It isn't clear where the conversation with Joaquin Phoenix goes off-track, assuming it was ever on track to begin with. But now he's batting me around the way a cat bounces its prey between its paws before devouring it. At this moment it isn't my questions about why, in an idiosyncratic film career, he has chosen to play the Joker, the cackling comic-book criminal, or how he prepared for the demanding, transformative role, or what it all means about the state of contemporary film-making that has set him off – although these topics will all provoke him in different ways, in time.
It is my stray observation that he could probably sustain himself on emotionally wrung-out roles for as long as he wants that has caused Phoenix to recoil in his seat like he’s Tony Montana, about to unload on an incompetent underling.
"Oh, really?" he asks, in a sarcastic voice as dry as sandpaper. "Well, good. Thank you so much. That's great. I was worried." Then he grins and lets out a laugh, to let me know he's kidding. Or is he?
If you’re going to make a movie about a homicidal madman in clown make-up, you might as well get a guy who radiates low-level menace. Although 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 next month, is neither a traditional comic-book blockbuster nor typical source material for its leading man.
In other ways, Phoenix and his onscreen alter ego are extremely compatible, if a dinner at a Japanese restaurant in Studio City, in Los Angeles, is anything to judge by. The actor is never contemptuous when he speaks; he takes every inquiry seriously and he responds honestly, unless he doesn’t feel like answering at all. Over the span of an hour, he runs the spectrum of emotions, from sincere and thoughtful to light-hearted to stand-offish, and there is no way of knowing which questions or remarks will elicit which version of him.
Phoenix likes that potential for danger in his work, too, and he cites it as one of the reasons he wanted to make Joker. “I didn’t really know what it was,” he says. “I didn’t know how to classify it. I didn’t say, ‘This is the character I’m playing.’ I didn’t know what we were going to do.” “It was terrifying,” he continues, and he flashes that grin again.
Phoenix is 44, with hair that is a mixture of brown, copper and gray strands, and he speaks with an unexpected gentleness, like Commodus, the wicked emperor he played in Gladiator. (We know how it turned out for Commodus.) Phoenix is playful at times. When I note how nimble he looks in some of his dancing scenes in Joker, he swats away the compliment, saying, “I would get injured just from doing a light jog down the street. I’d have to be sent home.”
But some of that lightness evaporates as soon as I ask how he’d been approached about the film and he replies that he cannot remember. “It sucks... This is why interviews are the worst,” he says despairingly, adding that he is tempted to make up a story “just to sound exciting”.
Nor is he in any hurry to explain his process for figuring out his Joker character before filming began. “It’s so stupid to talk about,” he grumbles. “I’m not going to talk about it.” (He does eventually talk about it.)
LET'S SET ASIDE PHOENIX for the moment and return to Phillips, who is best known for directing the lucrative Hangover comedies. At the premiere of his 2016 crime caper, War Dogs, Phillips found himself anticipating its tepid reception while gazing at a billboard for a Marvel superhero juggernaut. He wondered how he could possibly compete.
Warner Bros had been having only intermittent success with its DC superhero movies – Wonder Woman, yes, Suicide Squad, no – but Phillips saw a potential solution to everyone’s problems. “You can’t beat Marvel – it’s a giant behemoth,” he said. “Let’s do something they can’t do.”
What Phillips proposed to the studio was a series of smaller, stand-alone movies that would closely examine the DC characters without conflicting with previous films. “It’s just another interpretation, like people do interpretations of Macbeth,” he explained.
In particular, Phillips was fascinated with the Joker, who had been so memorably played by Jack Nicholson (in Tim Burton’s Batman) and by Heath Ledger (in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight). As Phillips saw it, there was still room to tell a new story about this villain, closer in spirit to grimy urban narratives he admired, like Taxi Driver, Death Wish and The King of Comedy.
