“Alright, shoot. Kill.” There’s no question how Joaquin Phoenix feels about interviews and the added stress of awards season buzz, but as the actor strolls into recent LA roundtables for “Inherent Vice” without a publicist or handler, and leaves only once he feels the discussion start to fade, it’s clear his evasive reputation concerns the industry and not his craft. It also doesn’t hurt that Phoenix has yet another amazing project behind him, as he reunites with Paul Thomas Anderson after 2012’s “The Master” to tackle Thomas Pynchon’s ’70s-set novel “Inherent Vice,” which we called “a hilarious…melancholy and intuitive stoner noir” in our review.
Condensing the film’s plot is a dangerous folly, but the “Walk The Line” actor factors in as Doc Sportello, a private investigator suckered by his ex-girlfriend Shasta (Katherine Waterston) into investigating a real estate mogul’s disappearance. His drug-fueled journey away from the fictional Gordita Beach, California leads him into the den of Nazis, snitches, Martin Short, and The Golden Fang, which may be a boat as well as an organization. Details are murky down every avenue—however, when asked if he nailed down the character of Doc straight away to gain clarity on the rest, Phoenix claims he never did, and moreover, doesn’t desire to fully comprehend his roles.
“I feel like it’s something that I don’t want to do,” he says. “Because when you say, ‘This is who my character is,’ then it stops being real. I feel like that’s always a problem with some performances, since depending on circumstances you present different things to different people. so I’ve tried to be malleable and take on new ideas that sometimes reveal things that you don’t really expect or understand. Sometimes it’s years later you look back and realize, ‘Oh, that’s why I was doing that.’ Sometimes it’s just fucking luck.”
When it comes to working a second time with Anderson, Phoenix still retains a slight disbelief at his situation after feeling like, as he describes, a “monkey swinging around trying to say some lines” on their first collaboration.
“On ‘The Master’—you must understand—there’s scenes and work I did that were so bad,” Phoenix says. “And I remember being really fucking panicked. But by and large he got rid of the bad stuff. He won’t tell you, ‘Stop doing that thing that’s bad’, because he’ll just find a way around it. Sometimes you find that you’re fidgeting with something, but he won’t say ‘Take that out of your hand.’—he’ll just frame it out so you don’t see what’s happening. It allows you to really go out there and try things that sometimes shouldn’t work, and you just trust that you make it work too.”
That mindset served Anderson and his cast well when it came to adapting “Inherent Vice” for the screen, which by many accounts seemed an impossible task. The “Punch Drunk Love” director’s solution was to embrace the chaos, shooting scenes in different locations with characters swapping dialogue, and capturing a tone that swerved from melancholy to dramatic to slapstick in the same scene.
Take one of the signature moments of the film’s first trailer (and an alternate take in the second), when Doc throws dukes up at an unseen assailant before falling to the ground, unconscious. It’s a bold moment straight out of “Duck Soup,” yet it completely works within the bizarre world that Anderson and Pynchon have conceived.
“My first approach was just a complete knock down, like a boxer where you just see somebody’s life go out of them,” Phoenix says, describing filming the scene. “I did that take, we were nearly done and Paul was like, ‘Hold on, do you think there’s something else? What if you tried to put up a fight?’ So that was Paul…when you talk about latitude, and people talk about Paul giving this sense of freedom—he allows you to think that. But he’s in absolute and total control, and that’s kind of the beauty of working with him. He makes you feel like you’re dictating the actions of your character, but you know that he’s there, really guiding it along.”
A central aspect of Pynchon’s novel that drew Phoenix into the fold was its blend of madcap antics and authentic, flawed characters—he even describes a scene with Doc from the book that they “tried to get into the film but abandoned early on.”
“Shasta had just gone missing on the Golden Fang boat, and Doc goes to his friend, Fritz. He’s in a panic, really emotional, and he’s like ‘I’ve gotta find Shasta, she’s on this boat’, and Fritz has the precursor to the Internet—the ARPANET. He explains to Doc that these computers are all talking to one another and they’re all connected around the world, and if anybody knows where Shasta, it’s in this computer. And the first thing that Doc thinks to put in is, ‘Does it know where I can score?’ ”
Phoenix continues, “I love that because there’s something really idealistic and kind and thoughtful about him but he does have this vice, and I think that’s rare. That’s really what struck me about the book, and hopefully we captured that in the movie.”
Given the sprawling cast of “Inherent Vice,” which includes Josh Brolin, Joanna Newsom, Hong Chau, and Benicio del Toro, and Phoenix’s giving and endless supply of reactions and energy opposite them all, it’s a bit of a surprise when he begins to talk about enjoying working with ensembles but then stops himself. “That’s not true,” he corrects. “I like working alone. But if I am to work with other actors, this cast is a dream.”
Naturally we ask about his time on last year’s Spike Jonze drama “Her,” in which he acted in isolation of other physical characters for major sections of the film.
“It was the most fun I’ve ever had in my life,” he replies. “I like working all the time. I don’t like taking breaks, I don’t like the weekends, and I think that it was enjoyable to have the director’s full attention and to be just focused like that. It was great. It’s just such a rare experience and it was completely on the other end of the spectrum working on this. But it’s really good to collaborate as well, and I like how somebody’s performance will affect your own.”
Another question comes from Phoenix’s sense of immersion into any given project, which has been labeled “method” to his chagrin. Rather, after working on over 29 films with a slew of top-tier directors, including James Gray, Ridley Scott, and Woody Allen, his approach is more of an emotional commitment than an analytical one.
“I’m like the kid that crams for a test and never remembers anything,” he says, talking about any heavy research done for ‘Vice.’ “I know there’s some actors that are scholars about the period and what they’re talking about, but I’m always amazed, like ‘How did you manage to learn all that and learn your lines?’ I keep everything from a movie, every single call sheet, every single note, so when I’m moving a new box I’ll see another box from a movie six years ago. I’ll look in and wonder, ‘I read these books?’ All this material that you use, and I don’t remember a single thing, I don’t know why.”
“Inherent Vice” opens in limited release this Friday.