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Beyond the Sound Bite: The Joaquin Phoenix We Didn’t See

It’s funny how a soundbite can alter perception. That is probably because we bring so much of ourselves into how we view something separate from its whole. After podcasting last night with Craig Kennedy and Ryan Adams we got into a fairly heated exchange about Phoenix and that now infamous (in our little tiny postage stamp size world) quote in Interview magazine about the Oscars. They took the opposing view of Phoenix, saying that his entire interview reveals the opposite about him – that he isn’t someone who has x’d himself out of Hollywood, but rather a devoted actor who just isn’t down with the bullshit involved in being  a star. While I still think anyone in that position should count themselves lucky, and while I still believe that most people hate the Oscar grind (but do it anyway) I also think it’s worth showing the other side of Phoenix most people didn’t see in the Elvis Mitchell interview. Basically, he is someone who is uncomfortable with just about everything. The Oscar thing is only one tiny part of it. Some choice quotes:

I mean, look, I’m very fortunate because I’ve worked with these amazing directors that I’m able to do that with and really find the truth with, because that’s what they’re after as well. But if the director’s not after it, then forget it. There aren’t fucking good actors. It’s all the director. It’s so funny when people say it’s good actors—and actors really believe it and shit. You’re completely hostage to the director. So the director is the most important person to me. I work for them. My job is to help them fulfill their vision. But I like being an employee. I like making somebody happy—and if they’re not, then I’m crushed.

PHOENIX: I’m probably never going to be happy . . . Well, I’ll tell you what, that’s not true. Here’s a guarantee: If I’m happy about something that I’ve done, then it’s going to be very bad. That’s a guarantee. Without fail, if I ever go onto a scene and say, “I’ve fucking got it,” then it’s the worst thing in the world. I think you’re just looking for life. Obviously, there’s a lot of money put into these movies, so everyone wants to figure out how much time they’re going to spend on these things and everything is very controlled. The idea is like, “We want to know that this is the third act and this guy is making a speech in front of the jury and it’s supposed to hit like this and that’s nailing it, right?” But that’s one of the things that I hate more than anything: nailing it. He nailed it. Well, that guy came in, he said, “Ladies and gentlemen of the jury,” and . . . boom! He fucking nailed it. And part of me is impressed with that—one of my favorite actors can fucking nail it—but it’s just something that I don’t want to do. I can appreciate that ability in other people, but I don’t want to be that actor. I don’t want to nail it. I want to go into the courtroom and feel like I might lose the case. I want it to be scary—and it still is. I’m almost 38. I’ve been acting for 30 years. But I still get nauseous the day before and have weeks of incredible anxiety. They have to put fucking pads in my armpits because I sweat so much that it just drips down my wardrobe. For the first three weeks of shooting, I’m just sweating. It’s pure anxiety, and I love it. [laughs]

MITCHELL: As you were reading the script for The Master, did you find yourself surprised by it scene after scene after scene?

PHOENIX: I was just confused. [laughs] No, I was surprised. I mean, it was weird because it’s really perfect that I ended up working on this movie at that particular time. You know, you start a movie out and you read the script and you’re so nervous and you just want to please your director so badly. But the first time I sat down with Paul and Phil [Seymour Hoffman] and we went through a scene, I was convinced that they weren’t going to hire me. I was convinced it was over. I was like, “I can’t believe it.” I got up at five o’clock in the morning and fucking studied through the processing scene on the boat because I knew we were going to rehearse that. I had to try and get it down. It literally felt like an audition. So we went in for the next rehearsal and I was like, “I’m basically auditioning today,” because the day before I was pretty sure Phil was like, “This is not working,” and Paul was going, “I know. I don’t know what to do.” No joke because, dude, for real, here’s the thing: Phil is such a goddamn genius. So you’re sitting there with this fucking genius, and he starts talking, and I’m like, “I can’t follow this guy. I’m not saying anything after him!” He can read a fucking grocery list and you’re just like, “Oh, so captivating . . .” It was incredible to be around him. So I was like, “Fuck, man. They ask me to do this movie, and we do rehearsal, and it’s so bad and Paul is probably doubting it . . .” But, yeah, then we just went back and rehearsed again, and that day I think we talked a bit more and maybe he was like, “Okay, I’ll give him a shot.”

