Maïwenn on directing Johnny Depp’s comeback: ‘The crew were afraid of him’

‘There’s been no normal relationship since the shoot. Johnny Depp is in another world’  (Getty)
‘There’s been no normal relationship since the shoot. Johnny Depp is in another world’ (Getty)

The French director/writer/actor Maïwenn says she has no regrets about casting the “cancelled” Johnny Depp in her historical costume drama, Jeanne du Barry. Yet she admits that, during the shoot, Depp wanted to be treated as an icon “all the time”, “wouldn’t do what the script demanded”, and that the crew were “afraid” of him. She also says that when journalists like me concentrate on Depp (rather than the film’s working-class heroine, Jeanne), it irks her. Maïwenn once grabbed and spat at a journalist whom she felt had betrayed her. I’m sure Depp can be scary but, whisper it, the gorgeous Maïwenn can be scary, too.

Though mega famous in France, the 48-year-old may need a bit of an introduction for UK readers. Maïwenn (French Algerian on her mother’s side, Breton Vietnamese on her father’s) first appeared in two films by Luc Besson, one of them the thriller Léon, which she said was inspired by her relationship with the director (she met him when she was 12, they started dating when she was 15). The pair married, had a daughter together and moved to LA, but when Besson left her for Milla Jovovich, Maïwenn returned to France and put together a one-woman show, Le Pois Chiche, in which she discussed her mother’s toxic desire to make Maïwenn a star. In the semi-autobiographical indie film Pardonnez-moi she presents both her divorced parents as abusive figures.

After that came a gritty thriller about the horrors of paedophilia (Polisse), a churning relationship drama (Mon Roi) and another semi-autobiographical arthouse odyssey (DNA). All three films explore dysfunctional relationships and/or what it means to be disempowered, whether because of age, gender or race.

Jeanne du Barry (which follows the life and times of a favourite mistress of Louis XV) has a different feel. It has some wonderfully hard-edged moments but it can also be fluffily romantic and even cartoonish. Jeanne, played by Maïwenn, is an ebullient bookworm whose lowly origins, and years spent as a sex worker, scandalise the court of Versailles but intrigue her sugar daddy, played by the 60-year-old Depp (the film underplays the age gap but the real Jeanne was 33 years younger than the king). Louis is zany and indulgent; he showers Jeanne with gifts and is tickled by her idiosyncrasies. Especially towards the end, we’re invited to believe that love conquers all.

For Maïwenn, Jeanne is a maverick. “She’s not a groupie. She has to do the minimum, otherwise she wouldn’t be able to seduce him; she has to be a little bit...” Maïwenn pulls a coy expression. “But she wants to be herself, to be natural. She’s not like the others at court!” Jeanne, in contrast to the snooty nobles at Versailles, loathes bowing and scraping; she thinks it’s ludicrous that everyone but the King’s grandson (played by Maïwenn’s real-life son, Diego Le Fur) has to walk out of the room backwards. “She asks the King if she can avoid doing that. And that’s the moment when he says to himself, ‘She’s cute!’”

I say I love the bleak scenes where Jeanne discovers the king’s “dark side”. She realises he’s acquired another mistress (a savvy lackey says, “his tastes change... the allure of the unknown”, while making it clear that it would be fatal to her prospects for Jeanne herself to find a new lover). When Jeanne confronts Louis, he sourly dismisses her from the room and Jeanne, hurt and humiliated, has to grin and bear it.

To extrapolate and try to turn me against the MeToo campaign and vice versa is a complete distortion and quite harmful

That scene, says Maïwenn excitedly, is a direct example of how she used the power struggles between her and Depp as an “opportunity” to improve the film. She claims Depp frequently came on set having rewritten the script, saying: “This is not the truth, this is not how it happened!” That day, “Johnny came with a new version of the script and I wasn’t happy with it. It didn’t work... So I shot it without making the changes he wanted… which he took as an insult.” The scene, originally, wasn’t meant to focus on the emotional “distance” between Jeanne and Louis, but the film’s canny director decided to go with the flow. Maïwenn, in other words, used Depp’s pique to her own advantage.

Throughout the shoot, she says, Depp ignored her texts and would only talk to her when his entourage were around. And he often failed to show up on the set. It’s since been reported that, in retaliation, Maïwenn would fail to appear the next day. “This is totally false!” yelps Maïwenn. “We were waiting for Johnny, a lot of the time... But I was the first arriving on set and the last person to leave.”

