James Gray Defends Joaquin Phoenix Against Accusations of Being ‘Difficult’ on Set

"Some people just roll their eyes at that. But actors need to be protected and loved," Gray said of the actor.
LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM - FEBRUARY 02, 2020: Joaquin Phoenix attends the EE British Academy Film Awards ceremony at the Royal Albert Hall on 02 February, 2020 in London, England.- PHOTOGRAPH BY Wiktor Szymanowicz / Future Publishing (Photo credit should read Wiktor Szymanowicz/Future Publishing via Getty Images)
Joaquin Phoenix
Future Publishing via Getty Imag

For James Gray, there is no black and white when it comes to actors being deemed “difficult” to work with.

While some stars have lists of collaborators they will never work with, Gray defended Best Actor Oscar winner Joaquin Phoenix against his perceived reputation of being a tough artist on set. The “Armageddon Time” director worked with Phoenix on the historical drama “The Immigrant,” also starring Marion Cotillard and Jeremy Renner.

“Why is Joaquin Phoenix ‘difficult’? He’s not difficult. He’s great. He’s ‘difficult’ in the best way. You want that difficult,” Gray told Vulture. “Difficult for me is you don’t show up on time. Or you don’t remember your lines. Or you’re super-argumentative and get in the way of the process. Difficult is not you asking me a lot of questions about the character. That’s not difficult!”

Gray clarified that he does not think Oscar winner Phoenix is difficult “at all,” but that the narrative has shifted due to modern directors not approaching actors as they should during the creative process.

“I don’t think most filmmakers today are steeped in a tradition in which the actor is everything. They’re on the screen, and their emotional honesty is paramount,” Gray said. “So I say to myself and to others, ‘In the end, they have to win the arguments.’ It’s unbelievably difficult to act brilliantly in something.”

Gray continued, “If I want to be an aeronautical engineer, in high school, there are many things I can learn that will apply to my future major in college and then profession. But with acting, putting on the high-school play has no applicable lessons learned for what it means to be an actor — because putting on the high-school play is about pleasing the moms and the dads in the back row, whereas acting for the cinema, at its best, is almost the opposite of that: ignoring the need to please.”

The “Lost City of Z” director added, “With Joaquin, the ‘difficult’ label comes because he gets very open about his vulnerability and his need to feel safe in a space. Joaquin in table reads, when it’s his turn to speak, he’d say, ‘Bullshit, bullshit, bullshit, my line. Bullshit, bullshit.’ He didn’t want to reveal himself there. You know, some people just roll their eyes at that. But actors need to be protected and loved.”

In fact, Phoenix’s dedicated in-character work in part led to the “single most surprising thing” Gray has “ever seen” on set.

“[It was during] take one of a master shot in ‘The Immigrant,’ when we know that Marion Cotillard has stolen money, and they go back to the tenement. And Joaquin accuses her and says, ‘You stole. I saw you take the money.’ And he called an off-camera actor, Dagmara Dominczyk,” Gray remembered. “In the middle of the take, he just screamed, ‘Belva! Get in here!’ She just walked into the middle of the take, and she actually did something great. When he said, ‘What do you say to her?’ Dagmara went up to Marion and kissed her, which was an incredible choice. I didn’t know it was coming, and she didn’t. We could barely accommodate for it, but I used it. It’s take one.”

Phoenix previously made headlines for his Method approach to faux documentary “I’m Still Here” about his “retirement” from acting and the public eye. The five-time Oscar-nominated actor won the 2020 Academy Award for DC film “The Joker,” spurring upcoming sequel “Joker: Folie à Deux” opposite Lady Gaga.

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