Joaquin Phoenix is exceptional in Don’t Worry He Won’t Get Far on Foot. The story is based on cartoonist’s John Callahan’s memoir of the same title. Director Gus Van Sant had originally been in discussions to develop the movie with Robin Williams, but the actor’s untimely and tragic death changed the course of the film.
Van Sant immediately thought of Joaquin Phoenix for the role. It was the perfect project for the two to work together again for the first time since 1995’s To Die For. Phoenix recalls working with Van Sant as a young actor and how Van Sant’s style of giving actor’s creative freedom allowed him to develop and shape his work in his future projects.
His portrayal of Callahan in the film is simply riveting, watching his transformation and his recovery is moving. I had a chat with Phoenix to discuss the film and we kept to the subject of the film for this interview. Read about his process below. Don’t Worry He Won’t Get Far On Foot is released by Amazon Studios and is out now.
You’re reunited with Gus. What was that like to work with him again?
It was great. I owe Gus so much. When I worked with him the first time, I hadn’t worked for three years and it was the first time I was working as a young adult. It was a really important time and I think he really helped shape me as an actor. I think when you’re a child actor, you feel there are things you are meant to do and satisfy other people whether it’s giving marks such as if the script says there’s crying, you deliver that. Gus was the first person, I don’t remember whether he said it or if it was a feeling, but he really encouraged you to find something that was truthful to you in the moment.
It was the first time that burden was lifted. It wasn’t about satisfying someone’s idea of what’s here, but rather finding my own understanding of it and that’s going to be the most interesting.
He was a really important figure for me and I’ve been wanting to work with him ever since. There were a few things we talked about but nothing happened.
He gives you that freedom. What is that process like when it comes to someone like playing a real person like John Callahan?
You have to find a way of connecting the character with something that you want to experience with the character. It’s something that can’t really be dictated. With John, we have so much information such as his autobiography which is great. I also watched videos so I could see how he moved. Gus and I talked all the time about things, but he has a lot of trust in the actors.
What other resources aside from the book and video did you have access to so you could craft his persona?
We spent some time with his friends and family in Portland. It was nice to hear that side of things. An autobiography is one-sided and John’s interpretation of things and that certainly helped flush things out more, but I think spending time with some guys at Rancho Los Amigos which was the hospital that John went to, was really important. The guys were forthright about their experience. I worked with the physical and occupational therapists and learned about what that process was like.
It offered insights into certain behaviors. The video that Gus had typically had allowed me to see how John moved a great deal and I hadn’t seen a lot of other quadriplegics doing that and when I was at Rancho Los Amigos, one of the guys was there when John was. He said that John always looped his left arm to the back. I spoke to the head of psychical therapy about it thinking it was do to do with bed sores and shifting his weight and she said that it was because he was in pain. I told her “I thought he couldn’t feel anything” and she said that he couldn’t feel anything below his diaphragm. I learned from her that there were still nerves firing off signals to the brain and being in that chair when you can feel, it’s all these odd sensations. You can’t figure out where the pain source was. Those talks helped a lot in figuring out.
Did you have a highlight or favorite moment?
It was one of the group scenes because I saw Jonah truly find the character. Throughout rehearsal, it was clear he understood the character intellectually, but there was this moment that was incredible to witness where he found the character over the course of a few takes, and it was such a reminder of the joys of acting where you start uncovering something and you start living it.
What was it aside from reuniting with Gus that stood out for you about the story?
I just loved the idea about doing a movie about an artist and about someone who was creative that had to overcome these obstacles or give in to them, appreciate them and accept them in order to flourish. I like people that are driven and have passion. There’s something interesting seeing as you go through his book, he would always draw when he was a kid and it faded away when he got into his accident. You see how it reignited and how it flourished after.
That’s a scene I love, when you see that with the kids. His energy and that light.
His exuberance is right there. He lost it and he found it again and it’s truly an incredible transformation. It’s real. He really did the work and it’s really inspiring to me.
You talk about watching Jonah, what was that group like and working with everyone in that environment?
I loved working with Beth Ditto. Jack was fun and it was an amazing shoot. We shot so fast but it was such a great experience.