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Several weeks ago, Dish was invited to the press junket for Magnolia Picture’s latest release Two Lovers. Little did we know then that the routine interview we were about to do with Joaquin Phoenix was about to take on a heightened significance as a result of the notorious episode of the David Letterman Show in which he appeared.

No matter what you might be thinking as a result of that, take a minute to read Phoenix’ actual words, and explanations for what may seem to you like unusual career decisions. We found him to be clear, serious, thoughtful, and straight-forward in his thinking. Let’s see what you think……

Q: So is this the last time we're going to see you?

JP: You mean doing press for a movie? Yeah.

Q: How does it feel? You excited?

JP: Great. Yeah.

Q: Sad to say goodbye to all of us?

JP: Nothing personal, no, but honestly, today I was getting dressed here for hours, prepping, and I just was really satisfied that I wasn't going to have to do this again.

Q: Were you a little burned out at the end of Two Lovers? Did it start during this film?

JP: Well, I think that I've threatened myself with quitting after every movie, but I think everybody does that, right? It's something that I've thought of for a long time. In some ways, I felt like I needed to make a statement for myself in terms of quitting. I didn't realize it was going to be such a big deal. I thought nobody would care, really, to be frank. I guess no one does. There's maybe a couple people that are blogging, whatever. It's really hard for me to go into music because the first thing anyone says is Johnny Cash. So I really had to do something extreme to get away from that.

Q: After doing a few shows, how is the hip hop career going?

JP: Uh, terrible. [Laughter] No, the thing is, it's weird. I haven't done a bunch of shows. I've gone to little small places and I guess some people there filmed it, which was really nerve wracking because there were literally people heckling me and saying Johnny Cash and saying this stuff. So it was really difficult. I got really nervous. I have to say that I'm not really there yet. So it's just, I guess for me in some ways, I just figure put yourself out there and crash and then you rebuild yourself. You’ll find your way into it.

I found out like all these dude, all these hip hop dudes, they all work with vocal coaches. They do training, they do a whole thing. I never knew that. I didn't want to just start out and hire a producer and get somebody to write stuff for me, do all that. I didn't want to do it. I wanted to really do it myself and feel what it was like. I think that if I didn't have, I guess, some celebrity or whatever it is that I have, I think that it wouldn't matter and then people wouldn't really be aware of me until after some time. But the first thing I do gets thrust in the spotlight and I knew that, but I just said f*ck it.

Q: Was hip hop something you grew up with?

JP: I loved it always. I don't think there's many people my age that didn't grow up listening to hip hop. It kind of was like when I was 15, 16, that was it for me. I loved hip hop. The first stuff that I remember was Public Enemy and I couldn't believe it. It was amazing.

Q: Is it old school for you or are you into the new stuff like Kanye?

JP: I'm not that familiar with the new stuff. I couldn't believe though the difference. You know what's amazing also? The mastering that they do now.  I was listening to Juicy, B.I.G.'s Juicy and I remember that seemed like the most crisp pop sound when it came out. Cats like that, there was a real kind of underground, New York, gritty Wu Tang kind of sound. And then there came like this really pop sound. But then I put on like T.I. and Young Jeezy and sh*t and I went back to Juicy, I couldn't believe the difference. It's unbelievable the production now.

Q: What happened in that YouTube clip where you fell off the stage?

JP: What happened was first of all, it's not a stage. It's about this wide, right? Okay, you're up on this little platform. There's lights everywhere, right? In your eyes, flashing and everything's dark. And I literally just went to step off the thing and misjudged and slipped down. I wasn't f*cked up and fell down. I jumped down, I literally jumped back up and said I'm fine, but I honestly was so nervous that it's all kind of a blur.

Q: You're a private person. How did you agree to let a documentary crew follow you around and be so public with this?

JP: Well, we don't necessarily know it's going to be public. I mean, I'm just doing something for myself. That's my friend [Casey Affleck], you know what I mean? It's not like I hired this professional doc crew and I'm doing a documentary on myself. I know, it's hard because you sound incredibly arrogant to go like, "Oh, it might be interesting watching me." But I don't think that it's about me. I think it's anybody that is going through an extreme transition like that. I think it just might be interesting. Maybe it's just ridiculous, I don't know. But don't worry. I won't force it upon you. Okay?

Q: Some people are saying it's bogus. For the record, what would you say to them?

JP: Part of me understands that people are going to say that and I realize that part of it might seem ridiculous to people but I can't concern myself with that. I'm not going to be worried about what people think that my life is. What people think has never affected my decisions, anything that I've done. No matter what film that I've done, whatever it is. I'm not going to let that start now.

Q: As an actor you show vulnerabilities.

JP: Please. Jesus Christ.

Q: [Two Lovers Director] James [Gray] said you'd be the first one on set and you'd be crying to prepare for the scene.

JP: You gotta fool directors.

Q: This is putting yourself out there even more as a singer.

JP: But I'm not singing.

Q: Rapping, isn't that coming from your soul?

JP: What's the question, am I soulful? No.

Q: If you've given up acting, doesn't rapping make you even more vulnerable?

JP: I don't care but my dissatisfaction with acting has nothing to do with being uncomfortable or vulnerable or feeling like people are going to criticize me. That's not the problem.

Q: What is the problem?

JP: I don't think of this as a problem. I don't think it's a problem. I just don't feel challenged or excited by acting anymore. I don't enjoy the process anymore. I have enjoyed it very much at times. I'm very thankful for the people that I've had the opportunity to work with. I have a good life. It's been amazing. I'm not complaining. It's not like acting has ruined me so I have to leave. It's not that. I'm just done with it.

Q: You're 100% sure, you'll never act again.

JP: Yeah.

Q: Any truth to the rumor Diddy's producing your album?

