TOTAL FILM INTERVIEW
An audience with the straight-talking future Joker, Joaquin Phoenix.
You don’t really know if a movie is going to be shitty or not. you just know if the experience is shitty, right?
n Berlin’s Regent Hotel, Joaquin Phoenix enters the room a little flustered. He’s just been trapped on a floor above without the right keycard to operate the lift. “I feel like I’m five minutes late,” he says. In fact, he’s 10 minutes early. “That’s not early for me – that’s on time.” He grins. Well, it’s good to know he takes his press duties seriously. After more than 35 years in the business, Phoenix could easily have grown jaded. Instead, he seems more enthused than ever.
Wearing khaki trousers and a navy jumper, with a checked scarf wrapped around his neck, the 43-year-old is between roles when we meet. So that scraggly beard is not for a character? “This is just to cover up my double chin,” he jokes. It’s shortly before he will be officially announced as the lead in Todd Phillips’ forthcoming Joker, an origin story that will tell how Batman’s nemesis came to be. If anyone can wrestle the mantle from Heath Ledger and Jack Nicholson as the greatest ever big-screen Joker, it’s Phoenix – and his version of the character already looks streets away from previous incarnations. Last month, Phillips released a shiver-inducing make-up test online, showing Phoenix both in streetwear as failed stand-up comedian Arthur Fleck, and in creepy paint-job as Fleck’s crimelord alter ego the Joker. Shooting scenes on location in New York, Phoenix inevitably attracted the attention of fans, but he’s characteristically unfazed by the scrutiny of taking on such a high-profile role. “I don’t really think that much about what people think,” he’s said. “Who cares, who cares? My approach to every movie is the same. What I’m interested in is the filmmaker and the idea of the character.”
Famed for his on-screen intensity, Phoenix’s three Oscar nominations – for his Roman emperor in Gladiator, his pillpopping Johnny Cash in Walk The Line and his damaged WW2 vet in The Master – don’t even begin to tell of the contribution he’s made to contemporary cinema. “He’s the best actor in the world,” says Lynne Ramsay, who steered him to a Best Actor prize in Cannes last year as an urban vigilante in You Were Never Really Here.
In person, Phoenix can be laid-back or on-edge, depending on his mood. He famously parodied himself in I’m Still Here, Casey Affleck’s wry mock-doc that showed him out of control – the incharacter gonzo prep he did sparking misplaced concerns that he was off the rails and heading for self-destruction (his late brother River Phoenix died of a drug overdose in 1993). Rather, it reenergised him, following it with films for Paul Thomas Anderson, Spike Jonze, James Gray and the aforementioned Ramsay.
He now adds Gus Van Sant to that list with Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot. His second outing with Van Sant, after 1995’s To Die For, here he plays John Callahan, a real-life cartoonist who was paralysed after a car accident, which left him requiring the use of a wheelchair. While the film once more pairs him with Rooney Mara, his real-life girlfriend and co-star from Her and Mary Magdalene, Phoenix captivates as the controversial, cynical and caustic Callahan.
It marks yet another milestone in a career that stretches back to 1982, when he co-starred with River and sister Liberty in a TV version of Seven Brides For Seven Brothers. After a curious start in life – his parents were Children of God missionaries, and the family travelled across South America – it was his mother’s job at NBC that led Phoenix to audition. He’s barely stopped working since, plunging headfirst into roles again and again. But he refuses to mystify the process. “As long as it feels challenging and satisfying,” he shrugs, “then that’s all you can do.”
Did you know anything about John Callahan before you started?
No, nothing. I was most excited because I knew it was a project Gus had been working on for a long time. Any time a filmmaker is obsessed with something – they develop a project, they go away from it and do something else, they come back to it, and keep coming back to it – there is something that is personal to them in the story. So I really liked that idea. It was the first script that Gus had written in a long time. I love his writing, it’s really unique.
But I’d actually told my agent, “I don’t want to make a biopic. I’m so fucking sick of traditional biopics.” And so I was a little bit apprehensive when Gus told me it was based on a real guy. And then I got this script that was classic Gus and didn’t feel like a traditional biopic. We talked about it and he said, “I’m going to do another pass.” And he wrote another version, and each time he worked on the script, he focused on these different aspects of John’s life or career. Sometimes the creative would be more prominent, or the relationship with his family. And then there came a point where he sent a script and it felt like it had all the best pieces of all the previous drafts. I had a really visceral reaction to it. It just felt really emotional and honest. And so I was like, “Gus, this is really good. I love this version. We should do this.”
i don’t want to know the reality. the reality will be disappointing
What was your research process?
