... on rais­ing his ca­reer from the ashes

The Irish Mail on Sunday - TV Week - - CONTENT -

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)

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