Joaquin Phoenix is the finest actor of his generation, a reputation he has definitively solidified over the past few years courtesy of his varied performances in The Master, The Immigrant, Her, Inherent Vice, and Irrational Man. And now, after a two-year hiatus, the 43-year-old star is set to make a significant return to theaters in 2018, thanks to four films on the immediate horizon. The first of those, You Were Never Really Here, debuts this Friday, and features a heavily bearded, scarily intense Phoenix as Joe, an American war vet who supports both himself and his aged mother (with whom he lives) by finding, and rescuing, young missing girls. It’s a vocation that naturally requires traversing the seedier side of society, and when he’s tasked with extricating a senator’s daughter from a child prostitution ring, it thrusts him into a deep, dark netherworld of pain and violence that’s brought to chilling and vividly expressionistic life by acclaimed director Lynne Ramsay (Ratcatcher, We Need to Talk About Kevin).
You Were Never Really Here is yet another standout vehicle for Phoenix, whose no-holds-barred turn is striking less for its physical brutality than for the way it evokes Joe’s scarred, fractured psyche. A man whose tormented present is inextricably intertwined with his abusive past, Phoenix’s protagonist is a magnetically unhinged center of attention for a saga that’s as thrilling as it is traumatizing. As such, it’s further confirmation that there’s no leading man, in Hollywood or elsewhere, who embodies characters with the depth, intricacy, and can’t-turn-your-eyes-away forcefulness that he brings to his work. On the eve of his latest theatrical debut, Phoenix — gregarious, funny, and forthcoming in a manner far removed from his press-averse reputation — sat down with Yahoo Entertainment in New York City to discuss what excited him about collaborating with Ramsay, the inspiring nature of his newest role, and the persistent rumors that he’s considering teaming up with director Todd Phillips (The Hangover) and producer Martin Scorsese on a Joker origin story — which, despite his denials, sounds to us like it might yet materialize. (Plus, check out an exclusive scene from the film below!)
Yahoo Entertainment: I find that most stock questions about acting generally result in stock answers. How difficult is it to talk about the process?
Joaquin Phoenix: I understand the stock questions; I would do the same thing. If I was on the interview circuit, I’d go, “Why were you interested in this movie, and how did you find your way into the character? What was the approach?” That makes a lot of sense to me, so I understand.
Sometimes it feels difficult to talk about those things. But part of it is, even when you think you know, sometimes you don’t know, right? You’re like, this is why I was interested, and this is what I found interesting about the character — but was it? I often don’t really know why. We imagine. It’s like falling in love, and looking back and going, this is why I liked her. Sometimes it’s just a feeling, so it’s difficult to talk about. I mean, it’s difficult to really uncover the real truth of something. But in terms of just talking about it, and saying what you think inspired you, it’s easy and it can be enjoyable.
When you’re deciding which projects to do, is the director the primary consideration?
More than the material itself?
Well, no. I think all those things have to come together. There are filmmakers who I really like who I’ve wanted to work with, but I’ve turned down the role because I didn’t like the role. It wasn’t something I was interested in. So it’s not just that. It has to be both of those things — a character that I’m interested in, and the filmmaker.
But certainly, the filmmaker’s probably the most important thing. There are probably more times when I like the script but didn’t like the filmmaker that I turned down, than it’s the other way around.
Is it true that you didn’t meet Lynne Ramsay until you got to set?
No, it was at preproduction, which was a month before shooting. Typically, rehearsals and wardrobe fittings and all that stuff are two weeks before [production begins]. But I like to spend more time away from my home and what’s familiar, so I try to go out as soon as I can. Sometimes the filmmaker doesn’t f***ing want you there [laughs]. Luckily, Lynne was very receptive, and I’ve worked with the producer Jim Wilson before — I’ve known him for 20 years — so I said, “Hey man, I want to come out,” and he said, “Great.” So I came out a month before.
But yeah, it’s the first time I’ve agreed to work on a film without having met with the director.
What made you feel confident about doing that in this case? Obviously, Lynne makes great movies…
I didn’t even really remember that until we were doing press recently! I don’t know. I’m not sure. The way this all came together is so serendipitous. I hadn’t worked for two years, and I was talking to [cinematographer] Darius Khondji, and I asked him who the directors were that he liked, and wanted to work with. And he said Lynne Ramsay.
I was like, right, Ratcatcher — because I’d seen Ratcatcher years before. By chance, I was speaking to Jim Wilson a couple of weeks later, and I said, “Hey, do you know Lynne Ramsay?” And he said, “As a matter of fact, we’re working on something that she wants to talk to you about — but it’s not ready. It’ll be six months, and we’ll get back to you.” I said OK, and forgot about it. And he’d ask, “Well, what are you doing?” And I’d tell him, “I got nothing.” [Laughs.] There was nothing in front of me. Then, just by chance, all these projects came together around the same time.
Watch Joaquin Phoenix in an exclusive scene from You Were Never Really Here:
You mean the ones headed to theaters this year [Gus Van Sant’s Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot, Garth Davis’s Mary Magdalene, and Jacques Audiard’s The Sisters Brothers]?
