Phoenix Fumbles 'Late Show' Interview

Joaquin Phoenix ignored questions, scratched beard during "Late Show" interview.

January 7, 2009, 6:15 PM

Feb. 12, 2009 — -- Joaquin Phoenix's turn from actor to rapper is getting more bizarre by the day.

On David Letterman's "Late Show" Wednesday night, the "Two Lovers" star seemed completely out of it, staring off into space, answering questions with one-word answers and, at one point, sticking gum on the edge of Letterman's desk.

Hiding behind a scraggly beard and dark sunglasses, Phoenix alternated between shifting in his seat and scratching his face throughout the seven-minute-long interview. Early on, Letterman asked if the beard was comfortable.

"I'm OK with it, but now you're making me feel weird about it," Phoenix replied.

Later, the actor-rapper appeared to forget the name of his "Two Lovers'" co-star, Gwyneth Paltrow. When the "Late Show" host said he loved the movie and Phoenix's acting, Phoenix simply said, "Thank you."

He appeared irritated when Letterman asked him to set up a clip from "Two Lovers," saying, "Are you [expletive] kidding? Are you serious with that maniacal laughter? I don't know what the clip is."

Halfway through the interview, after a long pause from his guest, Letterman embraced the opportunity to make a fool of Phoenix.

"So what can you tell me about your days with the Unabomber?" he asked, eliciting howls of laughter from the audience. Phoenix didn't respond.

When Letterman ribbed Phoenix for chewing gum during the interview, Phoenix took the gum out of his mouth and put it on the "Late Show" host's desk.

That seemed to signal the end of the sit-down. Letterman closed the interview by saying, "Joaquin, I'm sorry you couldn't be here tonight."

Phoenix's transition from Oscar-nominated actor to completely out-of-sorts rapper seems too wacky to be true. But earlier this month, Phoenix confirmed his move into the rap music world is no hoax, as had been speculated in various media reports.

"There's not a hoax," Phoenix told The Associated Press. "Might I be ridiculous? Might my career in music be laughable? Yeah, that's possible, but that's certainly not my intention."

Phoenix's debut performance in January was less than auspicious: Three barely comprehensible raps concluded by Phoenix falling off the stage.

How did the audience respond?

"There was a mixture of people clapping," said Mike Snedegar, the head of entertainment marketing at Lavo, the Las Vegas nightclub where Phoenix performed Jan. 9, "and some with weird looks on their faces like, 'What is going on?'"

Phoenix contends the live show was much better than footage posted on the Internet.

"It sucks that, yeah, the footage is out there as like this incredibly bad sound, and you literally can't hear what's happening," he told the AP. "It was much better in the club, and I don't know who said that people were booing … because that was not happening."

"Unless, of course, it's a pretty big place, and maybe it was happening," Phoenix added with a laugh. "But it was not my experience. My experience afterward was I had a lot of dudes come up and say, 'We really respect you for doing it, putting yourself out there, and going with it.' Because I think true hip-hop heads know that it's hard, it's going to be a hard transition, and people are going to be lining up just to make fun of me."

After the performance, some wondered whether Phoenix was carrying out some kind of elaborate ruse. Phoenix's rep, publicist Susan Patricola, released a statement at the end of January saying the actor's rap-star dreams are real and he will continue to pursue them despite naysayers.

"The transition from one career to another is never seamless. It should come as no surprise to anyone that Joaquin came from a musical family, in addition to winning a Golden Globe for his portrayal of Johnny Cash," Patricola wrote in an e-mail. "He intends on exploring his musical interests despite speculative, negative or positive reactions."

Casey Affleck is helming a documentary about Phoenix's foray into music and was in Vegas, along with two other cameramen, shooting Phoenix's performance.

According to media reports, Diddy is producing Phoenix's rap album. At first his rep said she was unaware of his involvement but later she sent an e-mail saying, "I cannot comment on this at this time."

Several other rappers contacted by refused to go on the record commenting about Phoenix's new career path.

Snedegar told that he had his doubts about Phoenix's intentions.

"I'm not sure, to be honest. There were moments when I looked at him and I thought, 'I can't believe he's doing this,'" he said. "Then, there were moments he seemed to be very serious."

Apparently Phoenix was prepared to not be taken seriously. He told People magazine before his performance: "Are there people out there who think I'm a joke? I'm sure there will be. Are there people who think it's going to suck? Probably, but I can't worry about that."

From the Silver Screen to the Music Scene

Snedegar said some of the raps' lyrics were about Phoenix leaving acting to become a rapper and growing up in San Francisco, but, for the most part, he had trouble understanding them.

