Fair warning: you are not going to find batshit crazy Joaquin Phoenix here. You're not going to find the actor, or much discussion about his new movie Two Lovers. But the mumbling, barely speaking shaggy man from David Letterman's show earlier this week is not who I interviewed that same day, even though the beard and unkempt hair and sunglasses were all firmly in place.
Instead, Phoenix gave us all a pretty great interview, with intelligent insight on music and why hip-hop seemed to be an obvious new career direction for him. There was one moment when he lashed back, when someone suggested that what he was doing wasn't genuine. Otherwise, though, you may find yourself completely surprised at the sanity of the man at the center of a hugely public "breakdown." Read the entire, barely edited interview below; I promise it's worth it.
Was there just this moment that you decided you needed to take a new direction, with the music career?
I realize it seems like a flash to other people, it seems like it came out of nowhere. I don't spend most of my life in front of the media. It's something that's been brewing, certainly for me, for a long time. I didn't really know that it was going to be something that I completely walked away from. I've always flirted with the idea of quitting acting. There's been times where I felt like I had enough. I guess in some ways I never had anything that I really believed in to replace it. I've always loved music, but i never really played anything. After Walk the Line and learning to play guitar, and having that sense of performing, I think that certainly opened the door for me, for music. I didn't know that anyone was really going to care. I felt an obligation to tell my fans what I was doing, and that I was moving in another direction. I don't know whether they'll be interested in my music or not. I think now I would just like the music to speak for itself. I could sit and talk about it all day, but I don't think we'll ever really understand, we'll get to this point of "that's why he quit." I don't fully understand it. I've always kind of followed my heart, with that I felt was true at the time.
When did rap come into the equation?
I've always loved hip-hop, since I was a kid, that's the music that I loved. I think everyone of our generation kind of fantasized about hip-hop in some ways. It wasn't until I started doing some programming, and I started writing. I was kind of fooling around doing this musical with my friend, and it was fun, but I think when I got into the actual structure of hip-hop, that medium is when I think it really started to take off for me as a writer. I don't know how to explain it. It just connected with me. I never imagined I would actually write. I thought maybe I'd do programming and production and stuff. I never thought that I would be writing lyrics. I felt kind of like I just felt an immense satisfaction.
What's your relationship with Diddy? Are you going to be working with him?
Yeah, we're going to work together.
Is there any danger in declaring the change the way you did, in case you decide you want to go back to acting?
I don't know. I think you all know me, know I'm committed. I don't really fuck around. I only do shit that I really mean. I don't know if there's a danger, I'm not thinking about that. I don't quit something and go, well, I hope I can get back in. I guess never say never, but I'm just not one of those people. When I decide to do something, I do it, and I don't really look back.
Was part of it a disappointment with what you were being offered in Hollywood?
It's not really about that. It's not a dissatisfaction with the industry. I still think that movies are amazing, i respect actors and directors. For me, personally, I wasn't growing anymore. The mystery was completely lost for me. I used to read scripts and had this overwhelming desire to experience it, to see it come to life. And most recently when I read scripts, all I thought about was somebody putting makeup on my fucking face. All of the auxiliary peripheral elements.
Do you think being in the limelight as a rapper will be any different?
I think I'll have much more control. It's my story. It doesn't have to be released at a certain time, it doesn't have to be a certain rating. I can do what I want. I think sometimes it gets tiresome, perhaps, fulfilling other peoples' vision instead of fulfilling your own. Perhaps I got to a point, or an age, where I had something that I wanted to express. I don't know if it's going to be of nay interest to anyone else, but that's not really what it's about. In some ways I wish that I wasn't a public figure, I wish that I didn't have expectations. I wish that I could just come out and let the music speak for itself. But that is the reality-- I can't deny it.
But why have it filmed? Because it strikes me as not being true.
Thank you, thanks a lot. Sorry, but I just did some one-on-ones, and it's hard to not get offended when people are suggesting that something that is important to you, that you're putting your life and your heart into, is not fucking true. It's hard for me to not get pissed off. You're doing what you need to do as a journalist, I'm not taking it personally, but still, it's offensive. People say it's a documentary, like it's some fucking official thing. My friend Anton was filming in the studio. You need clip- it's what you do now, you need a website, you put up clips. The music industry has changed, and I'm trying to do it independently. And so we started doing that, and then this stuff came up with the press, and Casey thought it was this interesting process, this transition. I know it seems kind of pompous and shit, but it's not really about me in some ways. I think it's applicable to anybody that's going through a transition like this, and under such scrutiny. Nothing may ever happen with this. If nothing else, my nephews will see it and laugh.
What's the creative continuum for you between acting and rapping?
I think you do try and make other people's words your own. But this isn't acting. This is about trying to convey, trying to experience something and just putting my experiences or my thoughts into words. Again, it's just because it's so public. There's probably a bunch of people just writing down their stupid little thoughts and shit, and that's all it is, and no one ever hears about it. But unfortunately y'all have to hear about it.
