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.

 

19 Comments on this Post

  1. I loved what he said about the Oscars and I love this just as much. He seems completely real – he’s not trying to conceal anything about himself, even the more divisive aspects of his personality, which he seems to embrace. Most people in his profession are the exact opposite.

  2. I get a sense that he is treating Paul Thomas Anderson like The Master here. Actors are nothing, it’s all in the director’s hand. And that’s too much because he gives no due to the RELATIONSHIP between the two. The thing that requires both. So, in a sense, he puts down the acting profession almost as much as the puts down Awards. There is something unhealthy about all of that which is a shame because he is a great actor even without all that unnecessary load on his shoulders.

    I just hope he relaxes and has more fun with his profession.

  3. As an actor I will agree that it is at the very least 75% the director when concerning performance, if not more

  4. Antoinette

    There are fucking good actors. I used to think he was one of them. Whoops.

  5. Houstonrufus

    I typically find complaints from actors about the oscar circus annoying, especially when there are so many working actors who never get that kind of recognition and the career boost that comes with it. But, coming from Phoenix, it just feels like another example of his sensitive, idiosyncratic personality. He gets a lot of stick for some of his choices, but I do find him a welcome presence in a crowd of actor/celebrities always trying to say the right thing all the time.

  6. Antoinette, has your opinion of Joaquin Phoenix as an actor been tainted by his behaviour as a person or by recent performances of his?

  7. I didn’t read the entire interview at first. And, once I did, it really brought a context to his remarks. I do wonder how much/little Harvey Weinstein knew about this interview.

  8. I think part of what Craig and Sasha and I came to realize last night is how that tiny one-word grenade about the Oscars being some kind of “bullshit” is the only quote that got much traction in the twitter and blog meat-grinder. Hence, the title of Sasha’s followup post today: “Beyond the sound bite.”

    Even if we take the whole paragraph where Joaquin likens the Oscars to a carrot, but a bad-tasting carrot, that’s still just 135 words. Out of a 6500-word interview, we first zoomed in on the single off-key remark. 2% of what Joaquin said to Elvis Mitchell that day is all that most people ever heard about.

    Really gratifying to see Sasha pull some more important sections to balance that out. We can all find a wealth of sensitive insight when we take time to read the whole interview. Here’s a piece I liked a lot (extended from an excerpt Sasha already highlighted):

    MITCHELL: Well, what you’re saying seems to be that you reject all of these things that are telling you to go out and basically find a way to repeat the same thing over and over. So are you trying to find a way to make it different for yourself each time then?

    PHOENIX: I don’t know what would make it different each time. Each time is different, and you can’t overthink things. That’s another danger, to go, “Well, I’ve got to do something different . . .” Because I want to be true to what the thing is, and if that means that it’s similar to something else that you might have seen me do, then that’s fine, too. I don’t give a fuck. I don’t need to look different or do an accent. That’s not what I’m after. I’m after . . . I don’t know exactly what I’m after—it’s just a feeling that I’m chasing and I don’t know what it is. But I think the only way I really get it is by feeling that there’s no real control and that there’s a certain amount of danger. Otherwise, when I go through a scene over and over, I start going through dialogue, and then I start putting inflections on things and going, like, “Oh, what if I did this?” And it becomes fucking smarty pants thinking he’s being clever by doing some shit. But I don’t like that actor; I don’t like that in myself. I can see that from years ago, like, “You’re just making a face and trying to say that you’re angry right now and you’re shoving that across the fucking screen.” It’s embarrassing. So I just want to capture things that I haven’t figured out, that I don’t understand. That’s what the process is. I told Paul in the beginning, “I’m not going to modulate at all. I’m not going to be adjusting things. I just have to find what I feel and you’ve got to tell me to pull way back or go forward or if it’s too much. But I’m going to go in and do what I feel in the moment.” Sometimes it’s wrong. Sometimes you come into something with too much energy. 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.

  9. jamesintoronto

    Comment
    Meryl Streep has managed to give some amazing performances for some less-than-amazing directors. Maybe Jaoquin just needs the reassurance from a very strong director and other actors don’t.

  10. That sound bite bouncing around smacks a bit of sabotage, like somebody trying to “out-Harvey” Harvey.

    Everything Phoenix says in this interview sounds reasonable and well thought out. Actors DO work for the director, the one person in charge, although I’m sure there are many who won’t admit to it.

    He’s actually less off-the-wall than his previous reputation would lead us to believe.

  11. I’m surprised you guys haven’t highlighted his quote on racism in Hollywood. What he says is so true and I’m glad he spoke out on it. Instead of his view of the Oscars (which is amazing by the way), this should have gotten more attention:

    PHOENIX: Yeah. So I don’t experience any of that. I mean, dude, how can you work in film and still see the overt racism that exists in film and not just be furious all the time?
    MITCHELL: You know what? As a black person, you see so much racism. Films are no different than the government, politics—it’s everywhere. It’s not exclusively film. It’s infuriating to see it in film. But my being in film changes things.

    PHOENIX: Yeah, but there’s all of this horrible racism that white people don’t even recognize. Did you see Jumping the Broom?
    MITCHELL: I’m a black person. Of course I saw it.

