July 7, 2020 8:45 AM EDT

(LONDON) — Johnny Depp gave evidence in a London court on Tuesday, denying claims that he hit ex-wife Amber Heard and accusing her of assaulting him and depicting him as a “monster.”

Depp sat in the witness box in a wood-paneled High Court courtroom on the first day of his libel case against The Sun over an article that branded him a “wife-beater.” The “Pirates of the Caribbean” star began by taking the court oath and giving his full name: John Christopher Depp II.

Depp is suing the tabloid’s publisher, News Group Newspapers, and its executive editor, Dan Wootton, over an 2018 story alleging he was violent and abusive to model-actress Heard during their short, tempestuous marriage. Depp strongly denies the claim.

Depp said Heard had “said to the world that she was in fear of her life from me, and I had been this horrible monster if you will. Which was not the case.”

Depp, 57, and Heard, 34, met on the set of the 2011 comedy “The Rum Diary” and married in Los Angeles in February 2015. They divorced in 2017, and now bitterly accuse one another of abuse.

Depp and Heard arrived by separate entrances at the neo-Gothic court building on the opening day of the three-week trial, one of the first to be held in person since Britain began to lift its coronavirus lockdown. Both wore face coverings over their noses and mouths. Proceedings have been spread over several courtrooms to allow for social distancing.

Witnesses are scheduled to include Depp’s former partners, Vanessa Paradis and Winona Ryder, both of whom have submitted statements supporting him.

Depp’s claim centers on an April 2018 story in The Sun headlined: “Potty – How can JK Rowling be ‘genuinely happy’ casting wife beater Johnny Depp in the new Fantastic Beasts film?”

While Heard isn’t on trial, the case is also a showdown between the former spouses, who accuse each other of being controlling, violent and untruthful.

Describing one incident in which Heard claims he hit her, Depp said the opposite was true.

“As things tended to do, (it) escalated and got physical, ending with a bit of assault. Ms. Heard struck me,” he said.

He painted himself as a peacemaker who tried to de-escalate things.

“Whenever it would escalate I would try to go to my own corner, as it were … before things got out of hand,” he said.

The Sun’s defense relies on Heard’s allegations of 14 incidents of violence by Depp between 2013 and 2016, in locations including Los Angeles, Australia, Japan, the Bahamas and on a private jet. He denies them all and says Heard attacked him with items including a drink can and a cigarette. He also claims that on one occasion Heard or one of her friends defecated on his bed.

“She was the abuser, not him,” Depp’s lead lawyer, David Sherborne, said in a written statement.

“She is a highly complex and aggressive individual who suffered extreme mood swings, would provoke endless circular arguments, and fly into violent rages.”

The case is set to put the two performers’ complex private lives under a microscope.

Under cross-examination by The Sun’s lawyer, Sasha Wass, Depp acknowledged taking myriad drugs over the years, including marijuana, cocaine, LSD, ecstasy, magic mushrooms and prescription pharmaceuticals.

He said his drug use began when he was an 11-year-old child with “not a particularly stable or secure or safe home life.” He said it was “the only way that I found to numb the pain.”

Wass also tried to depict Depp as someone with an anger management problem, bringing up an 1989 arrest for assault and a later incident in which he damaged a New York hotel room.

“I was angry, but that doesn’t mean I have an anger problem,” Depp said.

In pre-trial wrangling, the Sun’s lawyers tried to have the suit thrown out on the grounds that Depp failed to disclose text messages he exchanged with an assistant showing that he tried to buy “MDMA and other narcotics” while he was in Australia with Heard in 2015.

Heard alleges that Depp subjected her to “a three-day ordeal of physical assaults” while they were in the country after drinking and taking drugs.

The newspaper’s lawyer, Adam Wolanski, said withholding the texts was a breach of a previous court order requiring Depp to provide all documents from separate libel proceedings against Heard in the United States. Depp is suing Heard for $50 million for allegedly defaming him in a Washington Post article about domestic abuse. That case is due to be heard next year.

Last week, judge Andrew Nicol ruled that Depp had breached the court order, but refused to throw out the actor’s claim.

He also rejected an attempt by Depp to force Heard to disclose evidence including communications with actor James Franco and Space-X founder Elon Musk, with whom she allegedly had affairs while involved with Depp.

The judge said the issue of Heard’s extramarital relations was irrelevant to the central issue in the case, which is “whether Mr. Depp assaulted Ms. Heard.”

Depp’s lawyer, Sherborne, said the actor had brought the case to “clear his reputation.”

“This is not a case about money,” he said. “It is about vindication.”

Contact us at editors@time.com.

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