Securing an interview with Joaquin Phoenix feels like simultaneously winning the lottery and acquiring a sudden streak of bad luck.
It works in stages, like the cycle of grief. There's denial ("I can't believe I get to talk with one of the greatest actors of this generation! Huzzah for me!"). But then there's anger ("Wait, how can I possibly come up with questions original and provocative enough to stimulate Phoenix's genius, and to match his notoriously prickly persona? Why did I do this to myself??"). Bargaining is next ("Maybe I'll be okay if I catch him on a good day, and keep it cool"). On to depression ("I guess mother was right, I'm just a worthless journalist"). And finally acceptance ("I'll do my homework, and hope for the best").
It is an awkward, emotional roller coaster of a process, but it is also the only appropriate preparation.
If a Phoenix performance can be narrowed down to one word, it would be “turbulent.” Think of his wildly powerful, intimidating turns in The Master, Two Lovers, Walk the Line and this past summer’s Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot – the latter of which would be his best work of the year were it not for the fact that he tops himself in his two other 2018 films, You Were Never Really Here and The Sisters Brothers. Such magnificent onscreen turmoil and cinematic agitation can only be met with an equal amount of crushing journalistic anxiety.
Once in a room with Phoenix, though, all the stress is for naught. Mostly.
In town as The Sisters Brothers enjoys its North American premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival the other week, the 43-year-old actor is a curious mix of congeniality and exhaustion. It’s clearly been a busy year for him – in addition to his three aforementioned 2018 titles, he co-starred as Jesus Christ in Mary Magdalene, which opened internationally but has yet to land stateside, and is in the midst of filming Todd Phillips’s Joker, which explains his gaunt, wiry appearance.
All that, and the demands of the promotional circuit, don’t seem to be his thing. At all.
“I can’t remember the last time I was here, but it feels very … different,” Phoenix says of his TIFF obligations. He’s essentially sequestered in a sky-high hotel suite downtown today, the whispers of harried PR reps echoing outside the door as his schedule is managed to the minute. “They’re doing all these photos, and we spent quite some time going to like four places because it’s just a madhouse in each place.”
As he taps the ashes of a cigarette into an empty Evian bottle – I’m not sure whether smoking is allowed here, but there’s no way in hell I or anyone working this junket is going to question it – Phoenix seems like he’s deciding which way this interview is going to go. Will he uncoil, even a bit, or maintain an air of impenetrable mystery? As he goes on, peppering his speech with expletives that can’t be printed in a family newspaper, he seems to split the difference.
Asked about the interplay between him and Sisters Brothers co-star John C. Reilly – the pair make a captivating onscreen duo, playing killer-for-hire siblings in the 1850s American West – Phoenix starts off earnest (“That’s what I liked most about the film, the way that John would talk about the characters and the way I’d talk about them”), before sliding into honesty.
"Look, I don't know," he says with a slight laugh. "It's fun to talk that way, but I don't really know whether I'm just saying that because I'm doing an interview."
Phoenix isn’t being defensive, or even slightly snippy – just weary. Which is understandable, given how much of himself he regularly pours into his characters. Why should the man be asked to give more of himself than he already has?
I’ve been a long-time admirer of Phoenix’s work – especially his dim-witted pawn in To Die For, and his snivelling toad Commodus in Gladiator – but the depth and extremities of his talent didn’t fully hit me until this past July, after embarking on a double bill of He Won’t Get Far and You Were Never Really Here. Whether playing the former’s alcoholic cartoonist or the latter’s underworld enforcer, Phoenix works the craft like no other actor today. He’s neither sly chameleon nor method impostor. He simply disappears.
It is a feat as remarkable as it is frightening. I felt genuine concern for Phoenix’s well-being after experiencing You Were Never Really Here – writer-director Lynne Ramsay puts her star through a gauntlet of bloody crises – and the same shivers while watching The Sisters Brothers. Although director Jacques Audiard’s revisionist western, adapted from Canadian Patrick deWitt’s novel, is a less severe film than Ramsay’s, it still positions Phoenix as the centre from which chaos springs. His assassin Charlie is a fine killer, a mean drunk and a worse brother, always happy to remind gentler sibling Eli (Reilly) that it is he who must carry the burden of killing their father, who was abusive when the two were young.
“I love that struggle between them, and how violence at a very young age defines their life,” Phoenix says. “Charlie is of the mind that you block out the bad memories by creating new ones that are worse …”
Phoenix pauses a moment here, letting the thought trail off. It’s as if he catches himself in a bind – not necessarily worried that he’s offering a peek behind his process, but more unsure if he believes in a process at all.
"Or maybe he's just bonkers?" Phoenix concludes. "Maybe he's just manipulative and pretty repulsive?"
I hate myself for it, but I make a play for the meta-question: Does the promotional obligation of having to talk about acting in interviews like this diminish the work? With apologies to E.B. White and everyone else who's been credited with that old dissecting-humour-is-like-a-frog quote, does the thing die in the process?
“It does affect you a little bit, yeah,” Phoenix allows. “You know, after years of doing this, inevitably it comes up. But there’s something that happens in movies: You can only intellectualize stuff so much, and then it kicks you in the face.” He lets loose a laugh. “There’s nothing you can do but be in the moment. You can only be objective and think about the broad themes of the film so much before you’re just here, right now, saying stuff like this.”
Sometimes, he adds, “you think you’re being clever. And then you go, ‘ohhhhh, right.’ If you’ve done the work and your prep, it’s either there, or it isn’t.”
I get the wrap-up signal from one of his handlers – a mixed blessing, as I’m sure none of my own prep would be much good at this point. At the same time, it feels like Phoenix is offering up the slimmest of openings.
“Hey man, sorry to bore the hell out of you for 20 minutes,” he says as we shake hands goodbye. It’s not cynical or insincere – only a genuine apology for a man who would probably prefer to disappear, entirely.
The Sisters Brothers opens Oct. 5.