Photograph: Richard Saker for the Guardian / Source: The Guardian – Published on 8 Mar 2018.

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.”

Phoenix preaches the gospel of living in the moment and it could well be that he is experiencing one right now. Later this year, we’ll see him as a wild west assassin in Jacques Audiard’s adaptation of The Sisters Brothers, and a quadriplegic cartoonist in Gus Van Sant’s Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot. His career has never looked better; he should be relishing the glory. It’s just that, the way he tells it, films only matter when he’s on the set – after which they may as well not exist. What excites him is the process of acting – of losing himself in a role, of losing track of time – the same as it did back when he was a kid.

He recalls his first time in front of a camera as though it happened yesterday: “Instantaneous joy. The most enjoyable thing. For some kids, it’s the first time they crack a ball or score a goal. For me, it was this. I was eight years old, and I remember the first scene on the TV set so vividly. And I knew that I loved it – the physical sensation; how powerful it was. That’s the feeling I’ve been chasing ever since.”

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At the time, he was one of five children: a band of pint-sized performers; Haight-Ashbury von Trapps. The Phoenixes had alighted in California with their footloose hippy parents and started busking on the streets. He says: “My mom got a job at NBC. And then through her boss we were introduced to an agent. She was the only agent who would take all five of us because my parents didn’t want us to be split up.” He snorts. “We were a very expressive, creative bunch.”

The leading light of the group was his big brother, River; clear-eyed and handsome, a superstar in the making. Joaquin (then named Leaf) was smaller and darker, seemingly destined to play second fiddle. Times were good; the money rolled in. The family may have been seen as a band of eccentrics, but, it transpired, this was no bar to success.

“Well, we’re vegans,” he explains. “And when you first start acting, what you mostly do are commercials. And we said to our agent: ‘We’re not going to do anything for McDonald’s or Coca-Cola. We’ll do bicycles and dolls, and that’s about it.’ And our agent was like: ‘This is lunacy. First of all, it’s already impossible to break into this business and now you’re excluding 70% of what you might be able to do.’” He laughs at the memory. “I guess we were either bold or stupid.”

I have the sense that there have been times when he has grown disillusioned with acting, but he insists otherwise. Nonetheless, his career has been marked by sudden absences, abrupt reinventions; periods when he appears to have lost the plot. After River’s death from a drugs overdose in 1993, Joaquin dropped out of sight for a year. In 2009, he caused a furore when he lumbered on to the David Letterman show, apparently blasted and inarticulate, to confirm his retirement. “I’ve been working on my music,” he mumbled into his beard. He added that when he returned, he would come back as a rapper.