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."
The pants remain the same, but there have been, as of late, many changes in the life of Depp. In his corner office at his production company, an elegant cave where crimson curtains are closed against the late-afternoon sun, he's sipping on a conspicuously nonalcoholic beer. He hasn't had a drink in a year and a half, though he won't use the word "quit." "I just decided that I pretty much got everything I could get out of it," he says. "I investigated wine and spirits thoroughly, and they certainly investigated me as well, and we found out that we got along beautifully, but maybe too well."
He's never considered himself an alcoholic. "No," he says. "I don't have the physical need for the drug alcohol. No, it's more my medication, my self-medication over the years just to calm the circus. Once the circus kicks in, the festivities in the brain, it can be ruthless." He would make rules for himself – for a while, he'd drink wine, but no hard liquor. He was really good at drinking, had no trouble keeping up with, say, Thompson. "Maybe that's why Hunter and I got along so well," he says. "I'm able to continue for great periods of time, weirdly. For weeks. There's no great point to it, ultimately. You realize that you wouldn't treat your car that way."
As Richards notes, Depp can be shy, in his way – there's a reason that he always wanted to be the sideman, never the singer, in his old bands. "I'm kind of socially inept," Depp says, laughing in a way that says This is embarrassing, rather than I know this is almost impossible to believe, given my otherworldly beauty and the fact that I'm, like, Johnny Depp. "And it was always a great crutch. Mingling at parties and stuff like that has always been not a nice experience for me. It's just not comfortable. Or, like, talk shows used to be in the beginning. So I found I needed to drink in those situations. Just slam a couple down and go, 'OK, I can muster up enough small talk to meander my way through this thing and get out the other side unscathed.' "
He also had quit smoking for two and a half years, until Rum Diary director Bruce Robinson gave him a drag of a cigarillo as they finished the film. "Literally, the nicotine hits you and you're back. If you're a cigarette smoker, a serious smoker, then you're a junkie. You're a junkie to that drug." He smokes less than he used to, going through maybe six cigarettes over the course of three and a half hours today, but it's obviously a fraught issue: With every one of his tobacco packets, he takes the trouble to grab a Sharpie and X out the grotesque you'll-get-cancer picture and warning box.
"They show some guy with three and a half teeth and some sort of red, dangly bit in his mouth," he says. "So that's for the smoker to look at. OK, fine. He sets it down on the fucking table and eight kids see it. That's cool? Jesus. There's worse shit out there. I mean, what's wrong with these people? We all know it's not fucking good for you. Life's not good for you! It kills ya! Do you know what I mean? God damn! These are the same people who are so adamant about not smoking and being around smokers. No, you can't smoke on the Sunset Strip when you're eating outside – however, you are welcome to all the diesel fumes and every bit of dirt and filth and dust and disease and everything that gets rifled up in the streets."
The biggest recent change is a delicate matter: Depp's split from Vanessa Paradis, his partner of 14 years and the mother of his two children. "The last couple years have been a bit bumpy," he says, slowly. "At times, certainly unpleasant, but that's the nature of breakups, I guess, especially when there are kiddies involved."
"Relationships are very difficult," he says at another point. "Especially in the racket that I'm in because you're constantly away or they're away and so it's hard. It wasn't easy on her. It wasn't easy on me. It wasn't easy on the kids. So, yeah. The trajectory of that relationship – you play it out until it goes, one thing leads to another. So for whatever reason that ceases, it doesn't stop the fact that you care for that person, and they're the mother of your kids, and you'll always know each other, and you're always gonna be in each other's lives because of those kids. You might as well make the best of it."
Tabloids and the likes of TMZ (or TLC, as he thinks it's called) made much of Depp's spending time with pal and fellow whiteface aficionado Marilyn Manson in the wake of the breakup – as if he'd gone from the bosom of his family to the embrace of Satan. "Johnny and I were never drinking buddies," says Manson. "Though he was the one who turned me on to absinthe, I will blame him for that. . . . I guess it was some sort of fate that drew us together again recently. We were both going through some troubles in weird areas in our minds and in our lives, and being with him made me happier, and it seemed like it made him happier. You could call it a bromance." The singer says no one was more disturbed at their renewed closeness than his own girlfriend. "It just terrified the girl I was with. Like, 'Yeah, you're hanging out with Johnny Depp, he's single,' and that just meant the worst thing to any girl to ever hear. But he's surprised that girls want to talk to him. That's how childlike he still is, in a good way. I swear to God, he doesn't realize."
