With names like Lynne Ramsay, Joaquin Phoenix, and Jonny Greenwood involved, Amazon’s “You Were Never Really Here” is easily one of the most anticipated indie films of the spring movie season. The crime thriller earned rave reviews at the Cannes Film Festival last year, where it won Ramsay a prize for screenwriting and Phoenix the festival’s Best Actor trophy.
“He’s amazing,” Ramsay tells Esquire of Phoenix in a new profile. “I found my soulmate in making movies.”
Ramsay and Phoenix didn’t meet for the first time until the actor showed up to shoot. The production lasted only 29 days in Brooklyn, New York and included Ramsay rewriting the script as they went along and Phoenix improvising as much as he wanted. Ramsay refers to the film shoot as a “creative storm.”
“Neither of us are very verbal,” Phoenix says of his relationship with Ramsay. “We don’t like to intellectualise about the character. It was all in the doing.
To help Phoenix get into character, for instance, Ramsay sent the actor audio clips of fireworks and gunshots with the note: “This is what’s going on in [Joe’s] head.” Ramsay allowed Phoenix to improvise so much that she says there’s enough cut footage to make up three additional features.
“Lynne’s always chasing something, and that’s who you want to work with,” Phoenix says. “Filmmakers who have a strong feeling and will pursue it to the end. And auteurs are ultimately responsible for the movie. Some movies, the producer, the studio, they’re all putting in their fucking bits and, you know — fuck that movie!”
Ramsay isn’t the only director to bestow praise on Phoenix in his Esquire profile. “Lion” Oscar nominee Garth Davis, who directed the actor as Jesus in “Mary Magdalene,” compares the experience of working with Phoenix to that of working with a “beautiful wild animal.”
“You have to give him the space to be free, so his performance can roam freely: raw, uncontrived and truly natural,” Davis says. “If he smells the design of the scene, you lose his free spirit; if the script is weak, he will expose its flaws. He is fiercely intelligent and almost completely instinctual. And he has this immense sensitivity that can be both his curse and his gift, but for me, that is what it means to be human.”
James Gray, who has collaborated with Phoenix numerous times on films like “The Immigrant” and “Two Lovers,” calls the actor “one of the most incorruptible people” he has ever met.
“He cares about the work and other human beings, and not about the noise,” Gray tells Esquire. “For me, he’s up there with the best actors in movies. He reminds me of Monty Clift, Marlon Brando, the young Al Pacino, or Robert de Niro. He has that kind of fire and intensity, and that craft.”
Head over to Esquire to read Phoenix’s profile in its entirety. “You Were Never Really Here” opens in select theaters April 6.