TO­TAL FILM IN­TER­VIEW

An au­di­ence with the straight-talk­ing fu­ture Joker, Joaquin Phoenix.

Total Film - - Contents -

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.

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