Depp (who's been dating 27-year-old actress Amber Heard) has also been spending time with a friend he only recently got to meet in person: Damien Echols of the West Memphis Three, who had been imprisoned for 18 years for murders that evidence suggests he didn't commit. Identifying with a fellow small-town outcast, Depp had been funding and supporting Echols' case for years. The movie star's house was one of his first stops. "Come here, fucker," Depp told Echols, and brought him inside, where he had a meal waiting for him. (Says Depp, "I thought if I had just got out of the pokey after 18 years, I'd want some fucking Tater Tots, man. I'd want some tacos. Give me some deeply trashy food.") They've since gotten five or six matching tattoos together, including one of the crow that's on Depp's head in The Lone Ranger. "Whenever we're together," says Echols, "it's not like you're with a movie star. It's like you're home. He smells like home to me."
Though a younger Depp was known for bouts of debauchery and hotel-room-smashing in the wake of past splits (Kate Moss, Winona Ryder), he insists that wasn't the case this time. "In terms of the breakup, I definitely wasn't going to rely on the drink to ease things or cushion the blow or cushion the situation," says Depp. " 'Cause that could have been fatal. I felt it was my duty to be real clear throughout that. I had something pretty serious to focus on, really, which was making sure that my kids were gonna be cool."
Depp's own parents divorced when he was 15, and he took it hard. So when he discusses his own breakup, he returns again and again to his kids. "They've been incredibly understanding, incredibly strong throughout the whole ordeal," he says. "And it's hard on every side. You know, Vanessa's side, certainly not easy. My side, not easy. The kids are the most complicated. The thing is, kiddies come first. You can't shield them, because then you'd be lying. So you can at least be honest with your kids, and you say the absolute truth to your child – that was very important to not pussyfoot around." Not drinking helped him with that, he says, allowing him to "bite the bullet and deal with real life, deal with clarity."
Except for his own office, the headquarters of Depp's production company, Infinitum Nihil (it means "infinite nothing," a reference to a Tolstoy line), are bright, airy and Internet-startup modern, with a big, open kitchen in the front. A meeting room is temporarily overflowing with Lone Ranger posters and theater displays, sent over by Disney – and that's the least of the memorabilia here. In the hallway leading to his own office is the huge oil painting of Depp as a vampire that hung over the fireplace in Dark Shadows. Depp's own artwork is on display elsewhere, including Lucian Freud-style portraits of Dylan and Brando that achieve impressive likenesses with gestural brushwork.
In Depp's office, his brown, computer-free wood desk is framed on the left by a Pirates of the Caribbean poster, and on the right, another of his paintings, a surreal and faintly creepy portrait of a faceless man in a featureless white uniform (hilariously, I later learn he titled it "Phil Collins"). There's a hundred-year-old acoustic guitar in the corner, and vintage-y art-deco chandeliers hang from the ceiling. On the bookshelves are various awards, baby pictures of his kids, volumes by authors from William Blake and Nathanael West to Neil Gaiman and Anne Rice. There's even a rare copy of Bare-Faced Messiah, an Eighties L. Ron Hubbard exposé that would make for interesting conversation if Tom Cruise stopped by.
We're facing double doors open to the adjoining room, which serves as a sort of museum: There's a Pirates of the Caribbean pinball machine with Depp's face on it, and for no particular reason, a life-size replica of the Elephant Man's skeleton, behind glass. Between the skeleton and the pinball machine is a headless mannequin, clad in the original black-leather-and-metal outfit Depp wore as the tragic, mechanical man-boy title character in 1990's Edward Scissorhands. It's a recent acquisition. "I saw it there the other day for the first time," Depp says. "I didn't know they were doing that, and I walked in here the other day and thought, 'Jesus. I hadn't seen it since I put it on all those years ago.' That was a thing, boy. You know, being covered in that. It was like Tampa, Florida. It was, like, 105, 110 degrees. A million percent humidity. My hair was sculpted into this horrific tree, care of Aqua Net. And then my face was covered in rubber-mask grease paint. I lost a lot of water weight on that film. That was a biggie."
The film, made the same year Depp left 21 Jump Street, also set the template for the biggest, and arguably the best, roles of his career. As bracing as he can be in more conventional parts – as a mentally fragmenting undercover cop in Donnie Brasco or a foolish but swaggering drug smuggler in Blow – he often seems most engaged, most alive, most unique when he's wearing a funny hat and face paint (or even, in the case of Alice in Wonderland, CGI-enlarged eyes). Scissorhands director Tim Burton, who would go on to work with Depp seven more times and counting, once wrote a verse about Depp: "There was a young man/Everyone thought was quite handsome/So he tied up his face/And he held it for ransom."
"I think he captured me pretty good," says Depp. "I mean, not in terms of handsome or whatever, but I still am exactly as I was when I was 16, 17 years old, playing in bars. I was infinitely more prone to be standing outside of the lights and in the darkness, playing my guitar and letting all the attention be up front with the lead singer. I was really happy with that."
