Though now 44, with longish hair, often stubble-shaven, Joaquin Phoenix remains ruggedly handsome, breathlessly youthful and effortlessly aloof. It’s 15 years since his Johnny Cash turn in Oscar-nominated ‘Walk the Line’, and his pursuit of creative, independent, off-the-wall projects since has taken him from the dark recesses of low-budget cinema to the dazzling fabrication of directorial roles in pop culture.
Phoenix is fiercely private, enchantingly nervous and self-deprecating. He’s a vegan, an animal rights activist, supports peace alliances and even sits on the board of directors for an organisation that provides daily meals to students in Soweto.
The fact he works such a philanthropic edge across a desire to maintain mainstream success perhaps reflects the reasons he plays oddball characters. Even in person, it’s clear he’s not your average media-trained actor. He says what he thinks, or perhaps what sounds good, like it or not.
New movie ‘Joker’ sees him return to the sort of landscape we expect as he tackles Arthur Fleck (the Joker), a mentally ill and failed stand-up comedian who takes out his revenge on the very society that disregarded him.
The Todd Phillips-directed movie is, by Phoenix’s own admission, a ‘relatively low budget character study of a famous comic book character’, but he believes it’s a project that needed to be done, as he told RSNG…
RSNG Tell us how Joker came about?
JOAQUIN PHOENIX, ACTOR ‘It was probably about four or maybe five years ago now that I gave my agent a call and spoke to him about what would turn out to be Joker. I said to him: “Have they ever thought about taking one of the villains out and making a character study on them and using a lower budget movie on that character?”
‘I did initially think of all characters from the DC world other than The Joker, because he has been done and you just couldn’t do that again. I was trying to go through the other characters and wanted to set up a meeting with Warner Bros, but I then went against that because I thought that I couldn’t just go into a general meeting with them.’
‘So, I totally forgot all about it for a while. But then, I heard about the idea to do this and then thought that was very exciting and here I am! It’s exactly the kind of experience that I wanted to have with that character.’
‘One thing that I would say about this movie in relation to the franchise history surrounding the character and the universe that the character is involved in, is that I wouldn’t put it in the same genre or classification as those movies.’
‘I couldn’t really agree that it is a superhero movie, I also wouldn’t say that it is a studio movie or similar – it just feels really unique.’
RSNG Is the movie world perhaps rebelling against these types of films yet?
JP ‘I’m not sure. I think that probably is true to a level, but we’ve still a long way to go.’
‘I think what helps with these sorts of characters is they are well known already, so you are starting from a point where there is lots to develop and there is a familiarity, and whatever your opinion on that, it’s important.’
‘The other element is these are fantasy characters, so you really have freedom to push the extremes.’
‘You know, comic book characters are really interesting when you begin to start analysing them, so I have never really been opposed to these kinds of films, but it just took a bit of time to find one which really appealed to me.’
‘It’s absolutely impossible for me to ever see the work the way anyone else does – I am only going to see things that I could improve on’
RSNG Is it true that in the lead-up to the film Her, you said to Spike Jonze that you can’t play this part, originally when you read the script?
JP ‘I don’t know. I don’t remember saying that, I am sure that I probably have said that to every director I have ever worked with, like, “I don’t know how I will be able to pull this off.”’
‘Joker was the same. I don’t think there’s ever a point where I think I have it, and frankly I think that if I tell you I’ve had experiences, like scenes and moments where I have gone, “All right, I got it,” that was always the worst scene – always. I don’t think that I have a sense of what’s right, going on.’
RSNG What does it take to get you in front of a camera these days?
JP ‘I think the director is like 99% of it.’
RSNG Would you agree that directors always cast you for roles where characters live in their own reality and are struggling to find out what’s real and what isn’t?
JP ‘Yes, I guess. Awesome, it sounds like all of us, haha!’
RSNG Do you suffer from that?
JP ‘What do you mean, like from the basic questions of life, like who are we, what are we doing? And what’s the point of this and what’s real, and you don’t? Haha! I was actually just reading this thing in this Science magazine. It was suggesting they were theorising that our universe and our world experience might be a simulation and they are actually doing tests to try to see if that’s true.’
‘I think it’s a fucking fascinating idea, and it excites me. And yeah, I do think reality is totally subjective.’
RSNG Does acting become easier with age or maybe more difficult, because you know more about life?
JP ‘I don’t know if it’s that you know more about life. I think you are affected by pressing all your time into the thing and I think that that starts wearing you, on some people, and for me it does.’
