On the set, “Paul would call me Bubbles, which was the name of Michael Jackson’s monkey,” Phoenix says of his apelike interpretation of Freddie. “He would say, ‘Come on, Bubbles, let’s go.’ It was obvious I was an animal. The master talks about how he’s lassoed the dragon and taught him how to sit. And I’m definitely the dragon.”
And he is in full roar. As The Master begins its journey across the country after eliciting hosannas from journalists attending the Toronto International Film Festival that ends Sunday, audiences can observe Phoenix’s unfettered Freddie firsthand along with Hoffman’s Dodd testing his new-age religious theories that echo those of Scientology.
It’s not enough that Phoenix, 37, explodes on-screen in a redefining performance that could stand alongside those of the early Brando or De Niro in its physical audacity. In his first acting role after a two-year break, Phoenix rescues his reputation from the ashes of I’m Still Here. The elaborate 2010 mock-documentary stunt about his supposed retirement from acting, conceived with brother-in-law Casey Affleck and featuring cocaine snorting and raw sexual acts, easily could have resulted in self-immolation. Instead, it has led to a glorious reinvention.
As for the beliefs of Phoenix and his family …
Given the religious themes of The Master, Joaquin Phoenix has been handling questions about his own family’s association with a group formerly known as Children of God and now called The Family International. His parents, who met in 1968 while hitchhiking and would have five children, went on a mission on behalf of the group, whose members were originally hippies. They traveled around South America before becoming disillusioned and returning to the USA in 1978. “It was weird,” he says. “Like with this movie, at what point does a group of people who share ideals morph into a cult, which is the power of one man? My parents … were drawn by being in a community that promoted peace and love and was about, for them, a belief in Christ.” As for now, he says, “I don’t have any particular religious beliefs, and I think my parents would consider themselves more spiritual than involved in one particular kind of religion. What 22-year-old and what 25-year-old doesn’t make a stupid decision in their life? My parents did nothing but look out for the kids’ best interests. They broke their backs taking care of us.”
A career born again
The Master is clearly Anderson’s baby. It delivers on all the profound promise found in his five previous efforts, including 1997’s porn-world exposéBoogie Nights and 2007’s oil-empire epic There Will Be Blood.
But for Phoenix, a former child star known for his uncanny Oscar-nominated transformation into country-music legend Johnny Cash in 2005’s Walk the Line, it is a revelatory rebirth, one that already has resulted in a best-actor prize from the Venice Film Festival that he shared with co-star Hoffman.
Anderson has been itching to work with Phoenix ever since he considered him for the role of skin-flick ingénue Dirk Diggler in Boogie Nights.
“I knew he would be good, but I didn’t know he was going to be like that,” he says. “But it’s great to be with somebody who has just revitalized himself. It was clearly something he needed to dismantle and destroy to get excited again and get scared again about acting.”
Phoenix, a slim and roughly handsome figure who recalls the young Montgomery Clift, is pleasant as he greets his visitor. He is a far cry from the debauched and bloated train wreck hiding behind sunglasses who went on the Late Show With David Letterman in 2009 (the host was not in on the act, Phoenix insists) and later stumbled incoherently through I’m Still Here.
A professional detour
This clean-shaven Phoenix, in a casual ensemble of blue polo shirt and jeans, seems relieved yet slightly skeptical of the outburst of praise that has been heaped upon him. His only transgression today: lighting up in a no-smoking hotel room.
“I wanted to change the way that I thought about acting,” he says. “I just felt like I had become stale. I had always experienced adrenaline and anxiety when I work, but it wasn’t quite what it was 10, 15 years ago.”
With I’m Still Here, which was largely improvised, “I put myself into a situation in which I wouldn’t really know what to do, and it was good for me. It was terrifying, and many times I wanted to quit. Casey and I argued about it. But I’m really glad he got me to stick with it.”
Oddly enough, the out-of-control persona he assumed in the faux doc was a perfect rehearsal for the impulsive and self-destructive Freddie. “I think they do share some qualities. Perhaps it showed Paul a willingness to take on a character that didn’t have any definitive boundaries.”
Part of the process of Phoenix’s comeback was reintroducing himself to the industry — and to earn back its trust.
“It was difficult,” he says. “I was regarded with some trepidation, and in some of the first meetings I went to, I would say the only person who didn’t regard me that way was Paul. I understood that. But my agents knew what was happening, my publicist knew what was happening. My agents certainly were talking to executives at studios.”
As a result, six months after I’m Still Here opened, Phoenix had his pick of six scripts — all of which he passed on.
“I just couldn’t bring myself to do them. I knew I would be miserable. I don’t enjoy being on a set, and I don’t enjoy being in my trailer. I don’t enjoy makeup. I don’t enjoy having people from wardrobe measuring your body. I like working, but I don’t like all that. So I am not going to do something which I’m not going to get anything out of.”
Momentum on his side
Guy Lodge, a film critic for In Contention and Variety who witnessed the overwhelming response to Phoenix in TheMaster in Venice, can think of only one direct precedent to the actor’s image turnaround: Christian Bale, who put behind his infamously profane chastising of a crewmember on the set of 2009’s Terminator Salvation that went viral on the Internet. The following year, the Batman actor would take home the supporting-actor Oscar for The Fighter.
