Joaquin Phoenix has a reputation for being chilly, even cantankerous. The actor clearly doesn’t enjoy talking about himself, which means he might walk out of an interview or denounce the Hollywood publicity machine or maybe even refuse to speak much altogether. In 2014, during a half-hour Q&A after a screening of “Inherent Vice” at the New York Film Festival, Phoenix wore sunglasses and sat slumped in his seat onstage, not saying a word.
When Phoenix called to chat about his new movie on Thursday, I expected the same terse energy he’s now famous for. What would it take to get this stoic oddball to laugh or say something nice, I wondered. As it turned out, it didn’t take much at all. Phoenix was jovial from the jump, even apologizing for our delayed start time. He needed to scarf down some lunch before we chatted, and who can begrudge a person that?
Phoenix is starring in the new movie “You Were Never Really Here,” directed by Scottish mastermind Lynne Ramsay, whose visceral mood pieces (“We Need to Talk About Kevin,” “Morvern Callar,” “Ratcatcher”) have earned her a reputation as one of today’s sharpest filmmakers. Ramsay has found an ideal muse in Phoenix, who also gravitates toward raw character studies (“The Master,” “Her,” “We Own the Night”). Here, he plays a scruffy, taciturn, PTSD-stricken war veteran hired to rescue young girls from sex-trafficking rings and other gritty circumstances. Even for an actor who seems to give his entire body over to roles ― Commodus’ creepy lilt, Johnny Cash’s twitchy arrogance, Freddie Quell’s hunched gait ― “You Were Never Really Here” requires a nimble balance between dogged resolve and emotional vulnerability. You feel it in his movements.
Maybe that’s why Phoenix was so chipper: After taking a couple of years off, he’s working with a director he adores and has three other promising projects on the horizon (“Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot,” “Mary Magdalene” and “The Sisters Brothers”). Phoenix and I discussed a smattering of topics, including why he doesn’t think you should call Robert De Niro “Bob,” that Joker movie he’s rumored for and maybe not knowing what Valentine’s Day is.
It seems like you’re doing more press than usual for this movie. Does it feel that way to you, too?
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Ummm [laughs]. Let’s see. I have done some things that I haven’t done before, some TV stuff. Yeah, I think I have.
Are you finding yourself warming to the press cycle more this time than you have with previous movies?
[Pause] I don’t know. I don’t know what it is. I’ll tell you what it is. There were a couple of things. I went to Berlin with Gus Van Sant, actually, for [“Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot”]. I was with him when he did some interviews, and the way he talked about things seemed nice to me. I think part of it is just that I’ve found the opportunity to have conversations with people instead of doing, like, an interview. And I enjoy that. I guess maybe I like talking to other people about movies.
We like hearing you talk about movies, so we want you to like the conversations that we subject you to.
When other actors refer to you in interviews, they often call you Joaq. Do a lot of people call you Joaq?
Ummm, I don’t know. How often do you say your friend’s name? You know what I mean? It’s not very often, is it?
Right, I guess that’s true, but I think you have a general sense of what individual people call you, particularly when it’s something other than your given name. But maybe you don’t keep a mental catalog of Joaq versus Joaquin versus whatever else people might call you.
Yeah, I think it’s probably even... yeah. But I don’t like it when people say Bob instead of Robert when they’re talking about De Niro. It drives me crazy. Don’t call him that. You know?
So you call him Robert?
Well, I don’t call him. But if I was referring to him, yes, I would say — I don’t know what I’d say. I’ve actually never thought of it.
But what if Robert De Niro likes being called Bob?
Yes, that’s right. That’s totally up to him. You’re absolutely right. What if I kind of sat him down and said, “Listen, man, I don’t think you should let people call you Bob. I don’t know whether you’re comfortable with this or not, but it makes me uncomfortable, so if you could please put an end to that.”
You really should do that. Robert is a more sophisticated name than Bob. Who wants to be Bob? [Editor’s note: No offense to all the great Bobs out there.]
But you’re right. Maybe he does.
It feels like people who call you Joaq are the ones who really know you. The ones in the inner sanctum get to say Joaq, and the rest of us are just Joaquin.
I mean, really, whatever. Whatever you want.
Does anyone still call you Leaf? [Editor’s note: When Phoenix was a teen actor, he used Leaf as his first name because most of his siblings’ monikers were inspired by nature: River, Rain, Summer and Liberty.]
No. No. That’s been a very long time.
And if they did, you would promptly correct that, I assume.