The veering path of Depp's career – his refusal to "carry the gun and fuck the girl" – led to plenty of great performances in the Nineties, from Ed Wood to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, but failed to make him a commercial superstar. "I could have been out a long time ago, man. I was well on my way to thermos-and-lunchbox antiquity for – I don't know, a good 18 years. I had a string of – in the eyes of the business – semifailure movies. These weren't great big blockbuster things. So I was amazed that I was able to just keep getting gigs."
For his performance as fey, kohl-eyed Captain Jack Sparrow in Pirates, he embraced the broader performance possibilities he saw in the cartoons he watched with his daughter (not to mention the films of Buster Keaton and the daily life of Keith Richards). Then, as he puts it, "things got crazy" – and his career now looks like one of the best-played long games in Hollywood history. He's one of the few stars with two billion-dollar-worldwide-grossing films to his name (the second Pirates movie and Alice in Wonderland), and there's a case to be made that he's both a crazily quirky character actor and the biggest movie star in the world. "Twenty years ago," says Pirates director Gore Verbinski, "I don't think Johnny Depp greenlights a $100 million movie, with giant robots in it or whatever. Now you can't seem to get a movie made without him!"
"Covering myself up in makeup, it's easier to look at someone else," Depp says. "It's easier to look at someone else's face than your own. I think for everyone. Jesus, you wake up in the morning, and you brush your teeth, and you're like, 'Ugh, that fucker again? You're still here? What do you want?' Hiding: I think it's important. It's important for your – for whatever's left of your sanity, I guess."
Another sanity-preserving measure: For years now, Depp hasn't watched any of his movies (except for his 2004 turn as the Earl of Rochester in The Libertine, which the director personally asked him to see – "That's one I'd really recommend"). "I prefer to walk away with the experience. My job, as an actor, is to give the director options. You can only hope that the takes that you thought were the best were chosen. But, then again, if I don't watch it, I'll never know. So, better off."
The late-model, Disney-approved Depp doesn't have as much time for the smaller films he pursued in the Nineties – but big movies have their own advantages. Verbinski's The Lone Ranger is impressively subversive, painting the United States Cavalry as the bad guys and the Comanche as the doomed heroes, with Armie Hammer's Lone Ranger essentially a sidekick to Tonto. "I wanted him to be no joke," says Depp, who put on substantial muscle for the role. "First of all, I wouldn't fuck with someone with a dead bird on their head. Second of all, he's got the fucking paint on his face, which scares me." Depp has Native American blood – the only film he ever directed, The Brave, is set on a grimly depicted reservation. The Lone Ranger will reach a somewhat larger audience. "You can do a lot more damage," says Verbinski, "from the inside."
When Verbinski first told execs about Depp's interest in the project, they were thrilled. "Everybody, for a minute, thought, 'Johnny Depp as the Lone Ranger? Great! Let's do that movie.' Then you could see the faces sour as they said, 'What? He wants to play Tonto? He's the sidekick!' "
The star had his reasons. "I wanted to maybe give some hope to kids on the reservations," says Depp, who's wearing an ancient Comanche symbol on the end of his rope necklace. "They're living without running water and seeing problems with drugs and booze. But I wanted to be able to show these kids, 'Fuck that! You're still warriors, man.' "
Depp was able to deliver that message in person to some young members of the Comanche tribe after he was adopted as a son by Comanche activist LaDonna Harris last year, in a traditional ceremony. They gave him the name "Shape Shifter." "It seemed very descriptive," says Harris, who is untroubled by Depp's face paint and head bird as Tonto, deemed disrespectfully unrealistic by some Native American groups. "The Comanche are very individualistic," she says.
A couple of months after his adoption, Depp made an unpublicized appearance at the Comanche Nation fair in Oklahoma, riding in a parade, plunging into crowds of children, visiting an old burial ground, where he wept. They gave him moccasins, and the otter-skin headdress of a tribal leader; he gave them one of his paintings. At the end of the day, Depp told Harris that he had never felt so accepted anywhere in his life.
Depp looks like a rock musician, but he talks like a writer, backpedaling on his sentences as if he's searching for the delete key, revising as he goes. He's a dedicated autodidact whose life was changed by On the Road; he always carries around a copy of Finnegans Wake, which he's been puzzling through for years. He's been keeping a journal since his twenties, which is how he sorts through his own puzzles; his attempts at therapy never worked out.
For a while, his fame was interfering even with that private exercise. "You try to be as honest as possible in your journals, but then there's a part of you that's even guarded with yourself, strangely, because you know someone's gonna read the fuckers once you become smoke," he says. "And so I've made a very conscious effort now over the last few years to write honestly. It might end up being eight, nine pages straight. It could be a sentence. It could be two sentences. But I put it down now as honest."