"When he first got on, there was a small sound adjustment -- you had to wait 20 seconds before you could hear him," he said. "Then he started talking, the playback went in and he kept on rhythm. But you couldn't really understand what he was saying. I think he was holding the microphone too far away."

Stunt or not, Phoenix certainly appears serious about his new career. About to go onstage in October for a play benefiting Paul Newman's Hole in the Wall Camps, he told "Extra": "I want to take this opportunity ... also to give you the exclusive and just talk a little bit about the fact that this will be my last performance as an actor. I'm not doing films anymore. … I'm working on my music. I'm done. I've been through that."

The surprises did not end there. Next came Phoenix's bearded, bloated appearance at a party in December.

Hip-hop may seem like an odd fit for Phoenix, who, three years ago, received an Oscar nod for his portrayal of singer Johnny Cash. Not so, he explained to People magazine: "When I was young I liked punk rock music but then I discovered rap. I love the storytelling aspect of hip-hop."

"After all the years of reading scripts and reading lines, this is my chance to do something straight from the heart and put it out there," he told People. "This is me saying this is who I am. This is my story."

But will people want to hear what he has to say?

Snedegar thinks people will tune in, at least initially. About 500 people -- some fans, some skeptics -- turned out for Phoenix's first performance, he said.

"He's definitely going to make waves with his performance because people are curious," he said. "It just depends on how people accept him."

That includes his shaggy new look. "I was surprised by his appearance," Snedegar said, referring to Phoenix's bushy beard, dark shades, baggy sweater and torn gray knit cap. "Everybody was. He was dressed very laid back, a beachy vibe with loose pants, a big sweater and a cap on most of the time. He looked like he had gained a little weight."

Joaquin's Strange Behavior?

Phoenix's dramatically different appearance, coupled with reports of erratic behavior, have some worried that the former leading man is headed for the same self-destructive path as his older brother, the late actor River Phoenix.

"Given his actions, he [Joaquin] is starting to look a lot like his brother," Ian Drew, editor at large at US Weekly, told "It does make you question how his story is going to end -- or continue."

River Phoenix died of a drug overdose in October 1993 after collapsing outside the Johnny Depp-owned Viper Room nightclub in Los Angeles.

The then-19-year-old Joaquin, who was at the club along with their sister Summer, made the 911 call to try to save his 23-year-old brother's life.

"Joaquin is definitely on a course right now," E! Online gossip columnist Ted Casablanca told "I don't know if it's self-destruction or self-derailing. But he's obviously going through some sort of tortured episode in his life. It's a cry for help."

"He's obviously a deep guy with some dark reference points," Drew said. "There's obviously a shadow over his life. He's had problems played out on the public stage."

In 2005, after filming the Cash biopic "Walk the Line," Phoenix entered rehab for alcohol abuse. He told reporters afterward that he started drinking more while playing Cash.

"It was then that I became aware of my drinking. I wasn't an everyday drinker but didn't have anything else to do, anything to hold me down," he said. "I was leaning on alcohol to make me feel OK. That's what it really was."

Publicist Patricola quashed any rumors that Phoenix is self-destructing.

She told, "He is fine and doing his music," but would not go into detail. "When Joaquin has more to say, I'm sure he will," she said.

Snedegar said Phoenix appeared fine the night he performed. "Every time I spoke to him he was coherent, polite. He was low key but open to the fans."

Phoenix's Rap Debut

Even though Phoenix's agent had booked the gig a couple weeks before, it was still undecided whether he would perform that night. The evening started with a specially prepared vegan dinner for Phoenix and 20 friends, including Affleck, at the Palazzo Resort Hotel and Casino.

The group then moved upstairs to Lavo, Snedegar says, where they sat at a table in front of a catwalk with a microphone, in case Phoenix decided to perform.

A member of Affleck's documentary crew gave the signal: Phoenix was ready to go on.

"I don't know if I would say he's a natural," Snedegar added. "He isn't horrible. He can keep on beat. He was kind of dancing and on rhythm and that was good."

Phoenix, who seemed tentative at first, Snedegar said, soon warmed up during the course of the three raps, strutting the catwalk and, by the end, jumping up and down and thanking his audience profusely. "You hold a very special place in my heart," he told the crowd.

Perhaps it was the adrenaline that made him miss a step as he was leaving the catwalk and fall into the audience, where he landed on his feet.

"He took pictures with fans, hung out another hour," Snedegar said. "His friends were hugging him. He seemed very happy."

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