Love conquers all? Maïwenn and Johnny Depp in ‘Jeanne du Barry’ (Stéphanie Branchu/Why Not Productions)
Love conquers all? Maïwenn and Johnny Depp in ‘Jeanne du Barry’ (Stéphanie Branchu/Why Not Productions)

Though she admits to cutting some of Depp’s dialogue, it wasn’t out of spite. “There was no time for rehearsals. I asked for time but, for whatever reason, he wasn’t available... He had a coach, but he couldn’t work with her beforehand. So. OK. I discovered his accent wasn’t perfect. So a few times I decided to cut his lines. But that also happened with the French actors. It happens!”

Maïwenn looks at me. “I have to be honest. It’s difficult to shoot with him... all the crew were scared because he has a different kind of humour and we didn’t know if he was going to be on time, or if he was going to be OK to say his lines... I mean, even if he was there on set, on time, the crew were afraid of him.”

Nor has the situation improved. “There’s been no normal relationship since the shoot,” says Maïwenn. She shrugs. “Johnny for me is a huge genius but he’s in another world. I cannot communicate with him.” Depp, in public, now says Maïwenn was impressively flexible and that she did “a beautiful job on set”. But check out recent photos of them together and their anti-chemistry is palpable. Holding hands with Maïwenn, Depp looks fit to kill.

And yet, as Maïwenn says, they used to get on famously. “Before the shoot, me and Johnny were texting and talking on the phone. It was completely simple and natural.” She “discovered” Depp in John Waters’ Cry-Baby, when she was 14 (she saw the film three times). Even though, when they first met to discuss Jeanne du Barry, she’d “gone beyond the groupie stage!”, she found him charming.

Grin and bear it: Maïwenn and Johnny Depp at their film’s London premiere this week (Getty)
Grin and bear it: Maïwenn and Johnny Depp at their film’s London premiere this week (Getty)

She was particularly touched by Depp’s honesty. At a London hotel, she asked him what he liked about her script. Clearly “embarrassed”, he didn’t say anything. When she asked if he’d actually read it, he confessed he hadn’t, but said his British assistant, Stephen Deuters, had. According to Maïwenn, Depp said: “Stephen told me that I have to do it. I do everything that Stephen tells me to do.” Maïwenn, Depp and Deuters spent the rest of the afternoon discussing “love, our kids, painting, history, music and, of course, Louis XV. I arrived at 3pm. I left at midnight.”

It’s worth pointing out this meeting took place months before Depp’s first defamation trial, in the UK, during which his ex-wife, Amber Heard, gave evidence against him. Depp, as you probably know, lost his case against The Sun (who’d described him as a “wife-beater”). A week later, Deuters emailed Maïwenn to see if she still wanted Depp to play Louis. She told him Depp’s “private life” wasn’t her concern. She just wanted to know if Depp was still interested in working with her. Maïwenn offers a dry smile: “Stephen answered in 30 seconds.”

Depp’s second defamation trial took place in 2022 and this time it was he, and not Heard, who came out on top. A month after the trial ended, shooting began on Jeanne du Barry. That Depp’s “comeback” project was then chosen to open the Cannes Film Festival was, to put it mildly, controversial. For one thing, comments made by Maïwenn to Paris Match in 2020 had resurfaced. She said of women interested in the #MeToo campaigns, “these women don’t like men”. She also confided: “When I hear women complaining that men are only interested in their bottom, I tell them, ‘Enjoy it, because it won’t last!’.”

Then there was her assault, in March 2023, of the journalist Edwy Plenel, the editor-in-chief and founder of Mediapart, an investigative online newspaper synonymous with France’s #MeToo movement. Maïwenn’s beef with Plenel was that, five years before, he’d published information she’d given to the police about Luc Besson (who’d been accused of rape and sexual assault; that case has since been dismissed). Mediapart didn’t ask permission to go public with her testimony and Maïwenn, understandably, felt violated. That said, spitting at Plenel was surely an extreme response and a Paris court agreed (Maïwenn, who still refuses to apologise to Plenel, was fined €400).

