“You won’t believe how lazy I really am” declares Joaquin Phoenix in the middle of our conversation, as he flicks ash that’s fallen from the cigarette he is smoking off his jeans.
The 39-year-old actor, his hair currently at jaw-length and slightly unkempt, is making this admission while talking about how working with the same director again can make it harder to get away with ‘faking it’ on set.
Not that any part of Her, the actor’s latest movie, in which he teams up with director Spike Jonze for the first time, feels phony. In fact, the film, in which Phoenix plays a man of the 21st Century who develops such a deep relationship with his Operating System that he falls in love with ‘her’, is sincerely, Oscar-worthily, good. It’s up for Best Picture at the March 2nd ceremony, and the film has just released in South Africa. It’s also one of the best I saw during 2013.
Still, Joaquin’s admission, then, comes as somewhat of a surprise. This is an actor who reportedly immersed himself so far into his Johnny Cash character in Walk the Line that he became alcoholic. Cutting corners doesn’t seem to fit the image of the intense actor we’ve come to know; one who’s made a career out of honing down challenging roles from Gladiator to Reservation Road and The Master. And earned top marks in the form of three Oscar nominations along the way.
I hadn’t expected him to be so open. His reputation as a reluctant star has only intensified over the years. Stories from fellow colleagues have been passed around about the actor-turned-rapper-turned-actor-again blowing off entire sets of questions from journalists, and his sometimes strange antics are the stuff of newspaper headlines (who could ever forget his infamous appearance on the David Letterman Show?) Even though that bizarre behaviour turned out to be for a documentary his friend and brother in law, Casey Affleck was making, Phoenix is still notoriously difficult to talk to.
The first time I ever met him, at the Cannes Film Festival in 2007, he was more interested in playing with my earlobe than answering the questions I posed to him during my first TV interview. Walking into the interview for his latest movie, Her, on a warm New York day, I had turned my ears away from other journalists who left his room, unimpressed with his lack of interaction.
“Where in South Africa are you from?’ he asked, as I introduced myself and he lit up an American Spirit cigarette while looking out onto the traffic of the Soho street outside. “Johannesburg,” I answered, knowing that’s where one of his ex-girlfriends South African model-turned-philanthropist Topaz Page-Green is from.
“It’s a great place,” he said, taking a seat opposite me. “I enjoyed being there and I really want to go back.” In 2003, Phoenix spent some time in South Africa while filming Hotel Rwanda and he has kept his ties to the country, helping feed impoverished communities there as a board member of Page-Green’s The Lunchbox Fund. The night after our interview he attended an event for the launch of the Fund’s app, where he’d mingled with Page-Green and another one of his exes, Liv Tyler who was also there. It appears he can’t be all that bad as an ex then?
But Phoenix, the third of five children, and brother to the late River, who overdosed outside the Viper Room in LA 20 years ago, is not one to talk about his personal life. Born in Puerto Rico, he grew up, like his brothers and sisters, a child actor, but found the media scrutiny too much, especially in the wake of his older brother’s death at 23.
Phoenix may not talk about his own relationships but he does reveal how he believes falling in love with a movie and its director can be quite like falling in love itself. “It never is one thing,” he told me, lighting up a new cigarette. “You don’t always know. You can’t always put your finger on it. It’s really just this feeling that all you know is you just want to get close to them.”
He stops smoking so the words tumble out his mouth, the sentences themselves falling into one another, as his speech quickens, mimicking desire. “And you don’t know what the outcome’s going to be: you don’t know if you’re going to get married, you don’t know if you’re going to have kids, you don’t know if you’re going to break up in a month. All you know is you just want to get close to them. You just want to be in a room with them. The same thing happens with a script,” he continues. “I just get this feeling that I want to be with this…experience. I don’t know if it means we’re going to end up loving each other; we might hate each other. But I need to have this experience,” he says, before inhaling on his cigarette again. “It’s like ‘I don’t know what it is but I’ve got to find out.’ “
“And sometimes you don’t find out. I’ve gotten out of three-year relationships and I still don’t know why we were together or what the point was, you know?” Phoenix seems to have had better luck with filmmakers than with females, relating that he’s loved every director he’s worked with. But he says working with someone on a repeat basis still makes him nervous: “Because they know you better; they know when you’re lying,” he replies.
It’s around this time his casual but candid confession comes.
“No situation can be real in a movie,” he says. “There’s a green screen, and ten people standing around you at one time, and people asking you if you need water. Everything on a film set is conspiring to make it feel not real. It’s impossible to be in something all the time and feel all those emotions. There are things, I think, everybody fakes,” he says. “F*** everybody, me, I’m a really lazy motherf*****!”
He continues: “There are things I fake. It’s part of what’s difficult with acting. Sometimes I’m not feeling cheery and I have to play cheery. You find a way and you fake it, and hopefully it gets to the place where it feels real or at least looks like it.” The better a director knows him, he feels, the better they’ll be able to call him on any acting that isn’t his best effort at making it ‘real.’
So how then, did he feel about ‘faking it’ for Casey Affleck’s film, aka the I’m Still Here phase of his life? “There are things that were really great about nobody else knowing. When you’re on a set, everybody’s got an opinion about how it could go. But this was just me and Casey. It was completely different. I liked it, but it was also really difficult.”
One place the actor doesn’t have to worry about faking it is on social media. For a film about technology and new ways of connecting, he’s not a part of any of it. But Phoenix does like the idea of what the Internet has done. “It’s democracy,” he smiles, the scar he was born with on his upper lip crinkling.
“I think it’s a good thing that everyone can voice their opinion. It used to be that you had to go to this [certain type of] school in order to have a valid opinion. It’s created some great, interesting stuff in art, and there’s a ton of s*** too. It’s all relative. We’ll adjust and figure out a way to filter it all in the future.”
What about his future – are there any plans, seeing as he directs music videos, to direct films? “Everybody has that curiosity. But no, I’m not sure I’d be good with actors. I don’t have the patience. When I think of what I put directors through…I don’t think I’d be very good!”
He may be a ‘lazy motherf*****’, but at least he’s an honest one.
[A version of this story first appeared in the The Star Tonight. Her is currently on circuit.]