In the Joker screenplay written by Phillips and Scott Silver, the protagonist is Arthur Fleck, a troubled clown-for-hire in rundown, uncaring Gotham City. While its citizens shun him and stomp on him, Arthur descends into a cycle of retribution and violence, becoming a folk hero for all the wrong reasons. “You want to root for this guy until you can’t root for him any longer,” Phillips explains.
Still, this circus needed a clown, and both Phoenix and Phillips acknowledge that the actor was not quickly sold on the project. “He was not keen on jumping into costume in any comic-book movie,” Phillips says. “It’s not necessarily in his five-year plan – although I don’t think he has one.” (Despite reports that the Joker team was seeking Leonardo DiCaprio, Phillips says, “We wrote the movie for Joaquin.”)
Over about three months, Phillips repeatedly visited Phoenix’s home, answering his many, many questions about the character and hoping to win him over through sheer persistence. “I asked him to come over and audition me for it,” Phoenix says. “It wasn’t an easy decision, but he kept saying, ‘Let’s just be bold. Let’s do something.’”
As Phillips recalls, “I kept waiting for him to just say, ‘Okay, I’m in,’ And he never did that.” Where Phoenix is concerned, he says, “You just never get a yes. All you get is more questions.”
He and Phillips had more fruitful disagreements in the months Phoenix spent getting into character ahead of filming. They concurred that the actor should undergo a drastic weight change, but Phoenix, who had slimmed down for past roles, wasn’t eager to do it again.
“It’s a horrible way to live,” Phoenix said. “I think he should be kind of heavy. Todd was, like, ‘I think you should do the real thin person.’” Phoenix lost 23kg, or more than 3.5st, for the part.
Phoenix trained with a choreographer and studied videos of famous dancers (“I won’t say who”), and he and Phillips challenged each other with ideas they found in books (“I’m not going to tell you what those books were”). The actor learned to apply his own greasepaint and kept a journal of half-formed jokes and frenzied thoughts that appears in the movie.
Phillips says Phoenix’s greatest misgivings about Joker were its explicit ties to comic-book mythology, represented most prominently by the character of the outspoken, out-of-touch billionaire Thomas Wayne, whose son, Bruce, will grow up to be Batman.
“He never liked saying the name Thomas Wayne,” Phillips says. “It would have been easier for him if the movie was called Arthur and had nothing to do with any of that stuff. But in the long run, I think he got it and appreciated it.”
Comic books are not unknown to Phoenix. He collected them avidly as a teen, although he preferred brutal Marvel antiheroes like Wolverine to DC’s staid pantheon. In 2014, when Marvel was casting Doctor Strange, the studio sought Phoenix to play the supersorcerer, but he reportedly broke off negotiations, and in the end Benedict Cumberbatch got the gig. Phoenix declines to explain to me why he did this; “I think they... I don’t know,” is all he says.
Of course Phoenix had seen and admired Nicholson’s and Ledger’s versions of the Joker, but he claims to have been “blissfully naive” of the immense expectations to measure up. When Phoenix did some interviews before Joker started production, and was quizzed about how his performance might differ, he said he realised, “This is a really big deal,” adding, “I’m so, like, not in the game that I didn’t know people would do this.”
FOR A THREE-TIME OSCAR NOMINEE, Phoenix can be charmingly unaware about showbiz scuttlebutt and vocabulary. ("Tentpole movies, is that's what it's called?") But he is also a trickster who spent months of his life pretending to have given up acting for hip hop, as preserved in Casey Affleck's utterly fake 2010 mockumentary, I'm Still Here.
His reputation for volatility precedes him, but it also makes film-makers more avid to work with him. James Gray, who has directed Phoenix in four features, says that when they first worked together, on his 2000 crime drama, The Yards, the actor could be fitfully brilliant.
“He didn’t have full control of his instrument,” Gray says. “He was like an Olympic diver who didn’t know the formal rules of the Olympics yet.” But in the years and films together that followed – We Own the Night, Two Lovers and The Immigrant – Gray says, “He began to understand, frankly, that there weren’t limits, and he started to become fearless.”