Maverick: Maïwenn in ‘Jeanne du Barry’ (Stéphanie Branchu/Why Not Productions)
Maverick: Maïwenn in ‘Jeanne du Barry’ (Stéphanie Branchu/Why Not Productions)

For French feminists, Maïwenn’s behaviour, Depp’s presence at Cannes and the opening night hoopla (both Depp and Maïwenn received standing ovations at the end of Jeanne du Barry’s screening) sent an alarming message. A letter signed by 100 actors and printed in the newspaper Libération read: “By rolling out the red carpet to the men and women who attack, the festival demonstrates that violence in creative environments can occur with complete impunity.”

Today, Maïwenn claims she was stunned by the media’s reaction and says, though she managed to block it out, for her “mental hygiene”, it did upset her. “I hated it,” she declares passionately, “when the French media said that because I cast Johnny I was against the whole MeToo movement. This is completely bulls***! I’ve been directing films for 10 years now. I know it’s tough for women. So this MeToo is a really important revolution. To say otherwise – to extrapolate and try to turn me against the MeToo campaign and vice versa – is a complete distortion and quite harmful.”

Recently, Maïwenn’s sister, actor Isild Le Besco, issued her own #MeToo statement. Isild started going out with director Benoît Jacquot when she was 16 and he was 52. She said that, while they were together, she was subjected to “psychological violence” and, sometimes, “physical violence”. She said it was “painful” to bring up a past relationship but that she was inspired by “other women speaking up” (actress Judith Godrèche has filed a case against Jacquot, alleging he raped her as a minor).

In blue: Maïwenn in Luc Besson’s ‘The Fifth Element’ (Shutterstock)
In blue: Maïwenn in Luc Besson’s ‘The Fifth Element’ (Shutterstock)

I’m expecting Maïwenn to say she’s proud of her younger sister for making a stand. Instead, her face falls. “Yeah, this is my sister, not me. We have nothing to do together. This is her life. I don’t want to be associated with her.” I assumed she and her sister were close (Isild appears in Mon Roi)? As if warding off an attack, Maïwenn crosses her arms against her chest. “She does her own interviews. I don’t want to be associated with what she says in interviews or what she writes. This is my private life. I’m talking about Jeanne du Barry. I’m talking about MeToo, because of Johnny. If you want to talk about my sister, I say no, I don’t want to.”

I thought we’d just established that Maïwenn wholeheartedly supported the #MeToo movement? Maïwenn says what she dislikes about discussions concerning #MeToo is how quickly nuance disappears. “It’s not black or white,” she exclaims. “There are so many nuances to the movement itself!”

For me, Isild’s statement chimes with a central theme of Jeanne du Barry: the lack of options available for working-class young women in a system dominated by privileged men. It goes without saying that the abuse of power isn’t confined to France, but the French film industry seems particularly indulgent towards its male directors. Isn’t the problem with the French film industry that it functions, in so many ways, like 18th-century Versailles?

Maïwenn does not wish to talk about the sexism of the French film industry. She has a face like thunder and is no longer making eye contact. I mention that she’s talked, in the past, about identifying with Jeanne, saying that her liaison with Luc Besson aroused jealousy and suspicion; because of the age and status gap, no one believed she was motivated by love.

Maïwenn and her former husband Luc Besson in 1995 (Shutterstock)
Maïwenn and her former husband Luc Besson in 1995 (Shutterstock)

That’s it, Maïwenn explodes. “This is my private life!” she cries. “You’re going too far! You haven’t talked about Jeanne, or the history. There are so many things to say about this woman and you didn’t even ask one question about her!”

Maïwenn’s French producer and the British PR rush over to the table. Pointing in my direction, Maïwenn says, angrily: “She talks about scandal, MeToo, Johnny Depp, Luc Besson, my sister! Not even one question about Jeanne du Barry!” What? We did discuss Jeanne. “No! You didn’t! Always like this!” Maïwenn uses her hand to mimic a snake. “You talk about a few scenes because of Johnny Depp!”

Keen to smooth things over, the PR asks: “Have you got other questions about Jeanne du Barry?” I look at the next question on my list: “Why is Jeanne du Barry dedicated to the late Hervé Temime (the celebrity lawyer best known for representing Roman Polanski and Gérard Depardieu in court)?” I’m dying to know the answer to this one. But, gee, something tells me it won’t land well. I say: “I can ask loads more questions about Jeanne!”

“I have to leave,” she snaps. Then Maïwenn, who at the premiere that evening will say she loves the film’s arch-royalist heroine because “she was a feminist before everybody else”, stands up, shakes my hand and does just that.

‘Jeanne du Barry’ is in cinemas, and available on digital release from 20 May