Joaquin Phoenix was photographed by Greg Williams for GQ Italy, March 2018 issue.
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By Stephen Rebello
On-screen or off, Joaquin Phoenix isn’t for the fainthearted. Known best for film roles that showcase his capacity for brooding intensity, idiosyncrasy, physicality, combustibility and raw vulnerability, Phoenix has impressed as a megalomaniac Roman emperor in Gladiator (earning an Oscar nomination), a country-music hellion in Walk the Line (another Oscar nomination), a traumatized World War II veteran in The Master (yet another nomination) and a heartbroken divorcé who falls in love with a Siri-like operating system in Her (an Oscar nomination that should have been). But after 30-plus years in the acting game, when he’s not busy filming with top directors such as Ridley Scott, Paul Thomas Anderson or Spike Jonze, Phoenix’s public image has been known to get murky. Or downright mind-boggling. Or ominous. Or darkly funny.
In 2005 he entered rehab for alcoholism; less than a year later he crashed and rolled his car and, as it filled with leaking gasoline, was saved by director Werner Herzog, who miraculously happened to be passing by. In 2008 Phoenix told the world he was bowing out of acting to become a hip-hop artist. His weight ballooned; he sprouted a bushy beard, donned sunglasses, dreadlocked his hair and played a couple of train-wreck gigs. Actor Casey Affleck, Phoenix’s friend and brother-in-law (married since 2006 to Phoenix’s sister Summer), filmed it all—including Phoenix’s romps with hookers and cocaine—for a 2010 movie, I’m Still Here, advertised as a documentary. Then, in front of 4 million TV viewers (and hundreds of thousands more on YouTube), Phoenix appeared to strike the final match in his career self-immolation with an infamous guest appearance on Late Show With David Letterman during which he seemed spacey and incoherent. It turned out to be a hoax, of course, an elaborately staged, drawn-out Andy Kaufman meets Sacha Baron Cohen–esque performance piece.
But something few people get about Joaquin Phoenix is that off screen, he’s not a moody, egocentric, arrogant, volatile twit. He’s a sardonic jester, a leg-puller engineered for fame but smart enough to see right through it. His parents, Arlyn and John Bottom, raised him that way. Searching, nomadic hippies, the two met as hitchhikers in 1968; by 1974, when Joaquin was born in Puerto Rico, they (with River and Rain, Joaquin’s older brother and sister) had gravitated to the Children of God sect, a lightning rod for controversy. Watching TV and fraternizing with nonbelievers was discouraged. When Phoenix’s parents fled Children of God in 1977, they boarded a Miami-bound ship, then relocated to Los Angeles. To celebrate what they saw as a risen-from-the-ashes rebirth, they changed their last name to Phoenix.
Arlyn Phoenix got a job as secretary to NBC’s head of casting. The Phoenix kids went to work. Billed as “Leaf Phoenix” throughout the 1980s, Joaquin scored roles on Murder, She Wrote and Hill Street Blues, leading to attention-getting big-screen stints in Russkies and Parenthood. By 1989, tired of what he called “banana in the tailpipe” roles, he stopped making movies, until something much better came along six years later in the form of To Die For, a smart, wicked, Gus Van Sant–directed bit of comic nastiness. Phoenix, hoping to show off his range in a wider variety of material, including big comedies, kept the dark stuff coming with such downers as 8MM (as a character who sells porn films) and Return to Paradise (as a flower child awaiting execution for drug possession). But those flicks led to Gladiator, a box-office hit and awards grabber. Accolades, fame and stardom have brought things Phoenix tolerates but probably hates, such as scrutiny and intense public curiosity—and interviews.
We sent PLAYBOY Contributing Editor Stephen Rebello, who last interviewed David Fincher, to track down Phoenix at a Middle Eastern restaurant in L.A.’s explosively hip East Side. Rebello reports: “I first met Phoenix in 2007 when I interviewed him for a PLAYBOY 20Q, during which he smoked and fidgeted a lot but was charming, kind and archly funny. That same guy turned up seven years later for this interview, minus the cigarettes. Arrogant? Combative? Uncommunicative? Please. He might rather have been doing something else—maybe anything else—but Joaquin was frank, talkative and endearingly off center.”
“What are we doing?” Joaquin Phoenix asked me, with a mix of confrontation and self-disgust. “Is this what we’re doing? It’s nothing about you, but I don’t know why we’re doing this.” It was a beautiful Sunday afternoon in mid-October, the day after the New York Film Festival premiere of Her, in which Phoenix is wonderfully appealing, romantic, and vulnerable as a man who falls in love with his computer’s operating system. Phoenix, 39, was dressed in beat-up jeans, a dark zip-up hoodie, and boots that were untied. His hair was shoulder length for his role in Paul Thomas Anderson’s ’70s period drama Inherent Vice, which had just finished production in Los Angeles. As usual, Phoenix seemed both jumpy and curious. He was lighting up one American Spirit after another, which was part of the reason we were meeting on the patio of the hotel where he was staying, the Greenwich. I was there to interview Phoenix; he was there to smoke. Or so it seemed.
Phoenix was polite, especially to the waiter who brought us tea, and strangely endearing, but his code of personal authenticity does not abide talking to journalists. When I complimented Her, he waved me off and said, “I don’t want to hear it. You sound insincere.” When I protested and maintained that I genuinely loved his performance, he winced. Feeling hurt, I changed the subject and asked what films had influenced him as a child, when he began acting in commercials and on television shows like Murder, She Wrote. “I don’t know anything about movies,” Phoenix replied. “I’m not trying to censor myself, but I really don’t know anything.” I then tried to be practical and inquired about audience reaction to the Her screening. “I don’t know, since I didn’t watch the film,” Phoenix countered. “I usually see a rough cut of the movie if the director asks me to, but I won’t see it after that. There’s a danger that watching the movie might cause me to wonder if I was good or bad, and that might mess me up in some way. I don’t want to risk it. Awards shows are excruciating. They show a clip out of context, and I won’t watch. I look at the ground.” Phoenix sighed. “You come up with reasons for doing interviews,” he said finally. “But I don’t think those are the real reasons.” This was a hint, perhaps, that he believed the true motivation for an actor doing press might have less to do with supporting a film than with ego and a desire for attention. “You fucker! You fucker!” Phoenix then said, out of the blue. I must have looked shocked. “I’m sorry,” he said, laughing. “That’s a line from Inherent Vice. I keep saying it.” He laughed again. “I have to go to the bathroom,” he said, standing up. I wasn’t sure he would come back.