.”

This statement seems to be Rowling’s main rationale for embracing Depp in the role. However, given the totality and corroborations of Heard’s allegations, Rowling’s support of Depp indicates a disappointing willingness to disbelieve the victim. (It should be noted that Rowling herself is believed to be a victim of domestic abuse, who once had to file for a restraining order against her ex-husband. She also supports charities which give aid to women dealing with domestic violence.)

Heard rereleased the statement Thursday night on Twitter with a telling note of caution:

Fans were divided on Rowling’s statement, with many choosing to take Rowling’s support of Depp, coupled with her insinuation of inside knowledge of the situation between Depp and Heard, as an indication of his innocence. Others were clearly not happy:

Grindelwald was already complicated character. Depp’s casting furthers those complications.

The casting of Grindelwald is a complicated issue for multiple reasons. For starters, he is a fundamentally evil character who occupies a role within the Harry Potter universe that’s analogous to that of Hitler. Depp’s bleached hair and military-style costume make this connection clear — and in 2018, Nazi analogues in a series as influential as Harry Potter will be extremely culturally significant.

But there’s also the possibility that Grindelwald might be gay. Most fans are expecting future installments of the series to explore the complicated relationship between Grindelwald and his former best friend, Albus Dumbledore. Rowling has hinted broadly that the films will deal with Dumbledore’s identity as a gay man, leading many fans to believe that the Dumbledore/Grindelwald relationship will be a romantic one. Having an onscreen queer relationship would be a major first for the Harry Potter universe, but having one member of the series’ first canonically gay relationship be an archvillain would also be a fraught narrative choice — even without invoking Nazis.

Finally, Depp is an actor accused of domestic violence in a moment of huge cultural reckoning with sexual assault, as well as with the way Hollywood’s power structure frequently works to silence victims. Allowing him to continue in the role is a controversial step knowingly taken within the framework of this larger discussion — and this is clearly what motivated Rowling to address the casting with her fans.

However, it’s also clear from the response to Rowling’s note that casting a controversial actor in a controversial role amid an intensely controversial cultural context could be a long-term issue for Rowling’s “mutually supportive” Harry Potter community.

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