‘I have always said that I always wanted to be a child actor, and I missed a time when you are totally naïve to all the extra stuff that goes into making a movie. And so in some ways you are battling against that, battling against people being fucking sick of you, battling against you being sick of yourself, and in some ways I think it can get more difficult, but my appreciation for making movies I think has increased.’
RSNG Have certain performances made you less fearless than before… such as going on stage?
JP ‘Certainly once you have been on a stage and you don’t know what is going to happen and you are not going to get another take, it’s hard to shake me up as much. I mean I still get fucking nervous when I work, but nothing quite like being on stage. I don’t know that I have improved at all, but I feel better.’
RSNG Are you happy with your work, generally speaking?
JP ‘It’s impossible for me to ever see the work the way anyone else does, it’s absolutely impossible. There’s nothing but memories and I am never, ever going to be satisfied, I am only going to see things that I could improve on.’
RSNG Why do you still get nervous in front of a camera?
JP ‘Because it’s important to me. I mean, it’s important to me and I want to do well and satisfy the director and I feel pressure, my own pressure, to do the job.’
‘Sometimes I can’t think of anything intelligent to say, so I just try to make myself sound serious, and cool, and interesting – it’s amazing when that stuff comes back to you!’
RSNG How deep do you delve when it comes to understanding a script?
JP ‘I still don’t understand anything, haha! I am serious. I think sometimes I don’t really understand myself; I am not fully fucking clear of myself. I think sometimes actors, we do this thing where we define a precise way as to who the character is, and then we go, “OK, that’s how we navigate this world,” but that doesn’t seem true to me.’
‘I think there’s so much that we don’t understand about ourselves so I think there are some things that are like, “This might be who the character is, but I don’t know.”’
RSNG But you get such fantastic parts and you play them so well, so you must have some insight that other people don’t?
JP ‘I have just been lucky enough to work with really good people. I mean, people think you are just being modest, but like have you ever seen a first cut, like a rough cut of a movie? Phew! It’s crazy.’
‘I remember on Her I saw an early cut and there’s this one scene where I was so embarrassed, it was so hard to watch because I was so bad. But then I shot the same scene, the same take, and I watched it and I was like, “OK, pretty good.” Haha!’
RSNG You are one of the best actors of your generation, yet it sounds like you’re very hard on yourself.
JP ‘I am not being hard on myself. I am being honest. I am just telling you the reality, right?’
RSNG Could you become a director?
JP ‘No! Haha.’
RSNG Why are you laughing?
JP ‘I tried. I did these videos, like eight years ago and it was so bad. I just do not have what it takes at all.’
RSNG You didn’t enjoy it? It was a horrible experience?
JP ‘This is the thing, I did! I was like, “This is great!” And then I saw them, and I was like, this is the worst feeling, I remember being on set and being like, “I am achieving what I saw in my head; I fucking did it!”
And then I realised that what was in my head wasn’t very good. I was just so happy, because I was like, “That’s the shot that I saw in my head,” before thinking “why did you want that shot?” I just thought it would be cool. No good.’
RSNG Everybody said you are funny on the set… laughing and very relaxed. Are you truly enjoying yourself?
JP ‘Definitely, are you fucking kidding? Haha! Yeah, I don’t know why it’s taken so long to realise that, I always felt like it was really obvious. But I realise that I have made a lot of dramatic movies and I don’t know why that is.’
‘Part of it sometimes, you are stuck with your face and I don’t know that this is a comedy face. I mean, inadvertently sometimes, but sometimes you see actors and comedians that try to do something serious and they can’t because when they come on screen you just giggle and there is something about them.’
‘But you know in their life they are super fucking serious and it’s kind of the cliché of comedians, where you hang out with them and you are like, “Fuck, you are dreary.” Haha!’
RSNG So would you like to bust out and do a really zany comedy sometime?
JP ‘I read something recently, and it’s so funny, so much fun and it’s an Adam Sandler movie, and it’s so goofy and hilarious and great, and I was so tempted to do it, but I was like, “This face is not going to be able to pull that off.” But I am open to anything.’
RSNG You’ve been described as having ‘the Marlon Brando thing,’ meaning you can do whatever you want?
JP ‘Can I tell you something, do you think these people are honest with you? We all recognise that, right? Sometimes I can’t think of anything intelligent to say to people’s questions, so I just try to make myself sound serious, and cool, and interesting. It’s amazing when that stuff comes back to you.’
WHAT NEXT? Watch the final trailer for Joker, out 4 October…