The actor is back with another no-holds-barred performance in his new movie, You Were Never Really Here. He talks about his unorthodox childhood, playing Jesus – and the toll Hollywood’s ‘rampant’ abuse culture takes on everybody.
Joaquin Phoenix blows into London at the same time as the snow, like a competing weather front, talking up a blue streak. Outside, the flakes are flying and the temperature is below zero. Inside, he is preaching peace, love, tolerance and understanding – and it is all I can do to get a word in edgeways. My questions sit unread on my lap; the publicist hovers anxiously at the door. Who’s going to stop him? Who has the clout? When the man’s on a roll, it’s difficult to say: “Cut!”
“Just be in the moment,” Phoenix advises at one point. “Don’t overthink it, let it be what it is. If you keep trying to find what’s unique in the moment, then the danger is that you miss that very thing.” I think he’s talking about the craft of film acting. He may be talking about life.
Phoenix has been a turbulent screen presence for so many years that it is startling to realise that he is only 43. He has played dented Johnny Cash, the depraved emperor Commodus, an introverted lonely heart in Spike Jonze’s Her and a raging, rough beast in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master. Some great actors are deliberate and precise, but Phoenix is at his best when he seems on the outer edge of control; when he threatens to break loose from the picture and bring the scenery crashing about his ears. The man goes at things freestyle, for better or worse. He says: “The great thing about film is that you get to make mistakes.”
On his latest film, You Were Never Really Here, he has found a kindred spirit in the British film-maker Lynne Ramsay – another wild talent who sometimes courts disaster. Ramsay bashed out the script on spec, at speed, after bailing out of another movie (Jane Got a Gun) on the first day of production. She tells me she wrote the lead role with Phoenix expressly in mind. “Stuck his picture above the computer, as though I could telepathically put him in my film.” Sure enough, the actor materialised on set having never met her before. “He’s instinctual and unpredictable,” Ramsay says. “The range of stuff that he gave me … I could have made several other completely different films.”
As it is, her picture is roiling and delirious; a missing-person thriller spun violently on its head. Phoenix plays Joe, a traumatised former soldier on a mission to retrieve a trafficked teenager. He says he did some research – spoke to an ex-military guy who does similar work. Mainly, though, he followed his gut. “Lynne sent me an audio file of Fourth of July fireworks. She said: ‘That’s what’s happening inside Joe’s head.’ That’s one thing that really clicked for me.”
So forget about Joe; how about playing Jesus? In Mary Magdalene – a revisionist take on the gospels released later this month – Phoenix co-stars as the messiah alongside his girlfriend, Rooney Mara, who plays Mary Magdalene. Surely this was a role that required some rigorous research? There’s a lot of material to wade through about Jesus.
He shrugs, unconcerned. “Lots of material. Lots of conflicting material. But, in the end, it’s a character. And, as with all characters, whether it’s Johnny Cash or whoever, you have to make it about a man; about his personal experience. And for Jesus, what makes his death such a sacrifice is that he didn’t want to die. This was a man who wanted to continue the experience of living, just as we all do. So it was important to me to find those human qualities.”