Press-loathing actor Joaquin Phoenix, star of Lynne Ramsey’s “You Were Never Really Here,” is still in recovery. Yes, from alcohol back in the day, but also from that disastrous period when he and then-brother-in-law Casey Affleck “thought it was funny,” as he told NPR’s Terry Gross, to film the bizarre 2010 mockumentary “I’m Still Here.” Throughout filming, Phoenix remained in (scripted) character as a strangely unhinged version of himself, overweight, hirsute, and out of control, including his 2009 “Late Show with David Letterman” appearance where he announced his acting retirement — in order to be a hip-hop artist.
The movie underscored Phoenix’s ambivalent relationship to his own celebrity and his lack of concern for public perceptions. However, it turned out that he may have overstated his case. Phoenix had no idea how much the film would impact his ability to get work. (His director is still dealing with the #MeToo backlash from a settled sexual harassment lawsuit filed against him by two women who worked on the film.)
Phoenix’s Oscar-nominated performance in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master” (2012) marked his return from acting jail as the mysterious, dangerous actor capable of anything. He can be charismatic (Johnny Cash in “Walk the Line”), hateful (Emperor Commodus in “Gladiator”), weak (the crook-shouldered World War II veteran in “The Master”), strong (the brutal hitman of “You Were Never Really Here”), tenderly romantic (he fell in love with his OS in “Her”) or hilariously addlepated (the pot-soaked P.I. in “Inherent Vice”). PTA collaborated with Phoenix twice; Gus Van Sant made two films with him, and James Gray four. Phoenix has a restless, fearless instinct that compels him to dig deep into complicated psyches.
Career Peaks: This Puerto Rico-born actor raised with his four siblings by Children of God missionaries has been acting since he was eight (he made his feature debut in Ron Howard’s 1989’s “Parenthood”). Since then he’s made some 35 movies including Gus Van Sant’s 1995 “To Die For,” two creepy M. Night Shyamalan thrillers, “Signs” (2002) and “The Village” (2004), and four Cannes James Gray dramas that run the New York gamut: a conflicted street thug in “The Yards” (2000), a conflicted cop in “We Own the Night” (2007), a conflicted photographer in “Two Lovers” (2009), and conflicted pimp in “The Immigrant” (2013). We believe him, whatever he does.
The Weinstein Company
Awards Attention: Phoenix has three Oscar nominations, for playing a Roman Emperor threatened by Russell Crowe’s uppity slave in Ridley Scott’s “Gladiator” (2000), rags-to-riches country singer Johnny Cash in James Mangold’s “Walk the Line” (2005) and a battle-scarred hard-drinking World War II veteran in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master” (2012). He was nervous before playing a real character for the first time in “Walk the Line.” “He had so many fans,” he told me at Sundance. “There was a lot of footage of how he walked and talked. I remember a point where I said, ‘I can’t worry about other people’s expectations. I have to have this experience and it becomes my experience, it’s my interpretation.'”
Phoenix certainly didn’t expect to win Best Actor at Cannes last May. He was at the Nice airport when the festival called to tell him to turn around and show up for the Cérémonie de Clôture. “I couldn’t imagine … that,” he said. “It’s difficult for a lot of the movies I’m in to get out there. I appreciate that it’s great for the movie, and I’m happy for Lynne and what we did together. But I can’t help but just go like, ‘There must be some political thing, maybe the movies being made are bad this year.’ I can’t help being that way, it’s so subjective. The movies I do are so tied to the filmmaker that they should get the acting award.”
Isn’t it possible that obsessive striving for excellence has paid off in good performances? “It’s also possible that people just have low standards and what you think is a good performance isn’t,” he said. “You talk about a performance in 20 years, right? It’s possible sometimes that movies are just like of the moment, for whatever fucking reason. A movie I loved, I remember when I was 25 years old, I watch again years later and it really isn’t that good. That’s possible as well.”
Assets: Self-deprecating to a fault, Phoenix doesn’t care what you think of him. Being liked is not his goal, nor applause, awards, money, or the spotlight. Phoenix loves being on set and bonding with a director and immersing himself in finding a character. He disappears into his roles, always seeking to avoid the expected in favor of something fresh. And he’s never phoned it in; his filmography is consistently high quality, whether he’s star or villain or supporting player. What he refuses to be is “professional.”
“I do not strive to be a professional actor, I do not want to be a pro,” he said. “For me, professionalism is like nailing it, it’s achieving precisely the emotional moment, whatever the fuck it is. And I always feel like there has to be something more, like if we just achieve what we all think is in our heads –‘that’s the way to play it’ — then we are not working hard enough. There has to be another way we can make this feel personal. I hate movies that feel like really well-written scripts when someone delivers a speech — ‘that’s great writing’ — oftentimes I’ve never heard anybody talk like that. And so, I like trying to uncover something that might not be there in the script.”
