If you want sheer unadulterated intensity, then Joaquin Phoenix is undoubtedly the go-to man. The actor has picked up several Oscar nominations for playing characters that are brooding, embittered, and sometimes downright psychopathic — and he’s done some pretty wild things for the sake of his craft. After missing out on the coveted trophy for performances in Gladiator, Walk the Line, and The Master, Phoenix was finally rewarded by the Academy in 2020 for his powerful depiction of Batman’s arch nemesis in the Joker origins story film.
But the level of intensity that’s established Phoenix as one of the finest actors of his generation doesn’t seem to subside much when he’s asked to be himself. While he’s known to hail from what Vanity Fair called an «unusual background» (his parents joined the controversial Children of God cult in the ’70s), tragically witnessed the death older brother River Phoenix in 1993, and can admittedly be «hard to work with,» the actor has remained a bit of an enigma. As The New York Times described this «reluctant celebrity»: «There’s a refusal to make himself likable or relatable — it’s hard to think of another current American leading man who asks for less of our love.»
Indeed, the star’s acclaimed career is littered with dazed and confused TV appearances that have made headlines for all the wrong reasons. From baffling acceptance speeches to painfully awkward late-night interviews, Joaquin Phoenix has proven that speaking in public isn’t exactly his forte.
Joaquin Phoenix’s ‘protest’ on the late-night circuit ‘backfired’
In May 2000, The Tonight Show with Jay Leno became the first — but certainly not the last — late-night TV institution to regret sending out an invitation to one Joaquin Phoenix. The movie star was on the periphery of the A-list when he hit the promotional trail for his portrayal of murderous Roman Emperor Commodus in the sandals and sword epic, Gladiator. But few realized at the time just how difficult this rising star could be.
In fact, Phoenix seemed so preoccupied with anything but the interview that the talk show veteran couldn’t help but offer a barbed remark as the interview drew to a close. «Be here in person next time,» a visibly irritated Jay Leno told the actor (via the New York Post). Unsurprisingly, it would be another six years before Phoenix would be booked for the show again.
In an interview with The New York Times in March 2001, however, Phoenix claimed that he’d deliberately acted disoriented during his first Tonight Show appearance in a protest against the pre-interview process guests have to go through. «I thought it would be funny,» he declared. «But it backfired. I guess I should just stick with movies.»
That time Joaquin Phoenix forgot his birthday on Letterman
Joaquin Phoenix’s baffling 2000 appearance on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno still didn’t deter the talk show host’s main rival from booking the actor just six months later. The star, who on this occasion was promoting his performance as a French Catholic priest in the provocative period drama, Quills, proved to be just as perplexing.
An incoherent and disengaged Phoenix claimed that he couldn’t remember where he’d gotten his latest tattoo or, even more remarkably, the date of his own birthday when he turned up to the set of The Late Show with David Letterman in November 2000. Although the host didn’t comment on his guest’s bizarre bout of amnesia, the show’s executive producer, Maria Pope, appeared to take it all in good humor. In 2009, she told Entertainment Weekly, «He’s been on three times now. The first couple of times we thought there was a gas leak in the green room. Now we’ve determined, no, that’s just Joaquin.»
Joaquin Phoenix pretended to be a rapper on The Late Show
Joaquin Phoenix appeared to behave himself on the late-night circuit, relatively anyway, over the next eight years. But he sure made up for lost time in 2009 when he out-weirded pretty much every other celebrity with a bizarre rap reinvention on The Late Show with David Letterman.
The actor looked to have lost the plot when he rocked up to the interview looking disheveled while sporting sunglasses and a beard, and appeared completely unaware of where he was. This time around, the host was in no mood to bite his tongue and after countless one-word answers and incomprehensible mutterings, David Letterman wryly asked Phoenix, «What can you tell us about your days with the Unabomber?» Oof. When pressed about speculation about retiring from acting, Phoenix replied that he wanted to focus on his «hip-hop music.» …Sure.
Of course, Phoenix’s transformation was all just an oh-so hilarious ruse in keeping with his mockumentary, I’m Still Here. The actor came clean 18 months later, alongside director Casey Affleck, who told The New York Times that Phoenix’s odd late-night appearance was «a terrific performance, it’s the performance of his career.» When Phoenix returned to Letterman’s show in time for the film’s release, he didn’t exactly offer the most gracious of explanations. «You’ve interviewed many, many people, and I assumed that you would kind of know the difference between a character and a real person,» he said, but added, «I apologize. I hope I didn’t offend you in any way.»
