So Joaquin Phoenix has given up acting for a rap career, or so he insists. Others are saying it’s a hoax, part of some Borat-style performance piece — especially since brother-in-law Casey Affleck is filming a documentary on the transition. I was among a small group of journalists that Phoenix sat down with yesterday in Los Angeles. I’ll soon have some separate, break-out thoughts on the whole afternoon (as well as his alleged big screen swan song, Two Lovers), but what follows is a near-complete transcript of the Q&A:
Question: So is the this the last time we’re gonna see you like this, in this setting? How does it feel?
Joaquin Phoenix: Great. Yeah, it ain’t nothing personal. No, but honestly, today I was getting dressed for hours, prepping, and I was just really satisfied that I wasn’t gonna have to do this again.
Q: But [director James Gray] was saying that you actually were talking to him little bit towards the end of making [Two Lovers] about kind of being a little bit burned out, and that you weren’t sure what you wanted to do next.
Q: So did [those feelings] start while you were making this film, or had you thought about changing careers for a while?
JP: Well, I think that I’ve threatened myself with quitting after every movie. But I think everybody does that, right? I mean, it’s something that I’ve thought about for a long time. And I’ve been working on my music, doing all sorts of different kinds of music and stuff and, I don’t know, in some ways I kind of felt like like I needed to make a statement [about] quitting [acting] really for myself. In some ways I kind of regret it, because I didn’t realize it was going to be such a big deal. I thought nobody would give a fuck, really, to be frank. And I was pretty surprised. I guess no one does except for maybe like a couple people that are blogging or whatever. But I felt that I had to do something extreme to get out of it, because it’s really hard for me to go into music. Because the first thing anyone says is Johnny Cash, you know what I mean? So I really had to do something extreme to get away from that.
Q: You’ve done a few shows now, so how do you feel the hip hop career is going so far?
JP: Uh, terrible. No it’s kind of weird. I haven’t done a bunch of shows, I did a lot of freestyling around the studio and I’ve gone to some small places, and I guess some people there filmed it and shit and put it out there. It was really nerve-wracking, because there’s literally people there heckling you, and saying Johnny Cash and saying this stuff. So it was really difficult. I got really nervous. But the show in Las Vegas I think was a lot better than what’s been said because of how it appears in the video. But it’s still quite a process, like with mic control and stuff, and I have to stay I’m not really there yet, you know what I mean? I realized that, because I’ve watched footage that we shot and I saw all the times when I had the mic away from my mouth that I didn’t realize, you know? And that was probably from Walk the Line, where I was doing the playback and shit, so you could get away from the mic it didn’t matter. But I just figure put yourself out there, crash, and then you rebuild yourself. You kind of find your way into it. I found out like all these hip hop dudes work with like vocal coaches, they do training, they do the whole thing, and I never knew that. I didn’t want to hire a bunch of people, I didn’t want to just start out and hire a produce and get someone to write stuff for me and do all that. I really wanted to do it myself and feel what it was like. I have I guess some celebrity or whatever, so [it’s not like] people wouldn’t really be aware of me until after some right time. Just the first thing I do gets thrust into the spotlight. And I knew that, but I just said fuck it, you know?
Q: You talk about wanting to do something different than the Johnny Cash thing. Was hip hop something you grew up with? I think you even do some break-dancing in the movie.
JP: Yeah, the break-dancing, that’s actually James. No,just kidding. Actually, the thing is, I don’t think there’s many people my age that didn’t grow up listening to hip hop. When I was 15 and 16, that was it for me. I loved hip hop. The first stuff I heard was Public Enemy, and I couldn’t believe it, it was amazing. I’ve always loved hip hop.
Q: So for you is it strictly the old school stuff, or do you like stuff now like Kanye West?
JP: I’m not that familiar with some new stuff, I couldn’t believe some of the differences. You know what’s amazing also is the mastering that they do know. I was listening to B.I.G’s “Juicy,” and I remember that seemed like it was the most crisp pop sound when it came out. There was an underground, New York gritty Wu-Tang kind of sound, and then there came like this real pop sound, and then I put on T.I. and Young Jeezy and shit and then I went back to “Juicy,” I couldn’t believe the difference. It’s unbelievable, the production now. It’s overproduced absolutely.
Q: You talk about crashing into this hip hop career; in one of these YouTube videos we see you take quite a spill off the stage. What happened there?
