“It’s so rare that women get to play characters at all,” says 25-year-old Amber Heard. “If you do play a character it’s because you’re not sexy — they’re mutually exclusive in this town for some reason. It seems as though it is almost impossible to find real characters.”
The star of NBC’s new ’60s-set drama The Playboy Club and the upcoming Johnny Depp/Hunter S. Thompson reunion The Rum Diary wants to play challenging roles, but, she says, faces something of an ironic dilemma for young actresses — there’s such a thing as being too attractive. “Heaven forbid you’re good looking if you want to play a character,” she explains. “It seems as though Hollywood cannot accept that idea. It’s something I constantly have to fight.”
The reflection feels oddly seasoned, but then it’s quickly apparent that Heard, despite the dazzling first impression of her looks, is one tough girl beneath the surface. “I have brawler’s spirit,” she laughs, suddenly seeming a little at odds with LA’s quaint Larchmont Lader and her afternoon ice tea. “I’m from Texas. I like to do things in my movies. I like to have real action and real conflict, both physical and emotional.”
To date, those things have been largely confined to what Heard calls “paying her dues” — a string of small, if memorable roles in Hollywood hits. She’s been Seth Rogen’s high school paramour (Pineapple Express), Jesse Eisenberg’s undead neighbour (Zomebieland), and given Nicolas Cage a walloping run for his crazy dollar (Drive Angry), while notching up an impressive horror resume, including a brave starring turn for genre maestro John Carpenter in his recent thriller, The Ward. But it’s the two forthcoming projects that look set to achieve bona fide breakout status for the actress.
In the The Playboy Club, Heard plays Maureen, a cigarette girl at Hugh Hefner’s famous Chicago nightclub who gets tangled up in a crime plot after she inadvertently whacks a sleazy mob boss. ““She is a Playboy bunny but there’s so much more to her,” says Heard, excited to take her part on a journey. “I feel like I read a script that had a complex character. I saw potential for this character and I felt like I was in good hands with this team.”
The series, created by Chad Hodge, is rich with the flavor of the decade, the kind of delicious period tapestry that has served Mad Men so effectively. “It’s a different era,” Heard elaborates. “It’s not the Playboy we know today. It’s about so much more: the era, the music, the performances, the club, the lifestyle. Think of the ’60s and what that represents — from social upheaval to questioning fundamentals and changing the norm, challenging authority and preconceived notions.”
Indeed, rocking the status quo seems like a compulsion for Heard. She grew up in Texas, but jumped at the chance to move to New York — and away from what she describes as a strict religious community — to pursue modeling as a 16-yeard-old. By 17 she’d returned to Austin, immersing herself in the city’s thriving indie film community and reconnecting with a love of cinema she’d found years earlier at the local Dobie Theatre. After taking acting and theater courses and finding an agent, Heard soon moved to LA and landed small gigs in films such as Friday Night Lights, before plunging into horror, a genre which, she maintains, offer “sometimes the only vehicles that offer any sort of real platform for a young woman to act. Horror films give you the opportunity to be tough and independent and to fight, to kick, to kill, to cry, and to have all these different things to do.”
Her next project, however, could be the one that really take things to the next level — and Heard’s enthusiasm for this October’s The Rum Diary is palpable. “It’s a wonderful love story about life, love, art and truth,” she enthuses, “all in the face of greed and pollution.” Written and directed by Withnail & I’s Bruce Robinson from the early Hunter S. Thompson novel, it’s been a passion project for producer, star and longtime Thompson friend Johnny Depp for years now. Set in the late 1950s, the story follows Thompson proxy Paul Kemp (Depp, dialing back his unhinged Fear and Loathing take on the author), a journalist who travels to San Juan, Puerto Rico on assignment and discovers a barmy cocktail of unchecked tourism, rapacious diplomats and scheming locals.
In the film, Heard plays Chenault, the girl Kemp falls for — a key role she won over the likes of Scarlett Johansson and Keira Knightley. “Johnny was instrumental in getting me the part,” she says of her co-star. “I believe that you are only as good as the people you work opposite and in this case I felt confident because I was working with the best of the best.”
“It sounds highly romantic, the way I see it,” Heard continues, almost blissfully, “but the romance aspect is definitely offset by the drunken stupor of it all — and it wouldn’t be a Hunter S. Thompson piece without the drunken stupor.”
Thompson was notoriously irascible over movie adaptations of his work — “I’m getting tired of this waterhead fuckaround that you’re doing with The Rum Diary,” went one typically acerbic note to a studio head back in 2001 — and Heard says everyone on the film felt the pressure to honor the late author’s considerable legacy.
“He literally had a chair on set,” she remembers. “He was a brilliant artist and a revolutionary in his own right. And if that wasn’t enough, Hunter just happened to be a personal friend of Johnny’s — so there was a huge amount of pressure. Johnny kept referencing Hunter and everybody kept dabbing themselves with rum. Just dabbing,” she clarifies, grinning. Robinson even confessed that he started drinking again to work on the film. Which begs the question: Was he drunk when he directed it? “I don’t know,” Heard laughs. “Even if I did know I couldn’t tell you. I love Bruce; he’s the perfect guy to make this movie. He understands delirium like he understands art. He’s wonderfully, beautifully chaotic.”
One thing Thompson surely would have approved of is Heard’s ride — a bitchin’, dark green ’68 Mustang quietly dwarfing the sensible hybrids parked outside the cafe. As the conversation wheels around, Heard beams when the discussing flirts with her vintage muscle car — reaffirming those bruiser credentials. “That’s my baby,” she says with a smile.
Originally published in Nylon, September 2011