Joaquin Phoenix talks about his latest project while questioning the purpose of the media

Oscar Watch 2008 Interview #5: Actor Joaquin Phoenix

Joaquin Phoenix is a force to be reckoned with. He is a quiet storm that could very well electrocute your ass with a sudden bolt of lightning at any moment. He's sort of like a playful cat that bites you two stroke into a loving pat on the back. He is unpredictable, especially in regards to dealing with the media. He's been quoted as saying that he doesn't understand the purpose of it. Basically, he doesn't like to be interviewed.

I learned that the hard way when I was invited into his hotel suite to talk with him about his latest starring role in the film We Own the Night. His character starts out as a drug swilling party maven in charge of managing the exclusive El Caribe Club in New York City. When the Russian Mob comes gunning for his brother and father, who both work for the NYPD, Joaquin must severe his ties with the club scene and join the police force in order to bring the drug lords to justice.

It's an amazing performance on Joaquin's part. It ranks right up there with his two Oscar nominated performances in Walk the Line and Gladiator. But Phoenix is not comfortable talking about Oscar buzz and the keen ability to hit his mark on the award show's red carpet. He'd rather contemplate the tag on the back of his shirt than have to contend with my stupid questions.

It was made clear that getting a 1:1 with Joaquin was a major deal. Since he really doesn't like the press. He okayed me for an interview, and I thought that he must like our site. Nope. He claims he doesn't really know how to use the internet. He just happened to like my name. Before walking down to his suite, I also attended his early morning press conference. He recognized me from that.

And so, that is where our conversation begins:

Joaquin Phoenix: Oh, my God! You are doing the double. You've got to double up.

I didn't know. They told me to stay down there, because I had to sit in on the Mark Walberg press conference. I didn't know I would be getting to interview you this morning as well.

Joaquin Phoenix: How does that work? Your deal from this morning is to make it appear as if its just you talking to Mark?

No, with that one I will say that the interview came from a press conference. With this interview, we get to call it an exclusive. Cause I'm the only one doing it with you.

Joaquin Phoenix: Obviously. I'll just roll with it.

It's a big deal for us. And I know you touched on this subject earlier, when you were talking about what kinds of roles you would take on at this stage in your career. Every character that you create is such a complex, detailed study in human emotion. There is no way that you could come back down to a starter level, and maybe do a straight up farce or comedy? Maybe a Farrelly Brothers type of movie?

Joaquin Phoenix: No. That's not to say that you can't create complex characters in a comedy. I would never say never. Its just, thus far, I have never found anything that would be interesting enough for me to do along those lines. I think it could happen. I think it's a shame that Woody Allen is no longer making Stardust Memories, and Annie Hall. More things like that. Obviously, those movies have incredibly complex characters. But you wouldn't necessarily consider those films dramas. I think typically, it can be difficult to find a character that would be satisfying to play in a comedy. So, I don't know at this point.

Not even just with comedy. What about a super hero film, or a sci-fi action adventure? Are those films too dumbed down for you to take on at this point in your career?

Joaquin Phoenix: I just don't really desire that. What I like about movies is not the finished product. I imagine the kind of fun in making a movie where you have super powers would only come with the finished product. What you are doing is playing to a bunch of fucking green screen the entire time. For me, personally, I don't think it would be stimulating to do that. I was just talking to someone recently about something that would fall into this fantasy sci-fi realm. But it had these really interesting characters. So I had interest in it. It felt like it was something that I could make. But ultimately I realize it was something that would have me spending more time doing technical things in front of this green screen. I would have to make that work, and there wouldn't be much "acting" to it, if you know what I mean? For me, I just really enjoy the time between action and cut. You know? So, I think the trouble is that I fear I might become bored. And if I become bored, I become the person that doesn't want to show up on set. They have to come knock on my door, and I'm yelling across the trailer, "Friends is almost over. I'll be there in five minutes." I'm stuck sitting in my trailer, watching TV. I don't want to find myself in that position.

But you kind of found that complex type of sci-fi role with Signs, right? That was a science fiction movie.

Joaquin Phoenix: I guess it was. Yeah.

That was a really great character you played in that film.

Joaquin Phoenix: It was a lot of fun. You know, it's not a rule I have or adhere to. I don't have a rule that says I only stick to one particular genre. I just think I end up doing more dramatic films, or films where the characters get into a more dramatic conflict.

You do have a reputation for being a more standoffish type person. Do you think some directors might be afraid or intimidated to approach you for certain roles?