JP: I didn’t fucking fall. What happened is… first of all, it’s not a stage, it’s about this wide (indicating four feet), you’re up on this little platform, there’s fucking lights everywhere right, in your eyes, flashing at you like that, and everything is dark. And I literally just went to step off the thing and misjudged and slipped down. I wasn’t fucked up. I jumped down and I literally jumped back up without harm and said I’m fine. But, honestly, I was so nervous that I don’t know, it’s all kind of a blur. I don’t feel like I really was aware of what was happening until I was, like, halfway through the second song.
Q: You’re a very private person, but you’re being followed today by a camera crew. Why did you agree to this, and to be so public with everything?
JP: Well, we don’t necessarily know it’s gonna be public. I mean, I’m just doing something for myself. I mean, that’s my friend for fuck sake, you know what I mean? So it’s not like I hired this professional doc crew to follow what I’m doing.
Q: What would say to the people who are saying this is all bogus?
JP: I would say the people who said that it’s a hoax are clearly somebody who is an old friend, or somebody that I worked with on music. You know, I’ve worked with a lot of people on music in the past, and oftentimes those things don’t work out, and sometimes you have some bad blood between people. And that’s where I imagine it comes from, that’s all that I know it is. I realize that part of it might seem ridiculous to other people, but I can’t concern myself with that. I’m not gonna be worried about what people think that my life is. What people think has never affected my decisions, and I’m not gonna let that start now.
Q: Why have you decided acting is no longer for you? Doesn’t rapping make you more vulnerable, because you’re out there by yourself?
JP: I don’t care, but my dissatisfaction with acting has nothing to do with being uncomfortable or vulnerable, or feeling like people are gonna criticize me. That’s not the problem.
Q: What is the problem?
JP: I don’t think there is a problem. I
just don’t feel challenged by acting anymore. I don’t enjoy the process anymore, you know? I’ve enjoyed it very much at times, I’m very thankful for the people that I’ve had the opportunity to work with. I’ve had a good life, it’s been amazing, I’m not complaining, it’s not like acting just ruined me so I have to leave. It’s not that. I’m just done with it.
Q: One a scale of 1 to 100, are you 100 percent sure you’ll never act again?
Q: Two Lovers is quite a good performance to end on. Are you able to see or judge that for yourself?
JP: I don’t know, I won’t see it. But it certainly wasn’t a plan, it certainly wasn’t like, “Oh well, let’s go out on this one.” (laughs) Though when I was doing the plans in San Francisco (?), I saw Danny DeVito’s stand-in and I told the dude I was retiring, and he was like, “This is your last thing?,” and I said yeah, and he said, “Don’t go out on this.” It was the first time I thought about that, it hadn’t even occurred to me. And then Terry George called me and said, “You couldn’t retire after Reservation Road? We might have been able to sell more tickets.”
Q: There is a rumor that Diddy is producing your album. Any truth to that?
JP: Um, I don’t know how much I can say. I’ll just say that we are going to work together shortly. As to whether that will be a complete album or not, I don’t know. But I’m doing a lot of the music and production. I love doing the music, I love programming beats and kind of working on the music, as much, if not more than the actual rapping. I mean, I hate fucking saying rapping, it just sounds ridiculous. I wish there was another fucking word for it, for what I do, because I don’t think of myself as a rapper. I do enjoy the writing process, writing rhymes and sitting alone listening to beats doing it. It’s pretty amazing. I guess you guys enjoy [writing] as well.
Q: How would you describe your sound?
JP: Um, under construction? Ha ha, that’s Missy Elliot. Well, it’s a sound… I don’t know, I don’t know. It’s not going to be… ultimately, the record is not going to be a rap record. I mean, it’s hip hop, there’s rap in it, but there’s singing and other stuff. I sound like such a fucking dick, but what I wanna do is make The Wall and shit, you know? It’s hard, because I’m an actor, or was an actor, so I’m theatrical. So I want things to be great, you know what I mean? I have one track right now that’s five minutes that I’m trying to make seven. It might just be seven minutes of pure misery, but hopefully it’s seven minutes.
Q: What is the message behind your album?
JP: I don’t have a message.
Q: When will it be released to the public?
JP: Um, I don’t know. I have 10 songs now, and three of them I think are really good — “Can I Get a Refund,” “If You’re Going to San Francisco,” and “Da Da Dum Dum.” And the others I think are pretty crap but I’ll work on them. I don’t know, I don’t really feel this pressure to get it out, and I think that also things are different now. Like, you don’t have to necessarily release a record, you know what I mean? You can have a web site where you sell a couple singles, you do an EP, then let it grow. So I’m not really sure, I’ve gone back and forth between wanting to make a double record versus saying I’m just gonna do an EP to start with. So I’m just amassing songs, and I think you just kind of boil it down to what you think is the best.
