Joaquin Phoenix tells Tara Brady about taking it to the very edge in his big-screen comeback
PAUL THOMAS Anderson’s The Master opens as the last days of the second World War brings ne’er-do-well Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) and his rowdy regiment to a shimmering Pacific beach. Lest we mistake the sequence for From Here to Eternity’s romantic roll, Freddie busies himself with homebrew, attempts to penetrate an anatomically correct lady sand sculpture, then masturbates furiously and conspicuously into the waves.
“He’s pure id,” says Joaquin Phoenix of his rawest screen manifestation to date. “He’s animalistic.”
Sure enough, the 37-year-old alternately slinks, shirks and springs in the season’s most physically transformative performance: “My back hurt a lot,” he says. “Now I realise that anytime I read interviews and an actor says ‘oh, my back hurt’, I think ‘oh fuck off’. Nobody comes back from digging roads to give interviews about their backache.”
We’ve met before, in 2005, when Phoenix toured with the Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line. The intervening years have done little to dent the actor’s self-effacing charms. He spends much of the interview apologising for perceived pretentiousness, for being a goofball and sometimes for nothing at all. He invariably attributes his successes to directors and co-stars.
“This is such a pretentious acting thing to say that I’m ashamed to say it but here goes . . . One of the things that worked for me – that is, if there was anything that worked for me – was watching videos of animals in captivity. I saw a lot of reactions and expressions that I didn’t really understand. And when you’re trying to analyse what they’re thinking and feeling, you end up projecting to fill in the blanks. That’s what we wanted to capture.”
For Phoenix, a vegan, Peta member and activist for In Defence of Animals, watching distressed mammals was unpleasant but “necessary” groundwork for Freddie’s twisted and primal physicality.
“Oh man. It was horrific. Sometimes it was a tiger in a cage that’s just really aggressive and other times it was a gorilla in a cage that was really just broken. Animals that had mange from worry. Dogs in a dog pound. You could see that – even in their aggressive states – that they’re just terrified. The source of most of that aggression is insecurity and fear.”
Paul Thomas Anderson’s sixth feature film arrives with weighty notices and lofty expectations attached. The cryptic drama pitches Phoenix’s damaged, drunken war veteran against Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Lancaster Dodd, a self-styled physicist and religious leader, (very) loosely modelled on Scientology founder L Ron Hubbard. Their tortured Hegelian bromance and Anderson’s slyly elliptical transitions require processing and pondering long after the final credits roll: you simply don’t stop watching The Master.
Anderson enhanced the film’s ambiguities by working without a shot list and by varying each take. “He’d design the film as he went,” says Phoenix. “He would almost encourage you to do it differently each time. And you couldn’t predict what he’d use. There’s often a feeling when you’re watching those long tracking shots in the cinema that everybody is moving very rigidly, and that’s probably because you’re watching take 13 and everybody is really nervous if it’ll work this time. Paul never gave anybody that feeling. There was no such thing as making a mistake. Even when shots ended on me and I’d fuck it up and say the line wrong.”
Shot on 65mm and presented in the same epic American strokes as Giant or Anderson’s own There Will Be Blood, The Master’s multiple allusions have inspired a gallimaufry of amateur cryptology and possible readings. The film, depending on the pet preoccupations of the code cracker concerned, is all about Thomas Pynchon, religious cults, Jungian archetypes and information theory. Suggested proofs note that Paul Thomas Anderson is currently adapting Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow and Inherent Vice and trace a line between Phoenix’s infant years in the Children of God spiritual group and Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Scientology ersatz.
Sadly, these neat notions have little basis in fact.
“We never discussed that stuff,” says Phoenix. “I didn’t really know anything about that group. And I didn’t want it in my mind. We talked about the war. We watched [Lionel Rogosin’s 1955 docudrama] On the Bowery. That was a key thing. I’d never really seen drunks like that before. When I first read the script I was like, ‘Oh, this guy drinks paint thinner’. It was really interesting for me that Freddie gets on this amazing boat with a ton of free alcohol but he’s so almost addicted to a lack of quality that he’s still mixing his own paint thinner. It’s like a suicidal way to drink. That feeling of hopelessness and that desperation for a chemical release you get in On the Bowery, that’s when I knew Paul wanted me to go fully fucked up.” What does he think the film is about? “The one resonant thing for me was the feeling you may have when you love somebody and – for whatever reason – its not right for this moment. And it hurts so bad because, in so many ways, it seems like it’s right and like you know each other. And you almost can’t live with the idea that you can’t be together in this life. So I think in some ways you’re holding out that for a chance to be with them in another