He didn't need his journals to give him fresh insight into his childhood. Raising his own kids shed new light on his early years as the youngest kid in a lower-middle-class family with an odd habit of moving from house to house on a practically monthly basis – first in Kentucky, then in Florida. That feeling of living as a fugitive has been with him since well before his fame.
"I wouldn't say my youth was the perfect model in terms of raising a kid," he says. "It was a relatively violent upbringing. If you did something wrong, you got hit. If you didn't do something wrong, you got hit. But my parents, they did the best they could with what they knew, and so I figured I'd do the best with what I knew, which was do pretty much the opposite from what you guys did – and I think I'll be all right. Not to say they were bad parents, because they weren't. They just didn't know any different, and it was a very different time."
His father was a civil engineer; his mother worked as a waitress, "counting nickels and pennies and dimes at the end of the night." Money was tight. "They went into, like, a quadruple bankruptcy every Christmas," says Depp. "My mother was raised in a shack, in the wilds of Appalachia, where the toilet was an outhouse. She used to say she did the same things that her mom did – and her mom certainly didn't know any better. With my kids, they're told 75 times a day that they're loved. One thing I know is they feel loved and secure and happy and needed and necessary and a part of something."
The house-moving thing still affects him. "When it's time to pack, even to go on vacation, I'm a wreck, man," he says. "Because I can't. It reminds me so much of having to move all the time. And I've had to live nothing but a vagabond existence, really, for so many years. There are films that I still haven't unpacked from. Somewhere in a storage locker are suitcases. I know that I've still got a suitcase from Scissorhands somewhere that I didn't unpack and Cry-Baby and God knows what else. These little time capsules just laying there somewhere just because I couldn't deal with it."
He can envision publishing some of his journals in some form. He's not sure about other writing, or even directing another movie besides the Richards documentary. He was so bruised by the reaction to The Brave that he pulled the movie from circulation; it's impossible to obtain to this day. "I was insulted by the way the U.S. press was [saying] 'How dare you, Actor Boy, think that you have a brain?' But Terry Gilliam told me, 'The thing is, The Brave is like you.' It doesn't know what it wants to be. And I thought that was pretty accurate. It didn't know what it wanted to be, because I didn't know what I wanted to be – and I still don't know what I want to be."
And that brings him to that idea of running away for a while, doing something else. "There's a great part of me that thinks it wouldn't be so bad to split for a few years," he says. "It's not necessarily to say that I want to go out and have a new career, 'cause I've always thought that a little strange when people do that."
But the truth is, he already got a lot of the answers he was seeking when his daughter, Lily-Rose, was born, 14 years and one day ago. "I went around for years thinking, 'Well, what's it all for?' All this stuff that I gotta do, interviews and movies and success or not success or this or that. It really was as if a veil was lifted, and things became clearer, and I went, 'Oh, I fucking get it now! That's what it's for! That's what it's for, this beautiful little creature that I took part in creating, making.' I didn't have a real handle on what life was supposed to mean or be or anything like that. And I still don't. And I'm not sure that life is supposed to mean anything or be anything at all. But as long as you have the opportunity to breathe, breathe. As long as you have the opportunity to make your kid smile and laugh, and move it forward."
He doesn't believe in God, or ghosts, either, for that matter – he used to go looking for them. "I think we're here and that's kind of it," he says. "Then it's dirt and worms."
For a while, he thought it would be cool to have his body hurled off a cliff when he goes. "Just tossed over a mountain so that people could watch it bounce," he says. "Might as well entertain people. Or maybe just save the tattoos. 'Cause it might revolutionize what happens after death. Take a guy's tattoos off, make formaldehyde frames where it's preserved and stretched out and stuff – that doesn't sound gruesome at all, does it? No. That's not at all serial-killer. That's totally cool. Can you imagine? 'What are those?' 'Oh, that's my dad's tattoos all over that wall. That's my dad splattered against the wall.' "
As for the career, and the prospect of retiring or winding down or disappearing, consider this: Manson tells the tale of a drunken night in Hollywood when the two men wandered over to Depp's star on the Walk of Fame – right between Wesley Snipes' and Sonny and Cher's. "We wanted to pee on it," says Manson. "We thought about it. I can't confirm or deny that we did it."
And then there's the voice Depp hears in his head sometimes – all the time, really. It's Marlon Brando's growl, and this is what it says: "Fuck it. Fuck it. You don't need this shit. Fuck it." Depp laughs hard relating this, as if Brando is yelling it in his ear. "Marlon got to a point in his life where he just said, 'I don't care,' " says Depp, smiling like a fugitive with road's end in sight at last. "And that must be some species of nirvana. It has to be. It's freedom."
This story is from the July 4, 2013 issue of Rolling Stone.
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This article originally appeared on Rolling Stone: Johnny Depp: An Outlaw Looks at 50