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LOS ANGELES — It wasn’t clear where the conversation with Joaquin Phoenix went off-track, assuming it was ever on track to begin with. But now he was batting me around the way a cat bounces its prey between its paws before devouring it.

At this moment, it wasn’t my questions about why, in an idiosyncratic film career, he had chosen to play the Joker, the cackling comic-book criminal, or how he had prepared for the demanding, transformative role, or what it all meant about the state of contemporary moviemaking that had set him off — though these topics would all provoke him in different ways, in time.

It was my stray observation that he could probably sustain himself on emotionally wrung-out roles for as long as he wanted, which had caused Phoenix to recoil in his seat like he was Tony Montana, about to unload on an incompetent underling.

“Oh, really?” he asked, in a sarcastic voice as dry as sandpaper. “Well, good. Thank you so much. That’s great. I was worried.” Then he grinned and let out a laugh, to let me know he was kidding. Or was he?

If you’re going to make a movie about a homicidal madman in clown makeup, you might as well get a guy who radiates low-level menace. Though he has portrayed everyone from Johnny Cash to Jesus of Nazareth, Phoenix has lately settled into a string of movies about loners (“The Master,” “Her,” “Inherent Vice”), killers (“The Sisters Brothers”) and lonesome killers (“You Were Never Really Here”) that have let him plumb the depths of human experience.

While there’s no telling where his creative wanderings will take him, it would have seemed safe to predict that a high-profile movie based on a studio-owned intellectual property wouldn’t be anywhere on that itinerary.

But here he is, starring in “Joker,” a seedy character study and possible origin story for this perpetual Batman nemesis. The movie, which is directed by Todd Phillips and will be released by Warner Bros. on Oct. 4, is neither a traditional comic-book blockbuster, nor typical source material for its leading man.