Well, obviously Callahan’s book. The script is based on his book. It’s superpersonal, really honest. I love that. I love it when people are really honest, so that was the starting point. Gus also had seven hours of footage he had shot in the late ’90s of Callahan, because he’d been working on this since then – he was going to do a movie with Robin Williams originally. And so I watched that tape and it was really nice to see him at home and working on drawings and talking about drawings and his process.
Was there anything else you did for research?
I went to Rancho Los Amigos, which was the rehabilitation centre that he actually went to. It was really helpful to spend time there, and it was fucking cool, too, because at one point, there was five of us. There was a gang. And there were these four other guys from Rancho Los Amigos, who had been patients and worked there. It’s vast grounds, this hospital. So we would just ride everywhere [in wheelchairs]. It was like being in this super-cool gang. Just learning how to open a door, which is terrifying, because you have to throw your arm and loop it in the door, and then move your chair so that it forces it open, and then spin around and catch it. There was this moment where your arm is hooked into the door and you’re moving the chair simultaneously and there’s this feeling you can get caught.
The group therapy scenes are really well executed. Do you feel therapy is a useful tool?
John, when he first went to AA… he’d been sober for a month. Just like in the movie, he had this experience. He got sober. But he was just filled with rage and paranoia and fear, and became hyperaware of how uncomfortable he was and how trapped he was. So when he first went to the meetings, he was distrustful. He was paranoid about everybody. He didn’t trust them. After a while, he came to realise that this is a group of people that are honest, or at least trying to be. I thought that was really amazingly telling. It did really shape him both as a person and as an artist. Somebody who was really courageous and really honest, in a way that I think a lot of people aren’t. It obviously changed his life.
It’s your second time with Gus Van Sant. Do you have strong memories of working together on To Die For? That was early on in your career…
Yeah, it was early on. I’d only worked as a child actor previously. That last time was 14 or 15. So it was my first job as an adult. I remember we were rehearsing this scene one day and I was struggling with it. I don’t know why. I can’t remember the details of what it was. And Gus said, “Oh well you can do anything. You can stand on the table when you say the line.” What? What do you mean? He said, “There’s not a right way to do it.” It seems obvious now, but at that stage in my career… I think because I had worked in television as a child, in which things are really regimented and they really try to teach you to hit your mark and say your lines. But here was a director saying, “You can do anything, there’s not a right way to do it.” And I really remember that moment so vividly. It was like the landscape completely changed. I suddenly became aware of the entire room. Instead of this seat and this table, it suddenly
there are times i really like the script but not the filmmaker
seemed like everything was wide open to me. It’s really something that… a way of working I’ve employed since. So I really credit Gus for helping shape me as an actor. It was one of those revelatory moments when something pops. It was nice to work with him. I don’t know why it took him 25 years [to come back to me]. I was feeling very insecure, I have to say! He worked with all of my friends several times! I was like, “Oh man, he must think I’m not a good actor.” All your siblings acted when you were young. Was there a feeling of rivalry between you? No, it was very supportive. I remember this TV pilot that my sister and I were both up for to play brother and sister. She got the part and this other kid got the part that I was up for. I remember that my agent and my parents really didn’t know how to tell me this. It’s really funny, especially now, because no one’s even heard of it. They were really cautious, but I thought as long as one of us got it, that was OK. After films like U-Turn, and 8mm with Nicolas Cage, you really hit your stride in 2000, with
Gladiator, which won you an Oscar nomination. Were you surprised by its success? Completely. Because
I am the most naïve man in the entire world. I guess I thought the kids – the repeat viewers – who loved The Matrix would love black leather and 9mms. So I figured I didn’t know how they are going to sell this. I wasn’t sure. During the shoot, you never think about that kind of thing. That’s the biggest mistake, because then you’re catering, and you’re trying to make it appealing to an audience. By the time we were gearing up for press, I saw that all the executives were all smiling and walking around on air. Then I thought this might really hit. The same year, you made The Yards and Quills. Was that an exhausting period of time for you? Quills was one of my toughest shoots. I’d finished Gladiator, and I went and did reshoots on The Yards for a week, and came back to London and started rehearsals for Quills. I was exhausted. The last three weeks on Quills, I didn’t know if I could make it through the day. We shot virtually in order; some of the most intense scenes were in those last weeks. Usually, I wake up, go straight to work and do it. There were times when I woke up and I’d get to set and sit there going, “Fuck, fuck!” But Geoffrey [Rush] would come in, or Kate [Winslet], and inspire you. It’s a joint effort; you need everyone around you.
