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Joaquin Phoenix and Director James Gray, the Leo and Scorsese of the Indie World

Joaquin Phoenix and Director James Gray, the Leo and Scorsese of the Indie World

Actor Joaquin Phoenix and director James Gray have one of Hollywood’s most successful codependent relationships. The pair have been collaborating for more than 15 years, first with the city-corruption tale The Yards (2000), then on dramas We Own the Night (2007) and Two Lovers (2008). Their fourth joint effort, the lush historical tale The Immigrant, opens May 16 in limited release and features Phoenix as a hustler and pimp in 1920s New York who lures a fresh-off-the-boat immigrant (Marion Cotillard) into his girlie show.

Yahoo Movies sat down with Gray and Phoenix (who next stars in Paul Thomas Anderson’s highly anticipated Inherent Vice) in the courtyard of the Greenwich Hotel in New York City, so that a mercurial Phoenix — his hair a modified mullet dusted with gray — could inhale American Spirits and exhale asides. Not surprisingly, Gray did a lot of the talking, answering questions with a scholar’s precision and prompting responses from Phoenix that gave a good sense of their long-nurtured creative relationship, one that has become brotherly in every sense of the word.

Did you meet cute?

James Gray: We met at a restaurant [in New York City] called Piadina. Joaquin apparently read the script to The Yards. I had seen To Die For. And I said, “Who is this guy?” And that is when I said we should meet. I liked him instantly.

And, Joaquin, had you seen James’ [1995] debut, Little Odessa?

Gray: He didn’t like it.

Joaquin Phoenix: I didn’t.

I love it.

Gray: Did you hear that? I really do appreciate that.

Phoenix: [Deadpans] I don’t like her taste.

Gray: [Laughs]

Now that you’ve made four movies together, are you like an old married couple?

Gray: My wife thinks so. Sometimes she’s envious of my conversations with him on the phone. One time, I was getting into the car after a day shooting We Own the Night. Joaquin’s character’s name was Bobby. My wife was opening the door, and I said, “Go ahead, Bobby,” to my wife. And she was extremely upset at that, because it’s how the movie sort of takes over. While we’re making the movie, I’m very much in love with Joaquin, and I’m always making sure that he feels served and comfortable.

Phoenix: That’s sweet of you, but you’re like that with every actor. Even somebody who has two lines, you get obsessed about it, and think about them…

Gray: I understand that. But there’s a reason we work more.

Phoenix: Desperation. [Laughs]

Are there ever conflicts on the set?

Gray: There are times when you hate my guts, right?

Phoenix: [Rolls his eyes] What does that mean?

Gray: Meaning, there’s nobody with whom you’re close at all who hasn’t at one point really rankled or pissed you off, even if you love them dearly. So I’m saying, I know there are times when I’ve done something or said something to you that’s hurt your feelings.

Phoenix: When you work, you open the door for that kind of interaction. So of course, you’re under pressure. There’s a lot of frustration.

Does Joaquin ever get under your skin, James?

Gray: Sometimes he calls me up and says one thing, and I’m like, “Jesus, that’s the end of the world.” I get texts from him that send me into a two-week tizzy.

Like what?

Gray: “We screwed up [that scene]. We didn’t do that properly.” And I get incredibly upset. I feel like I didn’t serve him, I didn’t serve the picture, and that kind of nonsense.

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There’s one scene in The Immigrant in which Joaquin’s character Bruno emcees a girlie show. It stuck with me, because Bruno is clearly not an entertainer.

Phoenix: There’s a desperation in what he’s doing. It’s painful for me to watch those scenes, because it’s so pathetic. Bruno is trying so hard. He doesn’t really have hidden talents, but he wants to. I think he says at one point, “They come to the show for me and for the girls.” But they’re not coming for him.

Gray: When The King of Comedy came out, Robert De Niro’s performance as Rupert Pupkin doing the comedy routine is sublime, because it’s not the worst thing ever, but it’s pretty bad. I remember the perception of Rupert Pupkin on release — people wondered why his comedy routine was sort of inept. That was the point.

Do you have a new script for the two of you?

Gray: I have something for him. But he’s probably going to turn me down. He’s ready to turn me down. He’s looking for an excuse to pass on the next thing.

Because his new boyfriend is Paul Thomas Anderson?

Gray: That hurts. Wow, that hurts.

Phoenix: [Sighs] You guys are ridiculous.

Gray: By the way, I adore Paul. But there is, of course, the terrible jealousy. [Laughs] I have something I’m thinking about working on for Joaquin. But it’s become that moment when he’s deciding whether or not to do it. And that is really unpleasant.

Photo credits: © Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images, Everett Collection