Gray acknowledges that Phoenix possesses “a powder-keg quality” but that it comes from a place of commitment and conviction. “If you’re not prepared, he will know it, and he will let you know it,” Gray says. “You have to do your homework.”
Phillips says there were moments when Phoenix lost his composure on the set of Joker, sometimes to the bafflement of his costars. “In the middle of the scene, he’ll just walk away and walk out,” Phillips says. “And the poor other actor thinks it’s them, and it was never them – it was always him, and he just wasn’t feeling it.” And after taking a breather, he says, “we’ll take a walk and we’ll come back and we’ll do it.”
Robert De Niro, who appears in Joker as a smarmy late-night host on whom Arthur is fixated, did not encounter this side of Phoenix and says the actor was a consummate professional. “Joaquin was very intense in what he was doing, as it should be, as he should be,” De Niro says. “There’s nothing to talk about, personally, on the side, ‘Let’s have coffee.’ Let’s just do the stuff.”
De Niro, who played disturbed loners in several of the movies that inspired Joker, says he can understand why actors and audiences continue to be drawn to these characters. But he also observes that having a fascination with Travis Bickle doesn’t make you Travis Bickle yourself.
“People identify with it in some way – not that they go to those extremes,” he says. “They can understand the sentiment. Sometimes those things are cathartic.”
Phoenix, for his part, was not inclined to tell anyone how to interpret Joker, or to consider the possibility that some of its elements – whether the film’s brutal gun violence or ambivalence about protest movements – might make it the wrong movie for a not-so-subtle moment. “However you want to talk about it, dude, that’s on you as a journalist,” he tells me.
And he seems almost angry, at first, when I ask if Joker might be a bad omen for film-making, if it means that character-driven movies can only get made at this scale if they’re based on established pop-culture characters. “I don’t even know what you just said,” he growls.
But when I rephrase the question slightly, he gives a calmer, more measured answer. “It’s up to the artist to find the way to tell stories that are meaningful,” he replies. “If my nephews are not going to sit through a two-hour movie, what are you going to do? You just have to pursue what’s truthful to you, and either someone’s interested or they’re not.”
It is hard to imagine that Phoenix would gracefully navigate all the promotional appearances and glad-handing that such mass-market movies require – obligations that are likely to increase after Joker became the surprise winner of the Venice Film Festival’s Golden Lion award, its top prize, which in past years has gone to future Oscar winners like Roma and The Shape of Water.
But Phillips says his star was free to approach these duties however he wanted. “If he goes on Jimmy Kimmel and walks off after two minutes I’d be, like, ‘That’s my boy,’” Phillips says proudly. “He follows his own rhythm.”
But where does Phoenix want it to take him? He isn’t the sort of actor who plots his career five pictures in advance, and he doesn’t have a personal production company working around the clock to develop new projects. When I ask him whether he thinks he needs this kind of Hollywood apparatus, he gleefully reminds me that only moments ago I said he would never have to worry about where his next role was coming from.
“So which is it?” he says with mock apprehension. “Make up your mind! Five minutes ago I was sitting back, laughing, going, ‘Well, I’m set.’ Now you have me very, very nervous.” But seriously, Phoenix says his criteria for choosing work are actually quite clear-cut. “I don’t really care about genre or budget size, anything like that,” he says. “It’s just whether there is a film-maker that has a unique vision, has a voice, and the ability to make the film.”
Phoenix also says it was easy for him to sit out for months at a time when he feels he has become overexposed. At a certain point, he says, “you don’t want to see this” – meaning himself – “on a poster. You’re driving down the street, you go, ‘Again? This face? It is so tired. Enough.’”
To do what he wants to do, Phoenix says, there is only one question he needs to consider, and it’s laughably easy: “What’s going to keep me excited or inspired, and wanting to work hard?” And he’s just going to keep asking it until that joke isn’t funny any more. “If I don’t feel like I’m pushing myself in some ways, I’ll get bored, or maybe they’ll get bored of me,” he says. “I don’t know who’s going to get bored of who first.” – New York Times
Joker opens on Friday, October 4th