Joaquin Phoenix, 39, formerly named Leaf Phoenix, is as well known for his quirky antics and unpredictable behaviour as he is for his acting performances in movies such as Gladiator (which earned him an Oscar nomination and a BAFTA award), Walk the Line for which he won Best Actor at the Golden Globes and garnered another nomination for Best actor at the Oscar’s, and most recently, The Master, which earned him another Oscar nomination.
He has also ventured into directing music videos as well as starring in the controversial ‘mockumentary’ I’m Still Here, directed by Casey Affleck, in which Phoenix makes an attempt to become a bonafide rapper. This was the same time as he announced in the press that he had retired from acting.
In his personal life, he is currently dating the much younger DJ, Allie Teilz, 20. Prior to this he was famously linked in the 90s to actress Liv Tyler.
It’s always an unusual experience to interview Phoenix, and today is no exception. He’s promoting the film Her, in which he stars opposite Scarlett Johansson (though she only voices her character). In his own offbeat way he discusses his philosophy about career and his thoughts behind the controversial film, I’m Not Here.
Q: What did you have in common with the character you played?
PHOENIX: I don’t know, I don’t think about that.
Q: But how did you relate to that character?
PHOENIX: I am sure that I do. This is why I hate doing press, because it makes me about things that I don’t want to think about at all and that’s not healthy for the work. I don’t think it’s necessary or healthy to think about those things, I don’t try to when I work. I don’t know, I am sure I have many things in common with everything I’ve done, it’s probably just an extension of me. I don’t know, I don’t think about it, I don’t care.
Q: Is it true that you said to Spike Jonze that you can’t play this part originally when you read the script?
PHOENIX: I don’t know. I don’t remember saying that, I am sure that I probably have said that to every director I have ever worked with, like, ‘I don’t know how I will be able to pull this off.’
Q: And when do you realise, okay, I can handle this?
PHOENIX: I don’t think I ever do. (laughter) I don’t think there’s ever a point and frankly I think that if I tell you I’ve had experiences, like scenes and moments where I have gone, ‘All right I got it,’ was the worst thing always. Always the worst scene always. I don’t think that I have a sense of what’s right going on.
Q: What does it take to get you in front of a camera these days?
PHOENIX: I think the director is like 99 percent of it.
Q: To what extent do you feel the future as shown in Her is a reality?
PHOENIX: I really don’t know. I am excited about the future and excited about technology. I think it’s really f*cking cool, and I like it, I don’t fear it at all.
Q: The directors always cast you for roles where characters live in their own reality and are struggling to find out what’s real and what isn’t…
PHOENIX: Awesome it sounds like all of us. (laughter)
Q: Do you suffer from that?
PHOENIX: What do you mean, like from the basic questions of life, like who are we, what are we doing? And what’s the point of this and what’s real, and you don’t? (Laughter) I was actually just reading this thing in this Science Magazine. It was suggesting they were theorising that our universe and our world experience might be a simulation and they are actually doing tests to try to see if that’s true. I think it’s a fucking fascinating idea, and it excites me. And yeah, I do think reality is totally subjective.
Q: I see this movie as a deeply romantic love movie. What comes to your mind when you are thinking about love?
PHOENIX: I wouldn’t know how to answer that.
Q: And how was it working with Scarlett? Did she record her voice?
PHOENIX: Yeah, she recorded her voice. We went to the recording studio and it was the same thing, she was in the soundproof box and we did these scenes together, but I am sure that they used, I am not sure, but I would imagine that they used a lot of my original audio, but maybe not. I am not sure because maybe the performance was changed with Scarlett, but she is such a good actor, Scarlett. Last night, I asked her a question and she answered it and she said, ‘Do it again.’ So I asked her the same question again, and she did a different version of her answer. (laughter)
Q: Does acting become easier with age or maybe more difficult, because you know more about life?
PHOENIX: I don’t know if it’s that you know more about life. I think you are affected by pressing all your time into the thing and I think that that starts wearing you, on some people, and for me it does. I have always said that I always wanted to be a child actor, and I missed a time when you are totally naive to all the extra stuff that goes into making a movie. And so in some ways you are battling against that, battling against people being f*cking sick of you, battling against you being sick of yourself, and in some ways I think it can get more difficult, but my appreciation for making movies I think has increased.
Q: When did you write your last rhyme?
PHOENIX: When we were shooting.
Q: How serious were you doing your rap career and the documentary I’m Still Here?
PHOENIX: I thought I was going to do funny stuff and Casey (Affleck) was like, ‘You can’t try and make a joke of it, because that’s not going to work. It has to be totally sincere.’ And I was like, ‘I don’t think I can write something totally sincere, like the only way I could write it was by making a joke.’ And he was like, ‘Well, that’s not going to work. And you have to try and write a song as if it really matters to you. Do you want to do this?’ And so then I tried to take it really seriously, and I tried to write this song, and it still was terrible, like even when I tried to do it as something that really mattered to me. But there was a difference, I mean, they are both terrible, but one was, when I originally tried to put together a song, they were just overtly comical like Saturday Night Live sketches and that’s basically what it was the first month and really Casey was the one that came in and was like, ‘You can’t make a joke, you have to play it totally real. You have to try and write the songs like it’s real and sincere or else it doesn’t work.'
