Don’t worry, Joaquin Phoenix is definitely still here.
Following a two-year hiatus from movies, the actor is back in a major way with four films hitting theaters over the course of only one year. From playing notable quadriplegic cartoonist John Callahan (in Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot) to Jesus Christ (in Mary Magdalene) to an 1800s assassin (in The Sisters Brothers), the notoriously press-shy actor is losing himself in a myriad of roles that are all wildly different from one another.
“I hadn't worked for two years leading up to this so I guess there were just films that I couldn't refuse,” Phoenix told Fandango in a lengthy conversation ahead of his latest release, You Were Never Really Here, in theaters April 6. “I was just gonna do one, and it came to this point suddenly where there were like four, five movies kind of dancing around that I was really interested in. So that's how it happened.”
In Lynne Ramsay’s strikingly vicious and ambitious You Were Never Really Here, Phoenix plays a military veteran and abuse victim whose line of work involves him rescuing kids from dangerous pedophiles. Things get violent, seedy and pretty bloody, and Ramsay – who won a Best Screenplay award at last year’s Cannes Film Festival for this film (Phoenix won Best Actor) – delivers a visceral moviegoing experience that very much revolves entirely around the silent intensity of its main character. You're scared of this guy until you're rooting for him in the worst way. It's an expert character study, and both Ramsay and Phoenix make it next-level.
It's not necessarily about the final exection for Phoenix, though. He hasn’t even watched any of his recent movies, including this one. When we asked whether he even goes to the movies, he said he prefers to go “during off hours” because he’s becoming increasingly irritated by audiences who can anticipate something happening before it happens, blaming it on trailers and other kinds of pre-awareness materials. “If I go see a movie, I try not to read anything about a movie, or know anything about it before I go and see it,” he said. “And it's increasingly more and more difficult."
What it is about for him is character and filmmaker. That's the driving motivation behind every role he takes on. It’s why one glance at his filmography produces a staggering lineup of acclaimed directors and multiple Oscar nominations. And when he's working on a film, you get someone committed, locked in, and, in the case of You Were Never Really Here, stressing about getting to set too early.
“I couldn’t wait to get to set,” he said. “I’d wake up and I’d just look at the clock, like, can’t get there too early – I can’t get there before the f**king wardrobe is there!”
That’s the Lynne Ramsay factor. It's the character that gets him there, but it's the filmmaker that keeps him there. With Ramsay, he found a director just as crazy and committed to the craft as he is. “It's this dance that you're doing,” he said. “We inspire each other. We'll sit in the trailer and talk about the scene, and sometimes you start talking about life, and there's just this excitement. Like, oh man, let's get in there. It's like a feeling going through my body, you know? And it’s the same for [Lynne] -- you see it coursing through her body, like, get me in there, and that's the best feeling in the world, man.”
The “feeling” of a movie and a character was a reoccurring theme throughout our conversation. When he was preparing to play the hulking anti-hero at the heart of the film, Ramsay randomly sent Phoenix an audio file of fireworks. His research had helped him learn who the character was – a man trapped in his head and trapped by his past, desperate to free himself from himself.
But then she sent fireworks.
“This was maybe a week before we were shooting. She sent me this audio file, and I think it just said “fireworks,” and I was like, what the f**k is she doing?” he said. “I put it in and it was all bang, boom, and I thought this must be what is going on in [the character’s] head. It just matched up so well with what I was reading. I have this intellectual understanding of the base of the research of things that I was reading, but then she gave me a physical sensation connected to it. So that's the best. It’s so great -- talking about sh*t, intellectualizing, f**king psychoanalyzing the character. I love it.”
Joaquin Phoenix loves “character” so much, he literally used his own identity to convince the world he had become a rapper for an experimental film with Casey Affleck called I’m Still Here back in 2010. At the time no one could quite wrap their head around what he was going for (many still can't). How could such a serious actor do something so silly and absurd? It had a sort of Andy Kaufman vibe to it, but because people perceived Phoenix to be a certain way based on his more serious, Oscar-friendly performances, they didn’t get it. And if they got it, they didn’t like it.
Now Phoenix stars in a movie called You Were Never Really Here, and while the two have nothing at all to do with each other narratively, it’s hard not to connect them and their titles and wonder if there’s some deeper meaning beyond an amusing thematic coincidence. So, we asked him… are you still here?
Where does your mind spend most of its time – in the present, past or future?
“I try to [live in the present], but I definitely think about the movies that I've made a lot,” he said.
It wasn’t the first time he brought up this notion of self-doubt, and you could tell it consumes him way more than it should. “I do still think about those movies and I go, f**k, I f**ked that up. Oh! I f**ked it up!” he said. “It’s really hard, man. I don't think I ever really get to a place even while we're working where I go, like, I got it. I get what this is.”
He may not think he gets it, but in recent years the actor was fortunate to connect with filmmakers who absolutely get him.
Two years after I’m Still Here, Phoenix partnered with writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson. From that relationship, one of the great actor-director collaborations of our time was born. Anderson went right at Phoenix’s eccentricity with fierce conviction and managed to extract a version of the actor we had never really seen. The two movies they made together, The Master and Inherent Vice, produced two of Phoenix’s best performances. And in the case of Inherent Vice, it's the funniest and loosest he's ever been.
“He’s amazing,” the actor said when we first brought up Anderson. “He’s awesome.” When Anderson’s Phantom Thread dropped into the conversation, Phoenix perked up: “How great is that f**king movie?!”
