When I interviewed Joaquin Phoenix on and off the set of Walk the Line a few years ago, there was one thing he couldn't have been clearer on: You'd never find him pursuing a music career. "I liked playing guitar, but it's like everything that I do," he explained, as we chatted for an Entertainment Weekly cover story. "When I did Gladiator, I thought that I would carry a sword with me everywhere after that. When I did Ladder 49, I didn't want to let go of my turnout gear, and I didn't believe that I could go through life without smelling smoke. With Walk the Line, I played music all the time -- and then I left it." In prepping to play Johnny Cash, he'd made home recordings of some original compositions, but Phoenix said he knew he didn't have a fraction of the talent for music that he did for acting. "You have to really be motivated to complete a song," he told me then. "And without that motivation, I'd just get frustrated and go, fuck it, it's gotta be 'Dear Prudence' or else I don't want to do it. What I experienced [with music] wasn't as freeing as I imagined it would be.... Anyway, long answer short: No, I won't record an album."
What to make, then, of the grainy video footage of this erstwhile perfectionist stumbling around on stage in Las Vegas, kicking off his supposed new career as a rapper? Of the announcement that he was retiring from movies to achieve new levels of excellence in his true calling, hip-hop? The documentary cameras tracking his every suddenly awkward move? Even if Phoenix never previously seemed like Mr. Levity, it seemed easy enough -- to me, anyway -- to write off his intentions to be the new Eminem (or Everlast) as a very elaborate gag. But after his appearance as a heavily bearded, disheveled catatonic on Letterman Wednesday night, which ended with the host invoking Farrah Fawcett as a comparatively more lucid guest, the stakes suddenly got higher. Columnists and bloggers predicted the end of Phoenix's career, even if he should abandon hippity-hop and come crawling back to movies. Fans and detractors lamented his transformation from the potential Brando of his generation into the poster child for "just say no" (to drugs, Vanilla Ice, or both). Half the viewers thought the standoff with Dave was hilarious, and half deeply sad, but in either case, most figured the laughs or tears were on Phoenix.
Which makes this potentially one of the greatest performances any modern actor has ever given -- or at least one of the most baldly courageous. The closest comparison would have to be Andy Kaufman's utter commitment to his obnoxious Tony Clifton persona, but Phoenix is going Kaufman one braver here, by not slapping a fake name on the alter ego bur rather inviting the audience to mistake his damaged doppelganger for himself, over an indeterminate length of time that could leave his "real" career hanging in limbo. There is an end in sight: Phoenix's pal Casey Affleck is shooting all this for what insiders presume is a mockumentary about the breakdown of a burned-out actor. The risk, of course, is how lame it might turn out to be if Phoenix and Affleck remove the masks and say "just kidding" when it's time for their film to finally come out. My hunch is that if they're taking it this far -- and watching Letterman, it was clear that Phoenix is in deep, deep, deep cover -- they might take it all the way into and past the premiere and continue insisting that Phoenix's actorly dissolution was legit.
And maybe, in some sense, it will have been. On the Walk the Line set, I saw firsthand Phoenix's allegiance to his role. For a crucial performance scene in which Cash was supposed to come on stage limping, Phoenix rammed his leg into an amplifier, take after take -- even though these collisions all took place out of camera range; eventually, the director had to stop shooting for a few minutes so they could apply an ice pack to Joaquin's bruised and battered leg. At the same time, though, Phoenix would break character if he needed to, and he acknowledged to me how ridiculous it might seem, asking the crew to call him by Cash's name instead of his own. He had a sense of humor, and humility, about his own seriousness. To those who are determined to swallow this ruse, I would only say that Phoenix is absolutely the last guy who would ever commission a real documentary about himself -- or who'd honestly think highly enough of his new career to explain it by saying, "I wish there was footage of Public Enemy making It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back" (as he did in the Los Angeles Times today). It's tough to read Phoenix comparing his own alleged freshman album to one of the all-time hip-hop classics and not know this is hoaxier than a Howard Hughes autobiography.
Let's just hope it's not merely that. If the ruse is merely a prank, it'll wear thin by the time the eventual film comes out, but if Phoenix and Affleck actually intend to say something about Hollywood, celebrity, and the media via their presumed mockumentary, it could be instructive. I say "presumed" because there's 2 percent of me that's still not absolutely positive Phoenix isn't serious. It's that 2 percent uncertainty that can make the kind of confrontational performance art sometimes found in the theater thrilling. I still remember attending an early performance of the famously immersive play Tony 'n' Tina's Wedding, and, as a "guest" at the fake nuptials, being cornered by a groomsman-slash-drug dealer. For 10 minutes, he tried to talk me into buying some cocaine, and finally, beaten down, I agreed to meet him at a seedy location downtown later that night. I'm not ashamed to say that this actor was so good that I did a drive-by of the address in question, just because he'd been so unnervingly convincing that a faint part of me wondered if he'd really show up. I don't think Joaquin Phoenix will be there at the end of this ruse to earnestly sell me a bad white-rap album any more than the actor in Tony 'n' Tina's actor showed up to sell me cocaine, but it's creating the shadow of a doubt about where reality and illusion depart that makes for great acting. And in drawing this intriguingly offputting role out for months, with no end in sight, Phoenix may be pulling off a move so ballsy, they'll still be teaching it in 22nd-century Method class. So I'm going to stop correcting all my friends who think it's for real. How disastrous a performance would this be if they didn't?