Q: Are there people you want to collaborate with?
JP: I want Dermot Mulroney, you know that actor? He’s an amazing cellist. I’ve know him for years, and he’s played a couple things on some older stuff. I’d like to work with him some more. I’d love to get Flea. Flea did the base for Young MC just way back in the day you know, so that would be kind of genius to get Flea. I saw Method Man recently at House of Blues perform with Redman, and he said he wanted to come in and do a verse, so we’ll see. Also Diddy knows a lot of great people and stuff, so we’ll see. I mean, my dream would be to have DJ Premier produce a track and have Chuck D do it, but Chuck D never would do it. …Or you know what would be cool? It’d be cool if I got Russell Crowe and Keanu Reeves and Jared Leto, and we just did our thing. That would be pretty dope. It’s not about success, it’s not about being quote-unquote good. I didn’t act because I wanted people to say that I was good. I enjoyed that process and now I enjoy this process. What can I say? It might suck, everyone might hate it, and I’d be the only one that likes it. But that’s all right, because I’ve been having an amazing time making music.
Q: There are two sides to music-making — the making of the record, which is an artistic statement, and then there’s the performing, getting out in front of a crowd and connecting. Which is more important to you?
JP: The record is more important to me, and that’s really what’s important to me. The performances thus far… look, Diddy just said, you’ve gotta get out there. I’ve been going around to these little clubs, but [he said] you have to do a show because it’s too easy to say, “Ahh, it’s just freestyling, and I fucked up, forget it!” and walk out. So I set up the show just for the experience, I was certain it was going to be a disaster. I was doing the mixes the night before, and I had no idea what the system was. I’m sitting there going, “Is the snare too loud? And if I pull it down, now is the bass too loud?” So I was rushing doing the mixes, and I’ve never done it before. It was such a weird concept — the idea of giving someone an iPod with a backing track! That was really strange to me, because I want to have a show, I want to have musicians and little things. So it was really part of the training, but the working is public, and I’m public, so you’re seeing the training. But what about this movie, Two Lovers?
Q: Well, you do drop a little rap in the movie.
JP: Yeah, James and I, we were prepping, rehearsing for that scene, and saying that we can’t just cut from the car with everyone hanging out, something has to happen, so what is it? So we talked about things, and said what do these dudes do? And guys this age that grew up in Brooklyn pretty much all love hip hop. James told me that he had a hip hop group. And I said, “Oh, that’s too genius! I can’t even fucking imagine…” So I said let me try something, and I had a few ideas that I jotted down. And we ended up doing all of them; I’m not sure which one he used in the movie.
Q: The film has a wonderful ambiguity, especially in its ending. Is there a chance for your character, Leonard, to find happiness, or [SLIGHT SPOILER ALERT — skip ahead one question] will he always be living in the shadow of Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow)? What might be coming next for him after the movie ends?
JP: (pause) I don’t think it’s a very good life for Leonard. I imagine… well, I think he is going to find happiness, he’s just never going to find that idealized, romantic version of love/happiness. He’s just going to experience the reality. He’s going to have a few kids and probably take over his dad’s business, and the kids will have birthday parties and they’ll all laugh. And… what was Vinessa Shaw’s character? [Sandra.] Yeah, he’ll be married to Sandra and it’ll be fine, and I think he would just have a normal life.
Q: We’ve interviewed you numerous times over the years, and we can’t help but notice that the hip hop Joaquin looks very different than the leading man sex
symbol Joaquin we’ve seen in the past…
JP: Sex symbol! (laughs)
Q: What’s inspired the look?
JP: Look, it’s very much an effort… I don’t know what your excuse is (gesturing to one journalist, followed by laughter). I have to do things extreme physically as well. People do recognize me, and they know me as this kind of thing. I don’t know that this is “my look,” you know? But it’s been important for me to just do something that’s extreme, that separates me from that public Joaquin Phoenix persona, whatever the fuck that is. Or I’m just lazy. It certainly stops people from saying Johnny Cash. Now they can just say Grizzly Adams.
JP: I love James but I don’t love him that much, you know? I have to do what’s right for me. Of course there’s a part of me that will probably miss some of those moments, but I think that happens for everyone if you change your career or work on something else you there’s a part of you that’s going to miss your old job in a way. But maybe I can get him to direct a music video. I wanna do something “Thriller”-style, with a whole big intro and shit.