JP: I don't know how much I can say. I'll just say that we're going to work together shortly. As to whether that's going to be a complete album or not, I don't know but I'm doing a lot of 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 f*cking saying rapping. It just sounds ridiculous. I wish there was another f*cking word for it, for what I do because I don't think of myself as a rapper. That's kind of… I enjoy writing rhymes and sitting alone in a room listening to beats. It's pretty amazing.

Q: Can you give us a peek at any raps you've written?

JP: You know, I've thought about that coming in and I was like, "No, no, no. Then they'll write it down, they take it out [of context] in their pieces.” He begins rapping, “There goes fame, like a train, speeding fast - - " Now look, right?

Q: How would you describe your sound?

JP: Under construction. [laughs] I want things to be, I want it to be great and big. I'm not just going to do, what am I going to do? I'm going to do hardcore songs? No, it's going to be something big. I have one track right now that's five minutes and I'm trying to make seven. It might just be seven minutes of pure misery but I'll get it to seven minutes.

Q: For your fans, when do you envision your album released to the public?

JP: I don't know, I have 10 songs now and three of them I think are really good. The others are pretty crap but we're working on them. I don't really feel this pressure to get it out and I think that also things are different now. You don't necessarily have to release a record. You have a website and you sell, you do a couple singles, you do an EP and then you let it grow. So I'm not really sure, like I've gone back and forth between going I want to make a double record to going I'm just going to do an EP to start with.

Q: What are the titles of the three songs you like?

JP: One is called “Can I Get a Refund,” one is called “If You're Going to San Francisco,” and one is called “Da Da Dum Dum.”

Q: Any collaborations with famous artists?

JP: Yeah, Dermot Mulroney is an amazing cellist. I've known him for years. I'd love to get Flea. I mean, Flea did the bass for Young MC back in the day, so that would be kind of genius to get Flea. I saw Meth recently at House of Blues perform with Redman and he said he wanted to come in and do a verse. We'll see. Also, Diddy knows a lot of great people. My dream would be to have DJ Premiere produce a track and have Chuck D do it, but Chuck D never would do it.

Q: With your celebrity, you might be able to bring in more people.

JP: You know what would be dope? If I got Russell Crowe and Keanu Reeves and Jared Leto and we just did a thing. That would be pretty dope. [Laughs] I was just joking. I was just naming all the actors that had done music.

Q: Those bands got sh*t for having actors. Do you have any fear of that?

JP: I'm just accustomed to living in that place. It's not about success or being "good." It's about an experience. I didn’t act because I wanted to be good. I enjoyed that process and now I enjoy this process. It might suck. I might be the only one that likes it, but that's all right because I've been having an amazing time making the record.

Q: There's the record making and the performing. Which is more important to you?

JP: The record is more important to me and that's really what I've been working on. Like Diddy just said, "Look, you gotta get out there." I've been going around to these little clubs and freestyling, doing this and that. I set up the show really just to get the experience. I was certain that it was going to be a disaster. I was doing the mixes the night before. I was rushing doing these mixes and I'd never done it before. It was such a weird concept, just giving somebody an iPod with a backing track. It was strange to me because I want to have a show. I want to have musicians and the whole thing. This is just part of the training, but unfortunately, it's public, so you're seeing the training.

Q: You hip hop in Two Lovers. Was that freestyle?

JP: No, James was talking. We're sitting in the car, prepping for that scene. We can't just cut to the car and everyone's hanging out. We talked about things: "Well, what do these dudes do? They all loved hip hop." And James told me that he had a hip hop group. I said, ‘Let me try to do something.’ I just had like a few different ideas I jotted down, and then we just ended up doing all of them.

Q: The end of the film has ambiguity. Do you think there's a chance for Leonard to find happiness?

JP: I think he is going to find happiness. He's just never going to find that idealized romantic version of love. He's going to experience reality. He's going to have a few kids and probably take over his dad's business. The kids will have birthday parties and they'll all laugh. He'll be married to Sandra and it'll be fine. He would just have a normal life.

Q: We've all interviewed you numerous times.

JP: I'm sorry.

Q: We notice the hip hop Joaquin looks different than the leading man sex symbol.

JP: [Laughs] Sex symbol.

Q: Tell us about this look.

JP: Look, it's very much an effort. I don't know what your excuse is. [Laughs] I have to do things extreme physically as well. People do recognize me. They know me as this kind of thing and this is my look. It's been important for me to do something extreme that really separates me from that public Joaquin Phoenix persona. Or I’m just lazy.

Q: Does the beard and hair help you lose yourself?

JP: It just stops people from saying Johnny Cash. Now they just say Grizzly Adams.

Q: Hip hop/rap is keeping it real. Your experiences are different than your audience. What is keeping it real for a guy who's turned to rapping after 30 years in film?

JP: I know nothing about keeping it real. I don't think anyone really knows what that means. I think it changes. What are you asking, what is the content?

Q: What does a famous rich white actor bring to hip hop that will resonate with people personally?

JP: I'm not that rich.

Q: Working with the girls in Two Lovers, did you bounce ideas off each other with Gwyneth?

JP: The director is the only person that I talk to about choices and my intention for the scene. I was surprised by how Gwyneth interpreted the character and what she did. Her first day, I'd been working for 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 for a couple days. She just smoked me. She just arrived and she had the character down. With both her and Vinessa, neither of them ever skipped a beat. It was just bang, they were right into it.

In the end, I have to do what's right for me. Do you know what I mean? Yeah, of course, there's a part of me that will probably miss some of those moments, but it's like I think that happens for everybody at times. You change, your career, you work on something else, there's a part of you that's going to miss your old job in some ways.

Click HERE to find out what happened on The David Letterman Show. / Issue 91 - September 2018
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