Latest Contender: Phoenix and Ramsay collaborated closely on “You Were Never Really Here,” debating and rejiggering the ending up to the day they filmed it. His depressed and angst-ridden hitman is pulled out of the slough of despond by his fight to save a young girl trapped in a child prostitution ring. Phoenix enjoyed playing him. “In some ways it’s about his history also,” said Phoenix. “He’s fighting for himself and his mother and what he couldn’t do when he was young. But the original ending was that kind of classic, face the bad guy, he tells you the whole story and you kill him. I’m sick of that in movies; I’m sick of the idea of revenge justice, I felt, ‘Is that really what we’re doing? I come in and I kill this guy and go off to save the girl?’ It troubled me, it wasn’t interesting, we’d seen it so much. We labored with what could it be, through so many different versions.”
At the last minute, two days before they shot the finale, Ramsay found an alternative, “something interesting that we don’t think we’ve seen,” said Phoenix. “Working with Lynne, many decisions she made on the spot, really bold. She’s a person you want under pressure. She’s fucking brilliant. You push her to the fucking edge, disaster! We have nothing, it’s a failure, and boom!”
Gus Van Sant’s “Don’t Worry You Won’t Get Far on Foot” (Amazon Studios), in which Phoenix plays wheelchair-bound cartoonist John Callahan opposite Jonah Hill, debuted at Sundance to strong reviews. (It was Phoenix’s first Sundance.) During a month of fooling around, Phoenix swiftly adapted to the souped-up wheelchair, which went 11 miles per hour and was a useful weapon. The chair helped him to find Callahan. “John would use his wheelchair as a means of cornering somebody,” he said. “I suddenly felt the power of this thing and the freedom it afforded him.”
Van Sant “is perceptive,” Phoenix said. “He can see things that are holding you back that you can’t identify, he can tell when you’re not comfortable with the dialogue, taking too many pauses or whatever. It’s allowing you to have this space to feel confident that this is your world, there aren’t any rules or a right or wrong way to do it. I thrive in that environment.”
Biggest Problem: Phoenix wears his neuroses on his sleeve. He really doesn’t like talking about himself. Promoting his movies is his idea of hell. It’s even too painful for him to watch them. “It’s always disappointing, because it will never live up to the experience,” he said. “I’d prefer to remember the work.” When Ramsay asked him to watch some unfinished footage while he was doing ADR and reshoots for “You Were Never Really Here,” he said, “‘This is horrible.’ I saw part of it on a computer, totally incomplete without music. We were doing some additional shooting that we always knew we were going to do. Lynne insisted on showing me some stuff: ‘You shoot it, you watch it, you learn from it, there’s nothing wrong.’ But I shouldn’t have done that! It’s always a disaster for me.”
Latest Misfire: Even Phoenix couldn’t save Woody Allen’s “Irrational Man” (2015), in which his depressed professor is energized by a younger woman (Emma Stone). Phoenix is always willing to take chances on risky material, which yields the occasional off-kilter indie (“Quills,” “Buffalo Soldiers,” “Reservation Road”) that doesn’t register with audiences.
Current Gossip: Phoenix lives in an expansive compound at the top of Laurel Canyon (where he filmed “I’m Still Here”) with girlfriend and recent co-star Rooney Mara (“Her,” “Mary Magdalene”); he and Mara like to stay home watching Netflix documentaries. He did one stint in rehab a dozen years ago for alcohol, which he now only drinks on airplanes. (His hard-partying days are behind him.) He’s been a vegan since he was three and is politically active, supporting charities such as PETA, Red Cross, and Amnesty International. He shuns social media. (A recent New York Times profile suggested he never got over how the media covered his brother River’s 1993 drug overdose on Sunset Boulevard outside the Viper Room; Joaquin was 19 when he called 911.)
Next Step: His most recent role as Jesus in Garth Davis’s “Lion” follow-up “Mary Magdalene” opened in the UK to soft reviews, but is held up in Weinstein Co. bankruptcy limbo and may never see a stateside theatrical release. “Luckily not a lot of people are familiar with the character, so I had a lot of freedom,” he joked. “There always has to be a moment where you have to say, ‘This is mine, my interpretation.’ It’s something I have to do with every movie. ‘Fuck, I hate that they have this expectation of what this scene is supposed to be, like I’m supposed to achieve something.’ I hate the idea of a set goal.”
One likely Cannes contender is “The Sisters Brothers” (Annapurna), French auteur Jacques Audiard’s 1850s western based on Patrick DeWitt’s novel starring Phoenix and John C. Reilly as a team of nasty brother desperados chasing a gold prospector (Jake Gyllenhaal).
Career Advice: Get out more, be charming, stay friendly. And keep changing things up. He loved working with a woman director and seeks more unfamiliar stories. “We’ve been making remakes for 15 years,” he said. “We’ve run out of original stories to tell about a man. There’s a whole population of stories we haven’t been told, right? Imagine how exciting films can be as soon as soon as that door is open. Things feel desperate with movies, pretty fucking boring.”
Not when Phoenix is around.