Joaquin Phoenix

Esquire, Dec 2013

Famous for his wracked, intense performances, Joaquin Phoenix might be the most daring, least predictable actor in Hollywood. But away from the set, the star of the forthcoming Spike Jonze movie Her turns out to be the sweetest, most humble, least pretentious leading man of his generation.

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Photographs by Simon Emmett.

He lives up on Mulholland Drive, the winding crest at the top of the Hollywood Hills, where you get the glittering views that accompany success in this city. But of all the views that Joaquin Phoenix could enjoy – out west, say, to the Pacific, or south to Hollywood, the twinkling rug that rolls down across Sunset and beyond – he chooses to look north, across the San Fernando Valley, standing out in his back yard, smoking American Spirits, and tracing the grid sprawl way out to the paper cut mountains that serrate the horizon in the far distance.

“That’s where we lived when I was a kid,” he says. “I’m talking about the fucking foothills. The deepest valley that you can get. We’d get into a station wagon that would break down at least twice a fucking week, and we’d drive, all five of the kids, to the different studios for auditions – Warner Brothers, Fox, Paramount, all of them.”

The Phoenix backstory has a mythic quality – adventurous, hippyish and entirely suited to California in the 1970s. His parents met while hitchhiking and joined a religious cult, The Children of God, which sent them travelling through central America for several years doing missionary work. Something felt off, so they left and returned to Los Angeles – this was long before the group collapsed in a heap of sex scandals, child abuse and suicide. They even changed their names to symbolize their rebirth, from ‘Bottom’ to ‘Phoenix’.

And it worked. There’s grainy video from that time of the Phoenix children – Joaquin, Summer, River, Rain and Liberty – singing and dancing on the streets of Westwood for the local news cameras. The song was “We’re gonna make it”. And sure enough, they were discovered shortly afterwards by a talent agent. The first superstar was River, who died, aged 23 and at the height of his fame, of an overdose outside the Viper Room on the Sunset Strip, in 1993. And now it’s River’s younger brother Joaquin.

“I recently took my mom to see the apartment where we all lived for her birthday,” says Phoenix. “It was one bedroom, no kids allowed – and we were five kids. But the manager upstairs took kindly to us and was like ‘you can live here, but if the owner comes over, I’ll call you and you have to hide the kids.’ So we’d go in this little laundry room outside the building – I remember hiding behind the laundry machine when the owner came over. And we didn’t know how long he was going to be. We could be there for hours.”

He pauses and shakes his head.

“I don’t forget that. It’s fucking crazy to me. I’m just really, really fortunate. Luck. That’s what it is.”

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We’re at a restaurant called Vegan Plate in Studio City, right where the valley begins. It was Phoenix’s choice. He has been a committed vegan ever since the age of three when he saw a fish squirm and suffocate on a fishing trip – he even made an ad about the same experience for PETA last year called “Joaquin Phoenix is Drowning”. And this is his favorite place, a simple, family run Thai café, just down the hill from his house. This morning, we’ve got the place to ourselves.

“The valley is the fucking best place for everything,” he says, attacking his wrap. He’s a noisy eater, all grunts, lipsmacking and chewing. It’s all part of his informality and easygoing charm. “I like how it looks, how it’s laid out. I just enjoy the feeling here a lot more. There are some really nice neighborhoods where kids play on their bikes and shit. You don’t get that on the Hollywood side.” He grins. “Plus I go to a lot of porn shoots, so it’s convenient!”

Angelenos typically give the valley a bad rap, sneering that it’s a drab and lifeless suburbia compared to the action of Hollywood. But for Phoenix, it’s perfect.  It’s low-key, quiet, away from the hubbub, and he doesn’t get bothered here. He’s not the kind of star who gets “papped” that much anyway. “So it’s not like I’ve adapted to it,” he says. “Every now and then there’ll be a picture of me filling up my gas tank and I’ll freak the fuck out.” But that’s a rare day, out here in the valley.

Perhaps another reason he feels fondly for the place is because ever since he moved back here from New York, five years ago, he’s done some of the best work of his career. In fact, he’s undergone a significant change out here. He’s just not the actor he was.

The change began roughly in 2009, with the satirical mockumentary I’m Still Here, in which he pretended to give up acting and pursue a career as a rapper. It was the last thing anyone expected from Phoenix, the serious actor. But then he followed it with The Master, an extraordinary performance that seemed to come from a different actor entirely. In the space of two movies, he became one of the most surprising and original actors of his generation, the kind of star of whom we just don’t know what to expect anymore. Which is no small compliment for an artist.

