“One of the things 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”
life. It’s about that hope.”
The Master marks a return to the fray for Phoenix who hasn’t appeared in a feature film since 2008. In early 2009, as part of his prankster duties for the 2010 mockumentary I’m Still Here, a dishevelled Phoenix appeared on The David Letterman Show to renounce acting in favour of hip-hop. Phoenix’s subsequent faux-breakdown sent the gossip sheets into overdrive. He’s never recovered from seeing his brother River die in 1993, postulated some; he’s always played weirdos and oddballs, suggested others unhelpfully.
In reality, Phoenix and his co-conspirator and brother-in-law Casey Affleck were working to an exact timeline: their agents had a copy of the schedule.
“I did some really stupid shit that was completely over the top,” recalls Phoenix. “In some ways, I didn’t want to commit. I wanted to wink at the audience and turn everything
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into a bad SNL skit. Casey was there to say ‘That’s bullshit, either you fucking do it or you don’t’. I would come back from one of the public appearances and he’d be like, ‘You’re a fucking idiot. You’ve ruined everything’. Except then the press would believe it. And at some point, we realised we could do anything. No matter how crazy it seemed. I’m not sure that’s because people really bought it or because it was just more fun to write about.”
Phoenix would be the first to admit he’s never been press-savvy and that often, his representatives can be heard asking: “What have you said now?” The actor, currently the bookies’ favourite to take home an Academy Award next spring, has recently found himself apologising for questioning the value of the Oscars. This is typical, he notes, of how he mouths off without thinking.
“I’m crap at it. Really crap. I don’t know. The press and celebrity – none of that stuff was ever on my radar. We didn’t really live in Hollywood growing up. We never had Premiere Magazine at home. We never watched Entertainment Tonight. I started acting when I was eight, but it wasn’t until years later – in my 20s – that I realised there was anything else attached.”
The middle child from a family of performers, Joaquín Rafael Bottom was born in San Juan, Puerto Rico, just as his parents, former missionaries with the Children of God spiritual movement, were becoming disillusioned with their post-hippie church. The clan, comprising siblings River, Rain, Joaquin, Liberty and Summer and parents John and Arlyn, returned to the US in 1978. They adopted the surname Phoenix to mark a new beginning in Los Angeles, where the kids were soon spotted busking on a street corner and snapped up by Iris Burton, the same child agent who discovered Kirsten Dunst and the Olsen twins.
Joaquin says he remembers his early work on commercials in in the movies SpaceCamp and Parenthood “really vividly” and has never pictured himself in any other profession.
“When I was young, there was a stretch when I didn’t act for a couple of years, and I remember my parents trying to have that conversation with me. I only just thought about this recently and it’s really weird to think about now because I don’t know why I felt that way. But I just always thought, ‘Naw, I don’t need to think about a job. I’m going to become an actor’. I suppose if I’d stumbled on something that gave me a comparable feeling . . .” What feeling exactly? “It’s really hard to explain or maybe I just don’t have the vocabulary to explain. I’ve heard people talk about meditation and – don’t know because I’ve never practised it – but the way they describe it, it sounds pretty close. It’s an awareness of everything in your body. Sometimes, it’s just pure adrenaline.”
He breaks off and apologises: “Oh man. I sound like such a piece of shit.”
It’s hard not to warm to Joaquin Phoenix’s unaffected interview style. He’s just not a movie person. He found a stint directing videos for Albert Hammond Jr and others to be “really stressful” and admits he hardly ever watches movies unless they’re “crap, goofy comedies”. His favourite film is Stepbrothers.
“It’s the film I’ve definitely watched most,” says Phoenix. “And it’s wrong of me to say goofy comedy, because I think there’s so much weight to that film, and I think what John [C Reilly] and Will [Ferrell] do is genius. I apply that movie to every part of my life now. It’s a manifesto. This movie is what keeps me and my girlfriend together. Every time we try to have an argument somebody says a line and that’s the end of the argument.” ❙❙❙ The Master opens today and is reviewed on page 11
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