Q: The promotional part of the music career, you’ve already started thinking about that?
JP: I think you always have those lofty ambitions, but then I also think I’m just a fucking moron. Of course, I just want to imagine that would I do something great, but if I direct it, it would probably be one of the worst videos ever made. I think you strive for greatness, and you know you’ll never reach there because you’re not good enough, but that’s what you do. So hopefully I’ll come up some great concept, or maybe I’ll get lucky and Spike Jonze will want to do a music video or something.
Q: Joaquin, I work for MTV, and we had somebody send us a letter. …This guy is legit, and he’s the manager for Fall Out Boy, and he sent a letter to us asking to be your deejay. So I was going to give it to you if you want it (passes letter across table), and again, this guy really is legitimately the manager for Fall Out Boy, and he said that every good rapper needs a deejay, and he wants to be yours. He wants to be your Jam Master Jay.
JP: Oh, great. (takes paper and slowly crumples it up, tossing it over his shoulder; laughter) Well, I’m working on the show, but you don’t want to talk about everything because then when you don’t achieve it people will know that you didn’t achieve it. So the show is not just going to be me with a mic and a backing track. I might have a deejay, but it’s not going to be a typical hip hop show.
Q: The thing about hip hop is that there’s an obsession with quote-unquote keeping it real, and speaking about real experiences. For your audience, your experiences in life have likely been very different than your whole audience’s experiences…
JP: You mean, the whole thing is sort of like, “I woke up and they said action/And I was like, ‘Oh shit, where’s my mark? Oh shit!'”
Q: Well, that’s the sort of thing — what is keeping it real for a guy who’s turned to rapping after acting for almost 20 years?
JP: (pause) I know nothing about keeping it real, I know nothing about it. I don’t really know what that means. I don’t think anyone really knows what that means. But what are you asking? What is the content?
Q: Well, not what is the content but… when I listen to rappers randomly I experience parts of their lives, and I experience an understanding. What is it that a famous, rich, white actor is going to be bringing to hip hop that is going to resonate with people on a personal level?
JP: Not that rich. (pause, laughs) No, not very much. I don’t know.
Q: I want to ask you about working with the girls on this, Gwyneth Paltrow and Vinessa Shaw. Especially for Gwyneth this was kind of a different role, and I’m just wondering when you were working with her whether you guys bounced ideas off each other about her performance or yours or whatever. Was that part of the relationship?
JP: No, I don’t really do that. I don’t like to know what other actors are thinking and I don’t want them to know what I’m thinking necessarily, unless it’s important for a scene. I think that there are certain scenes, or moments where it’s important that you understand what the other person is doing and you might talk about it, but typically for me, the director was the only person I talked to about the choices and my intention for a scene, and I don’t really want to know [about someone else’s process]. But the experience on Two Lovers was great. I was genuinely surprised by how Gwyneth interpreted the character and what she did. Her first day, I’d been working for like two weeks, so I was comfortable by then. You get comfortable with the crew and everything. And she came in and I thought she was going to be nervous and take all day, but she just smoked me, I mean right away. I couldn’t believe it. It was terrifying, she was really amazing. She just arrived and she had the character down. Because you know, it seems at least in my experience, the first couple of days everyone is kind of moving around like this and they’re bumping into furniture and you’re trying to go, “Like, how do I walk, what do I do, what’s natural? How the fuck do I just say good morning to somebody and [make] it sound normal?” Because you look at it on a piece of paper and you start analyzing it and you’re like (in stilted delivery), “Good morning.” With both [Gwyneth] and Vinessa, neither of them ever skipped a beat, they were just right into it.
Q: James talked about the amount of takes you do when filming scenes. Are you usually the kind of person who gets it on the first take or the kind of person who likes to do multiple takes [from which] the director to cut?
JP: You didn’t hear the nickname, “One-Take Joaq”? (pause) No, I’m the type of person who has no idea. Like, I think that, for me, if I’m aware of something that I’m doing, then usually it’s bad. I think the only time that anything is good is when I’m not aware of it. So I don’t know how many takes I do. No, there’s not a conscious effort to try and give somebody more options. I just think you’re trying to still find out what the truth is and get to that. Sometimes it takes 40 takes and sometimes it happens in a few. I don’t know.
Q: Can you tell us about where you’re playing next? Do you have another date set up?
Q: Is there a web site to go to or anything?
JP: Not yet, coming up. Thanks guys, thanks a lot.