Given the opportunity to meet Joaquin Phoenix, your mind races. Will the endlessly fascinating actor throw dagger eyes like the sociopathic character that earned him his first Academy Award nomination in The Gladiator? Will he show up in a full beard, wearing sunglasses indoors like in I’m Still Here? Turns out neither. Joaquin Phoenix, in person, seems … well, pretty normal.
Public perception of himself is not something Phoenix gives much thought to, apart from the very obvious fact that he once made a film where he played himself. "That was intended to be a comedy!” exclaims Phoenix of 2010's oddball I'm Still Here, looking surprised that the project took a somewhat different turn.
Playboy sat down with Phoenix to discuss the mockumentary that confused so many, shoving an actor on the set of his new film (the guy loved it!) and what it’s like to make a movie on the fly.
In You Were Never Really Here, we only get snippets of your character’s backstory, presented in short flashes. Did you flesh it out to get more of his backstory?
I mean, it's pretty, pretty simple. It was obvious that he had a lot of trauma and grew up with this feeling of being incapable of protecting his mom, protecting himself. I think that that was really the key to the character in some ways.
Did Lynne give you a notion of how she wanted you to look physically?
Nope. I think it was based on this idea that you want to protect yourself, to be as strong as possible, right? Everything that I read about physical abuse is that feeling of being weak and incapable of protecting yourself. So, I just [thought], "Well, he should be as big as possible." But I also didn't want the standard Hollywood body for getting big, right? [This] is somebody that's kind of midlife and has fallen off in some ways.
What is it like to live in that body? When you go home, to some degree he has to come with you, right?
He does? I don't know what it's like for other people, and it changes from movie to movie, but I don't think we really stopped working and thinking about it. But I'm just saying, thinking about it. So I'd go home, and I'd fucking, I don't know, listen to music or talk to a friend. But mostly, the producer Jim Wilson, Lynne and I would finish the day and talk or exchange emails. So, you're always thinking about it. But it's fine. There's no like, waking up with nightmares and shit like that.
Did you watch the film in Cannes for the first time?
I haven't seen it.
Is this a film you want to see?
I don't want to see any movie I'm in.
Do they make you?
No, no. I mean, occasionally, a director can convince me, or sometimes early on in the cut, they may want my opinion, or we may have to talk about doing additional shooting or reshoots or something, so at those times. I don't know, sometimes I see things, but more often than not, I don't.
Have you seen Taxi Driver? People talk about the similarities between these two films?
I know. It's interesting. We never consciously talked about Taxi Driver, but, of course, I've seen it. It's a hugely influential movie. But I didn't think about it when we were making the movie.
In I'm Still Here, there's a moment where you were really frustrated with actors and the industry. Were you being sincere there, or has your attitude changed?
I mean, that was intended to be a comedy. Casey [Affleck] and I were making fun of ourselves and the times where we were like, "Oh, fucking hate this—what are we doing?" But it's just like stupid, bratty kids, just going like, "I fucking hate this job," right? It's an amazing job and amazing opportunity. So just making fun of ourselves is when we would say that to each other.
Are you aware of how endlessly fascinated people are by you, just as a persona?
Ah, no. But thanks for making me aware of it.
You seemed to play into it a little in the movie with Casey?
Yeah, I think we became aware of people being fascinated with what we were doing, but the whole joke of that movie, what we thought was the joke, was that I would announce that I was retiring, and nobody would care. That's literally what we had anticipated. I think that it was just by chance that when we made that, it was kind of the emergence of the need to feed the internet, right? I think if it had been a few years earlier … There [were] a few entertainment shows. And maybe there [would have been] a blurb about it, but probably not. And at this time, there suddenly was a need to fill up space.
So, the first time that I announced that I was retiring [Laughs]—the whole thing was, no one was going to care, and my character would be like, "Oh, my God. No one fucking cares." Sue, my publicist, was like, “It's everywhere.“ “What do you mean, it's everywhere?“ Because neither of us really paid attention to the internet in that way. I think that was the first thing we were really surprised by, and then we realized this is a part of the story. And that's kind of how it evolved.
Do you think that's why people perceive that you take your roles home?
Oh, it's just like a fun thing to talk about in press. It sounds like it's cool. Like, "Ah, you're really committed, and you live it!" That may be true at times, right? It changes. But then you get stuck with the story. And it happens a couple times, and then that becomes your way of working. For me, I don't really have a set way of working. I'm always just trying to not be embarrassed in front of the camera. I'm always just trying to be as comfortable as possible, so there are times where I interact with the crew because that's going to make me feel more comfortable. And there's other times where I can't look them in the eye. Whatever it takes to feel comfortable, so that you're not being self-analytical while you're working.