    PHOENIX: I feel like all white people have to see the film just because I’ve never seen a movie in which most of the white characters in the movie were just working. It was fucking great. It was almost comical. There was a scene during the wedding reception, and there are, like, eight white people just carrying stuff. The main white character with some dialogue was the ditzy, stupid assistant. I enjoyed it so much because you never see that. But that’s something that I think white people don’t notice. They don’t notice that the fourth character is black and that’s what it always is. It’s always happening. It’s just the assumption that, “Well, that’s just a representation of life.”
    MITCHELL: But you know what’s also underneath that? A lot of the time you see all this ambition from these black actors and it’s just pouring off the screen. Because they don’t often get a chance to work, and when they do, they don’t usually get a chance to work with other black people. You can just see the pleasure of those actors. I went to see that movie with my sisters and you could see the crowd levitating. People wonder why black kids don’t go to the movies. It’s because, what’s the point? If you don’t see yourself, then why would you go?
    PHOENIX: You know, I got this script a while ago for this thing. It was kind of like an action movie, and it definitely dealt with race in a big way. But then it didn’t. Without getting into specifics . . .

    MITCHELL: Did the film get made?
    PHOENIX: Oh, it got made. But you could not believe that this thing actually got made, because it seemed like it was from the 1940s or something. It’s got this black character in it who was literally always being saved by the white dude because he was, like, cowering in the corner. So I went in and met the director and producer and I said, “You guys realize that your only black character is this guy, and it’s like the most clichéd thing we’ve seen in movies forever.” And they were like, “What do you mean?” And I was like, “You mean you’re not even aware of it?” They didn’t even realize what they were doing. So I said, “Look, I’ll give them a read if the black character doesn’t get killed and is going to make it into the sequel. They have to put him in their sequel, the black character.” So I spoke to the writer and was like, “Dude, be a hero. When this movie comes out in the summertime, give black kids a character they can see themselves in.” But it just didn’t occur to them, and I realized what a battle it is when people aren’t even aware of what they’re doing. I know what that battle is. I’ve done battles like that before, and you lose. So I didn’t do the movie . . . They did keep the black character alive, though. He’s in the sequel-at least, that’s what I’ve heard.

    MITCHELL: Was it a successful movie?
    PHOENIX: I don’t think it’s come out yet. It’s one of those big action movies.

  12. i’m with paddy. phoenix seems real to me and seems like he gets it. he doesn’t give actors enough credit (ask the best directors if having good actors to work with is important)- but so what? so he’s a little self-effacing and humble? i’ll take that from a an actor any day.

  13. It seems like no matter what Phoenix says about anything, there is always one choice quote media likes to focus in on. Remember the press tour from Walk the Line when he asked an interviewer if he had a large frog in his hair? That quote got SO much traction, even though he was clearly just kidding around because he’s just so clearly uncomfortable with the press. But nope, he says that and the tabloids immediately start speculating about his sanity.
    The Mitchell interview is interesting because he comes across as very squemish and insecure. He seems like the kind of person that wants to get to work, do his job, and go home without being bothered. If you’re in an office environment, you don’t think a lot about the guy who does that. He’s focused on his work, he’s not interested in the extra hoops and activities involved. I think this mentality is just so UNUSUAL in Hollywoood that it provokes a reaction. Especially when you’re the type of guy who is SO uncomfortable with the “other” stuff that you sometimes push buttons to get that reaction. It’s hard to see where his tendency to provoke the press ends and his insecurity and well earned disdain of the media circus (well earned, especially in his case) begins.

  14. Jamesintoronto, above, made a great point about Meryl Streep. Phoenix is placing directors on an even higher pedestal than most film critics do — which is pretty darn high already. With all due respect to technical crews, etc., acting, writing and directing are the most important parts of movies. Good acting often can make a movie with bad writing or directing watchable, but good writing or directing rarely can make a movie with bad acting watchable.

  15. “Everything Phoenix says in this interview sounds reasonable and well thought out. Actors DO work for the director, the one person in charge, although I’m sure there are many who won’t admit to it.”

    It’s not what he says. It’s *how* he says it. You guys are terrible at reading people. You read and post about all those interviews and write pages and pages about them and still manage to miss the forest for the trees.

    This is the key part of the interview:

    “But I like being an employee. I like making somebody happy—and if they’re not, then I’m crushed.”

    Everything else he says probably stems from this outlook. So when you are debating about whether or not Phoenix is right about a director being the ultimate force behind a performance you are missing the point. The point is that there is something strange about this need to please a director. It’s like he is trying to find a reason to be an actor and that’s the one he comes back to because acting by itself doesn’t seem to do it for him. He doesn’t seem to have much of a respect for acting in general and it’s like he needs something to grab on to. He doesn’t sound very happy and his aimlessness seems to parallel that of his character. And he is a great actor who I hope will find a renewed joy in his profession and life. Much success, man.

  16. Antoinette

    Paddy, he has schooled me. Since there are no good actors, he can’t be one. Zero times zero is zero. lol

  17. Interesting how some people want to read this interview as immutable gospel scripture on the one hand, while slapping Joaquin around for being inarticulate with the other hand. Either take his words literally (if you’re that superficial), or give the guy a figurative break for a bit of verbal license. Pretending to read it both ways is dishonest and shallow.

  18. Pierre de Plume

    I loved watching The Master largely because of the different ways the 2 main stars approach acting. Phoenix can be so good – so raw – while PSH is a master of technique while at the same time reaching into the rawness that must be there. They both can benefit from one another’s strengths.

    As for Phoenix’s anti-awards attitude, this is not news, really, because people have been expressing similar sentiments for years. Ultimately, whether he wins has as much to do with the nature of the role (and of the film) than what he says, or doesn’t say, about celebrity and awards. My preliminary guesswork is that John Hawkes may have the edge at this point.

  19. Agreed ^

    There is a certain “glam factor” needed for AMPAS to award a dislikeable or villainous character. This usually comes from suggesting certain actions rather than showing them, like cannibalism or ordering up horse heads for the bedroom. Freddie’s behaviour, beach or otherwise, may be too raw for them, despite the fact that Phoenix has given what is -from what I have seen so far- the best performance of the year, imo.

    Hawkes will deliver what they like, if they don’t want to award DDL a third.

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