Maverick, award-winner, tricky interviewee; Joaquin Phoenix confronts ShortList’s Tom Bailey
“I f*cking hate interviews,” announces Joaquin Phoenix cheerfully, stubbing his cigarette out in one of the hotel’s dainty porcelain teacups. It’s a curious thing to say given that, during the 30 minutes ShortList spends with the enigmatic 39-year-old in his London hotel suite, Phoenix appears to be deliriously happy – like a man who’s just been told his worst enemy got both nipples caught in a mangle.
“I honestly don’t know how people perceive me,” he continues, apologetically, the famous Sesame Street eyebrows at half-mast. Before adding, less apologetically, “I don’t really give a sh*t!” He expertly flips another cigarette between his curled lips and lolls back in the hotel’s jazzy armchair, smiling to himself.
Perhaps he just has a thing for jazzy armchairs, but, more than likely, he’s still buzzing from the reaction to his new film, Her, which sees him tuck yet another career-defining role under his belt. The soulful, Spike Jonze-directed masterpiece (which you really, really should see), is set in the not-too-distant future, when Siri-style operating systems are so intelligent that people fall in love with them.
As the teacup perched on the coffee table between us begins to rapidly fill with chain-smoked dog-ends, three things become clear. Firstly, Joaquin Phoenix really doesn’t “give a sh*t” about a lot of things – particularly the Oscars (“bullsh*t”). Secondly, he’s warm, funny, polite and self-deprecating – a far cry from the animalistic, brooding-savage types he’s known for portraying in films such as Gladiator and The Master. And thirdly, he laughs an awful lot for someone who supposedly hates interviews...
Congratulations on Her and its Oscar nomination for Best Picture. Do you regret calling the Oscars “bullsh*t”?
First of all, I was talking about all award shows – not just the Oscars. And when I said that, I didn’t really appreciate the work that goes into them. So yeah, you’ll see me on the f*cking red carpet in my suit…
You’ve directed a few music videos – what did you learn from Spike Jonze?
We saw how hard he worked. He’s a tireless director and somebody who is so tenacious; who keeps going until he gets what he needs. We’re all very excited for Spike.
Your character, Theodore Twombly, falls in love with an OS voiced by Scarlett Johansson. Was it weird having ‘phone sex’ with her?
You’re on set trying to get yourself in this intimate frame of mind and there are 60 people there. It’s just not conducive to that kind of thing.
Is it a bit worrying that, within a decade, people could actually be dating mobile phones and computers?
Well… I like technology. But what do we define as technology? We are all fully embedded in the technological world. The internet went out at my house recently and my sister Rain and I were just in a panic. It’s amazing how quickly you adapt. It’s evolution.
Do you think that, far from connecting people, technology is only magnifying that uneasy sense of loneliness?
[Laughs] Dude, you have to speak to me like I’m a sixth-grader.
OK, in that case, have you played Angry Birds?
I did play it once – I think my nephew had it. I did not understand the appeal of it.
You’re admired for intense roles such as Freddie Quell in The Master. But have you ever sold out and done a film to pay the mortgage?
Of course. People say there are actors and then there are movie stars. Well, I don’t want to be a movie star – I don’t even want to be called an actor. I’m an employee. I just do my f*cking job and I hope that I please the director. It’s so funny to me when people say [a film] has ‘good actors’ – and actors believe it and sh*t. You’re completely a hostage to the director. The director is the most important person to me.
We heard you get so nervous on set that the crew puts blankets under your shoes because your legs shake so much that the sound gets picked up…
I want to do a job and please people, so I get nervous. I don’t see why that should be a big talking point. There are motivational nerves and detrimental nerves – hopefully mine are motivational.
Is it fair to say that, despite your intense performances, you don’t take your work home with you?
If you’re playing an evil murdering bastard you can’t help but take it home. Mostly I deal with it by going over to the grip and saying, “Tell me a f*cking dirty joke.” Plus I like to watch the Discovery Channel when I get home. Programmes about space and sh*t.
You said that you were giving up acting for hip-hop. It was a hoax for I’m Still Here, but people thought you’d had a breakdown – did that bother you?
I’m not sure. I didn’t think about it too much. The only thing that bothered me was that it might be difficult for me to work again as I wasn’t retiring and I wanted to continue to make films. So the only thing that gave me pause was the fact it might really affect my career.
At the beginning of the I’m Still Here mockumentary, there’s some real footage of you performing with your siblings in a band. What’s your fondest memory of that time?
My brother played guitar from the age of four and all of us grew up singing. But in terms of a memory, we used to play in… what do you call them… where seniors live?
Old peoples’ homes?
Right. We used to play Beatles covers – stuff like Penny Lane.
What’s your karaoke song of choice these days?
I’ve never done it, but it’d be Ice Ice Baby. Is that meant to f*cking reveal something about me?
Ideally. But we’ve heard you make up stuff in interviews…
[Laughs] Well, you’ll never know, will you?
You had a pretty unconventional childhood. Weren’t your parents in a cult in the late Seventies?
I don’t think [those groups] ever announced themselves as ‘cults’. The whole thing was, “we’re a religious community”. My parents shared those ideals. It was about two years that [my parents] were involved and at some point my dad said, “I don’t know precisely what’s happening here, but this doesn’t seem great or what we imagined it would be.” So they left the group. But I remember when I was a kid, watching a news report about the group and my dad said, “I knew it!”
Do you still hate interviews?
[Laughs] The way I see it, our jobs are at odds with each other and always will be. But don’t be too sad. Don’t cry. Here, give me a hug…
[Phoenix puts down his pluming cigarette and silently hugs us for about five seconds.]
Her is at cinemas nationwide from 14 February
(Image: All Star)