I mean, it just hasn’t been my name. You know that I was born Joaquin, right?
Yes, I do know that.
But, yeah, it hasn’t been my name, and it’s funny because I was talking to Gus recently about it. I remember when I did “To Die For,” because I’d always been credited as an actor as Leaf, and he was like, “So are you officially changing it?” It just hadn’t even occurred to me because this is my name — I was just reverting to my original name. But I remember that, for other people, it felt like there was a change. But it had been changed for me prior to that for so long.
So you never had a latter-day moment where you thought, “Man, I should have kept Leaf as my professional name”?
I haven’t thought that. Why, is that your suggestion?
No, I like Joaquin. Leaf is a conversation starter, as in, “How did you and/or your parents arrive at the name Leaf?” But I do really like the name Joaquin. That’s a unique name ― not that Leaf isn’t also.
Yeah. It’s not in Central America.
Oh, that makes sense. I spoke to Lynne Ramsay earlier, and she said when you two first discussed the movie you could only understand 50 percent of what she was saying and weren’t quite sure what you were agreeing to.
It’s very fun to think about it that way. But it is true that, when I first spoke to her on the phone, it was difficult to understand everything that she had said.
Having just spoken to her on the phone, I can relate to that, yes.
Yeah. So it was a bit of a struggle, but once you’re with her in person, then you get it.
I assume you at least knew you would potentially get cast in this movie?
Yeah, I read the script before I talked to her. I’m pretty sure that’s what happened, yeah.
I know you haven’t seen the movie and don’t watch your own material. Even having lived and breathed this character, is it hard to do the press cycle because you don’t really know what the finished result looks like?
I don’t know, sometimes we get into talking about certain details and I’ll explain the process for a particular take or scene, and the journalist will go, “What is that?” And I say, “The scene in the movie.” So there are times when I don’t know what take she used. Today we were talking about this scene that, for me, revealed a lot about the character and his relationship with [a hammer that’s essential to the story]. I didn’t know if that was the take that she used or if she used another take, and it turned out that it was that take. So I guess it makes sense in some ways that the take that felt the most meaningful to me, and the one that to me revealed the most about the character, was the one that’s used. But I didn’t really know.
The way this character moves through the streets feels like a dance with the camera, almost like you’re finding your way in and out of cars and buildings in an improvisational style. The camera often sits in unconventional spots, and you’re figuring out the territory of the New York City streets you’re traveling.
Yeah, that is a reflection of the experience. I don’t know that we ever really did any take the same way twice. We might have, and there might be some situations where it’s pretty clear that there’s no other choice but to cross the street here at this moment, but I think that our approach to each moment was to not make any concrete decisions about it in advance. We would talk about different options, different possibilities, but it wasn’t until we got into the space — we would make decisions in the moment, and sometimes there are things I’m reacting to in the moment. There are times when other actors didn’t know what was going to happen because we didn’t know what was going to happen in that moment. And I think I probably like that way of working in general, but I think it was probably really applicable to that character and this experience. Maybe that’s why it worked for us.
Where are you right now? I hear screeching in the background.
Oh, yeah, I’m sorry. I was just doing an interview at Chateau Marmont and there’s a pool and there are kids. Is it terribly distracting to you?
No, no, no, it’s fine. I just wanted to make sure you were somewhere safe. I thought there might be cats howling.
Thanks, I’m safe.
Good. Are you aware of how much the internet loves the photo of Rooney Mara smoking a cigarette on the set of “Mary Magdalene” while you are nailed to the cross?
I am not aware of that.
Have you seen this photo?
I believe that I have seen that photo a long time ago. I think [director Garth Davis] sent it to her. I think.
It’s an amazing photo. I realize you were just in between shots on a scene, so the whole thing is probably very commonplace for you. But can you narrate the photo for me? The imagery of you as Jesus on the cross and her casually smoking a cigarette as Mary Magdalene in the middle of the day is great.
Is it sacrilegious?
In the best possible way, maybe.
[Laughs] Um, well, I don’t know. Honestly I’m not entirely sure, but what I imagine is once I went up I stayed up. So I imagine that — I don’t know. Honestly I don’t know when that happened, so I couldn’t tell you.
The distribution rights for that movie are tied up with The Weinstein Co., which filed for bankruptcy. Is that frustrating?
