Sometimes, maybe late at night, on location, after he's put down his guitar or closed one of the four or five books he's reading or shut off the "trashiest television imaginable" (he's a Honey Boo Boo man), Johnny Depp starts asking himself questions. He loves his job, has had a lot worse ones, and there's been increasingly decent money in it – island-buying money, recording-studio-in-your-house money, your-kids-and-grandkids-never-have-to-worry money. But. Is there something else you want to mess around with? Would it be good to just go somewhere and sit and think and write – not stories, necessarily, but just spew?
Today, back in his L.A. office, on a break from shooting a sci-fi thing called Transcendence in Albuquerque, fresh from his daughter's 14th-birthday party the night before, with his latest art-film-bonkers performance in a likely blockbuster (as a war-painted Tonto in The Lone Ranger) rumbling toward theaters, Depp is thinking, Maybe. "I'm kicking 50 right up the ass," he says, just a couple of weeks before the end of his forties, dragging on one of his fat, brown, proficiently self-rolled cigarettes. "I can't say that I'd want to be doing this for another 10 years."
Thoughts of retirement pop up "every day," he says. But nothing's imminent. "I think while I've got the opportunity and the desire and the creative spark to do the things that I can do right now, I should do them," Depp says, in his rather mesmerizing, if mumbly, tobacco-basted baritone. "And then, at a certain point, just take it down to the bare minimum and concentrate on, I guess, living life. Really living life. And going somewhere where you don't have to be on the run, or sneak in through the kitchen or the underground labyrinth of the hotel. At a certain point, when you get old enough or get a few brain cells back, you realize that, on some level, you lived a life of a fugitive."
Then again, getting older opens up some interesting roles – look at his late drinking buddy Marlon Brando. And he isn't good at laying back. "I don't know if I can relax," he says. "Relax, I can't do. My brain, on idle, is a bad thing. I just get weird. I mean, not weird. I get, I get antsy." He stubs out his cigarette in an ashtray set on a wooden coffee table with a roulette wheel built into its top.
When Depp lets his mind go, it can go like this: "There's a great part of me that has deep concerns for, let's say, the world, as everyone does. If you're, in any way, sensitive to that stuff and you just keep taking in, taking in, taking in, you'll drive yourself fucking nuts. You start getting into things, like – people are fighting because each one says their god is better than the other. And zillions of fucking people die. Savagely. Horribly. Innocent people. And, I mean, there's no way – you can't take that in as a machine and then spit it out as data that makes sense. You can't do it. So you've got – you've got to protect – I don't know. Protect yourself in a way, like . . ."
He pauses, looks up through his blue-tinted aviator glasses and laughs, recognizing the mental cul-de-sac he just hit. "What's it all about, Alfie?" he says. "Or, ALF! Probably best to go to ALF, actually. What's it all about, ALF?"
That might be a good role for him, I venture. "I should play ALF," he says, delighted. "Fucking fantastic. ALF. Yeah, it should be called ALF: The Stuff You Never Saw."
He's a good hang, Johnny Depp, clearly. It doesn't take long to see why his heroes – Brando, Keith Richards, Hunter S. Thompson, Bob Dylan – tend to become his friends. "Johnny is just as interesting as Dylan or Brando – or me," says Richards, who has given Depp hours of interviews for a documentary he's working on about the Stones guitarist's life and music – and also played his dad in the Pirates of the Caribbean sequels. "He has a lot of interests and a great sense of humor. You get drawn to guys like that. He's basically the same as I am – a shy boy that you get a lot from. Also, we know that we have something we have to do . . . and we don't know what that is."
Depp is, at the moment, dressed like a hobo whom other hobos would worry about. On his head is a battered, ancient brown fedora with a big tear on top, like Indiana Jones' post-refrigerator-ride. He's thrown a shapeless brown canvas jacket over a blue denim shirt that's open to reveal a bonus shirt, an orange-striped Henley, beneath. His jeans are huge, carpenter-cut, shredded practically to bits, with white paint splattered up the legs and duct tape covering some of the worst holes at the rear. He's wearing a bunch of skull rings on his fingers. His brown leather boots (worn over white socks) are the only faux-distressed element of his outfit – a gift from their manufacturer, A.S. 98., they're brand-new but look 30 years old. He has a goatee and a mustache and many, many tattoos, some of them very recently acquired. "I'm running out of real estate," he says.
His glasses are prescription, and he needs them badly, though they don't do anything for his left eye. Since birth, he's been "basically blind as a bat" in that one, in a way that's impossible to correct. "Everything is just very, very blurry," he says. "I've never had proper vision." The right eye is simply nearsighted (and lately, far-sighted). So whenever he's acting – unless he's lucky enough to be in a scene where his character wears sunglasses – Depp can see only a few inches away from his face.
As for the duct tape on his jeans: "I realized one morning as I was going to a thing my boy had at school – one of those things where, you know, they get up and sing a song? I had to be there at a certain time, and, of course, I was running late and I was reaching back to check and see if I had my wallet and passport and stuff. I always have a passport for some reason."
He takes the passport out from his back pocket and shows it off – it's nearly as battered as his hat. "Fugitive," he says, again. "And so I reached back and I thought, 'Jesus Christ!' There was this really long tear – and there were no undergarments involved."
At this point, he must be interrupted – this is important stuff, cover of Tiger Beat-circa-1988 stuff. Johnny Depp doesn't wear underwear?
"That's the general approach," he says, possibly blushing a little under the shadow of his awful hat. "And so, yeah, I just immediately looked for duct tape. I know, it's pathetic. And then I continue to wear them."
This is an excerpt of a story that appears in the July 4, 2013 issue of Rolling Stone.