“The praise for Phoenix’s remarkable performance is heartening proof that most true movie lovers don’t have a tabloid mentality — we care about the talent more than the man. The consensus in Venice is that it’s the defining performance of his career so far. You can practically hear the gears of an Oscar campaign grinding.”
Also working in Phoenix’s favor: Most moviegoers hold a certain fondness for the unconventional actor who started acting at age 8 and won praise playing lost boys in such films as 1989’s Parenthood and 1995’s To Die For. And many felt for him after he was present when older brother River, 23, died from an overdose outside a Sunset Strip nightclub in 1993. It was Phoenix’s imploring voice calling 911 that was heard repeatedly on media broadcasts.
“There is a kind of bemused affection for him in the industry,” Lodge notes. “People may be exasperated by some of his behavior, but it also makes him that much more dangerous and exciting of a talent.”
Strangely enough, Phoenix actually had to have more discipline than usual to achieve Freddie’s necessary gaunt appearance that, by the end, gives his face a scarily cadaverous look. The 5-foot-9 actor went from a normal weight of 150-160 pounds to a skeletal 127. “I think he (Freddie) has a constant hunger,” Phoenix says. “That is what I went after. I had a super-restrictive low-calorie diet, about 1,000 to 800 a day. I basically had lettuce with rice vinegar and string beans once a day. And I could have one day when I ate five apples.”
Shooting in Vallejo, Calif., also kept Phoenix on his best behavior. “Basically I came back to the Courtyard Marriott at night, and I was so (expletive) hungry that I would just get to bed and immediately force myself to sleep. I didn’t have a girlfriend. I didn’t interact with anybody. The only interaction was with people on the set within that world.”
Destined to be an actor
Freddie forms a mentor relationship with Dodd. Similarly, Phoenix treats his directors as father figures. “I always describe getting into character as being like when my father taught me how to ride a bike. And I desperately needed him to hold the bike because I’m going to fall. I’m telling him: ‘Please don’t let go. Stay with me. Stay with me.’ Then, at some point, you say, ‘Let go. I’m fine. Let go.’ ”
Anderson believes that it is and always has been Phoenix’s destiny to be an actor. And he is not going away again anytime soon. Especially since he already has several films waiting in the wings, including Nightingale with filmmaker and frequent collaborator James Gray and Her with Spike Jonze.
Says Anderson: “You can smell it. They can’t help it. They are an actor, and it is kind of what they do. If he wishes sometimes he wasn’t, so be it. It’s just that there is a skill level he has. It’s like somebody who is amazing at driving cars or amazing at playing tennis. If they take a break, it throws off the universe somehow.”
The Master’s Joaquin Phoenix on Animal Inspirations, Curb Your Enthusiasm and the Pleasures of Discomfort
“I guarantee if you saw some of the rushes you would think I was the worst thing in the world”
I also got really fascinated by reality shows, particularly celebrity reality shows, like Celebrity Rehab. Frankly, it was some of the best acting I’d ever seen some of these people do. It’s so obvious that it’s manipulated and such total bulls—, and yet there’s something so terribly exciting about that, so dangerous and ugly and scary and fantastic!
In retrospect, is there anything you would have done differently on I’m Still Here?
We would have figured out the distribution differently. We would have realized what a f—– racket it was. We had no idea. Money men, they’re all just f—– gangsters. If you want to distribute a movie, you have to go through certain channels and that’s that. There are all these incredibly crazy costs—like, I’m sorry, what costs $50,000, because your cousin has this company that does that? It felt like there was no way we could do this without spending hundreds of thousands of dollars. We didn’t have the time to seek out alternative forms of distribution, which I think are possible now with the Internet.
You appeared on Late Show with David Letterman as your I’m Still Here character ostensibly to promote Two Lovers. The film’s director, James Gray, had mixed feelings about how the film was overshadowed by your character’s antics.
I don’t know that anyone would have taken much notice of Two Lovers, let’s be honest. Magnolia distributed it, and I don’t think that they’re a company that’s putting a lot of money into advertising. The simple fact of the f—— matter is that money is why you know about a movie or don’t know about a movie. Once in a while, you get lucky—word of mouth or some critics can make you take notice and make a movie pop. But more often than not, it’s not because the actor is going on f—– Letterman that people are seeing the movie. It’s advertising. I don’t know what attention it would have gotten, if any, and there’s probably an argument that it got more attention because of it.
However, if it could have been avoided, I absolutely would have. But I was painted into a corner and I had no choice. I either had to give up on this thing that I had already been shooting for six months, or do what I did. James knew what was happening. And of course, it makes me feel terrible if it did affect Two Lovers in any negative way, because obviously I have a great deal of admiration and love for James and for his work, and I would never want my personal stuff to get in the way of a film. It was a tough situation.
What did you take away from the experience of making I’m Still Here?
Part of why I was frustrated with acting was because I took it so seriously. I want it to be so good that I get in my own way. It’s like love: when you fall in love, you’re not yourself anymore. You lose control of being natural and showing the beautiful parts of yourself, and all somebody recognizes is this total desperation. And that’s very unattractive. Once I became a total buffoon, it was so liberating.
I’d see child actors and I’d get so jealous, because they’re just completely wide open. If you could convince them that something frightening was going to happen, they would actually feel terror. I wanted to feel that so badly. I’d just been acting too long, and it had kind of been ruined for me. I wanted to put myself in a situation that would feel brand-new and hopefully inspire a new way of approaching acting. It did do that for me.