“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.
The day before my interview with Phoenix, he was onstage at the Walter Reade Theater in Manhattan with Spike Jonze, who wrote and directed Her, and his three costars, Rooney Mara (who plays Phoenix’s estranged wife), Amy Adams (who plays his best friend), and Olivia Wilde (who plays a woman with whom his character, Theodore, goes on a tumultuous date). The only person missing was Scarlett Johansson, who is the voice of Samantha, the love object–operating system. The film had just received thunderous applause, and Phoenix, dressed in the same jeans-and-sweater ensemble he would wear to our interview, was chewing gum and smiling. He looked amused, as if he were reacting to a private joke. Dennis Lim, the moderator of the event, opened the floor for questions. “Joaquin, what did you think of the script?” someone asked. “I liked it,” he replied tersely. “In the movie, you have a relationship with an invisible girlfriend. Was it hard for you to talk to someone who wasn’t there?” another critic asked. “No. I’m accustomed to walking around my house talking to myself,” Phoenix answered. “So it wasn’t that dissimilar.”
Jonze did his best to keep the conversation moving, but when your star is recalcitrant, it is difficult to continue answering questions earnestly. “Joaquin is an actor, not a politician,” Jonze told me later, calling from his office in Los Angeles. “He does things his own way. Journalists need to put things into words, and Joaquin doesn’t want to. That’s part of the reason he’s such a great actor. He likes to be lost in the part that he’s playing.”
Jonze first became aware of Phoenix in 1995’s To Die For, directed by Gus Van Sant. Phoenix, who was 20 at the time, played a high school student who falls in love with a fame-obsessed small-town TV reporter, played by Nicole Kidman. Under the sway of lust, and to prove his devotion, Phoenix’s character helps murder her husband. “Joaquin was fascinating in the film—you couldn’t take your eyes off him,” Jonze recalled. “And for Her, I needed to find someone with that power, who could physically represent two people—himself and Samantha.” When Jonze finished the script, he gave it to Phoenix first. He drove over to his house, and Joaquin told him it might take him a week or so to read it. It was 10 p.m. When Jonze woke up the next morning, there was a very long text from Phoenix saying he had read Her and that he would play Theodore, assuming the director still wanted him. “I was thrilled!” Jonze said. “What’s important to understand is that Joaquin is the least pretentious person I’ve ever met. He takes his work seriously, but he doesn’t take himself seriously. Sometimes I think that’s why he’s misunderstood.”
The Master was a kind of rebirth for Phoenix—he had nearly annihilated his career in 2010, when he and his best friend, Casey Affleck, made I’m Still Here, a hoax documentary in which Phoenix announced to the world that he was going to quit acting and become a rapper. With Affleck directing, they attempted to make a kind of statement about celebrity. The film culminated in a real appearance on The Late Show With David Letterman, where Phoenix, who looked exceptionally overgrown and disoriented, seemed to be losing his mind in front of a live audience.
That turned out to be brilliant acting. “For me and Casey, I’m Still Here is a comedy,” Phoenix told me when we met at the Greenwich. It was one of the few times I had raised a topic that engaged him. “We both like uncomfortable humor. Before we did the film, I had seen the TV show Celebrity Rehab. We were close to getting me on that show. I kind of envied the acting on Celebrity Rehab. I almost did it—we wanted to go all the way.”
For Affleck, who is married to Phoenix’s sister Summer, the project was more complicated than that. “I still run into people now, four years later, and they say, ‘Is Joaquin all right?’ ” Affleck said. “I’m like, Oh, my God! It’s never going to be over. But if nothing else, I learned a lot about acting from watching Joaquin. He was so amazingly committed. There’s no one quite like him—he has no fear.”
Of course, Phoenix would deny that: “I was very afraid and concerned after I’m Still Here,” he said. “I realized that it might be more difficult than I thought to get work again. And I want to act. Casey was truly the bravest person. He had to deal with me saying, ‘Fuck you—I don’t want to finish this movie.’ It’s not like I didn’t want to work again—and I was worried. But then Paul [Thomas Anderson] called me for the part in The Master. And things came together with Spike.”
Phoenix paused. “It’s good sometimes to not be welcomed,” he said, after lighting another cigarette. “If everyone said, ‘Welcome,’ ‘Welcome,’ ‘Welcome,’ it could be dangerous. What I want most is to challenge myself—and I’m lazier than anybody. Wouldn’t you like to just get in the water and float for a very long time? I would. But that’s no good. You have to force yourself to battle, to not float.”
I pushed my luck: “Was it the complications of the role in Her that attracted you?” I asked. Phoenix stared. “When you fall in love with somebody, you can’t really figure out exactly why,” he said in a way that can only be described as kind. “You want to experience life with that person. And that’s what it’s like when you read a great script: You fall in love. I don’t need to know why.”