Amber Heard: Film festival’s Shining Star lights up crowd

It’s a wrap for Maui Film Festival

Maui Film Festival founder Barry Rivers presents actress Amber Heard the Shining Star Award on Friday at the Celestial Cinema in Wailea. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photos

WAILEA — Feisty actress Amber Heard brought cheers from a crowd of 1,675 with calls for female empowerment in the movie industry as she accepted the Maui Film Festival’s Shining Star Award at the Celestial Cinema on Friday.

Humor punctuated the remarks from the 32-year-old Texas native, who’s equally at home playing sexy or funny in a career marked by powerful portrayals of women bucking the system.

Following a reel of clips of films ranging from cult favorite “Zombieland” to Oscar fare like “The Danish Girl” and “North Country,” she greeted the crowd with a big “Aloha!”

“I love that word,” she said. “It just oozes a sense of Hawaiian pride and deliciousness that people like my ‘Aquaman’ co-star Jason Momoa won’t let you ignore nor forget.”

Asked about first impressions of the festival, which concluded its 19th year Sunday, the actress said, “I need not look beyond my feet.”

Heard proudly holds her Shining Star Award on Friday

She was barefoot. “Even though it is Hawaii, I could not have expected such a wonderfully laid-back, chill amazing trip.”

Heard’s arrival on Maui coincided with her arrival on the cover of Entertainment Weekly, previewing her upcoming adventure epic.

“We’ve got ‘Aquaman’ coming out in December. I play Mera, the commander, queen-to-be of Atlantis.”

Honolulu-born Momoa plays the title role in what’s expected to be an action blockbuster in the holiday season.

The magazine cover signals the beginning of a huge publicity tour. “These are big movies and part of the joy of making them is you spend nine months working every day, long hours, then you go out on a press tour and see the fans. That’s what it’s all about. There’s nothing quite like comic book fans — they’re great!”

As the sun sets, the crowd settles in for a night of movies and hoopla Friday at the Celestial Cinema at the Wailea Golf Course.

Playing Mera entailed “getting zipped into an aquamarine, scaly condom and push-up bra and getting put in a harness for 18 hours a day,” she joked. “One of the wonderful things about doing a movie like that is you invest a lot of time in it, but then it gives you a breath of fresh air after, where you have the freedom to dive into these little indie, art house low-budget films. I love to work with a first-time auteur director who’s never done anything but has a vision, or invest in a character who kind of scares me.”

Born in Austin, one of her early film roles came in “Friday Night Lights,” a look at rural Texas where high school football reigns supreme, partly because it’s the only thing going on in those wide-open spaces.

“I think that’s why I was hired,” she said, describing the film’s depiction as “pretty spot-on. My love for film and filmmaking really was coming from a small town in Texas.”

She recalled her girlhood with her little sister, Whitney, who accompanied her to the film festival. “We would just toy around with a video camera to entertain ourselves so we wouldn’t go crazy. That turned into something real. It turned into a lifelong love of storytelling.”

Despite being so young she already has almost 50 films and TV shows in her wide-ranging filmography.

Acting, she said, is something done from the inside out. “As soon as you’re aware of the effect you have on others, you break down the wall, and that ruins the magic. It’s about existing in it, getting in the skin. At least that’s what I try to do.”

Asked about gender politics in the entertainment world, she said, “Unfortunately for women, especially young women in my industry, it is especially hard to not have to choose between a sort of empowered role that is based on character or characteristics, and the effect you have on your male counterparts sexually. It’s a binary system, it needs to be completely dismantled.”

She got growing cheers and applause from the crowd as she went on. “We need more women behind the camera, behind the page, behind the scenes. And we need more women like me who are just loud-mouthed and won’t shut up, to keep demanding pay equality and a larger role and a position that we have already been participating in and running for a very long time. The disparity between the parts we’re offered and the longevity of our careers is terrible.”

When first told of The Maui Film Festival award, she joked about wondering whether it was a lifetime achievement award at age 32.

“I thought, that would be befitting. I mean, I’m an actress. I age in dog years apparently.”

Noting “a groundswell of change” in the entertainment world following the Harvey Weinstein scandal, there’s still a long way to go, she said.

“Despite Hollywood’s reputation for being at the helm of progressive change and progressive ideas, it is actually quite the opposite. We are the worst statistically at incorporating all sorts of diversity and inclusion. We are way behind, not only on gender but on race, across the boards. It won’t change until we start taking up the pens and taking up the cameras and dismantling this Hollywood system that’s been in place for far too long.”

Changing tone, she said she loved playing opposite Seth Rogen and James Franco in the stoner comedy “Pineapple Express.”

“It was very much a boys club. I felt honored to get to play, I had so much fun. But I really am inspired today when I see these female-led comedies and women being allowed to not have to choose between being hot, or some version of that, and being funny, or weird or nuanced. I love these movies where women are fleshed out, three-dimensional characters. Especially funny ones.”

An upcoming role she’s looking forward to is on behalf of L’Oreal cosmetics, which has just named her a global ambassador.

“They said, ‘We want to hire you, but not because you can sell shampoo. We want to hire you for your voice.’ I said, ‘OK, let’s put your money where my mouth is. Let’s get some programs going where we can serve women in communities that are otherwise underserved.’

“I’m working on certain philanthropies, especially ones that focus on women and children. In L’Oreal’s case, they’re going to let me get behind the camera and I’m going to engage other women in female-led productions. This time and this platform that I have is allowing me to do things I really care about. And then I’ll have to go to work and put on the aquasuit again, and that will be a different version of my life.”

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