Can you talk about why rapping and acting feel different for you?
Oftentimes I'm alone in the studio, as opposed to surrounded by 60 people and shit, a bunch of lights. There's still a bunch of wires around that you have to deal with, that you're tripping on and shit. It's much more personal, it's much more intimate. I think that's what was hard about acting in some ways, being in a large group of people. I think it was the most difficult especially when you're trying to achieve something that is intimate. I think with music, I don't know how to explain it. It's an amazing feeling to go into a studio and really be alone. It's a blank session, you create your tracks and you start laying stuff down. It's a really cool process. When I was working with T-Bone, that was really my first experience in a studio recording-- I thought it was the most interesting thing I'd ever experienced. It was just so cool. I guess, in films you have a script, and you kind of know where you're going. I walk into a studio, I don't know where it's going. I start programming a beat, and then you just react to that tempo, whatever that is. So much of it is just garbage, and i think it's nice having the control over what takes I'm using, not having someone else do it.
We're here today for your movie, and nobody is really talking about it. Do you feel like the director will think your new career is overshadowing your film?
I don't know. James hasn't said anything. I think he understands. James has never asked me to shut up. I think that he understands that I have to kind of live my life and be true to myself. I hope that it doesn't affect the film in a negative way. I certainly don't want my personal life to overshadow the work. I love James, and he's a friend, and I'd feel terrible if that's the case.
Do you think promoting records will be different from promoting films, which you don't like?
Yeah, I do think it will be. Again, the promotion of a film is that somebody's invested a lot of money ,and they're counting on you to go sell it. Well this is my money for this. My music is going to be true. I'm not out to sell records. I'm experiencing something, and it's what I feel. You do things you may not understand for years. Suddenly now having experienced it, I feel like everything in my life is leading up to this. Suddenly acting doesn't seem like that's a big part of my life, or what was important. I imagine when I look back on my life, acting will be just a very small portion of something that I did. I think music will be the dominant theme in my life.
Can you talk about what attracted you to the character of Leonard in the film?
To be honest, with James, I would do virtually anything. I think what's attractive about working with James is that you're not exactly sure how it's going to unfold, and that's what's exciting. I've never worked with a director that was under so much pressure. Making a movie for this budget, it's like every fucking second counts. And yet his commitment to making each moment be true for the actors that are experiencing it is tremendous. It really is, it's just a journey with James. I think that's what I was interested in.
Have the characters you've played as an actor informed your music?
I don't know that I've found anything in myself through the characters. Yeah, look, I write about what I've experienced, and certainly there's stuff that's been about my experience in Hollywood. But there's no, like, Gladiator raps.
But when you're playing a character, there's a reality in it that comes through you.
Are you sure about that?
Do you actually carry any of the emotions from the roles when you make your music?
No, you just say that when you're trying to get nominated. You say you have nightmares and shit so you get a Globe. I mean, i see movies and get affected by performances. You're like, man, that motherfucker went through some shit. ANd I know that you do these scenes, then you're digging around the craft service table, wondering if there's pretzels with peanut butter in it. Making a movie is so compartmentalized.
Are you implying that acting is lying and music is telling the truth?
There's a certain theater to music as well. I think to most artistic expressions, there's a certain theatrical aspect to it. Some people are less truthful, I don't know. For me certainly I feel that my music is more truthful. My music I think represents who I am and what I feel more than any character in any film that I've done.
Are you targeting a certain audience with your rap?
No, no. I mean look at me, dude. What audience am I targeting? In some ways it's a process, and it's an evolution. I'm sure it will change over time. There's not one particular thing, I wouldn't say that I belong to one subgenre of rap. I hate the word "rapper." It's music. The record, it's not going to be strictly rap. The one love song, at the end, you realize it's a metaphor for the industry. There is some stuff that's kind of humorous, kind of abstract, rhymes about growing up, my childhood. I do have some dance songs for the clubs, some sexy songs, shit like that.
Why the beard?
No specific reason. I didn't really think about it, and I was asked that recently. I don't know if it's subconsciously a need to distance myself form how people perceive me, and hopefully they can let that tog, and they an start taking me as JP and just listen to the music.
Are you going to pull any favors with directors you've worked with to get them to direct videos?
I don't know. I was talking to Gus [van Sant] recently, and he wanted to do a video, but then I just got caught up with-- didn't he do a movie recently or something? [Note: he is clearly kidding here] He was busy. Honestly, I've been thinking about that. I've really just been trying to concentrate on the record, and finishing it. I had a very optimistic projection of when it was going to be done. When I first really sat down to do it, it just flowed, and I had like 9 songs written in a week. I just imagined that I was going to have 30, and suddenly I started reading some of the press that had been around, so ... yeah.