... on raising his career from the ashes
He was nominated for two Oscars, then sabotaged his career by faking a ‘mental
breakdown’. Now Joaquin Phoenix is back with a controversial new film...
Afew months ago, the Hollywood actor Joaquin Phoenix feared that he had inadvertantly hit the self- destruct button and detonated his career. The 37-year- old actor had followed huge success with Oscarnominated roles in Gladiator and as Johnny Cash in Walk The Line with a bizarre documentary called I’m Still Here.
In the film, he appeared overweight, shockingly unkempt and apparently on the verge of a mental breakdown, claiming he’d ditched his acting career to reinvent himself as a rap artist. Before it came out, Phoenix went on US chat show Letterman appearing deluded and incoherent. It was car-crash TV.
It seemed a sadly predictable end for an actor who’d come to the world’s attention when his brother River Phoenix died of an overdose outside LA club the Viper Room in 1993. TV and radio news had reported the tragedy using a recording of 18-year- old Joaquin’s desperate call for help to the emergency services.
The roles he played in subsequent years — a disturbed high-school murderer in To Die For, an ill-fated porn shop employee in 8mm — were dark and difficult to like. Even his breakthrough in Gladiator saw him embracing Russell Crowe before stabbing him in the ribs. A brief stint in rehab for alcoholism in 2005 further fuelled the impression that in Hollywood, he was one of the most likely to go off the rails. But in fact I’m Still Here was nothing but a joke. Sort of.
‘I wanted to be released from any pressure, any expectations,’ Phoenix says of the project he dreamt up with best friend and brother- in- law Casey Affleck ( brother of Ben), who directed. ‘I’d been acting since I was a kid. When people are coming up and offering you coffees, holding umbrellas for you and stuff, it’s easy to lose your humanity. I wanted to shake things up, to try something that turned me upside down and made me scared again. I
wanted to be crushed, to crush whatever anyone thought about me and make it as bad as possible, to experience failure. Total failure.’
As usual his performance was compelling. So much so that even since revealing I’m Still Here was a fake ‘mockumentary’ in 2010, he was no longer being offered A-list scripts. Phoenix’s bank account was running dangerously low. ‘ There was definitely a period after I’m Still Here when there was a discernible difference in the quality of movies I was being offered,’ he says. ‘Frankly, I was placed in a very dangerous place with my mortgage. I didn’t know what to do. I was nervous because I didn’t know what was going to happen. My accountant was very nervous.’
Twice Oscar-nominated Phoenix was now being offered little better than commercials, which he turned down, and a second-rate movie which he nearly accepted just to pay the bills. ‘It was pure luck that I said no. The Master came along about four months later.’ Out this week, The Master is already much talked about, partly for its likely success in next year’s Oscars: director Paul Thomas Anderson’s last film, There Will Be Blood, won two in 2008 and this is thought to be as good, if not better. But the other reason is the Church of Scientology, the secretive religion that counts Tom Cruise, John Travolta and many Hollywood powerbrokers as members.
In the film, Phoenix plays a tortured WWII veteran seduced by a charismatic religious leader ( Philip Seymour Hoffman) who submits him to a personality test highly redolent of the screening process carried out in Scientology. At one point in the film, the son of ‘The Master’ says of his father: ‘You know
beliefs don’t sound any more absurd than Catholicism’
he’s making this up as he goes along?’ If the Master is to be taken as a con man, is this a dig at Scientology founder L Ron Hubbard? One would expect the aggressively litigious Church of Scientology to have something to say about the film. Indeed, producer Harvey Weinstein says he was pressured not to make the film; then once it was under way, to make changes to it, which he resisted. In other words, it’s not exactly the uncontroversial vehicle you might have picked for an actor trying to get his career back on track.
Phoenix is bemused by the furore the film’s subject matter is causing. He says he has no issue with Scientologists. After all, he was raised in an equally idiosyncratic group. His parents were working as missionaries for the Children Of God Puerto Rico when he was born. The Children Of God was a ‘spiritual’ group founded by hippies in the late 1960s; later, it was hit by allegations of young members suffering sexual abuse. ‘My parents left the Children Of God in the 1970s, before the group started to derail,’ he says. ‘But my parents, like a lot of people, were searching for something and that’s a beautiful, admirable, noble pursuit in life. They thought they were going to be part of a group that shared the same ideals. People should be entitled to believe whatever they want as long as it’s not affecting or hurting people who don’t share their beliefs. I’ve worked with Scientologists and they are lovely people. I don’t know why anyone makes fun of their philosophy. They believe they are created from aliens. That doesn’t sound much weirder to me than the virgin birth. It all sounds equally fantastical.’
Outside of the Children Of God, if Phoenix was ever going to find somewhere he belonged, it would inevitably be in front of a camera. All of the five Phoenix siblings — Liberty, Summer, Rain, River and Joaquin — acted as children. For Joaquin, it was intense. ‘ Maybe it’s my personality. In private, I live a very quiet life. I’ve never bungee-jumped. I’ve never sky-dived out of a plane. But in my work I like that intensity. My extreme sport is acting.’
So why did he make I’m Still Here? The film came about when Phoenix’s fame was at an all- time high after winning a Golden Globe for Walk The Line. He explains, ‘Every time we finish a movie, Casey [Affleck] and I call each other and complain, saying, “Oh, we don’t want to act any more.” But what else are we going to do? I was watching a lot of Celebrity Rehab on TV at the time and I had an idea…’
Affleck agreed to film him. He had to stay ‘in character’, at least in public, for months. Word went round Phoenix was quitting the industry and trying to make it as a rapper. Speculation increased that he wasn’t well. By the time Phoenix went on Letterman, with greasy hair and a beard of Biblical proportions, mumbling at his bewildered host — who wasn’t in on the ruse — it was too late to turn back. It was, he says, pure improvisation, and an intense experience.
Despite the damage to his career — it was two years before Phoenix would work again on The Master — he doesn’t regret it. His aim, he says, was to ‘change things’ and it worked perfectly. ‘Yes, 100 per cent. I felt completely open to all possibilities. They teach you when you are a kid to hit your marks, find your light and know your lines. That’s fine, but what that’s really saying is “Remove all spontaneity, all life from your performance.” I achieved what I wanted with I’m Still Here.’
Phoenix from the ashes Top to bottom: Joaquin as Johnny Cash in 2005’s Walk The Line; unkempt and overweight in the 2010 ‘mockumentary’ I’m Still Here; and as Emperor Commodus opposite Connie Nielsen as Lucilla in Gladiator (2000)