“So, what do you have to say for yourself?”
That’s the first question David Letterman put to Joaquin Phoenix when he returned to ‘The Late Show’ for the first time since his controversial experience back in early 2009, which tied into the filming of his current project, I’m Still Here: The Lost Year of Joaquin Phoenix (available On Demand starting this Friday), a sort of Andy Kaufman-esque experiment in reality manipulation directed by Phoenix’s brother-in-law Casey Affleck. Phoenix’s flameout into a hairy malcontent trying to become a rap star has been revealed to be all part of a movie stunt, so it was time for Phoenix to set the record straight.
“We wanted to do a film that explored celebrity and explored the relationship between the media and the consumers and the celebrities themselves,” he explained. “We wanted something that would feel really authentic. I started watching a lot of reality shows and I was amazed that people believed them, that they called them reality. The only reason why is that it’s billed as being real and the people use their real names, but the acting is terrible. I thought I could handle that, because you don’t have to be very good. You just use your name and people think that it’s real.”
Why did he select Letterman for his performance? “You’ve interviewed many, many people, and I assumed that you would kind of know the difference between a character and a real person,” Phoenix said. “But I apologize. I hope I didn’t offend you in any way by coming on.”
“Oh, no no,” the host responded. “I was not offended. I’m tellin’ ya, it was so much fun! It was batting practice. Every one of them was a dinger!”
“We’d hoped to come on a talk show, and I was looking for a beatdown, and I got one. I want to thank you for that,” Phoenix replied.
Letterman did make Phoenix squirm this time for a while by bringing up the fact that they never actually licensed the footage from that 2009 interview for use in the film, claiming he now wants a million dollars for it. “We went to the lawyers and the lawyers said ‘yeah, you can, if you want, you could probably sue these people,’ and your attorney said ‘no, it’s fair use because it’s a documentary.’ Well, hoo-hah, guess what, it’s no documentary. It’s a theatrical ruse.”
“We’ve made 75 cents on this movie,” Phoenix protested, acknowledging that it hasn’t performed very well at the box office, but Dave insisted “That’s not my problem. Look, all of the promotion that you got from being on here that night, all of that’s worth something. That’s free publicity. So we want a little something for that, and then my talent fee – you know it’s not my first rodeo. I’d like a little taste of this as well.”
Whether Letterman was serious about this or not, we’re not sure, it did set him up for another one of those biting dingers. “We’ll work it out, but can we talk about it privately?” Phoenix asked, nervously. “Yeah,” Dave responded. “We’ll go to one of your screenings.”
Before Phoenix came on, Dave explained his side of the story regarding Phoenix’s infamous appearance a year and a half ago. “There was something going on, and all day long they said ‘well, we think they’re making a movie because Casey Affleck is here and the cameras and stuff, and they’re making a movie, and he’s leaving show business to become a rap star. So I said ‘I don’t know. I – I don’t know.’ So the second he sits down – looking at the guy, it’s a side of beef in a suit, and I said ‘well, clearly, whatever is going on here has got to be a goof,’ so I went to work. It’s like they brought out the heavy bag and turned me loose.”
“So then he leaves and people are saying ‘well, did you know what was going on?’ I said ‘well, to the extent that I, any given night, know what’s going on, yeah.’ That’s not insight, ladies and gentlemen. A pretty thin sliver of light there. Then they make the big movie and it comes out and people say ‘oh, Dumbbell Dave was in on this.’ You got that half right. I am Dumbbell Dave. I was not in on it.”
“Do you think if I was in on it we’d have the g–damned parrot?” he joked, referring to a dancing animal segment earlier in the show where a macaw who was supposed to dance didn’t do anything. “I have so little to do with this show! I get here, they put me in a suit, they slap some stuff on me, I come down here, and that’s about all I can say.”