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Joaquin Phoenix on Playing the Joker and Facing Big Expectations: ‘I Don’t Really Care That Much What People Think’

"What gets my interest is examining people," the actor told IndieWire.

Joaquin Phoenix'A Beautiful Day' film photocall, Rome, Italy - 27 Apr 2018

Joaquin Phoenix

Massimo Insabato/REX/Shutterstock

Joaquin Phoenix has been making up for missed time. After taking two years off from acting following Woody Allen’s “Irrational Man” in 2015, he has returned busier than ever. By the end of 2018, he’ll have appeared in four very different movies: Gus Van Sant’s cartoonist biopic “Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot,” the Jesus-focused “Mary Magdalene,” Lynne Ramsey’s hit man thriller “You Were Never Really Here,” and the Western “The Sisters Brothers,” which opens in September.

In the midst of promoting that movie, Phoenix is already enmeshed in one of the most unexpected new challenges on his docket — playing a supervillain. In “Joker,” the actor will team up with “Hangover” director Todd Phillips for a standalone take on Batman’s infamous foe. It’s the first time the actor will star in an actual comic book adaptation, and though reports surrounding the project suggest that it’s more of a character study made for a modest budget by blockbuster standards, the role comes with a lot of baggage: Jack Nicholson’s Joker wasn’t seen as the iconic performer’s finest moment, while Heath Ledger’s investment in the role reportedly led him down some dark pathways, and Jared Leto’s interpretation in “Suicide Squad” invited much derision.

In an interview to promote “The Sisters Brothers,” Phoenix said he was already preparing for the role, and expressed concern that promoting the new release was getting in his way. “It is ideal to be able to focus on one thing and not do press while you’re prepping for something else, which is not working out,” he said. Nevertheless, the typically tight-lipped actor shrugged off the pressure of tackling such an iconic character. “I could care less,” he said. “I don’t really think that much about what people think. Who cares, who cares? My approach to every movie is the same. What I’m interested in is the filmmaker and the idea of the character.”

Earlier in the summer, Phoenix told Collider that he was intrigued by movies featuring “characters in comics that were really interesting and deserve the opportunity to be kind of studies.” These days, however, he’s more reserved about the challenge. (“What else you got?” he asked when pressed to elaborate on his preparation for the role.) However, he did say that the scale of a blockbuster production didn’t bother him, even though it was an anomaly in his career. “If there’s something that feels unique, then I don’t really care what genre it is, what budget it is,” he said. “Those things aren’t important.” Instead, he said, “What gets my interest is examining people. Some of it is really fucking simple. It’s chemistry, it’s like what you look for in a lover. You know it when it happens.”

While some actors pivot from prestige roles to blockbuster escapism as a survival tactic, Phoenix insisted he had no concerns about the kind of opportunities at his disposal. “I feel like I’ve consistently worked at the same pace,” he said. “It feels like every five years, somebody says ‘They don’t make those kind of movies anymore.’ Maybe that will happen, but I’ve been lucky thus far.”

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