Joaquin Phoenix Talks About Finding His ‘Joker’: Dropping Weight, Facing Fear, and ‘Testing Boundaries’

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Joaquin Phoenix is in a good mood. On those first few interviews he did before “Joker” went to Venice and startled everyone by winning the Golden Lion, he was poised to walk out of the room on the wrong question. Now he’s used to the way the R-rated, controversy-magnet “Joker” pushes people’s buttons — and inspires raves and Oscar talk. Having acted since he was eight (he’s notched three Oscar nominations for “Gladiator,” “Walk the Line,” and “The Master”), Phoenix is poised for his fourth.

Of course, he says he doesn’t read his interviews or reviews. And he’s uncomfortable at “tributes” like the one at the Toronto International Film Festival, where he refused to wait for Willem Dafoe to say nice things about him amid applause. Instead, he rushed the stage to hang out with his friend and thank his family and brother River Phoenix who made him watch “Raging Bull” two days in a row: “You’re going to start acting again,” River told him. “This is what you’re going to do.”

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Travis Bickle and Martin Scorsese references are all over “Joker,” a script written by “Hangover” writer-director Todd Phillips and “The Fighter” co-writer Scott Silver. Scorsese was going to produce it at one point; his producer Emma Tillinger Koskoff continued at the helm when he became overloaded by “The Irishman.” And Robert De Niro plays a talk show host in “Joker” close to Jerry Lewis’ role in “The King of Comedy.”

Phoenix had no idea what to make of “Joker” when he first read it. But the more he went over it with Phillips, and shared the possibilities of what he might do with the troubled character of Arthur Fleck — an undernourished, beaten-down, sad-sack smoking clown with a sick mom, a rich fantasy life, and a dangerous desire for attention — the more he realized he had to face his fear.

“I couldn’t come up with any answers,” he said. “That’s what made me feel I had to do it. I felt overwhelmed and terrified by it. Usually when I’m scared of something, it makes me feel like I have to go towards it. I had so many mixed feelings about the character. And I like that. I don’t think we have enough of that in movies, particularly in a superhero genre movie. I hate the idea of labeling something, just mostly because I don’t really know what the genres are.”

What Phoenix does know, whether it’s with Paul Thomas Anderson (“The Master”) or Gus Van Sant (“Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot”), is how to go someplace different. “I’m looking for whatever seems truthful, to inhabit this world, trying to find some kind of reality,” he said. “You’re dealing with this fictional world, fictional characters. Todd managed to weave those two ideas together effortlessly: On the one hand it felt visceral vivid and real, and on the other hand it paid homage to the Batman myth. It was an interesting way to explore the character.”

The actor pushed and tested Phillips, as he does with all his directors. “After reading through the script a few times, I never picked it up again,” he said. “He sent me two rewrites I never read until I got to New York a month early. I read through the script with Todd and Scott, talked about what their intentions were for a scene, what I wanted to do, and if it matched up with their idea. In hindsight, I realize I’m testing the boundaries to see how far the writer-director is willing to go with it.”

Phoenix was embarrassed to bring up his “stupid” dancing idea until he got to New York. “I wonder if there should be some kind of, like, dancing,” he told Phillips.

“Like what’s in the script?”

“What do you mean?”

“The whole dance sequence in the script at the end.”

“Oh, I haven’t read the new script.”

That’s when Phoenix and Phillips started to get on the same page. Like the pivotal public bathroom scene following the Joker’s first kills on the subway, when shooting three bullies makes him feel better. “As we went through the rehearsal process, we always struggled with the scene that was there,” said Phoenix. “He’s out of breath, he hides the gun, and looks in the mirror and says a line. We couldn’t identify what it was, and got to set to shoot it.”

According to Phillips, it was day seven. “Fuck, we never figured this out,” Phoenix told the director. “We never talked about it.”

“Don’t worry,” said Phillips. “We’ll go to set alone, you and me, and talk.”

They talked about possibilities: Does he get sick? Does he laugh? “Nothing seems to have accurately captured the transformative moment, the emergence of Joker,” said Phoenix. “It’s some kind of dance, not a happy dance. I don’t know what the fuck I mean by that.”

“Let me play you something,” said Phillips. It was the first piece of music sent from composer Hildur Guðnadóttir. Phoenix was immediately affected by it.

“Let’s start on your foot,” said Phillips, “we’ll light it and use two hand-held cameras and let’s start shooting.”

Phoenix got ready and did a menacing dance through a couple of takes. “Not only was this a transformative moment for the character, but for me and Todd and how we worked together, where we would became comfortable with allowing things to unfold and not know the answer for the scene,” Phoenix said. “We started communicating without needing to verbalize everything. We started to understand each other. It was hard to explain what it’s like. It sounds fucking stupid, but it happened. We were were locked into the same wavelength. Having the same ideas simultaneously, that’s the best. Todd and I had it a lot. It was uncanny.”

