February 12, 2009 11:40 AM

He’s insisted his new look and career goals are no hoax, but a shaggy and soft-spoken Joaquin Phoenix seemed like the only one in on a private joke during an awkward appearance on Wednesday’s Late Show.

In New York to promote Two Lovers, costarring Gwyneth Paltrow, the actor offered minimal responses as he chomped on gum during host David Letterman’s goading questions.

The elliptical exchange drew lots of laughter from the audience – and a few vague smiles behind dark sunglasses from the star himself as Phoenix kept up the act.

“I don’t know what will happen,” Phoenix mumbled when asked about turning away from his Oscar-nominated career. “Hmmm … I don’t know. It’s not really easy to explain something that’s been a part of my life for a long time and now is not.”

He did say that he’d like to return to Letterman’s show to perform some of his rap music.

Director to Blame?

Earlier that day, Phoenix attended a press junket in a Manhattan hotel and was followed around with a video camera by Casey Affleck, who is reportedly doing a documentary on the actor.

The scenario left Two Lovers director James Gray slightly bewildered. “I don’t know what he’s doing,” said Gray, with a laugh. “It’s craziness!”

Gray found out about his star’s new musical career from his wife: “She shows me some Web site thing where Joaquin looks like Rasputin and he’s a rapper now and he’s quitting movies? I tried to call him up and I got: ‘The number you have called is no longer in service.’ ”

The director, who wrote a small scene in Lovers in which Phoenix raps a few lines in the backseat of a car, jokingly blames himself for turning the actor away from his craft.

“You know how in Manhattan, Woody Allen goes to see Meryl Streep and she’s turned into a lesbian? The last movie he ever did was with me and now he’s off the rails.”

Admires the Intensity

But the director, who has cast Phoenix in three of his films, embraces the intensity. “For all the [craziness] that you deal with – the rapping and the look of him now – I work with him because he has very deep reservoirs of emotion, and he’s a serious person, believe it or not ”

On the Lovers set, “I would get to work at 6 a.m. and his call time would be 9, and he would be [there] in tears. And I’d say, ‘What are you doing? Is everything all right?’ He’d say, ‘I’m getting ready for the day.’ ”

Adds Gray: “He’s been doing it for 30 years. I think he ran out of juice. I just think he’s exhausted.”

2006: Joaquin carries guitar everywhere to channel Johnny Cash
2004: ‘Sexiest Man’ Joaquin is ‘jaw-droppingly wonderful’

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