Phoenix Fumbles 'Late Show' Interview

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

ByABC News
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."

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."