There’s definitely energy and excitement from Phoenix when you bring up some of the filmmakers he’s worked with. We brought up four who, in our opinion, helped shape some of Phoenix's most memorable performances. Here's what he had to say about them.
On Paul Thomas Anderson (The Master, Inherent Vice):
“I mean [with] Paul, I think he has this quality of not being afraid, like welcoming danger, not trying to create. So many filmmakers, so many films are made [where they] try to mitigate risk and make this as safe as possible because it's going to cost too much money. [Paul] is like, throw me into the f**king culture.”
In describing what it’s like to work with Paul Thomas Anderson, Phoenix brought up one moment where he made a crucial mistake and was shocked by how much it excited the director.
“Like, I remember one time I completely f**ked up the continuity of something. I didn't realize till after we shot. It was a big day and I was so, so embarrassed. I was so scared, man. I felt like this little kid coming to tell his dad that I broke his motorcycle. That it was me; I dropped the ball. I f**ked that, I f**ked him up, I f**ked up the continuity. I didn't have the thing. And he goes, alright, this is good. This is very good. Now we gotta figure a way out of this. I was like, what? Seriously?"
"And so, he's somebody who constantly wants to be challenged by everything around him and the environment. I remember working on stage. We worked for three days.
I said, 'How's it going?'
He said, 'I can't f**king take it anymore.'
I said, 'What is it?'
He said, 'I can put the camera anywhere. I can put the light anywhere. I f**king hate it.'"
"Right, he could do anything he wanted. He loves being forced into a situation where this is the room that I have to move around in and I've gotta make something work here, and again, that's such an extraordinary quality because most people are saying, make this as easy for me as possible and I think he is saying, make it difficult or let's challenge ourselves in every moment."
On Lynne Ramsay (You Were Never Really Here):
“I love her willingness to explore [and her] courage in diving into the undefined. I really hope that I'm like that, or want to be that way, and so it's just, like, she kind of excels when her back is against the wall. And it's not like a confidence or a swagger, like, 'I got this down.' It's just a willingness to fail. It's not about succeeding or failing. It's about the experience, right?”
On Gus Van Sant (To Die For, Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot):
“Gus is great. He's super sensitive, he feels things really strongly. Like slight variations that nobody else notices, he's tuned into. He just has, like, a different frequency, and the things that he would be aware of, you're thinking, how the f**k did you see that, how'd you know that?"
"He just really identifies with things very easily and he's very calm. We shot [Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot] in less than five weeks, and there was never a day where anybody felt panicked. Everything was just smooth."
"I like things that are physical. I like to be able to feel the character. As enjoyable as it is doing research -- reading and reading about things -- I like to actually have the experience. So to have gone to Rancho Los Amigos and to work with the guys at the rehabilitation hospital that John [Callahan] actually went to, to go there and to work with the chair and to learn about the movement and the energy and the physicality of it was informative and enlightening. Yeah, it was a good experience, man.”
On Spike Jonze (Her):
"[Spike] is just tireless in his devotion to uncovering every possibility. You know how they have these 3D models, and they spin it every which way, upside down, and spin it around back? That's how he is. He just thinks of so many different possibilities, and so it makes the people around him and makes you, the actor, want to do the same thing. It inspires you to constantly be thinking.”
What’s next for Joaquin Phoenix?
Due out later this year (release TBD), The Sisters Brothers is an 1800s-set Western starring Joaquin Phoenix and John C. Reilly as a pair of brothers (and assassins) hunting a gold prospector (Jake Gyllenhaal) who stole from their boss. That's a dynamite trio by itself, but what's more exciting is that it's being directed by Jacques Audiard (A Prophet, Dheepan). “He’s brilliant. Intimidatingly brilliant,” Phoenix said of Audiard.
Billed as a dark comedy, The Sisters Brothers was supposed to be the first of the now-four movies Phoenix has churned out in the past few months, but its start date shifted. That’s when he called Ramsay to see if she could go sooner, and what was to be his fourth movie became his first one following a two-year hiatus from acting.
Phoenix said that by the time The Sisters Brothers came back around, he had almost forgot what it was. “I was honestly going, wait, why'd I wanna do this?” he said.
And of course it came down to character and filmmaker… and in this case, John C. Reilly.
“Oh, you have no idea,” Phoenix gushed when we brought up Reilly. “Wait till 'this movie comes out, because I think he's about to shock the world. Yeah, and I think this is probably going to be one of the great performances in a long time.”
Phoenix said he never thought about it as a Western – “I guess there’s some guns and horses and the whole 1800s…” – but that it was more about the relationship between he and Reilly that sold him on the film.
“Talking with John, sitting at my table, and him talking about the film, something was happening inside of him that I, like, recognized. I remember saying to my girlfriend, I was like, I don't know what's going to happen with this movie but that motherf**ker's about to turn it out!”
Phoenix leaned back in his chair, eyes wide, smiling. Whenever he spoke about making a connection with another artist – be it Lynne Ramsay or John C. Reilly -- that’s when he seemed the most at peace. It’s what gets him through four movies in a row. It’s always about that connection.
“It's so rare when you're with another actor, or a filmmaker, whoever, and you can just feel it bubbling,” he said, almost giddy. “There are times that we get tired and it’s your worst take, but it becomes your best take. Sometimes when you feel like you got nothing left, that’s when you’re at your best. That’s when you get in there and you just act the f**ker!”
You Were Never Really Here arrives in theaters on April 6. You can snag tickets right here at Fandango.