He’s just wrapped his second film with Paul Thomas Anderson, an adaptation of the Thomas Pynchon book, Inherent Vice. And more imminently, there’s Her, directed by Spike Jonze, in which he plays a reclusive writer who falls in love with a Siri-like phone app voiced by Scarlett Johansson. It would seem that today, at 38, he’s on a roll – it’s all plain sailing for Phoenix.

In fact, he says, every new project fills him with terror.

“I don’t know my craft!” he exclaims. “Every fucking movie, I feel like it’s my first. I’m uncontrollably shaking, physically nervous. No way am I like ‘yeah, I got this’. Every time feels fucking terrifying.”

He told an interviewer last year that he feels physically sick before shooting. “[I have] weeks of incredible anxiety,” he said. “They have to put fucking pads in my armpits because I sweat so much that it drips down my wardrobe.”

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Surely after almost 30 movies, having acted since he was a child, after all the praise and prizes, he’d be more comfortable even confident when it comes to his job?

Apparently not. “I used to think it was important to know what was going to happen and to go after it and achieve it,” he says. “Because that’s what they teach you. They say, ‘That guy nailed it.’ Like, he came in and read that script and turned to the fucking jury and he said, ‘you’re going to acquit this guy.’ By golly, he nailed it! What I’ve tried, this last few years is to be really open, and not impose my ideas. Because you know, my ideas are usually fucking garbage.”

Some actors have a method, something they do that gets them results. Not Phoenix. He can’t, for example, stay in character throughout filming, because “I’m still trying to figure out who the character is!” The reason he has the crew call him by the character’s name, is because “it’s easier to remember his name that way.”

It’s like the time Tiger Woods had to adjust his swing – a man at the top of his game going back to first principles and re-learning how to hit a golf ball. Phoenix does that with every new part. He figures out a new swing. And he gravitates to directors who like him, are figuring it out as they go along too – directors like Paul Thomas Anderson and Spike Jonze, who are open to improvisation and experiment. “With those guys,” says Phoenix, “you’re always uncovering something together, you’re pulling it out and dusting it off…”

And this, says Jonze, is why Phoenix is so racked with fear on set. “He doesn’t know where he’s going or how to get there,” he says. “He doesn’t want to know what the outcome of a moment is until he shoots it. He wants it to be alive.”

Most actors don’t work this way. They typically acquire a method over the years, something that works that they can repeat. Jonze contrasts Phoenix with Chris Cooper, for example, who shot a scene for Her (that may not make the final cut). “Chris knows his method,” he says. “And it’s incredible to watch. Every moment, every line of dialogue had so much thought and history and intention behind it. And when Joaquin got to watch Chris work, he was floored by him. He couldn’t believe it.”

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But Phoenix is different. I spoke to both Spike Jonze and Amy Adams, his costar in Her and in The Master, about Phoenix, and they were both hesitant to say anything, out of concern for their friend. After a long pause, Jonze said, “Our work relationship was really intimate, I’m not sure how to talk about that yet. I want to be protective of him.” And Adams said, “he’s a very private and tender person, very sweet. It’s hard to talk about someone who operates in that way.”

There’s a vulnerable quality about Phoenix that attracts this protective reflex in others. To some extent, it’s there in his performances, which however powerful and affecting aren’t exactly polished in the Meryl Streep sense – there’s something raw and instinctual about them, unguarded perhaps, as though he’s not so much in command of the emotions of his character as those emotions are in command of him.

Also, Phoenix is instantly likeable – a playful, friendly Labrador of a guy, happy and enthusiastic. Particularly endearing is his tendency to self-deprecation, practically a default setting, and a rare one in his line of work. Tell him that he chooses good scripts and he scoffs: “I’m choosing one out of two movies, dude. It’s a pretty limited choice”. He insists that it’s luck that has got him this far. “These guys I’ve been working with, Spike and Paul,” he says. “I was thinking the other day: what happened? I don’t deserve to be here!” He makes no attempt to appear literary or intellectual. “My taste is like a sophisticated four year old,” he says. “I wish I could say I watch European movies and shit, but I don’t. I watch Stepbrothers more than any other fucking movie.”

And he recoils at the faintest whiff of pretension. At one point, hearing himself talk about acting, he winces. “I bet this is really interesting for you right?” he laughs. “Listening to me. I mean, I can hear myself and God, it’s just fascinating! What an amazing mind!”