As for Phoenix walking off set during “Joker,” Phillips and Koskoff confirm that Phoenix occasionally did wrap himself when he was done for the day, and had no more to give. When he did leave mid-scene, Phillips told me at the premiere, Phoenix would compose himself and return, never leaving any actor hanging.

Getting skinny was another way into Joker. Phoenix lost 52 pounds, leaving him with protruding ribs and shoulder blades. While it was one way to convey Fleck’s fragility, Phoenix found it “empowering,” he said, “because you’re able to control yourself in that way.” As he did on “The Master,” he obsessively eyed the scale (and used the same nutritionist). When he finally reached his target weight, he sent a picture to Phillips. “I couldn’t believe I finally made it. [The weight loss] lent itself to the dance and the movement. You notice a lot of dancers have very little body fat. It made me hyperaware of my body. I think that was part of why I felt I could move in the way I did.”

Although Phoenix dug into Fleck’s neuroses, he refused to nail them down. “When I first read it, a lot of his behavior and actions I felt were despicable,” he said. “There was manipulation and I felt he was self-pitying. But I recognized from my previous work with ‘You Were Never Really Here’ the signs of PTSD, and I saw that in certain moments he was in flight or flight. I recognized these signs that allowed me to think about him differently. It’s hard not to have sympathy for somebody who experienced that level of childhood trauma: An overstimulated medulla looks for and perceives danger everywhere. For someone in that state, does it mean his actions make sense or are justified? Obviously not. There’s a point where he crosses the line where I am no longer able to stick by his side. But it allowed me to approach him with less judgment and more compassion than what I had when I first read the script.”

The laughing condition (the pseudobulbar affect) came from Phillips, who showed Phoenix a video at their first meeting. “I question if that’s really what he has,” he said. “It’s one of those examples of something I didn’t want to answer. Initially I’d approach it thinking it was this affliction.” But working with Frances Conroy, who played his mother, the actor started thinking about their history. “I thought of him having these reactions that one would consider inappropriate. I thought of the movie as a commentary on humor in our PC culture. Somebody who was out of touch with the world, laughing at school at something horrible that has happened. How to explain that to the principal? I never decided which one it was, but I liked the idea that it was perhaps his real nature emerging that other people were trying to suppress.”

And Phoenix realized that “Joker” was going to challenge viewers and raise questions about the responses he could elicit in audiences. “It’s what’s good about it,” he said. “You’re talking about somebody who doesn’t know the difference between right and wrong. Someone like that has a level of emotional disturbance that could trigger somebody. If you make someone uncomfortable, you can’t censor yourself. People are having that conversation because they care. It should disturb them, but I hope it’s also because they care.”

Some people think the movie could exist apart from DC comics, Gotham, and a Joker origin story. “I didn’t think that,” Phoenix said, “because it’s what it was. But honestly, there were times I struggled to say the name ‘Thomas Wayne.’ ‘How do I say this name?’ It was an ongoing thing. I kept stumbling on the lines.”

Phillips finally confronted him. “You don’t want to say the name.”

“You’re right,” Phoenix said.

Through their work, Phillips and Phoenix also played around with what was fantasy and reality — which is not made clear to the viewer. “That’s a whole other complicated story,” he said. “It’s weird. It became so normal to us making the movie the way we made it that now that l’m doing press and looking back, I realize how unique it was. The thing that changed and evolved. I’ve never had an experience quite like that. We would oftentimes do a scene as scripted, then we would improvise or talk about different ideas. ‘Instead of saying that line, let’s take it in a different direction. Maybe let’s not keep shooting over here, we’ve been two hours on the couch, let’s go do it in the bedroom, maybe he’s interacting with the TV.'”

While Phoenix appreciated some of the improvisation, he also relied on the script. “You can only do this if you have a strong script you fall back on,” he said. “It’s one of the tightest scripts I ever read; they thought of everything. That gave us the freedom to say, ‘We know this is interesting and solid, but potentially can we unveil some other color we would not have anticipated until we got here?’ The movie is pretty close to what the script was.”

And Phoenix loves how ’70s it is. “What it is, more than anything, I’m not a fucking cinephile, but I feel like the movies from that period had complex characters where you didn’t know if they were the hero or the villain. That’s what it shares with them, is the willingness not to change the dance, to participate with the character in a way you are not accustomed to.”

Finally, Phoenix believes we should all have our own movie experience, “to project what we want on the characters. That’s where we are now, particularly with intellectual property. It’s the kind of thing people want to steer away from. That’s the value of it, why you create something. The artist is the audience.”

Next up: a movie with Mike Mills. They’re at stage one — reading and talking and committed to the process of developing a movie. Let’s dance.

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