Joaquin Phoenix announced his fake engagement on Letterman
Okay, what did David Letterman ever do to Joaquin Phoenix? We’re kidding, of course. But while promoting the head-scratching cult movie, Inherent Vice, in 2014, the actor once again couldn’t resist a spot of toying around on The Late Show with David Letterman. The movie star had the studio audience in the palm of his hand when he announced he’d asked his yoga instructor for her hand in marriage. Phoenix initially appeared to be sincere when he told the host, «I think she’s one.»
However, within the space of 24 hours, Phoenix came clean: He wasn’t engaged at all and had simply made up the proposal story to seem more interesting. The actor made what was his latest confession while speaking to George Stephanopoulos on another long-running talk show, Good Morning America. «I think like my life’s so boring, and so it seemed like something exciting to talk about. I’m like, I just want the audience to like me,» Phoenix revealed with a laugh. «They really like people that are getting married … I can get engaged again, if you like?» (He later did get engaged to actress Rooney Mara in 2019, but, you know, for real.)
Joaquin Phoenix confessed to being a liar on Ellen DeGeneres’ show
At this point, it’s pretty clear that a certain confession Joaquin Phoenix made in 2015 wasn’t strictly necessary. While appearing on The Ellen DeGeneres Show to further promote Inherent Vice, the actor admitted that he can’t stop telling fibs whenever he’s being interviewed on TV. Um, you don’t say?
«Everybody lies on talk shows,» Phoenix insisted to the bemused host. For her part, DeGeneres seemed to find her guest’s previous antics «hilarious,» particularly that headline-making fake engagement announcement on David Letterman’s late show the year before. In fact, after Phoenix explained that «everyone applauds» when you’re engaged, the comedian jokingly made the movie star pretend he was getting married for the benefit of her own audience.
While DeGeneres was even treated to her own case of Phoenix’s shy side thanks to some (purposefully) long pauses after her questions, Phoenix also gave a possible explanation as to why he sometimes seems pretty awkward during interviews. When asked how he prepared for the role of dope-smoking private investigator Larry ‘Doc’ Sportello in Paul Thomas Anderson’s neo-noir, he quipped, «I actually started preparing in the late ’90s.»
Joaquin Phoenix’s fake outtake aired on Jimmy Kimmel Live!
In 2019, Joaquin Phoenix appeared to have pulled a Christian Bale when a Joker outtake emerged featuring the star directing countless f-bombs toward the comic book movie’s cinematographer. «The constant whispering, just shut the f**k up, dude. I’m trying to find something real,» Phoenix says at one point, adding in another, «I know you started the f**king Cher thing, Larry … making fun of me like I’m a f**king diva. It’s not even an insult. Cher, really? Singer, actor, dancer, fashion icon — how is that a f**king insult?»
The cringe-worthy clip was first shown on Jimmy Kimmel Live! — when the star was sitting opposite the late night host. At the time, Phoenix seemed to be genuinely embarrassed about the footage and after briefly trying to justify his tirade with Kimmel about getting in character, he offered the crew member an apology. But would the ever-amiable Kimmel really spring a surprise like this on one of his A-list guests?
Well, no is the answer. Just like his dazed and confused appearance on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and fake engagement story on The Late Show with David Letterman, Phoenix was once again simply playing pretend. His publicist later confirmed to Entertainment Weekly that the whole foul-mouthed verbal attack had been filmed specifically for Kimmel’s show, and that this time around, all parties involved were in on the joke. Phew, PR crisis somewhat averted.
Joaquin Phoenix’s expletive-laden Golden Globes acceptance speech
Joaquin Phoenix received tons of attention during the 2019-2020 awards show circuit for his turn as the eponymous villain in Joker, which had a notable side effect: it allowed the actor even more opportunities to be strange on television, and this time around they were mostly live, too.
The movie star first showed that he wasn’t interested in polite thank-yous when he was crowned best actor at the 2020 Golden Globes. Indeed, Phoenix had the NBC broadcast technicians with their fingers permanently hovering over the bleep button in an expletive-laden acceptance speech. Choice quotes included telling his fellow nominees things like, «There’s no f**king competition» and «I’m your f**king student.» Meanwhile, Phoenix also admitted that he was a «pain in the a**» during filming to Joker director Todd Phillips.
