The last time Joaquin Phoenix appeared on "Late Show With David Letterman," the actor was dazed and cloaked by a bushy beard and oversized sunglasses. The incoherent chat set off speculation that the once-promising young star was involved in some bizarre Method acting exercise, on drugs, mentally ill — or all of the above.
What a difference a year makes. Phoenix returned to the scene of the crime on Wednesday night to clear the air with Letterman and apologize for his gum-smacking, mumbly indiscretions in February 2009.
"I mean, I think that you've interviewed many, many people, and I assumed that you would know the difference between a character and a real person, so ... but I apologize. ... I hope I didn't offend you in any way," Phoenix said after Letterman sought to shoot down rumors that he was somehow in on the joke the last time around.
"Yeah. Was there a script that you and I were working with?" the late-night host asked.
"No," Phoenix responded.
"Thank you very much," said Letterman. "I was not part of it, was I?"
"No," Phoenix, 35, said.
"Oh, no, no, no. I was not offended," Letterman added after Phoenix's apology. "I'm telling you, it was so much fun. It was batting practice, you know what I mean? Every one of them was a dinger."
Phoenix laughed and said, "I was looking for a beatdown, and I got one ... I want to thank you for that."
The actor was presumably back on Letterman's show to promote his mockumentary "I'm Still Here," which chronicles a shambling year spent trying to launch a rap career, complete with groupie love, drug taking and attempts to get Diddy onboard for Phoenix's album.
The film's director, Phoenix's brother-in-law actor Casey Affleck, recently said the star's wild behavior was part of an elaborate hoax perpetrated for the film. But on "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno" earlier this week, Affleck was noncommittal when Leno asked if Letterman was in on the joke.
"Neither Joaquin or I ever talked to Dave," Affleck said, noting that he told Letterman's longtime sidekick, bandleader Paul Shaffer, about the actor's plans for the Letterman gig. "But he's not going to tell anybody," Affleck explained of Shaffer.
On Wednesday night, Letterman asked Phoenix if the allegations about the late-night host being in on the gag were true. "No," Phoenix said forcefully.
In the end, Letterman — who had some of his finest comedic moments in recent memory during the original trainwreck — said he was not offended by Phoenix's actions the first time around, although he did suspect something was up.
"I've always liked you. I recognize you as a powerful talent ... then a year and a half ago you come out and honestly it's like you slipped and hit your head in the tub," Letterman said at the top of the interview. "And I knew immediately when you sat down, something ain't right. Because if you're really the way you appeared to be, you don't go out. People don't let guys like you out if you're really like that. You don't go out."
Phoenix's response at first recalled the chat from last year; he merely stared at Letterman while grinning and nodding his head in agreement, quietly saying, "Yeah." Letterman, perhaps sensing a command performance, sized the actor up and gave the audience a deadpan look.
"So, what do you have to say for yourself?" he finally asked Phoenix.
"Well, thank you for letting me come on the show ... we wanted to make this film," he explained, saying the aim of the movie was to explore the relationship between celebrity, the media and fans.
Letterman joked that he was mostly concerned about how he appeared in the movie, which uses a good portion of the 11-minute 2009 interview. "How do I come off — do I come off good, or do I come off like a jerk?"
Phoenix assured Letterman he didn't come off like a jerk, though he smirked a bit while doing so.
"Now wait a minute," Letterman shot back. "What is that? ... Is it edited in such a way to make it look like, 'Oh, poor Joaquin, big dumb Dave is picking on poor Joaquin?' "
The actor, who seemed disappointed that Letterman hadn't seen the film, assured him it didn't. When Dave then mentioned that his lawyers considered suing over the unlicensed use of the 2009 interview, he explained that his attorneys were told that the footage was OK to include because of fair use copyright provisions.
"Well, hoo ha, guess what? It's no documentary. It was a theatrical ruse," Letterman said.
"So you're going to sue us?" Phoenix asked.
"Now you owe me a million bucks," Letterman warned. "We want a little something for that. My talent fee. It's not my first rodeo. I'd like a little taste of this as well."
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