Joaquin Phoenix: No, I don't think that happens at all. I have only ever been standoffish with the press. But, I think there is a certain right to be standoffish to strangers. If you don't know somebody very well, I think it is normal for you to go, "Hi, how are you?" Before you leap right into it. It's interesting to have your personality defined by people that don't know you at all except for a few minutes in the Four Seasons hotel. So, you know, that is the only way we are able to define those things. I have done the same thing. I have had the same experiences. I am affected by what I have heard about certain people. Then you work with them and go, "Where the fuck did that shit come from?" It's a strange thing. I never feel like I know somebody unless I've known them for years. Not until I've spent time with them, and been intimate with them. Not until then can I say that they are this type of person, or that type of person. I don't ever do that. I think that the environment of doing press is so different. This is not normal. I cannot think of anything in my personal life that comes close to this type of situation that we are in right now.

Let me tell you. It's quite often as uncomfortable for me as well.

Joaquin Phoenix: Of course it is.

You hear different things, and you don't know how you are going to react when you actually get in that room. Have you ever met Powers Boothe?

Joaquin Phoenix: I did actually.

Other members of the press were telling me these horrible things about him. That he was uncooperative. And unfriendly. And hard to deal with. So I have that built up in my mind. But then when I sat down to talk with him for a few minutes, he turned out to be a really cool guy. At least for the few moments I chatted with him.

Joaquin Phoenix: Cool. Yeah. I certainly wouldn't think that a journalist describing somebody would accurately describe who these people are. No. Because it's impossible. Its not that a journalist is incapable of doing that. It's simply impossible to understand somebody in a few minutes. And quite frankly, why would you want to? I mean, I could fucking care less. Why would someone want to fucking understand an actor? I don't get it. It's such a weird thing when you do press. For me, I like the mystery of the people whom I might see on screen. Or an album I've listened to. With the things I enjoy, I don't want the mystery to be reveled. I don't want to find out what the person was really thinking about. Do you know what I mean? I don't want David Bowe to say, "I was fucking crazy when I wrote that album. I don't know why I did that." I go, "I love Ziggy Stardust. Don't say that." You know what I mean? You just don't want to know those things. Part of it for me is the mystery. And the fantasy. Those are the things that I like. Those are the things that I don't want to understand.

I agree with you in a sense. There are certainly actors and director, and musicians that I would decline to interview simply because I don't want to see them in person. I only want to see them on the screen. The thought of interviewing Clint Eastwood horrifies me. Because of what I have built him up to be in my head.

Joaquin Phoenix: Absolutely. The interviews I hate are the ones that I often get. Where some lady will ask me, "Did you take it home with you?" When did that bullshit become fucking popular? Now everyone is doing it. Myself included. You find yourself sitting there going, "Oh, I was so effected by this shit!" It's like, really fucking ridiculous.

See, for me, I don't ever stray into those personal type of questions. I'm from a movie site. I like asking questions about the movie. I don't want to know if you are singing lullabies to your kids at night.

Joaquin Phoenix: Well, you know, they use that stuff as an angle for the studios and the press to kind of find a way to express what the movie is about. They are coming up with new ways to say, "Hey, this is another movie!"

This, right now, is advertising. That's what this interview is. That concept is not lost on me. I know my purpose here.

Joaquin Phoenix: Right, the studios are trying to find a new way to make it exciting and different. So they say, "An actor was so affected by 'the thing'!" The truth is, if I saw a movie...I don't know what a good example would be...But I really don't want to find out that the actor in the scene that completely moved me, and completely made me fucking think, and moved me in a visceral type way...I don't want to find out that the actor was thinking about something completely different than what the character is thinking about. I don't want to know that they were more interested in getting home and seeing their family than finishing the take. I don't want to know that this was the third take, and after they finished it, they walked away saying. "I'm not doing another one!" I don't want to know that. I want to think that that person was there in that moment. So I would never ask them that, because I don't want to know. It becomes a weird situation. Because, in some ways, being an actor, I don't like the reverse of that either. I was doing press for Reservation Road, and this woman was saying that she was so affected by it. She was moved emotionally by this scene and what was happening in it. Its like, you don't want to say, "Afterwards, I went home. And everything was fine. I watched a DVD and then I went to sleep." She wants to believe that I was shattered that entire day. In some ways, you don't not want to make her believe that. Because in some ways, it ruins the experience of the film.

I know what you mean. When I watch Reservation Road now, all I'm going to be able to think about is you at home watching that DVD.

Joaquin Phoenix: It makes sense, doesn't it?

