Last night Joaquin Phoenix appeared on Letterman and, in the eyes of many, essentially melted down. Barely responsive, slurring and seemingly high on something, Phoenix continued his public spiral, one which began with an announcement that he was retiring from acting, continued with the beginnings of a hip hop career, and involves a hairy new look. Somewhere in the wings Casey Affleck filmed it all for a documentary he’s working on with Phoenix.

But is any of it real? Last week I was invited to a roundtable interview with Phoenix for his new movie, Two Lovers, and while I rarely do tables anymore this seemed too good an opportunity to pass up. Recently rumors had surfaced that this whole thing was a put on, that Phoenix was making a mockumentary that poked fun at movie stars and the media. In my mind he was either pulling a prank or actually melting down, and either way I had to be there to see it.

The press day included director James Gray and co-star Vinessa Shaw, and – surprise surprise – they went first, saving the big draw for last. After we got all the talking about the movie out of the way, Joaquin was led in. He ran into Gray on the way into the room, and the two talked for a minute; Gray, who said he had barely spoken to Joaquin after the actor’s announced retirement, seemed distressed. Joaquin, slurring and smoking, turned to the table of journalists and asked ‘Is he a traitor?’ Affleck caught it all on film.

The interview… went. Most of the questions ended up being about Joaquin’s burgeoning rap career, and mostly came from the guy from MTV, whose demeanor reminded me of a game show announcer, or a regional morning show host. Listening to him ask questions in an AM radio voice I couldn’t help but think this was exactly what you’d want in a mockumentary designed to make the media look like dipshits. He even handed over a letter from Fall Out Boy’s producer asking Joaquin if he could be his DJ*.

What was interesting was that this wasn’t Joaquin Phoenix sitting at the roundtable. At the very least it wasn’t the Joaquin we had all interviewed before. While Joaquin had been strange in the past, he had never been as locquacious as he was that day (a complete contrast to his spaced out Letterman appearance). Phoenix was talkative, funny and engaging – at one point when asked why he had made the drastic change in his appearance he said that he needed his external change to reflect his internal change, then he looked at me and said, ‘I don’t know what your excuse is,’ but in a very funny, very good natured way. Most interesting was the fact that he never appeared to actually ramble. He’d give long answers, and they would travel a bit off topic, but they would never go off course like the answers you might expect from someone who was really high. His answers were good ones, too, not just bullshit blathering, which made me wonder just what the heck we were seeing in action. This wasn’t simply an opportunity to punk a roundtable – Joaquin was delivering a really good interview. Possibly the best I’ve ever seen him give.

Here are some quotes from the interview. I’ve kept in some of the stuff I might normally clean up (the ums and the ‘you knows’):

On retiring: I threaten myself with quitting after every movie. But I think everybody does that, right? And I just kind of… I mean its something that I’ve thought about for a, for a long time you know, and I’ve been working on my music and doing all sorts of different kinds of music and stuff and I don’t know in some ways I kind of felt like like I needed to make a statement really for myself in terms of like quitting. In some ways I kind of regret… I didn’t realize it was going to be such a big deal, I thought nobody would give a fuck, really to be to be frank. And I was pretty surprised. I guess no one does except for maybe like a couple people that are blogging or whatever. But I felt that I had to do it, I had to do like something extreme to get out of it because it its like really hard for me to go into music cuz the first thing anyone like says is Johnny Cash, you know what I mean, so I really had to do something extreme to to get away from that.

I just, I just I don’t feel challenged by acting anymore. I don’t enjoy the process anymore, you know. I’ve enjoyed it very much at times, I’m very thankful for the people that I’ve had the opportunity to work with, I’ve had a good life, its been amazing, I’m not complaining. It’s not like acting just ruined me so I just have to leave, it’s not that. I’m just done with it.