Yeah. The year was really filling up with these three projects I was going to be doing. Lynne reached out and sent me the script, and I said, “S***, I don’t want to do this in six months or something — I’m going to be working.” She said, “Well, I can do it in a year.” And I said, “Well, I don’t know what I’m going to be feeling in a year. I hate to say yes to this, and then a year comes around, and I don’t feel anything for it anymore.”
I didn’t know what to do, and I said, “Let me just think about it for a minute, and figure out if it’s something I feel I can come to you about in a year.” Lynne was really great, she said that’s fine, she needed time to work on the script, it wasn’t there for her 100 percent. Then the movie I was supposed to do got postponed a year. So I called Lynne and said — I can’t believe I said this! — “You think you can get this movie made in two months? Because that’s when I’d have to shoot it, two months from now, in time to get it done before my next movie.” And she said, “Yeah!”
I thought, “Who the f*** is this person? Why would you say yes to that — you’re not even in preproduction!” But she just said the script was ready. I felt like I had to work with somebody who’s that spontaneous — I can trust somebody like that.
It’s strange because it wasn’t just total confidence. It was her willingness to face the danger of saying, “Yes, let’s shoot in two months, I can put it together.” That’s what was so exciting. It wasn’t somebody who was like, “I’ve got a well-oiled machine…”
This’ll be easy!
Right. “Let’s knock it out!” With Lynne, there was just a ferocity there that was really exciting to me, and made me think, “Who is this person?” So maybe all of those things are what make it possible for you to say, let’s just go into it, even without having first gotten to know each other. Knowing Jim Wilson, and Darius, and then the way she was available — that was really surprising.
You can feel that ferocity in every aspect of the film. Is it taxing to take on a character like this, who’s going through so much, physically and psychologically?
It’s inspiring, and it’s enjoyable. When things require that much of you, they give you back an equal measure. So as tired as you are, there’s something so f***ing exciting about what’s happening — it’s just crackling with energy — that sometimes you get home, and no matter how long the day was, it’s hard to go to sleep because you just have all these ideas. And you wake up in the morning, and there are already three emails from Lynne because she was up much later than you working on stuff. There’s this really exciting energy.
I like uncovering and discovering things. I’m not really a fan of characters that feel well-developed. I don’t really like well-written scripts. Scripts that people love [feigns audiences clapping enthusiastically], I rarely like them. I like room for discovery, in a way. I think there was a lot to uncover about the relationships [Joe] had with other people — specifically his mom. And just how he navigated in the world. Really, what probably set it off, and was important just in thinking about it, was reading about toxic stress, and repeated abuse — and how that affects the brain. It was really interesting because I didn’t know about it. Originally, the character seemed very professional in how he navigated the world, and it wasn’t matching up with how I wanted to approach the character, based on what I was reading. It’s not that he blends into the shadows, it’s just that he’s invisible because he’s not thinking about it.
You know, if you’re trying to sneak into a room, if you just walk through the door normally…
No one pays attention.
No one pays attention, right? It was thinking that’s how he’s navigating the world — and in terms of managing emotions too, and how that happens. There’d be things where we thought, maybe he has a reaction here at this moment that’s unexpected. There’d be things that we’d talk about in the morning, possibilities, and then we wouldn’t make a decision about how we were going to do it until it happened, and then just see what worked, and what was interesting.
Watch the trailer for You Were Never Really Here:
Sometimes I think I have these ideas that’ll be really good, and then I get to set, and it’s always terrible. I want to go, “What was I thinking?” Then, I guess, you just try to react to what’s there. Because a lot of it is saying, “I don’t want to do that.” Instead of knowing where you’re going, you know what you don’t like.
And exploring where that takes you, in the moment.
Yeah. I’ve talked about this before, but [Joe] was originally supposed to have been shot in the leg. And I was like, I’m not limping [laughs]. I just felt like every single movie I’ve ever seen, the guy’s limping for half the movie. Part of it was I just didn’t want…
To be dragging your leg around for that long?
[Laughs] So it was just that. But there needed to be something there, and what is that moment? Probably because I’m missing a tooth, I was like, let’s pull the tooth. But I don’t know where it came from. I’m saying it right now, and realizing it — maybe it’s because we put the fake tooth right there, so I pulled out this f***ing tooth that I’ve been missing for 20 years.
You have this slate of upcoming projects with esteemed directors, and there’s another rumored one we haven’t yet discussed — namely, Todd Phillips’s movie about the Joker.
The Batman villain.
Oh! Oh, interesting. [Smiling.]
So you never know?
I don’t know what people do nowadays.
Is it just the internet?
Do superhero projects interest you at all?
It’s just the character and the filmmaker, right? Westerns were just comics, and then they began as s***ty Old West movies until somebody came along and said, “Wait a minute, there’s a great character here.” So I’m not opposed to them, or that genre. I mean, typically I don’t like horror stuff, but there’s obviously some brilliant horror movies. So I’m not opposed to a movie just because of the genre — it just depends on the character.
Even if it was the Joker?
What are you asking me? [Laughs.]
Any truth to the rumor that you’re doing that Joker movie?
Oh, no idea. [Smiling.] No idea. I look at so many different things, so I don’t know what is happening.
You Were Never Really Here premieres in theaters Friday.
Watch: Darren Aronofsky wanted Joaquin Phoenix for his aborted Batman: Year One:
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