The award winner became even more animated when he switched the topic of conversation to climate change. Pleading with the Hollywood elite to do more for the environment, Phoenix said, «It’s great to vote, but sometimes we have to take on that responsibility on ourselves and make changes and sacrifices in our own lives and I hope that we can do that. We don’t have to take private jets to Palm Springs.» According to USA Today, Phoenix was eventually played off stage, with his headline-making speech garnering both praise and teasing in the Twittersphere.
Joaquin Phoenix called for change at the BAFTAs
A month after calling out Hollywood for its seemingly lax attitude to the environment, Joaquin Phoenix spoke out about the industry’s inherent racism when he was awarded best actor at the BAFTAs. The British ceremony had previously been criticized for its lack of diversity among the nominees, resulting in the hashtag #BaftasSoWhite. And the star, who was once again recognized for Joker, admitted with a mixture of gratitude, scolding, and self-reflection that the win had left him feeling «conflicted,» explaining, «So many of my fellow actors that are deserving don’t have that same privilege. I think that we send a very clear message to people of color that you’re not welcome here.»
Adding that people of color don’t want «preferential treatment,» but simply the respect and appreciation that their fellow white actors earn with ease, Phoenix also acknowledged that he could do more to improve the situation. «I’m ashamed to say that I’m part of the problem, because I’ve not ensured that the sets I’ve worked on are inclusive,» he admitted. «We have to do the hard work to truly understand systemic racism. It is the obligation of the people who have created and benefit from the system of oppression to be the ones to dismantle it. So that’s on us.»
Once again, Phoenix’s awards show speech was a gamble — but this time, it was mostly well-received, with Vanity Fair praising the actor’s «powerful» words.
That time Joaquin Phoenix talked about cows at the Oscars
Joaquin Phoenix made it three memorable televised speeches out of three in early 2020, when he was finally crowned best actor at the Oscars for Joker. The movie star began with a rather broad call for tolerance, addressing everything from LGBTQ+ rights and racism to gender inequality and animal cruelty. However, Phoenix soon narrowed his focus with possibly the only Academy Awards speech to mention cattle.
«What we’re guilty of is an egocentric world view, the belief that we’re the center of the universe,» Phoenix said during the emotional speech. «We go into the natural world and we plunder it for its resources. We feel entitled to artificially inseminate a cow, and when she gives birth, we steal her baby, even though her cries of anguish are unmistakable. And then we take milk that’s intended for her calf and we put it in our coffee and our cereal.» The actor, who’s been vegan most of his life, added, «I think we fear the idea of personal change, because we think that we have to sacrifice something to give something up.»
Amid debates on the time and place, Phoenix received a mixed response for the unusual topic of conversation, with the Daily Mail describing his speech as simply a «rant about veganism» and Vox hailing it as a «sprawling sociopolitical epic.» Unsurprisingly, the award winner had the full support of PETA, who called him a «true ally to animals» on Twitter.
Even Joaquin Phoenix’s normal TV appearances are controversial
Perhaps the most disconcerting Joaquin Phoenix TV appearance occurred as a result of him appearing, well, relatively normal. Back in 2006, the actor graced the set of iconic morning show Live with Regis and Kelly to promote the crime drama, We Own the Night.
Far from the monosyllabic, standoffish interviewee we’d come to expect, Phoenix seemed to be in a strangely tactile mood. In fact, he even gave co-host Kelly Ripa a lengthy embrace, which had the studio audience in raptures. As he and Ripa continued to flirt with each other, Phoenix jokingly asked a slightly bewildered Regis Philbin, «Can you give us a moment?» Ripa, who pointed out that she named one of her three children Joaquin, obviously had quite the effect on the normally withdrawn star, as she even managed to persuade him to lie down on the floor and engage in a game that involved locking each other’s legs. (Talk shows are wild.)
Speaking with The Guardian that same year, Phoenix shed some light on why his small screen appearances sometimes lead to seemingly controversial behavior: «Every movie soaks into you for a certain amount of time. You can no longer rely on the world that you have created. The rug has been pulled from under you and suddenly there’s … nothing. The job finishes and you say, ‘What do I do? How do I act? What is my life?'»