As he talks passionately about his new pursuits, it seems he's not torn between artistic muses. Movies are out, and music is in, Phoenix insists.
After the dark romantic drama "Two Lovers," which opens Friday, Phoenix said he is through with acting, and nothing is going to coax the two-time Academy Award nominee back to that first creative love.
"I'm not one of those people, like, when I break up with my girlfriend, I don't ever see her again. I see her as friends, but do I ever think about getting back together? No, when I do something, I do it. So I have no intention," Phoenix, 34, said in an interview.
When Phoenix announced last fall that music was his new direction, many fans assumed he caught the country bug from playing Johnny Cash in 2005's "Walk the Line." Instead, he surprised people again by turning to hip-hop, a genre he says he's adored since his teens.
"I love the storytelling aspects of hip-hop, but I love the wordplay, as well," Phoenix said. "I just think the rhyming is fantastic, and I love, like, the raw emotion of it."
The switch has puzzled fans and prompted speculation that it's a put-on, fueled by a video that turned up on the Web last month showing Phoenix rapping in a Las Vegas nightclub. The poor-quality video, with virtually incomprehensible audio, was not the sort of thing to earn Phoenix many admirers.
"No matter how good it is, people are going to ... make fun of me. It's just impossible. It's just not going to happen, but I can't worry about that," Phoenix said. "What I was focusing on was the song and trying to make the show as good as possible."
Phoenix has built a home recording studio where he is laying down tracks for an album. He said he is not yet certain how it will be distributed, and while it is mostly a solo effort, Phoenix hopes to do at least one track with rapper Diddy.
Now sporting a long, scraggly beard and scruffy hair, Phoenix has drawn online wisecracks about a look far removed from singer Cash's clean-cut stage appearance. The actor said it was not so much about copping a new image as distancing himself musically from Cash.
"I'm not going with a look. Part of it is in some ways, it's very hard, especially when you're talking about music, to get away from Johnny Cash," Phoenix said. "In some ways, I'm aware that I need to kind of, I need to alter that persona. I need to alter my public persona in some ways so that people are going to be open to receiving me for what it is that I'm doing now ... .
"I don't know that this is my look," Phoenix said. "I mean, I just have a beard."
A definite follower of his music career is brother-in-law Casey Affleck, an Oscar-nominated actor himself who is making a documentary about Phoenix's career shift.
Affleck has been chronicling Phoenix's recording efforts and had a camera crew following him as he did publicity to promote "Two Lovers."
"It's a really interesting time in his life," Affleck said. "I've known him for a long time. He's always made music, he's always talked about doing this. He's finally doing it."
Added Phoenix, in a joking aside: "He just wants me to fall on my face, and he wants to ... laugh about it."
One person not laughing is "Two Lovers" director James Gray, who collaborated with Phoenix twice previously with "The Yards" and "We Own the Night." Gray said he took it personally that Phoenix did not let him know he was quitting movies, and was disappointed that he wouldn't have another chance to work with the actor again.
In "Two Lovers," Phoenix plays an emotionally messed-up Brooklyn man living at home with his parents after a bad breakup. He embarks on an obsessive flirtation with a self-destructive neighbor (Gwyneth Paltrow) while courting the safe, sensible daughter (Vinessa Shaw) of a businessman interested in buying his parents' dry-cleaning operation.
Like Gray, co-star Shaw said she was disheartened to learn that Phoenix was abandoning his movie career.
"I really felt that disappointment that he's no longer going to be sharing his gift of acting, but whatever he wants to do with his life, whatever makes him happy," Shaw said.
Having seen how much strain acting puts on Phoenix, who stays in character throughout his shooting days, Gray said he takes the actor at his word that he's through with Hollywood.
"Toward the end, I was coming to the set at six (o'clock) in the morning, and he would be not due on set for another three hours, but he would be there in the corner with tears rolling down his cheeks," Gray said. "And I'd say, `What's the matter?' And he'd say, `I'm preparing for the day.' You never see anyone work that hard."
And if that weren't enough, Gray said he's seen Phoenix's elaborate home studio.
"If he's not serious about it," Gray said, "then he really went to ridiculous lengths."
By David Germain