We discuss the 'Walk the Line'' star's decision to take on hip-hop and whether this new direction will be a success, or a major misstep

By Josh Rottenberg
Updated January 23, 2009 at 05:00 AM EST

When Joaquin Phoenix arrived for an appearance at Las Vegas’ Lavo nightclub on Jan. 16, no one had any idea what to expect — not the clubgoers in attendance, not the reporters on hand, not even the club’s management. Following that morning’s surprising news that the two-time Oscar nominee would be making his debut as a rapper, Lavo had given the actor — billed simply as the evening’s ”host” — a wireless microphone, but exactly what he might do with it was anyone’s guess. Finally, after midnight, Phoenix stepped onto the stage sporting an unkempt beard, a wool cap, and sunglasses, and performed three hip-hop songs. His lyrics were largely indecipherable — one song involved the phrase ”jump around,” another seemed to be about God, and the final tune sampled the flower-power anthem ”San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair)” — but his enthusiasm was evident. After less than 12 minutes, Phoenix stepped (or, more accurately, stumbled) off the stage, leaving many in the audience uncertain what they’d just witnessed. ”That was a joke, right?” one woman wondered aloud. ”It had to be.”

Phoenix, 34, has long been one of Hollywood’s most enigmatic young actors, but since his sudden declaration last October that he was retiring from the movie business, the air of mystery around him has deepened. He claims he’s reinventing himself as a rapper, and that Diddy will produce his debut album. (Diddy’s reps had no comment.) His friend and brother-in-law Casey Affleck, meanwhile, is apparently chronicling this reinvention in a documentary. What was once public curiosity has turned into outright befuddlement, and as clips of the Vegas performance spread across the blogosphere, some wondered if Phoenix was perpetrating a hoax. Others worried that the actor — who went to rehab for alcohol addiction in 2005 — could be headed for trouble again. Phoenix declined to comment for this article, but in an interview with PEOPLE before the Lavo show, he insisted his intentions were sincere: ”After all the years of reading scripts and reading lines, this is my chance to do something straight from the heart.”

Phoenix’s interest in music is clearly genuine: He did his own singing in the 2005 Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line, earning an Oscar nomination and a Grammy award. He has directed music videos for several alternative rock bands. And director Terry Gilliam told EW that Phoenix and Heath Ledger had begun collaborating on musical side projects before Ledger’s death last year.

If Phoenix has truly given up acting — his next and possibly final movie, Two Lovers, about a conflicted bachelor, opens Feb. 13 — he needn’t be concerned about how his reputation as a rapper might affect his film career. His reception in the hip-hop world is another matter. ”With rap music, you could have all the talent in the world, but if the audience doesn’t believe you, it’s not going to work,” says Mark Pitts, president of urban music at Jive Records, who helped shape the careers of the Notorious B.I.G. and Nas. ”Just from his acting, I can’t picture him holding the mic and rhyming. I can’t see it.” There’s no word yet on when Phoenix plans to return to the stage, so for now, fans are left to watch and wonder as he walks the line between career reboot and career flameout. — With additional reporting by Margeaux Watson

Phoenix Rising
The actor’s five most successful films at the box office

Parenthood $100 mil

Gladiator $188 mil

Signs $228 mil

The Village $114 mil

Walk the Line $120 mil

Courtesy of Boxofficemojo.com