Well, yeah, of course. I mean, yeah. I don’t know when it was going to come out. I don’t know if it would have been by now, anyways. I’m not entirely sure. I usually stay out of that stuff, like when a movie is going to be released and how. I usually don’t pay attention to it, and I thought that that was going to be worked out. We always knew it was going to be released in Europe before, so I don’t know when it’s coming out here.
Tell them to hurry. I want to see it. I want to ask about something you said a year ago. I know you’re being asked in just about every interview whether you’re going to play the Joker, and I’m not going to ask that exact question, but I do want to point to something you told Bret Easton Ellis in The New York Times. You said, “Something that’s going to demand six months of my time? I don’t know.” Even beyond actually making the movie, you’d have a grueling press cycle to follow. Are you rethinking your willingness to make those sorts of long-term commitments?
I don’t really know why I said that to him because I don’t really think about movies in terms of, like, the commitment of time. I think I was just trying to be funny or something. When you feel drawn to participate in a film, my feeling is no matter what, under any circumstances, wherever we’re shooting, whatever the hours are, whatever I have to do to be a part of this, I’m willing to do it. I don’t really make decisions on, like, what’s going to be the most comfortable. “What season is it going to be? Am I wearing comfortable clothing?” These are not the considerations, usually. I don’t know what that is. Recently I made a movie that took us four months and another one that was less than five weeks. And they both were fulfilling and difficult in their own way. But I think when you’re drawn to something, it doesn’t really matter the circumstances.
Darren Aronofsky did want you to play Batman once.
I’m sorry, what?
Darren Aronofsky once wanted you to play Batman in an adaptation he described as “Travis Bickle meets ‘The French Connection,’” which actually sounds like an apt description of “You Were Never Really Here.” That was before the superhero craze that we’re inundated with now. Did you and Darren talk about that project?
I feel like this is the first I’m ever hearing of this.
Really? This was before the Christopher Nolan series. As he tells it, Aronofsky pitched Warner Bros. on an unconventional, less heroic Batman. He says he wanted you for the role, but I don’t know if the negotiations got far enough for you to actually join the discussions. The studio rejected the idea because it was too dark, of course.
[Laughs] Yeah, I don’t know about this, but certainly there was no real discussion. And if he mentioned it to me one time, I think that I would have remembered. But I don’t remember that ever happening. It sounds interesting, though.
Yeah, I’d love to see that version of Batman. Had that come to fruition in the late ’90s, and let’s say you still did “Gladiator” in 2000, those two movies together would have really elevated you to a certain celebrity status that you seem to have never been chasing.
Well, thank God it didn’t happen that way then.
Do you see “Gladiator” as a big turning point as far as your fame is concerned?
I mean, certainly it was. It was the most successful movie that I’ve been in at the time, and maybe still is. [Editor’s note: “Signs” is his most successful movie.] And absolutely it changed my career, but also, as an actor, working with Ridley Scott, I learned a lot making that movie. It is an important film for me as an actor. That’s really all I know about. I understand that it was successful and people still talk about that movie, but really, as an actor, it had an impact on me.
Did you and Mark Walhberg ever have actual conversations about what it would have been like for the two of you to star in “Brokeback Mountain”?
Are you aware that you were attached to that role at some point, given you aren’t aware of the Batman thing?
No, I wasn’t.
The internet would beg to differ.
Oh, really? No, I was never attached to that role, and I didn’t know that Mark was in consideration for it either. But I met on that movie — I met with Ang Lee, but I didn’t get the job.
OK, gotcha, but you were out there somewhere in terms of the casting process.
Oh, yeah, I don’t think there was an actor of my generation that was working that didn’t want to make that movie. I certainly wanted to be in that film, but it didn’t work out.
So do you really not know what Valentine’s Day is? What does Rooney think of that?
You’d have to ask her. But I think I was just trying to have some laughs with Will Ferrell. [Editor’s note: A representative for Rooney Mara did not respond to our request for comment.]
Are you a Garry Marshall fan?
Uhhhh. Oh! Sure. Yeah, Garry’s amazing. He made those movies, right?
Yeah, “Valentine’s Day,” “New Year’s Eve,” “Mother’s Day.”
Right, right, right. This feels like Teen Beat. It feels like it’s 1985 and we’re doing Teen Beat asking me about Valentine’s Day [laughs].
Do you have fond memories of the Teen Beat interview days?
I don’t think I was ever — I remember being aware of Teen Beat, but I don’t think I ever did any interviews for Teen Beat. But for some reason I remember C. Thomas Howell looking awesome in a hat or some shit.
That’s amazing. I’ll wear that as a badge of honor.