Some actors travel everywhere with an entourage. Then there's Joaquin Phoenix. He arrived at a press junket in New York on Wednesday for his new movie, "Two Lovers," with an entire camera crew. They were filming Phoenix—who says he's giving up acting for a new career as a rap star—for a documentary about his new life, and they taped all his interviews. It's strange enough to talk to a movie star with five cameras on you. It's stranger still when you walk into the room and see that the lead cameraman is Casey Affleck (who is married to Joaquin's sister Summer).
But that was only the beginning of the strangest interview I've ever had with an actor (and if you saw his performance on Letterman last night, it only hints at what it's like to be in the same room as Joaquin). Phoenix spoke in a deep, slurring voice, chain-smoked and never took off his glasses. A few weeks ago, he made his debut at a Las Vegas club, where he jumped up and down, yelled into the microphone and fell off the stage. During our interview, an exasperated publicist kept popping into the room, trying to steer the conversation back to the film Joaquin was there to promote. But that was hard to do, since Phoenix says he hasn't even seen "Two Lovers." When I told Joaquin that some people thought his new career turn was a hoax—he frequently says in interviews that he always lies to the media—he blew up at me, yelling, "It's hard not to get offended when you sit there with your little smile when you say, 'We think this is a hoax.' Because you're talking about my life. As if my life is a f--king joke to you!"
After the interview ended, Casey approached me and said he wanted to talk to me for the documentary. We entered a second room, where another camerawoman started filming me. Casey said that he thought my interview with Joaquin went well—really? Hadn't he heard the yelling?—and that Phoenix had shut down most journalists after a few questions. Then he started asking me a string of bizarre questions. Didn't I think the media was being too hard on Joaquin? They left alone "the girl with t-ts." (He was referring to Scarlett Johansson, who released an album of Tom Waits covers last year.) Wasn't the publicity still good for the movie? Isn't all publicity helpful? I told him I didn't think so. He seemed disappointed by my response, and it made the entire experience seem even more like a setup for a "Borat"-inspired takedown of the media. Then again, is Joaquin Phoenix really that good of an actor? Judge for yourself; a transcript of my interview is below (and you can listen to a portion of the interview here):
NEWSWEEK: Are you really done with acting?
Do you think you might go back to it?
I'm not one of those people. I've never done that in my life. When I decide to do something, I stick with it, total commitment. I've done it. I don't know what more I can derive from it. And there may be other people who say you've never done anything that good, so how can you walk away? I've had dudes say, "Don't go on that, don't let that be your last picture."
Didn't you quit before, when you were a teenager?
That was a break. There was nothing, there were no scripts I wanted to work on. But this is different. I've talked about quitting at various times in my life. But this is different than what I've felt before, and I'm certainly not going to put myself out there as I have.
Why is Casey filming us?
This is my friend Antoine operating that camera. He was helping me in the studio, and we were just shooting clips that were going to be online. For the site. We started shooting the clips, and we started to amass more stuff. Casey got involved and it seems like an interesting transition.
Do they follow you around everywhere?
We've had a couple blowups. He's gotten into my face a couple times too much.
Do they film you at home? Like hanging out and stuff?
You're OK with that? You always say you don't want the people to know about your personal life?
Well, I haven't signed anything giving people the right to do anything they want with my image, you know what I mean. I have the ultimate say.
I saw some footage of you in Vegas, you were singing. Was that planned?
Well, that's terrible. It was planned. Prior to that, I've done free-styling. That was the first time I did a show, in some ways.
I thought maybe they just called you on stage. But that was a show?
It's not a show. The place is like a club and people do appearances. So they really weren't set up. A dude that was supposed to help me set up the tracks had to take off. So I had to do it on my own.
Did you hurt yourself when you fell off the stage?
No, dude. It was about two feet, a little plank. Off the stage were seats where people were sitting. You're standing there [stands up]; I stepped and I slid down, and I landed like this. And I jumped up like a f--king gentleman.
Do you think you'll perform more?
Do you write the music yourself?
Do you have a writer that you work with?
What is your music going to be about?
Various things. You try to make it honest about what my experience is, there's stuff about growing up.
Is it going to be autobiographical?
Sure, man. I guess my experience with some stuff is kind of abstract. There's a great humor in some of the songs. A lot of the songs are really fun. Some of them are kind of dance songs. There's some sexy songs, some club songs. But I don't know. I'm not the kind of writer that makes the decision, and says, "This is going to be about Egypt." I do whatever comes to me.
This is your last movie. When you look back over your career, do you have a favorite performance?
What about "Gladiator"?
I saw part of "Gladiator."
You didn't go to the premiere?
I went to the premiere, but I didn't stay.
Have you seen "Two Lovers"?
