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For 'Inherent Vice,' Phoenix plays complicated on and off screen

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Joaquin Phoenix makes a fist and raps it three times on the arm of a chair.
/ Source: Reuters

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Joaquin Phoenix makes a fist and raps it three times on the arm of a chair.

"It's like one's enough," he says about press interviews, forcing a grin.

The three-time Oscar nominee, known as much for his enigmatic public persona as the complicated characters he embodies on screen, has to talk about his hippy private eye in Paul Thomas Anderson's trippy mystery "Inherent Vice."

The performance already earned the 40-year-old a Golden Globe best actor nomination on Thursday.

"There's an expectation that you're out promoting the film, and that's understandable," said Phoenix, whose near-silent appearance on David Letterman's "Late Show" in 2009 was a viral hit.

"I understand that need, and honestly a lot of time it may seem like I don't," he added. "But I do enjoy the opportunity to talk about the film and I enjoy these sit-down, one-on-one TV interviews."

Known for roles in "Walk the Line" and Anderson's 2012 film "The Master," the actor drew headlines earlier this week by telling Letterman he was engaged to his yoga instructor after demonstrating a position he called "harnessing of the hog."

The next day Phoenix said the engagement was a joke.

That public performance strikes a resemblance to the dense, tangled plot of "Inherent Vice," the first film adaptation of a Thomas Pynchon novel, which opens in limited release on Friday.

As Doc Sportello, he lives among surfers and burnouts in 1970 Los Angeles, dealing with the haze of marijuana and feelings for an old flame.

Sportello finds himself at the center of a shadowy, irreverent noir-like conspiracy involving skinhead bikers, a strung-out real estate baron, a detective called "Bigfoot" and a heroin operation fronting as a dentists' association.

"This (film) gets more and more stirred up until the point doesn't have anything to do with solving a mystery," said Joanna Newsom, the indie pop singer who plays Sortilege, the film's narrator.

For Phoenix and the rest of the cast - which includes Josh Brolin, Owen Wilson, Reese Witherspoon and Katherine Waterston - it is a struggle to put Anderson's dizzy adaptation into words.

"I don't know how he does it," Phoenix said before cutting the interview short.

If he had his choice, the actor would prefer a life closer to the famously publicity-shy Pynchon.

"Yeah, of course ... just to work on his book and be creative and not have to be out there selling it. Sure, that's appealing."

(Editing by Mary Milliken and G Crosse)