He’s never had airs, Phoenix. He’s the kind of actor who likes to muck in and be one of the gang, not aloof in his trailer. Jonze recalls a day they had to shoot in a snowstorm for Her. “Joaquin was happy to carry equipment and sit in the cold with the crew – he doesn’t want to be the movie star. He just wants to do his job like everybody else. To be a cog in a machine.”

The way Phoenix puts it is similar. “I like being an employee,” he says. “My job is to please the director, that’s it. Because seriously, if you see cuts and dailies, it’s hard for any actor to take credit. Any performance in a movie is the complete work, and it’s the director that sews it all together.”

On The Master, he played a particularly servile role, which suited him perfectly. As Freddie, he served Philip Seymour Hoffman’s character, and as Joaquin, he served the director, Paul Thomas Anderson. Anderson even took to calling Phoenix “Bubbles” on set, after Michael Jackson’s pet monkey. It was an in-joke – of all the things that The Master is about, the struggle to tame our animal nature is front and center, and Freddie typified the animalistic man. But Phoenix loved it. So long as Anderson was happy, so was he.

“That’s why I get so fucking tight, because it matters so much to me to impress the director,” he says. “I get crippled by my own thought process. I just want to make this person happy.”

Is it about making the director happy, I ask, or getting on a pat on the back yourself?

He laughs. “It could be. We’re humans, it’s hard to say what motivates us. You’re probably right, I probably just want validation or some shit.”

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He’s always been tightly wound, Phoenix. If anything, this shift in perspective has loosened him up a little. He was so coiled back in 2005 that he wound up in rehab, soon after making Walk The Line. It was thought at the time that he’d immersed himself so deeply in the role of Johnny Cash that he’d not only learned to play the guitar and sing, even winning a Grammy for the soundtrack, he’d also acquired a drinking problem.

But he shoos that theory away. “I’d just come off this run of work and – God, it’s such a stupid fucking actor cliché, I’m so fucking embarrassed but – I was like, ‘OK now, what do I want?’”

In other words, he was lost. After a decade or so of back-to-back movies – like To Die For, Gladiator, Ladder 49 and a couple of M Night Shyamalan movies that are best forgotten – he knew he needed a break, he just didn’t know what to do. He was 29, of no fixed abode, without any responsibility or family. “I didn’t know what regular fucking hanging out fun was about in some ways. It’s nothing to feel sorry about though.”

He used to take his work so seriously in those days that the intensity was overwhelming. Movies weren’t fun anymore. “I’d been working with this actor, about a year before Walk the Line,” he says, “and he said, ‘are you really going back to the hotel at night and studying? I’m out banging 20 year olds every fucking night.’ And I was like – oh! That’s what I’m supposed to be doing? Fuck!”

And this is why I’m Still Here was such a gamechanger for Phoenix. It was fun. Ridiculous, comedic, unpredictable. And it was perfectly pitched in its way, not only permitting him to shed his actorly intensity for once, but also playing on that reputation, hinting that the famously intense actor might just have driven himself to a breakdown.

Critics were underwhelmed at first. A kind of snooty bemusement prevailed with some finger wagging that this probably wasn’t a smart career move. It didn’t help that hardly anyone believed that this new rapping Phoenix, fat and bearded like a rabbi on the slide, was anything other than a joke.

But for Phoenix it was pivotal. “That experience was so exciting and rewarding, it was really hard after that to imagine ever making a conventional movie again,” he says. The unpredictability of it, the risk – it transformed his perspective on acting and prepared him for the open-ended improvisational style of Anderson. The Master would never have happened without I’m Still Here.

Besides, now that some time has passed, the movie holds up rather well, both as a satire about celebrity, but also as a bit of a laugh. Directed by Casey Affleck, who’s married to Phoenix’s sister Summer, it reveals that his brother in law is actually a gifted comic actor, especially when ordering hookers online, snorting coke and uttering lines like, “Dude, if you do anything for me, let me smell a girl’s butthole. You fucking asshole.”

Phoenix breaks up laughing. “I have a real problem with that word, I can’t even say it now.”

What – “butthole”?

“Yes! And Casey’s like, you have to say it – twice!”