You're not curious about what it's like?
I was in it.
But you weren't in all the scenes.
It's all right. I'm sure they were great.
Most actors who I talk to are interested in how a director puts a movie together.
Did you prepare for this movie?
In what way?
What appealed to you about the movie?
Just the opportunity to work with [director] James [Gray] again.
Did you tell him this is your last picture?
I didn't know then. James and I have talked about it many times. It's been a slow-going dissatisfaction with the process for me.
What about it doesn't appeal to you?
I don't know. The mystery is lost now. There was a time when I read a script and I just got excited about the possibilities. Most recently, I read a script and all I thought about was makeup and hair people touching me and having to do press and f--king whatever s--t.
Are you going to do anything else in addition to the music, artistically?
No. I'm a bit of … I like photography. I have a bit of an eye for that. Nothing serious. It's just a hobby. It's not enough for you? I go from acting, get nominations, then I go to music. I have to do something else?
Who do you shoot? People? Buildings?
I live in the hills, and there are a lot of coyotes and stuff. My friend Michael Muller is a photographer. I don't know if you know his work. We've been going out and shooting at night. It's literally embarrassing to talk about because I don't think it's really noteworthy.
The photos you've taken?
I'm just saying it's another interest.
How did Casey end up involved in doing a documentary?
How did it come up? [To Affleck:] You came over and hung out, because Antoine couldn't shoot, and everything was out of focus. We started out, my friend Antoine. We started out just using in the studio. We saw the s--t was so dark. You couldn't see s--t and it was out of focus and stuff.
Casey: That was bulls--t. He was filming and recording. I was watching and thought, "This is interesting, interesting to see this process happen." Then I got a real cameraperson.
Are you interested in directing, Casey?
Casey: This is just for fun.
Joaquin: Don't f--king be modest. He's directed a lot of s--t. Videos, commercials.
Casey: I'm following some guy who takes pictures of coyotes.
He followed you?
Casey: Well, one night you and Michael were going to go out and you said you didn't want me to go. I went out anyway.
Joaquin: No, you didn't, dude. You shot anyways?
Casey: I shot you guys getting ready to go. I didn't know what the hell they are doing. I didn't see them taking pictures of coyotes, but I got them getting ready. They went in full camouflage.
You were wearing camouflage?
Joaquin: We weren't wearing camouflage. We were wearing f--king hoodies. Please. Enough. I'm sorry I brought it up.
When do you think your album will come out?
Don't know. I thought, the idea is growing. I thought it was going to be done by now. I think I have 15 tracks. But I'm actually, this sounds horrible, I'm thinking it might be a double record.
You have that many songs?
It came to me so easily. This is the first time I'm involved with something artistically beginning to end. I'm not following what some writers come up with, sitting in his f--king beach house and s--t. I'm not having to deal with what the director's ultimate vision of the thing is. I don't have a studio telling me my release date is this. I'll release it whenever the f--k I want.
Who do you like listening to right now?
There's not that many new cats that I'm that into. For me, I think the years of hip-hop were '87 through '93.
You've always been interested in hip-hop.
Oh, yeah. [Publicist comes in] OK, let's talk about the movie.
But you haven't seen the movie. What do you want to say about the movie?
I don't know. We could wrap this up, too.
I think, the thing is, all the journalists waiting outside to talk to you are wondering if this is a hoax. But it's not. You seem legitimately interested in music.
It's hard not to get offended when you sit there with your little smile when you say, "We think this is a hoax." Because you're talking about my life. As if my life is a f--king joke to you! You can do the "some may say," and put it on them. But it's your question. It's hard not to take it personally and feel like you're saying my life is a f--king joke.
Well, that's not what I'm saying.
Well, it feels like that's what you're saying.
I apologize if that's how it came across. But people are confused about why you're filming them today.
They don't have to be part of it. They can think it's a f--king joke. You can think whatever you want, you can write whatever you want. But my life is my f--king life.
No, man, I wasn't implying that.
It's fine. But it's hard! I don't want to be sensitive about it. But it's hard! To feel that you do something that you're putting your heart into, it means a lot to you, and people are saying it's a f--king joke.
I think it's hard for us to understand what's going on with you. And you made the announcement so quickly on a red carpet.
For you, I understand that perspective. You're outside something. This big decision is something that's been happening for me. It's hard not to get pissed off. I don't do press. I'm doing this press line, and I honestly feel my only obligation is to my fans. To the people who are interested in what I'm doing. I felt this obligation to say, "I'm not going to be appearing in films anymore. And this is what I'm going to be doing." Maybe some of my fans will be interested in it. Maybe they won't. I don't know.
Do you reach out to your fans? Do you answer their letters?
No, not really.