Via The Telegraph.
Photos by Rio Phoenix.

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From petulant Roman emperors to musicians battling  demons, he is an actor who immerses himself in roles while delighting in wrongfooting those he works with (including Telegraph journalists) – perfect preparation for his latest award-winning film, Joker .

Joaquin Phoenix is not laughing. The 44-year-old actor stretches his arms along the back of the sofa and fixes me with a look that could bore a hole in a tooth. He’s dressed entirely in black – faded jeans, plain hoodie – with around half a week’s salt-and-pepper stubble on his jaw, and silvering, near-shoulder-length hair pushed back behind his ears. On this pricklingly hot West Hollywood day, inside a nondescript business hotel, he looks like an Arctic wolf lost in a shopping centre. But despite the heat, the atmosphere in the room has taken on a tundra-like chill.

‘Why?’ he eventually mutters, his lip curling up at one side. ‘Why would you…? No… no.’ Then he stands up, shuffles towards me, clasps my hands between his, and walks out of the door.

We are talking – make that were talking – about Joker, in which Phoenix plays a reimagined and chillingly credible version of the venerable comic-book villain. In stark contrast to the ongoing cascade of shiny Marvel-brand escapism, Joker grabs you by the throat and demands to be taken seriously.

At its premiere at last month’s Venice Film Festival, the film received an eight-minute standing ovation, and Phoenix, who during his physical transformation to play the role lost a dramatic amount of weight, was immediately tipped for a Best Actor Oscar.

His Joker is a villain for our times: an unstable, self-pitying loner with a mass-shooter mindset. He writes an unhinged manifesto; fantasises about killing himself on live television, agitates for chaos on the streets.

Unlike Heath Ledger’s inscrutable take on the character in 2008’s The Dark Knight, Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck, a failed comedian who still lives with his elderly mother, is the horribly familiar enemy within. If the film hadn’t been set in the ’80s he could easily be the latest online message-board extremist to take his grievances murderously viral.

 Yet Phoenix doesn’t seem to have considered this kind of question at all. So when I put it to him – aren’t you worried that this film might perversely end up inspiring exactly the kind of people it’s about, with potentially tragic results? – his fight-or-flight response kicks in. Mine too, just about. When you’ve watched and rewatched Phoenix play some of modern cinema’s most mesmerising powder kegs – from The Master’s wan and war-zonked Freddie Quell to You Were Never Really Here’s bearlike vigilante, Joe – I can assure you, you don’t want to be on the receiving end of that thin-eyed glare in real life.

It takes an hour’s peace-brokering with a Warner Bros PR to get things back on track. Phoenix panicked, he later explains, because the question genuinely hadn’t crossed his mind before – then asks me, not for the last time, what an intelligent answer might have sounded like. He’s being boyishly open now, as if the man who walked out of the room 60 minutes ago was another person entirely, like an embarrassed kid making amends for his short-tempered dad.

‘Did you bug out?’ he giggles. Why yes, Joaquin, I did.

Even with the tension punctured, this brooding three-time Oscar nominee and transparent publicity-phobe – he and his fiancée, the 34-year-old actor Rooney Mara, are hardly fixtures on the LA party circuit – is by no means an obvious choice to play the lead in a major comic-book film.

In 2014, Marvel tried to woo him for the lead role in Doctor Strange, though he eventually passed and the part went to Benedict Cumberbatch. The difference this time was the Joker character himself, whom Phoenix describes, with perhaps a twinge of self-awareness, as ‘posing questions with no easy answers’.

How familiar was he with the source material? ‘What do I say to make me sound smart and not offend the wrong people?’ he says, before admitting Ledger and Jack Nicholson’s performances were the only versions of the Joker to have crossed his radar. What grabbed him was the script. ‘Typically, the motivations of characters in most movies, certainly in the superhero genre, are very clear,’ he says, in a husky, fast-flowing drawl. ‘And that wasn’t the case in this, and to me, that was a challenge. There was something there to explore that I didn’t fully understand.’

Read more at The Telegraph.