Phoenix Sets Out on 'Internal Exploration' With Music

Joaquin Phoenix excited about upcoming album but "doesn't care" about new movie.

Feb. 14, 2009 — -- The rap on Joaquin Phoenix?

The two-time Oscar nominee says his career change, from acting to music, is absolutely for real. Phoenix, a self-described "life poet," has been in his recording studio in Los Angeles, rapping about his world.

"I want it to be big. Not big like popular. I want it to really try and be, for me, the culmination of my life thus far," says Phoenix of his hip-hop debut, which is a work in progress. "I realize it's going to be for public consumption, so there are songs that are about — there are dance songs. Most of it, I think, is an internal exploration."

With his shaggy hair, disheveled attire and bushy beard, Phoenix, 34, marches to the beat of his own drummer. He's twitchy and not much of a talker, giving mostly brief, stilted answers. And during a subsequent photo shoot, he suddenly gets up and walks over to an artificial plant, rubbing his face in it.

And then there's his jumbled, hostile appearance Wednesday night on "The Late Show With David Letterman," during which Phoenix stuck a piece of chewed gum to Letterman's desk after a series of one-word answers. It's yet another development in the weird world of Phoenix, an idiosyncratic, intense actor who announced last fall that he was leaving his day job to pursue a music career. And this week, he was in New York to promote what he says is his final film, the drama "Two Lovers."

What, exactly, is going on with the actor? Not even his Two Lovers director, James Gray, who also worked with him on "We Own the Night" and "The Yards," can say for certain.

"People have asked me that this week, and all I can say is, you guys know as much as I do," Gray says. "He gives everything to the part. You have to call him the character name. He lives it. At the end of the shoot, he told me he was tired and didn't know if he could do this anymore.

"About two months after the movie was finished, my wife called me into the kitchen and showed me on the computer Joaquin looking like Rasputin saying he's quitting. I couldn't reach him. I went to his house and hopped the fence. He's built a recording studio in his house. He told me: 'I'm doing my own thing. I'm quitting.' "

Gray says that perhaps Phoenix "was just out of gas. We'd made two movies back to back, and I know he was very tired. Maybe he needs to recharge the batteries. I can't imagine that he's done. But maybe he is?"

Drugs aren't involved in his odd public behavior, Gray says. "That I can say for sure. When I talked to him last night at the premiere, he was astonishingly lucid. He's lucid and clear-eyed. He's very sensible. He's clear-minded."

In person, Phoenix alternates between curtness and charm. He amiably cracks jokes about Las Vegas and how you lose all ability to tell time there, but he will barely discuss his new movie. In "Two Lovers," Phoenix plays a troubled Brooklynite torn between the mercurial Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow) and the proper Sandra (Vinessa Shaw). "It's just another movie," says Phoenix, who adds that he did it, "honestly, just to work with James. I really enjoyed working with him. I thought it was an interesting character. That's it."

How does it feel to be part of possibly his last press junket, usually a dreaded experience for actors?

"I love doing press. It doesn't feel really any different," says Phoenix, who's not exactly known as a cooperative interviewee.

And as for whether he sees anything of himself in the lonely, socially awkward Leonard:

"I don't know. I don't really care. I don't really think about it," he says. "Those are things — I should start thinking about it just so I can answer a question. It's the only time it ever comes up, when I'm doing press. I don't think about it."

He's more chatty when asked about his reasons for quitting acting, which has netted him fame, fortune and two Oscar nominations, for 2000's "Gladiator" and 2005's "Walk the Line." Phoenix did his own singing in the latter film as Johnny Cash.

"I don't think there's ever one thing. It's a culmination of everything. I've questioned whether I wanted to continue acting at various times in my career," he says. "It just feels like I've done what I would want to do. There's nothing left for me. The thing that's drawn me to acting is the mystery of it. You're trying to experience something. Once that's happened, I think I got what I can get out of it in some ways."

His transition from movies to music is being filmed by his brother-in-law Casey Affleck, who's married to Phoenix's sister Summer. But he doesn't call what they're doing a documentary, even though Affleck and a crew are tagging along with Phoenix as he does interviews.

"It sounds so official," he says. "We're just a couple of dudes running around with video cameras. I was just in the studio. I just started recording. I was talking to some independent distributors, and they were saying a big thing kind of now is showing people kind of video of being in the studio. We just started shooting stuff. We're kind of going through this transition in a way. I don't know if I'd do it if Case wasn't involved. It might just be clips on my website."

How is the career change going? "It's good. It's what's to be expected. You always imagine things are going to be easier. You always imagine you're going to finish something in a couple of months, and it just goes on. It's been cool."