Q: But you played it real for a couple of years right?
PHOENIX: Well, we were shooting the film for the year and a half. I wrote a few f*cking, it’s funny that I say wrote,' because I was just sitting there, thinking of stupid sh*t to say.
Q: Why didn’t you hire help?
PHOENIX: I don’t know, part of the point wasn’t to do something, the point was, for somebody to do something sincerely and to fail at it.
Q: You worked for PETA. What are you trying to change with your work for PETA?
PHOENIX: Well I think for a couple of things that I have done, a couple of PSA’s that I did, I think it was just about raising awareness. You know, when I was a kid growing up, people thought vegans were f*cking cults that had some bizarre rituals and sh*t and there were like some rules and we had to dress a certain way or something. Part of it is to say that there is an alternative, and this is the reality of other things and I wasn’t aware of that and thank you for making me aware of it. I didn’t know that I was buying that product and that’s what would happen. So, I think it’s awesome any time somebody makes me aware of something that I didn’t know.
Q: And when did you decide to become a vegan?
PHOENIX: I was three. I feel like I have told this story a thousand f*cking times, it’s so weird. But, there were five kids and we literally screamed at our parents and said, ‘We are never going to eat meat again.’ Because we were on a boat, and they were catching fish, and they were throwing fish against the side of the boat in order to kill them, they are flopping around, so these kids, there were five of us, no there were four of us, one of them was pregnant with my younger sister, and it was undeniable that it was brutal, barbaric and horrible for us, and so we said that. I remember my mum not being to answer and we said, ‘Why didn’t you tell us that’s where meat came from?’ And she didn’t know what to say. I feel like I have this memory of seeing her crying.
Q: I want to come back to I’m Still Here and how did that affect what you did afterwards? And how did this phase affect your perspective on your job in Hollywood and doing press interviews and walking the red carpet?
PHOENIX: Did it affect my career? I think I just, it just made me feel like I was going to do the things that are going to move me and inspire me and excite me. I am not going to make movies for any other reason and it just made that feeling that I have always had reinvigorated and strengthened it. And it was like an amazing experience to go in and not be able to do a second take in some situations, like to be in public and I have never done anything remotely close to that.
There’s certain safety in being able to do multiple takes, and so I never did theatre or anything like that, so I never had the feeling and we were in situations where we didn’t know what was going to happen. It was so terrifying and exciting and it was very interesting how sometimes you didn’t read the audience. I remember we went to do this last show in Miami, and we had this vague outline of what we thought is going to happen, but you don’t know how anyone is going to react in specific situations and how that might change the course of things. So we knew that we wanted to have this big, ugly public kind of meltdown, and there was this actor and I don’t want to say who, but who had this horrible meltdown like five years ago and that was captured on video.
It was so painful and you watch it and you are just cringing inside, it was so uncomfortable, and so me and Casey loved that feeling, and that humour for some reason where people are very uncomfortable. And so we were basically trying to recreate that situation, and we wanted the entire crowd to turn on me and the expectation was that I was going to get beat up and we really thought that I was going to go on the stage and so you are going down there, we had this guy who was a friend of Casey’s that came down and he was going to stand by the stage and he’s supposed to heckle me, and I said, ‘Okay so what are you doing?’ And Casey I had to say, ‘I have got a million dollars in my bank account, what do you got?’ And I said, ‘I am not saying that.’ (Laughter) He said, ‘You have to say it, that was the whole point.’ And I was like, ‘All right, they are going to f*cking kill me.’ And I was just shaking, I was so f*cking scared, and I went out there and I said, ‘I have a million dollars in my bank account, what do you got?’ and I thought they would kill me, and people screamed my name and I was like, ‘What the f*ck?’ And I jumped in for a fight and people were chanting my name, and I was like, ‘F*cking Miami, America.’ (laughter) Everyone was like, ‘I got a million dollars, f*ck you.’ (laughter) And I was like, ‘Wow, I am so out of touch with the culture.’ And I really thought that because when I was growing up, if somebody bragged some sh*t like that, you would be like, ‘F*ck you!’ And, (laughs) so that’s what I expected. And so that was exciting to not know what was going to happen and to have to react in the moment.
Q: Did the experience help you to be more fearless?
PHOENIX: Certainly once you have been on a stage and you don’t know what is going to happen and you are not going to get another take, it’s hard to shake me up as much. I mean I still get fucking nervous when I work, but nothing quite like that. I don’t know that I have improved at all, but I feel better.
Q: What was the most fearful experience on I’m Still Here? Or this movie actually, how about on Her?
PHOENIX: I can’t think of one moment in particular.
Q: Are you happy with your performance in this movie?
PHOENIX: It’s impossible for me to ever see the work the way anyone else does, it’s absolutely impossible. There’s nothing but memories and I am never, ever going to be satisfied, I am only going to see things that I could improve on.
Q: Why do you still get nervous in front of a camera?
PHOENIX: Because it’s important to me. I mean, it’s important to me and I want to do well and satisfy the director and I feel pressure, my own pressure, to do the job. /Viva Press