The Yards was your first film with James Gray, who you reunited with on We Own The Night, Two Lovers and The Immigrant. What is it that you love about working with him? I enjoy making movies with James. He is somebody I worked with very early on in my career, and he was one of the first people to really help me have a different feeling about acting in a film. I didn’t go to acting school. I didn’t grow up with this appreciation for cinema in a way, and he was one of the first people to talk about films with me in a certain way. So I feel a closeness to him for helping me in that way. He just talked about acting in a way that no one had ever talked about acting, and I found it very interesting. I love the way he sees the world and how he sees interaction and human behaviour. That’s the thing, when you work with a director, seeing how they see the world, what they think and what that means when you study human behaviour. That reveals something about how we’re really feeling – and he was one of the first to help me be aware of that in some ways.
When you came to make Walk The Line, playing Johnny Cash, you undertook an extreme amount of preparation. Did you embrace that? In some ways, I’m accustomed to what happens when you work on a film. I’ve been acting since I was eight years old, so I know what it takes. It’s not like I’m some soap star, who suddenly put a lot of work into a performance and goes, “Fuck me! I don’t know what this is like.” I know this experience. I’ve worked hard on films throughout my career. But I’d never done six months of prep for a movie. The longest I’ve done is three months. So it was twice as much prep as I’d ever done for a movie. So in that sense it had become my life. It was all I listened to. The only thing that I read was his books and interviews with him. So, inevitably, you go through a process when you’re done making a movie where your life changes. In Baltimore, where I made Ladder 49,
every day I hung out with firefighters. I was living in a fire house and that had become my whole life. Suddenly the movie is done, and I don’t have that experience any more. Inevitably, you go through these changes. It has an impact on you, as it would anybody. If you went down to Memphis, and you learned to play guitar and played Johnny Cash songs every day, started dressing differently, and didn’t talk to friends back home, you would start to change. It’s inevitable, but it’s something I work at and am accustomed to.
If you’re playing an intense character, does their pain and angst begin to chew you up inside?
The truth is, it doesn’t really affect you that much. Do you really want to tear down the mystery and the mythology? Do you really want to know what goes into a scene? I don’t! When I hear a fucking record, do I want to think that John Lennon on ‘Mother’ wasn’t screaming his heart out? Do I want to think that it’s take 15? I want to believe it’s the first take and he was pouring his heart out. I don’t want to know the reality. The reality is going to be disappointing to me. Things are rarely as exciting or dramatic as we make them out to be in the press. It’s not the press so much, but what actors and publicists do. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve looked at the press kit and gone, “What? Are you serious?” When I did [M. Night Shyamalan’s] The Village, there was this whole story about how I’d faced my demons and I went into the night and I slept in the woods. The truth is, I ran across Bryce [Dallas Howard] and said, ‘I’m going into the woods!’ and it turned into this story. You made the mock-documentary
I’m Still Here back in 2010, showing a version of yourself as out-of-control all the way through filming, which people initially believed was real. Were you taken aback by the negative reaction to it? I feel bad about some of the… People feeling that we were in some way trying to make a movie that was attacking them, or an industry. I didn’t like that at all. We were really making fun of ourselves. That’s all that it was. We were never going after other actors. Yeah, we took stories that maybe other actors had told us, experiences we had, and we used it, but not in a way that they would know. And it wasn’t trying to make fun of them in any way, and we weren’t trying to attack the press in any way.
Did that experience change your ideas about acting?
Very much. That was really the intention. What I was after more than anything was just to change my approach to acting – because I was bored with it. It wasn’t exciting anymore, and I wanted to do something… I wanted to go in and be receptive to what’s happening in the room, and open to the possibility I could be something else. And then I think if you can achieve that, hopefully you see that there are a number of emotions, sometimes conflicting emotions that a person or a character can experience, and that’s just what I was trying to get back to. That had happened very instinctually when I was young, and as I worked more and more, I think it started to become more controlled, in a sense. I wanted to get to a place where I just acknowledged that I’m not steering the ship.
