Joaquin Phoenix: My new film Mary Magdalene, the downside of fame... and joy of rescue dogs
The publicity-shy actor is in the wrong business for all the right reasons. Christopher Hooton persuades him to sit down for what turns out to be a surprisingly revealing interview
Joaquin Phoenix is in good spirits when I meet him despite the fact that interviewing him feels akin to taking him hostage. He doesn't speak in public often and cancelled a few interviews he was supposed to do the previous day at the last minute.
I know these situations aren't necessarily the most comfortable for you, I tell him. "Well, it depends," he says, "I don't mind one-on-ones occasionally, or round-tables where there's a discussion. It's the TV stuff I struggle with where it's just soundbites ... and press conferences where you're up on a stage and people are down there constantly taking pictures."
It's this unwillingness to indulge the celebrity forced upon him, much less maintain a social media presence, that has made Phoenix something of an enigma in the industry. "It's just, I'm not a career actor," he says. Squirrelled away in a nook atop the Hollywood Hills, Phoenix lives a "pretty normal life", unhounded by paparazzi. So stepping off a plane to a ton of flashbulbs (the modern kind may be silent but are no less confrontational) before being shepherded into a hotel ballroom to sit in front of rows of international press is a "wildly different experience" and a bewildering one.
With a slightly hoarse, faltering timbre, his voice is more befitting of a cult leader than a leading man, and his appearance is also pretty un-Hollywood: today he's wearing a scruffy black jumper, black jeans, Converse trainers and goofy white socks with pirates and hearts on them, and an unplugged set of iPhone earphones thrown around his neck.
I tell him I want to ask him about I'm Still Here, the 2010 mockumentary that purports to follow Phoenix from the announcement of his retirement from acting but I don't get very far. "I'm done! I'm done with I'm Still Here it's like," Phoenix says, before catching himself being a little petulant.
I'm interested in how Phoenix gave so much life to the project, which saw him pretend to feign a public breakdown and simultaneous foray into rap music over many months, only for critics to be disappointed rather than impressed when they discovered he'd been "faking" it. "Yes, it was a lot of time invested but you learn to value the experience of making the movie versus how people react to the movie," he insists. "And so if people react to the movie in a positive way and they like it you go, 'Oh cool, maybe that'll give me an opportunity to make another one', but it's not really going to define the experience."
Something Phoenix is much more happy to talk about is his dogs. He has two rescues, and it occurs to me that a rescue dog might be a nice descriptor for his acting, the men he plays often look tough and quietly dangerous but beneath the surface possess a sadness and humility. One of his dogs, who he charmingly refers to as his "girl", greets him in the morning by leaping up onto the bed, standing over him and licking his face, just delighted that he's awake.
"My favourite thing is just when they're out exploring on their own," he says. "I'll creep around the house and just watch them, wondering like, 'What is their little internal life? What are the things they're after?'" It's probably no coincidence that these animals he so loves are incapable of seeing him as a celebrity.
Happy though he is with his home life, Phoenix was anxious to get back to work after taking two years off. "I didn't think I'd be able to do it," he says of the punishing shooting schedule, which has seen him commit to four projects. Mary Magdalene, in which the actor plays Jesus Christ, Lynne Ramsay's excellent revenge thriller You Were Never Really Here, a biopic of quadriplegic cartoonist John Callahan called Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far On Foot and lastly Western dark comedy The Sisters Brothers. The eclectic nature of these projects got him through, as did his stringent vetting process.
"I'm really specific and careful about the movies I choose to do. I wanna wake up and want to get to set early because I'm excited to dig into the work." Mary Magdalene certainly seems to have stirred feelings for Phoenix; he's since begun a relationship with the film's lead, Rooney Mara.
Coming off the back of You Were Never Really Here in which he plays a monolith of a man, Phoenix was put on a "brutal" 300-calories-a-day for Mary Magdalene so as not to portray the first muscle-bound Jesus, and this was in Sicily "where you just wanna roll out and eat some good pasta and have a glass of wine".
He got down to biblically emaciated in time for production and gives another consummate performance, the film ruminating on the nature of faith in a similar way to Martin Scorsese's Silence.
"There's just no one like him," he says of Mary Magdalene director Garth Davis. "There's such a sensitivity and consideration and appreciation for what everybody does, he reveres acting or at least he makes you feel that way, and so he's super-perceptive.
"I remember we were doing this scene where I'm talking to Judas who's saying, 'Bring about the Kingdom now', and he leaves and Mary comes in and washes Jesus' feet. We were breaking it up into two different scenes for shooting, just me and Judas first - we were gonna get that and then Mary was gonna come in later.
"Then on this one take, for whatever reason I just really felt Tahar's (Rahim, Judas) performance, I was really caught up in the moment, and when he left I turned and I wanted Mary to just come in so bad. So I sat there and immediately I heard, off-camera, Garth whispering, 'Go to him Mary, go to him,' and she came in and we just kept running and played the scene out. Garth could sense that I was feeling something and wanted to move it forward, and when you work with a filmmaker like that it's a joy to be on set."
It might be something to do with the fact that Phoenix checks out his films once principal photography has wrapped and isn't there for all the good stuff and the plaudits and analysis, but he doesn't seem to know how good he is. Do you think about your body of work, what you'll leave behind, or are you more in the moment than that?, I ask him.
"I don't think about that, if I did I would just be embarrassed. No, I don't." He pauses, "You're making me think about it now."
I feel bad and suggest it's probably not a healthy way to think anyhow.
"Yeah, it's probably also just that it would be a sign of age. I think in some sense I'm just trying to - I still feel like I haven't done it, I still feel like ..."
Everything's ahead of you?
"Hopefully! I'm pursuing it, I just feel like I haven't done anything yet that I could sit back and go like, 'Alright, I did that.' I still feel like I haven't done anything yet, but I'm gonna try."
Mary Magdalene is in cinemas now