Amber Heard drives a powder-blue 1968 Ford Mustang. She’s driven it for nine years—it was one of the first things she bought when she moved to Los Angeles in 2004. She keeps pictures of it on her iPhone. When she talks about it, she sounds like a proud mom. The car is also recognizable, which wouldn’t be such a big deal if Heard hadn’t recently earned a spot on the paparazzi’s mostwanted list. Of course, she could retire her long-serving companion—become one of the pretty young things who make their way around L.A. in chauffeur-driven, black SUVs—but navigating the city on her own terms is not something she’s willing to give up. “At a certain point, you just have to say, OK, I’m not going to let other people dictate how I run my life,” she says.
Heard, 27, has been acting professionally for almost a decade—her first notable role was a bit part in the film Friday Night Lights; then came small but memorable appearances in cult favourites like Pineapple Express and Zombieland. In 2011, she won the female lead in The Rum Diary, opposite Johnny Depp. It was the role that every 20-something starlet in Hollywood yearned for (Scarlett Johansson and Keira Knightley also auditioned), and the buzz established her as an industry it-girl with her pick of projects. Robert Luketic (Legally Blonde) chose Heard for the only female lead in Paranoia (out Aug. 16), a post-millennial corporate thriller costarring Liam Hemsworth, Harrison Ford and Gary Oldman. Robert Rodriguez cast his fellow Texan as a gun-slinging southern beauty queen in Machete Kills, his latest grindhouse homage (out Oct. 4). Her roles have both the star power and the variety that all young stars covet.
Keeping her love life out of it has been a bit more irksome. For those who don’t get their news via TMZ or Us Weekly, Heard has been dating her Rum Diary leading man, Johnny Depp. She won’t discuss him directly: “It’s not part of my professional life,” she says firmly. “I want to be an artist. I don’t want to be a celebrity.” While she’s certainly not the first of her ilk to deliver the “Woe is me, I’m famous” speech, with Heard you get the sense that she might actually mean it: “You can find pictures of me [on the Internet] pumping gas, picking up dry cleaning, walking my dog,” she says, “but nowhere are you going to find pictures of me hanging around at some nightclub.”
I meet Heard for our interview at the West Hollywood eatery Little Next Door. She chose the charmingly casual sibling of the adjacent star-stuffed French restaurant The Little Door; the cozy stained glass and ivy-darkened roof create a rustic, romantic hideaway. She does a quick scan of the patio before suggesting we go inside. “That’s where I normally sit,” she says, pointing to an occupied outdoor four-seater, bordered on the street side by a wall of five-foot shrubs. It’s the only spot on the patio that isn’t visible from the sidewalk…and vulnerable to the paparazzi. As we settle into a quiet table in the back, I ask if she has other strategies for keeping a low profile. She laughs, and slings the first of many ripostes: “You think I’m going to tell someone in the media my strategies for staying out of the media?” (Artist: 1. Reporter: 0.)
Earlier that same day, I had stopped in at the cover shoot. In heavy makeup and a pair of five-inch stilettos, Heard was scary-pretty, like a Russian Bond villain. Aram Rappaport, who directed her in the independent film Syrup (out on DVD this October), says Heard has a face that doesn’t need the technical tricks of the trade: “We shot her in Times Square using just a couple of handheld lights. Even with the most beautiful actors, that just doesn’t happen.” The movie, based on the 1999 Max Barry novel, is a modern-era morality tale about the advertising industry. Heard plays Six, the living embodiment of the “sex sells” concept.
At dinner, most of her makeup is gone, the shoot’s elegant winter pales swapped for a more comfortable rocker-chick uniform of a black cotton tank, dark skinny jeans, leather booties and a few chunky rings. Heard is not keen to talk about her appearance, since doing so always seems to backfire, she says: “Someone will ask me a question about my looks, like something about my hair, and then in the magazine it sounds like I came in and said, ‘You know, what I’d really like to talk about is my hair.’”
Rappaport says he knew he had found his leading lady when he noticed Heard at a mutual friend’s birthday party. “She was holding court and there was this entire group of people, older people, who were just hanging on her every word,” he recalls. Heard was having a debate about the shelf life of female actors in the movie business. “Of course we can all name the exceptions,” she says, getting out in front of my knee-jerk reaction to cite Meryl Streep and Susan Sarandon and…Kate Winslet in 10 years. “We are both probably thinking of the same five women right now. Maybe not even five.”