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The whole thing started one night as a germ of an idea buried in a silly skit that Phoenix was doing for Affleck – a fake interview about his agent. But along the way, he came up with the idea of pretending to give up acting for hip hop. It was just too tempting. So they invited the director Gus Van Sant, over one day and told him straight-faced, that Phoenix was retiring. Van Sant was too polite to laugh or question him. It was a painfully awkward moment. And both Phoenix and Affleck were hooked.

“We both find discomfort very funny,” he says. “We couldn’t resist.”

Typically he gives full credit to Affleck, the director, especially since Phoenix would often jeopardize the project by going over the top and giving the game away. “Casey has the sophisticated sense of humor,” he says. “I’m a six year old. I do stuff like Bye Good, which I wrote on my fists, but the wrong way around. Casey was like, ‘come on, if you were really quitting would you do that?’”

The irony of I’m Still Here was that Phoenix, who is not the type to court publicity, was now doing exactly that by playing a celebrity who was supposedly sick of the media circus. During the height of the prank, when his catatonic interview with David Letterman went viral, he became a meme – Shepherd Fairey iconized him, Ben Stiller lampooned him at the Oscars, and Dr Drew Pinsky, host of Celebrity Rehab, expressed serious concerns about his mental health. Everywhere he looked, people were talking about him, and not always kindly either.

“There was definitely the point where I was like, ‘I might be fucked forever,’” he says. “But we’d gotten so deep, we just had to fucking finish it.”

One of the most funniest scenes was the fake fight he had at a Miami nightclub. Phoenix was on stage at the Liv superclub, performing an abysmal mumbling set, self-aggrandizing and shallow, an effective pastiche of hip hop itself, when he decided to dive into the crowd to attack a heckler. The goal was, as Phoenix recalls, “to start a fucking riot. We wanted people to kill me.”

So they persuaded a friend to be the heckler, agreeing that he’d stand near the front left of the stage just in case Phoenix couldn’t see him from the stage. And they calculated how to escalate the situation. Affleck suggested he say, “I got a million dollars in my bank account, what have you got, bitch?” About as unPhoenix-like a comment as one can imagine. But it didn’t work.

“When I said that, I thought glasses were going to come flying. I was going to get fucking stomped. But instead the crowd was like “yeah!”” He looks incredulous. “America! This is the world we live in. We got it completely wrong. After I jumped into the crowd, I remember people were chanting my name! It made me realize that I obviously have no idea what’s going on in this country.”

Not for the first time we step outside to smoke cigarettes. I ask him what’s next, and he shrugs. “You know, press! I got to fly to New York and wear something… I don’t know. It’s not that I hate it, I’m just like a bratty kid who doesn’t want to take a shower!”

He often describes himself as a kid – whether it’s his sense of humor (“like a six year old”) or his taste in films (“like a four year old”). He quite happily admits he’s “not very mature”, and reckons that his job may be partly to blame. “When you see an adult actor on set. They look infantilized. People are there to dress you. They bring you like espressos and lattes and shit. It’s like arrested development. We’re all just little fucking runt kids.”

He has none of his own, mind, despite being in the zone, just two years from forty. And he has no plans to either. Phoenix has never married. He says that his dogs are “the closest I’ll get to kids, probably”. All that interests him now is his next project. His next terror. The next director he’s going to try his damndest to please.

In I’m Still Here he rants about acting: “You’re just a fucking puppet. You’re this dumb fucking doll that wears what someone else tells you to wear, stands where someone tells you to stand, says what somebody else tells you to say.” But clearly, Phoenix loves it. And perhaps this is his greatest accomplishment, even above his three Oscar nominations – he has been able to do the same job since he was a boy, and still find it so exciting he can scarcely hold down his food.

Some actors want to direct after a while, to have authorship, to build production companies and empires. But Phoenix has no such ambitions. He laughs, self deprecating as ever. “If I thought I’d be good at it, I’d probably do it. It’s that thing where if the girl doesn’t like you, you’re like, ‘oh she’s stupid anyways…’”

All he longs for is to be a cog again, a humble employee, because even now, X years after his acting debut, acting remains a raw and nervewracking experience. Which is just as it should be.

“Here’s what I worry about,” he says. “If you ever take your jacket off on set and just hold it out while you’re talking to the director because you expect a wardrobe person to grab it? That’s when it’s time to go home. When people are constantly adjusting your collar and your lapel and you just give into it? It’s over. You’re no longer a human being.”

And with that, he melts back into the traffic, and back up the hill to his mansion on Mulholland, with his dogs bounding around him. There are views to savor.