You followed it with The Master, the first of two films you made with Paul Thomas Anderson, and it won you a third Oscar nomination. How difficult was that role?
It’s so funny. I wonder, you know when you’re in a relationship and you get out of them and you go, “Oh, that relationship wasn’t so tough.” It’s so hard. You look at things differently once you have time away and you go, “That wasn’t that hard.” I remember being hungry and angry all the time. I just don’t have that feeling now, so I think, “What was the big deal?” But at the time I would be angry about anything.
Is it true you’d said no to Paul before?
I think it was that there was a particular period when one of the earlier films came up, I didn’t want to go into that subject matter. I wanted to do another kind of movie, and not have anything that was that intense. It just didn’t feel right. And the next time, the part wasn’t good enough!
You went on to make Her with Spike Jonze, playing a writer who falls for his computer’s operating system. How weird did that feel to act?
I remember when we went to the New York Film Festival and screened the movie, you come in at the end and you wave or some shit, and I was waiting outside the door and hearing some dialogue at the end of the movie, and I was yelling at Samantha [the OS, voiced by Scarlett Johansson] saying, “What do you mean you can’t stop it?” And it was the first time that it really hit me. I was objective enough to go, “I’m fucking talking to my operating
system!” But throughout the course of the film, we made that commitment early on, that this is a real relationship and we approached it as such. We really played it for real – and you have to.
In Cannes, you won Best Actor for You Were Never Really Here. How did that make you feel?
I’m always surprised to get any kind of recognition at all. I think it would be really meaningful… [but] it’s strange. Of course, there’s a part of every human that wants to feel like what they’re doing is connecting with other people and that other people value it… [And] in practical ways, it’s really good for a movie. Especially for smaller films. It potentially creates more awareness of the movie. I was really happy to be there with Lynne, and for Lynne to get an award [for Best Screenplay].
What do you look for in a project? Is it the director, character or story?
When it’s at its best, it has to be all three. There are times where there are certain filmmakers that I admire that are making movies, but I didn’t feel like there was enough in the character so I had to say no. There were times when I really like the script or character – I go, “Fuck, this is really good!” – but I don’t like the filmmaker! So all of those pieces have to come together, and when they do, you still might have a shitty movie. But that gives you your best shot in some ways.
How do you survive a shitty movie if you’re in the middle of the shoot?
You don’t really know if a movie is going to be shitty or not. You just know if the experience is shitty, right? I haven’t had that, or certainly not recently. I’ve felt really fulfilled and challenged by all the movies I’ve been working on, and the filmmakers I’ve worked with and the other actors. So you never know… the movie still might be shitty, right? The only thing you know when you’re working every day is whether the experience is satisfying.
Does it take time to shake off a role? Do you have a specific process?
I don’t know what the process is. I’ve been making it up! I think when things are most effective, it slowly seeps in to you and out. Any time I hear other actors talking about that, I go, “Oh, shut up!” What’s difficult is… when you make a movie, there’s a certain part of your life that becomes easy because basically you abandon it, right? You don’t have to worry about some of the basics of everyday life. You are just focusing on this other life, this movie life, this emotional life. And so when it’s over, there is this moment where you go, “What the fuck do I do?” I’ve spent the last few months where all I’ve had to focus on is this, right? I’ve known what my week is going to be like; I know this in advance. So then you finish and you wake up and go, “What do I do?” It’s like anything; anyone who works in any job experiences that.
What have been your thoughts about the #MeToo movement in the industry over the past year?
when you’re done making a movie, your life changes
It really does feel like there are changes that are going to happen. It can only be something good for our culture. It’s a really exciting time. It’s a shame that things have to get so difficult and painful for certain people for the rest of us to become aware, or at least to pay attention. But sometimes that’s what it takes. It’s an amazing period and it’s something we’ll look back on and go, “I was there! I was in that movement.”
Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot opens on 26 october.
funny man the first-look photo of Phoenix as the Joker/Arthur Fleck, revealed by the origin story’s director todd Phillips.
dear johnPlaying cartoonist John Callahan, with rooney Mara, in Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot.
virtual inSanity Phoenix’s writer falls in love with a computer operating system in Spike Jonze drama Her.