Snap­ping point

Joaquin Phoenix tells Tara Brady about tak­ing it to the very edge in his big-screen come­back

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - FRONT PAGE -

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

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