A childhood spent in a cult, a witness to his brother's overdose and a stint in rehab all attest to an unconventional life and led to a withdrawal from the spotlight. James Mottram chats to Joaquin Phoenix about his regeneration
The poster for Joaquin Phoenix's new film Her is a close-up of his face: clean-shaven, short-back-and-sides and a bristly 'tache. It is a better look than the Jim Morrison-style beard he sported in I'm Still Here, the elaborate prank documentary in which he played a whack-job version of Joaquin Phoenix. But then that's this 39-year-old actor all over: unpredictable. So, today, it's no surprise to see him looking like he's just stepped out of the 60s, his hair shoulder-length and ash-brown.
Dressed in a grey pullover, pink shirt, black trousers and Converse, Phoenix is in the midst of finishing Paul Thomas Anderson's new film, an adaptation of Inherent Vice, Thomas Pynchon's stoner detective novel. It'll be his fourth film in two years, proof that Phoenix has got his mojo back following a four-year absence. "I was bored," he says. "It wasn't exciting anymore."
The cure to this lethargy was making I'm Still Here, the mockumentary that took Hollywood and the media to task. "I've worked since I was eight-years-old, where you get multiple takes and there are 60 people around you," he explains. "To suddenly go into a process, in which there are four people and there were times when we weren't going to get another take – that was something I'd never experienced before. It was terribly exciting."
At the time it caused consternation, with his monosyllabic appearance on David Letterman's chat show causing many to believe he was heading for a breakdown. He'd already endured a spell in rehab, after his drinking got out of control in the wake of playing Johnny Cash in Walk The Line. More tragically, he'd witnessed the death of his older actor-brother River from a drugs overdose outside LA's Viper Room club in 1993; it was his call to the emergency services that was broadcast on news reports.
Returning in Anderson's 2012 film The Master – gaining the third Oscar nomination of his career – Phoenix was like a man rejuvenated. As a volatile ex-Navy man, it was another to add to the library of drifters, outsiders and rebels he's played in films like The Yards, Buffalo Soldiers and We Own The Night. The film, however, was rather overlooked come awards time. Was he bothered?
"I so don't understand this business," he shrugs, "and I don't try to!"
Indeed, quite how Phoenix's performance in Her has been ignored for this year's Academy Awards also defies belief. At least the film itself has been rightly celebrated, with five Oscar nominations including Best Picture. The sci-fi romance, written and directed by Spike Jonze, sees Phoenix play Theodore Twombly, a lonely writer living in a near-future LA. Still in pain after separating from his wife (Rooney Mara), things change when he gets OS1 – a new artificially intelligent operating system for his computer.
Voiced by Scarlett Johansson, this sentient OS names herself Samantha – and gradually, she and Theodore begin to fall in love. As curious as Jonze's 1999 debut Being John Malkovich was (in which John Cusack's puppeteer finds a portal into the titular actor's head), Phoenix only reflected on Her's strangeness at the premiere at the New York Film Festival. "It was the first time that it really hit me. I was objective enough to go 'I'm fucking talking to my operating system'. But making the film, we made that commitment early on – that this is a real relationship – and we approached it as such."
Pointing out that we already have 'objectum sexuality' – where people have relationships with inanimate objects – Phoenix estimates we can't be far off from the days when the events of Her might be real. But can a digital affair be a replacement for a tactile relationship? "Just because somebody is physically there, does it make it a real relationship or a satisfying relationship?" counters Phoenix, who – for the record – has recently been stepping out with 19-year-old DJ Allie Teilz, some 20 years his junior.
"It's such a subjective thing," he continues. "It's part of what Theodore grapples with. Society might frown upon this, but am I wrong? Is this wrong? Is this not real love? I think all those questions come up."
Her also shows how increasingly welded we are to communicating digitally. Phoenix, however, doesn't see this as a bad thing. "There's part of me that feels like it's happening – adopt or die! I think it is part of our next evolutionary step."
What about Phoenix – is he a tech-head? "I don't have much stuff," he says. "But I'm fascinated. I love reading science magazines. And just stuff with new gadgets. I don't own much of anything. I have an iPhone." He pulls it out of his pocket, just to prove it.
What about at school? Was he interested in science then? "I didn't do shit at school. I didn't do anything. But I really regret not paying more attention to science." This is hardly a surprise, given his early years.
His parents were hippy types – his father John met his mother Arlyn whilst hitchhiking on Sunset Boulevard – who went from a West Coast commune lifestyle to travelling across South America, to join the religious sect Children of God. It's why Phoenix was born in San Juan, Puerto Rico. He spent his infancy in a rat-infested hut in Caracas.
The middle child of five – younger than River and sister Rain, older than sisters Liberty and Summer – he and his siblings would sing Children of God songs on street corners for coins. But Phoenix has nothing bad to say about his unconventional upbringing. "I was always raised with a great deal of respect for people," he notes. "My parents always said 'Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.'"
They would also regularly consult their quintet of kids. "Thinking about it now, it's so odd, because most parents would just say 'Kids, we're moving. I have another job in DC. That's it!' They would run everything by us." Leaving the sect in 1978 and moving to Florida, acting came after their mother got a job at NBC; the kids all got talent agents and Phoenix – calling himself 'Leaf' – made his debut in a TV version of Seven Brides For Seven Brothers, alongside River.
Three decades on and it's only Joaquin who remains full-time in the business. His next project is The Immigrant, a brooding period drama by James Gray. There were also whispers that he'd appear in the upcoming Batman vs Superman as Lex Luthor, the part since gone to Jesse Eisenberg.
"For me, I guess I'm the acting equivalent of somebody that jumps off buildings and parachutes," Phoenix smiles. "I'd rather have an intense experience."
Her opens on February 14.
Flight of the Phoenix
To Die For (1995). After a six-year screen absence, partly due to the death of his brother, Phoenix returned with Gus Van Sant's dark satire starring Nicole Kidman as a murderous New Hampshire weathergirl. His first film where he was not credited as 'Leaf Phoenix', he shone as Jimmy, the disturbed victim of Kidman's scheming.
* Gladiator (2000). Shooting Ridley Scott's Roman epic in Malta, playing the power-hungry Commodus who takes on Russell Crowe's Maximus, Phoenix deliberately isolated himself. "I really was alone and was very lonely," he recalls. "But I created that and wanted it." For his troubles, a first Oscar nod for Best Supporting Actor.
* Walk The Line (2005). Arguably his finest hour, Phoenix played Johnny Cash without any real prior singing experience. "I did it only under the shower and it was awful!" he says. Receiving a Best Actor Oscar nomination, he lost to Philip Seymour Hoffman, who played another real-life figure, Truman Capote.
* I'm Still Here (2010). In Casey Affleck's mock doc, a bearded Phoenix played a coke-snorting, prostitute-cavorting version of himself. Pretending this was all real, until moments after the release of the movie, it all rather backfired. "We were really making fun of ourselves. That's all that it was," he protests. Not his finest hour.
* The Master (2012). After a four-year feature-film hiatus, Phoenix returned with a red-raw turn as restless de-mobbed sailor Freddie Quell in Paul Thomas Anderson's post-WWII drama. A third Oscar nomination, along with Golden Globe and BAFTA nods, followed – though the film's Scientology-esque themes may have kept Hollywood's voters away from celebrating Phoenix's work.
Day & Night