On how his rap performances have been going: Uh, terrible. No, it’s the the thing is its its kind of weird, it was… I mostly, I haven’t done a bunch of shows, I did like a lot of free styling around the studio, I’ve gone to like little small places and I guess some people there you know like filmed it and shit and put it on there, um which was really nerve wracking cuz there’s literally people there like heckling you and saying Johnny Cash and saying this stuff, so it was really difficult. I got really nervous. But the show in in Vegas, I think was I just don’t think you could tell on the on the video out there, but I think it was a lot better than people think or what’s been said because of how it appears in the video in that quality and stuff. But it’s still… you know it took… it’s quite a process, like mic control and stuff, and I have to stay I’m not really, I’m not really there yet, you know what I mean. I realized that stuff cuz I’ve watched footage that we shot and I realized all the times when I had the mic away from my mouth, that I didn’t realize, you know, and that was probably from Walk the Line where I was doing the play back and shit so you could get away from the mic it didn’t matter. But it’s just… I just figure put yourself out there and crash, and then you rebuild yourself and you kind of like you find your way into it. I didn’t really want to I didn’t want to work with… I found out like all these dudes, all these hip hop dudes work with like vocal coaches; they do training, they do the whole thing, and I never knew that you know, and I didn’t want to do that, I didn’t want to hire, I didn’t want to just start out and hire a produce and get someone to write stuff for me and do all that. I really wanted to do it myself and feel feel what it was like if I were, and if I didn’t have I guess some celebrity or whatever that it is that I have I think that, it wouldn’t matter and then people wouldn’t really be aware of me at till you know, till after some time right, but just the first thing I do gets thrust into the spotlight, and I knew that, but I just said fuck it.

On hip hop: Actually the thing is, I don’t think there’s many people my age that didn’t grow up listening to hip-hop, it kind of was like, when I was 15, 16 that was it for me. I loved hip hop. The first stuff I heard was Public Enemy, and I couldn’t believe it, it was amazing, and I’ve always loved hip hop. I’m not that familiar with some new stuff, I couldn’t believe some of the difference. You know what’s amazing also is the mastering that they do know. I put on some… I was listening to “Juicy,” right, B.I.G’s “Juicy” and I remember when that showed up and it was like, it seemed like that was the most crisp pop sound, when it came out. [There] was a real kind of like underground New York gritty Wu-Tang kind of sound, and then there came like this really pop sound. And then I put on like TI and Young Jeezy and shit, and then I went back to “Juicy,” I couldn’t believe the difference, its unbelievable the production now. It’s overproduced absolutely.

The whole scene was strange; Joaquin was there to talk about a movie (ostensibly) but of course everybody just wanted to talk about the retirement and hip hop. He did give some intriguing answers about Two Lovers and his process, answers that made it seem like he’s not really that over acting after all (they’re also spoilers for the end of the movie, but they do include his thoughts on the challenge of standing alongside Gwyneth Paltrow and the A game she brought to her character), and the publicist did try to bring the discussion back to the movie again and again, but I couldn’t figure out how half-hearted that was.

Joaquin left but Affleck stayed behind, wanting to interview us. As he asked questions (and had questions thrown at him by Steve from Collider, a born scoop-seeker if I have ever met one), I was taken by Affleck’s sincerity. Affleck wanted to know what we thought of Joaquin’s new persona, his new career and his retirement. He was curious about our point of view on the whole junket grind (I’m pretty sympathetic to the talent at junkets – I know how irritating it is to sit at a table with a bunch of dipshits asking dumb questions, so I can only imagine how frustrating it is to walk from room to room and have dipshits ask you dumb questions all day. I couldn’t do it). We talked a little bit off the record about the documentary and the post-retirement Phoenix, but from what he told me on the record I think this whole thing is real. But to get all Bill Clinton on you, what does real mean?

Affleck, who has been friend with Phoenix since they were 17, assured us that this wasn’t some kind of Borat gotcha comedy, and I completely believe it. I think this is an art project. I think this is a character that Joaquin has created not to play a joke – although there’s lots of comedy here – but to explore something. I’m not 100% sure what that is, and I’m not convinced that Joaquin is either (and I’m almost positive Affleck doesn’t know – he thought he’d be done shooting by now, and he’s not even sure that there will be a movie in it when it’s all said and done), but it’s definitely about the intersection of personal and private personas. It’s real in that Joaquin IS retiring from film acting for now and that he actually IS embarking on a hip hop career. I sense there’s something massively Method in all this, that he’s wearing this persona all day long.

Acting has become boring for Joaquin Phoenix so he’s taking it to the next level. He’s living it. This is a character he’s playing, and the whole point is not to leave it on set but to take it home and into public with him. Is this going to result in something transcendent or something really dumb and trite? It’s hard to say right now, but it was intriguing to play a small part in Joaquin Phoenix’s living movie.

* Joaquin crumpled up the letter and threw it away. Affleck, who was operating the camera himself, very specifically didn’t catch this on film, although there was a stationary camera that may have gotten it. It seems like too good a moment to leave out of a mockumentary… if that’s what this is.