Did you add something to this character that wasn’t originally in the script?
We would try different things. There's a scene where I buy medication from a guy. Do I punch him? [Editor's note: He does, in fact, punch the guy.] We did, like, three different versions of that. He didn't know it was going to happen. I think this was the first scene that we shot, and I just asked this production assistant [to] stand behind this guy [and] catch him. I didn't want him to fall and get hurt. And the guy was like, “OK. Why?” “Just stand there, if he falls back …” I didn't know if it would happen or not, right? If you talk about it, and you rehearse it, suddenly, everybody prepares for this moment, and it becomes, like, this thing. And I felt like the character wasn't planning on doing that. It was something that spontaneously comes up. So we did three different versions: We did one where I was just laying in the staircase. We did one where I was sick, and I was vomiting on the stairs. And then, one where I just pushed him back and punched at the air. And he just fell down, and that was it.
I guess his public perception of you is you're not that nice.
No, he fucking had a blast! [Laughs] He was like, “This is the first thing I've ever done. It was so much fun.” His first acting gig ever, and he had a blast. And it is. It's exciting and fun when you're exploring things, and it feels spontaneous. So, I think he liked it.
What is it like working with Lynne as a director?
She was so impressive to me because she just was tireless. I would get emails at 2 in the morning. I would go to sleep after work, and I would wake up to these long emails. She's really committed and hard-working. It was really a tough shoot. It was really cheap, and we shot really fast. She pulled the movie together in two months. And she wants to feel what the character's experiencing. If I'm walking down the hallway with the hammer, and we're talking about the speed of it or how to approach somebody, she'll want to take the hammer walk down with the hammer like, "Oh, yeah, yeah. That feels right." Or if it's something with a gun. All these things that I would do, she would try to do it also and try to gain perspective of the character, instead of just staying on the outside, looking in.
Lynne was one of only three female directors in competition at Cannes last year. Is it different working with a female director?
Someone asked me that the other day. I said, “I never really even thought about it like that.” I don't think, “I'm working with a female director.” I just went, “I'm working with a director.”
I had a real problem with the ending. We had shot something, and I did a scene. It was incredibly bad. And I didn't know what to do.
What was that like, knowing that your character was going to be augmented by all these flashbacks?
To be honest, we have all those flashbacks in the movie, but as we went on, we said it might be something different. I don't think that we were certain that it was going to be what it was. That is what was written, but as this film progressed, it changed dramatically to what it is today. Certainly, the last third is very different than what was scripted.
So there was a shooting script, but Lynne would just think of different ways to … "Improv" might be the wrong word?
There certainly was some of that, but the structure was essentially the same. There were a couple really big changes to the story and the plot. I'm always reluctant to talk about them because I don't want to affect how people see the movie. I think it's something that you talk about years later. And maybe it's not my place to do that. But it was impressive in that there was one particular change … because I had a real problem with the ending. We were actually shooting that towards the end, so throughout the shooting, we kept talking about this sequence. And Lynne kept coming up with ideas, and one day it just felt like all was lost. We had shot something, and I did a scene. It was … Ah, God. I start to think about it, it's so embarrassing. It was incredibly bad. And I didn't know what to do.
I was like, "I don't know what to do. There's no way." And she went home that night, and she just had this eureka moment. She found something, and she said, "Well, what if we switched that around, and what if it's this?" I was like, "Now, that's something worth exploring." That was exciting to me. It was so much fun because it felt like we'd really painted ourselves in a corner, and we couldn't get out. And she worked so well under pressure. I actually started to prefer when she felt like her back was against the wall. And I think we kept that feeling going a lot because she was just fucking brilliant in those moments.
Is it unusual to find a director who's so collaborative?
I don't know. I think part of it is, if you don't like something, that's the process. I will say, "I'm having trouble with this, but it could be me. I'm having difficulty finding this." The director either needs to kind of look in and say, "I understand what he's saying, and I agree." Or they go, "No. There's something that's blocking you, and this is why it works," and talk about the character, and hopefully, it opens up in a different kind of understanding for you.
You have to understand—this film, she had intended to shoot it the fall of 2016, but I had planned on working through last year and up until this summer. So, she said, "We'll do it this summer of 2017." And then, the film that I was meant to do last summer fell apart. And I called her and I said, "Do you think you can get it going in two months?" And she said yes. So that's what happened. We went into production so quickly, that we were forced to kind of make those changes. But I think she's a person that always sees different, compelling ways to tell a story. She wants it to be alive and always moving.
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