Yeah, and that totally screws all of my questions. How can I ask you any more questions after that? How about, I go with this. In We Own the Night, I found the opening club scene very interesting. And this is going to go directly into what you were just talking about. There is this one kid that you press up on, and he looks completely out of his mind. He has this look in his eyes like he's on twelve kinds of drugs. You can't act that. I wanted to know if these people in this club scene were actually drinking and doing god knows what between takes.

Joaquin Phoenix: What club scene are you talking about?

The club scene very early on. When you break up the fight. There is this one black kid that you press on. He is out of his mind.

Joaquin Phoenix: No. Well. (Laughs) Here's the thing, I think a lot of actors can really get into things. It's when you are in this environment. First of all, of course, in-between every take, there is nothing but bright lights on. Everybody is standing around, milling, bored out of their fucking minds. What happens is, James, the director, is sitting there yelling, rallying people up, going, "This is a fucking party! You are all sweaty! You are all going to fuck each other tonight! You are getting crazy." He is riling everybody. Thing is, this kid you are talking about might have been a stunt man. Did we tussle, or something?

No, he was sitting on a barstool. And during the fight, you are pressed right up against him. Your elbow goes into his gut.

Joaquin Phoenix: Damn, you are amazingly observant. I don't think that anybody else would see that. I do that stuff all the time. I like making these wide gestures, and stuff. I was watching this guy on TV, and he was doing a News Bug, or something. And I could tell by the way that he was fidgeting, that he didn't know what to do with his hands. And on his right hand, his thumb is twirling around. I rewound that shit and showed it to my girlfriend. I said, "Do you see how he is nervous and how he wants to do something with his hands? He knows this one is in frame. But the other one is in frame, and you can see him moving it." I love those little things. I don't remember what was going on in that club scene. I really don't.

Do you like roughing up the extras? Or do you even care at that point?

Joaquin Phoenix: What do you mean, do I even care?

I mean, are you even cognizant of the extras? Because it looks like you completely get lost in what is going on around you when you are on screen. Like you treat them the way you would treat anybody off to your side in a real situation. Someone that wasn't interacting with you.

Joaquin Phoenix: I don't think of them as extras. I think that is a mistake, to think of them as extras.

You think of them as costars?

Joaquin Phoenix: (Laughs) No, I don't think of them as costars. I think of them as people in a club. Its like, it's not about thinking that way at all.

Because you are into the scene.

Joaquin Phoenix: You hope to be. There's certainly stuff like that. The majority of the people in that fight were stunt men. I don't know everybody that is around. But because of legal issues everyone has to be a stuntman. Especially if they are in the vicinity of getting hit. More than likely, if I was close enough to bump into them, it was a stunt man. Probably. But I don't recall.

Now, I've never heard of putting charcoal in someone's mouth. Is that a practice that is used a lot?

Joaquin Phoenix: I'd never heard of that either, but apparently that is something they do all the time. Yeah.

Did they put real charcoal in your mouth? What did that taste like? Or is that something I don't need to know, because it might break the intensity of the scene for me?

Joaquin Phoenix: It was real charcoal, so watching that experience on screen will be all right (laughs).

What does that do to you? Especially if you aren't even on drugs?

Joaquin Phoenix: Apparently, the danger is diarrhea. But I don't think I ingested enough. It has a really sweet taste. It is literally like chalk.

It didn't smell like the type of charcoal you would put on a bar-b-que?

Joaquin Phoenix: No, it is very sweet. But then, I guess, it completely dries up your mouth. And it has this aftertaste that you can't get out of your fucking teeth, no matter how hard you try.

I'm going to ask you one "What were you thinking about" question. What were you thinking about when you shot the scene with the bag on your head?

Joaquin Phoenix: The bag on my head?

When they put the bag on your head? And they take you into the drug den. I imagined that would be a hard scene to shoot.

Joaquin Phoenix: How do you mean, a hard scene? The guy outside the door just said that this would be your last question. But, that scene wasn't something that took all day. Not for me, but I think in those moments it's important to try and stay in the character. The type of breathing I was doing in that bag was what affected that scene the most. You need to see that I am breathing under there. And the sound of my breathing is going to alter the affect of the other actors. If I'm just sitting there doing fuck all, thinking, "I don't have to do anything because there is a bag on my head." The scene isn't going to work. You feel the tension no matter what. The actor next to me can feel that tension, and he can come in and take that, what ever it is for him. If you have a bag on your head, you still have to stay within it.

We Own the Night opens this Friday, October 12th, 2007.