When we were first started, I talked to Paul about Freddie’s motivations for doing certain things, and Paul never had an answer for the character. So it was really frustrating in the beginning of the movie. There was nothing solid or consistent about Freddie. But I’m also a slow learner-real slow. So it takes me maybe halfway through the movie before I suddenly figure out one of the major plot points of the entire film. But it’s like in the scene where homie starts talking about wrestling a dragon. As soon as I realized that I was the dragon, it was much easier. I mean, it’s kind of like my dog. She loves me, right? We’ve got a great connection and I love her. She loves being at my house, and I guarantee that she’d be happier at my house than anywhere else. But if I open the fucking gate, she’s gonna roll, and it’s not because she has something against me. I don’t think she even fully understands what it is, but there’s just something inside of her that’s wild. She might not even want to leave, but it just happens. So as soon as I kind of gave in to that thing, that that’s where Freddie was . . . It’s just impulse. It’s not knowing what’s going to happen next. It’s not knowing why you did the last thing that you did. It seemed like every time we came to some conclusion about Freddie, it felt wrong. It was rather that there were all of these things going on, and he didn’t understand what was pushing or pulling him or why. So as soon as I gave into that . . . I mean, that’s why I was saying it was perfect for me at the time, because that was kind of the approach that I wanted to be taking in acting as well-to not know what it is and to give in to the moment. It’s so rare to get a chance to do that because everything about movies is that we all know that we’re heading to this point-that’s where we have to get. Somebody has to cry at this thing on this line because somebody just died. But it just takes all the fucking joy and the beauty out of it. You’re missing everything.

I’m not a person who loves being on set. I mean, I know people that have their espresso machines in their trailers and they like being in there and they put pictures on walls. But I don’t like it. I don’t like sitting around. I don’t like small talk and being around 60 people all day long. So there are many different pieces that are required as an actor that I find difficult. Press and things like that. So part of why we did the movie is because Casey and I would constantly say after every movie, “I’m quitting.” And then of course, it became this running joke of like, “So what do you think you’re going to do?” “Well, what skills do you have besides picking your fucking nose?” So that was always the joke. It was hilarious because it really was quiet when it was starting out. Casey was like, “We’re going up to San Francisco and I’m doing this play. This might be a good time to announce your retirement because there will be press at this thing.” And I was like, “I’m not going.” We literally were not going to do it. But then there we are on the plane, and then we’re at the thing, and there’s the press line. So we walk toward the press line, and I’m like, “Should I do it?” and he’s like, “You should do it right now.” I was like, “Are you sure we should do it right now?” But then Casey walked right up to a camera and was like, “Hey!” and that was it. It was like, “Well, now we have to keep going.” We really just painted ourselves into a corner. That was a really uncomfortable feeling for me though. I thought Casey and I had actually achieved ultimate success with I’m Still Here, if your definition of success is completely destroying your career-which was somewhat the intent. But doing that movie was one of the best things that I’ve done and that I’ll ever do.

Yeah, but you could also end up just being another motherfucker who gave up on their ideals. To get to that place where you’re making those movies? I just don’t know many people who have made it and kept their identity. I’ve never made $20 million. I’m scared. I don’t know if you gave me The Ring if I could carry it and bring it to Ozamorph, or whatever you call it. I think I’d put it on and test it out—especially if somebody was like, “It’ll be a crazy, wild time.” I’ll be like, “Yeah, I’ll try this bitch on.” I don’t know if I could take it back off. I don’t know that I’m strong enough. I’d like to think that I was strong enough . . . But I’m getting there.