Challenging the status quo is Heard’s resting pose. “I was never interested in what everyone else at school was into,” she says of her early years in the rural part of Austin, Texas. “I hated the idea of school dances, hated whatever was going on in pop culture. I didn’t have any concept of celebrities or Hollywood. I was always reading, reading and listening to music. The only posters I had on my wall were Rosie the Riveter and Jimi Hendrix.” As a teenager, she didn’t dream of becoming an actress so much as just getting out into the world. “My mom always says that if something had wheels, I was obsessed with it—cars, bikes, planes too. I was always wanting to go somewhere.” That she did at 16, after completing her high-school equivalency test and spending her life’s savings photocopying head shots at the neighbourhood Kinkos. She launched a short-lived modelling career in New York, and hated it. “No one was interested in my opinion,” she says. Heard traded go-sees for auditions and landed Friday Night Lights just a few months in.
Most aspiring actresses do cheesy, boy-meets-girl movies as stepping stones to weightier projects, but Heard says she made a conscious effort to go a different route, even if that meant days covered in sticky prop blood. “At least the female characters in horror movies fight back and do something for themselves. They’re not just sitting around waiting for a man to save the day,” she says of her decision to shoot gore over mush. In 2006, Heard starred as the (spoiler alert!) titular slasher in the horror film All the Boys Love Mandy Lane, which debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival and earned her some counterculture traction. (The Weinstein Company recently announced plans to finally distribute it in the U.S. this fall, in time to ride its star’s hot streak.) Heard also signed on to play one of the leads in the 2011 NBC drama The Playboy Club, based on the goings-on at Hef’s 1960s pleasure palace. Gloria Steinem lambasted the show for “normalizing prostitution and male dominance,” but Heard went head-to-head with the mother of modern feminism in the media, saying at the time: “It takes [our generation] by surprise when the Steinems of the world criticize us, I think, because we are part of a generation of women who don’t have to choose between combat boots and an apron. We can do it in heels.”
While still unabashedly sexy, Heard’s two new roles have her usual intelligent edge. Paranoia is a sleek, corporate espionage thriller about two rival tech companies. Heard plays Emma, a sarcastic, cutthroat Ivy Leaguer. “Paranoia was an interesting script. I loved how you’re dealing with a lot of old themes like greed and power, but it’s such a modern story. My character basically had to be smart enough to manipulate Liam Hemsworth’s character. Yes, there are sex scenes, but it wasn’t like she was falling at his feet.” When I ask her if her characters use their beauty and sexuality as a form of power, she says it can be a challenge to find just the right role—especially in a Hollywood that is all too quick to typecast: “[The script] doesn’t say that these characters are ‘sexy.’ I’m not picking them because of that,” she says. “I take roles that are interesting, and scripts that have female characters with depth. I’m working with what I’ve got.” I joke that maybe she should gain 20 pounds, Monster-style, and start wearing glasses. “Ha!” she says. “If only it were that easy!”
She once said that she tells her management to put screenplays that describe a character as “beautiful” or “sexy” at the bottom of the pile, unless there are special circumstances…which is certainly the case with her other upcoming role, in Machete Kills. “Robert [Rodriguez] understood why this role was totally perfect for me. She’s a beauty queen from San Antonio, but she’s got this whole other side,” says Heard. She means that her Texas rose packs heat, and, by the way, so does she. Heard, who grew up hunting with her commercial contractor dad, owns several firearms and has visited gun ranges in L.A. “Gun ownership needs to be regulated, not banned,” she says. Heard is not easily intimidated—in just a few years she has worked with a stable of industry titans, including Nicolas Cage and Kevin Costner, along with Depp, Ford and Oldman, that would have most ingenues shaking in their trailers, but, she says, “I’ve always just looked at that as part of my job.” Meeting one of her favourite authors—she cites George Orwell and Christopher Hitchens—would be more likely to leave her nervous and awestruck. Or if Salinger were to return from the dead—she loves The Catcher in the Rye and identifies with its infamously phoney-phobic hero, Holden Caulfield. Robert Luketic, the director of Paranoia, was impressed by Heard’s lust for knowledge. “Amber would just tear through all of these books on-set. It was things that I would never read—books about the social politics of Chile in the ’60s and ’70s.” Luketic recalls one evening in New York when he went to dinner with Heard and Ford. “The things that would come out of her mouth, and Harrison would look at me and go, ‘Wow.’ ” Of course, when it comes to co-stars-of- a-certain-age, there is a certain fedora-sporting, scarf-draped elephant in the room.