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Joaquin Phoenix: I’m not very good and I need a lot of help

Rumours that the actor had given up acting have been roundly trounced by his turn in The Master. But Kaleem Aftab finds the actor in a decidedly edgy mood

“What do you mean go back to acting?” Joaquin Phoenix snaps. His turn in Paul Thomas Anderson’s look into the origins of  Scientology, The Master, is the mercurial actor’s first film since the self-aggrandising I’m Still Here, in which Phoenix, playing himself, pretended to give up acting to pursue a rap career. He adds: “I play myself in this movie too, you play yourself in every movie.”

Given that in The Master Phoenix plays Freddie Quell, a US Navy veteran trying to build a new life in 1950s postwar America, failing to hold down jobs and looking for salvation from a charismatic cult leader (Philip Seymour Hoffman), I ask what the similarities are? He responds colourfully, saying he doesn’t care, before adding: “Next question!”

It would be an understatement to say that the actor doesn’t like to talk to the media. At the Venice Film Festival press conference for The Master, the 38-year-old wriggled in his chair like a bored teenager, lit a cigarette, disappeared off for a walk and refused to answer questions. I’m Still Here was a one-finger salute to the media obsession with celebrity.

Perhaps it should be no surprise that Joaquin feels this way. His emergency-services call on 31 October 1993, the night his brother River died, was recorded and played repeatedly over the airwaves. A former child actor under the moniker Leaf Phoenix, he quit acting in the aftermath of his older brother’s death.

It was only when he returned to the screen playing a troubled teen in Gus Van Sant’s To Die For (1995) that the public really began to take note of him as a performer. His big breakthrough came in 2000, playing the abrasive Roman emperor Commodus in Gladiator, for which he received a supporting actor Oscar nomination. He received a best actor nomination for his turn as Johnny Cash in the 2005 biopic Walk The Line. When he announced he had quit acting for music it created a media furore.

He’s clearly on edge when we meet and seemingly vulnerable, just like many of the characters he’s essayed. So moving on to safer ground we discuss his performance and finally the actor begins to open up. His character walks around with a limp: “Paul [Thomas Anderson] sent me these songs, like 60 songs, and all the lyrics had to do with walking with a limp or having a broken tube, about somebody who was physically battered. It took me a long while to realise what he was saying. I’m a slow learner.”

The film starts with Phoenix simulating sex on a beach with a woman made of sand. As such it’s a role that required Phoenix to have compete faith in the vision of the director of Boogie Nights and There Will be Blood: “I totally trusted Paul, I remember early on that he said, ‘I’m not going to self-modulate at all, I’m just completely going out there and will rely upon you, I want to be able to come in totally open and be able to go in any direction.’ Paul seemed to have a limitless  ambition, which is both exciting and frustrating sometimes and makes you feel stupid a lot.”

Phoenix has regained much of the weight he lost for the role. Anderson says the actor’s weight loss was especially remarkable given that “he likes to eat. He likes to put food in his mouth. He didn’t eat any food, he had a few nuts, that is an incredible amount of discipline, not because that is what he should be doing for the role, but  because his appetite is so large”.

I’m Still Here got such a mixed reception that some critics even pondered whether it would end Phoenix’s career. But of course that was never going to be an issue for one of the outstanding actors of his generation. He says his major problem is finding scripts that excite him: “A few months before I started doing The Master, my agent sat me down and said that ‘they don’t make the movies you want to make any more. They just are not happening’ and that was the end of the conversation. And then Megan comes along and she’s making those movies.”

Megan Ellison is the woman that the actor calls, “the Han Solo of film-making, you think it’s all over and she comes to save the day.” She runs Annapurna Pictures, which has made a habit of investing in daring movies made by prestigious auteurs. The daughter of a billionaire, such is her power in Hollywood that Thomas Anderson says: “It’s nice for Harvey Weinstein to have a boss too. She’s in charge, trust me.”

Yet Phoenix says it’s an impossible task for him to come up with a plan for parts he wants to play: “Do a lot of people come in and take credit for what they do? Does anybody acknowledge that a big part of what they do is just an accident? At least it is for me. I’ll speak for myself. I don’t think I’ve ever said that I want to play this type of character and then I’ve searched out and found it. It’s just fucking lucky, either you get lucky or you don’t.” I can’t help but point out that he must surely have done just that when making I’m Still Here with his brother-in-law Casey Affleck. “That might be the one exception,” comes the response. “I just wanted to try a different way of working, I wanted to work with my friends and I wanted to work without the whole machine.”

Since he made Gladiator he has not appeared in any huge summer blockbusters. We definitely won’t see him in tights in a comic-book movie. It’s just not him, he argues, even if he sees the value of them; “If every single movie was The Master it would be a pretty boring world out there. I think it’s fine to have those blockbusters. I’m not against those movies. I just don’t want to experience them. I haven’t done one but I don’t know what I’ll do tomorrow.”

Phoenix has self-doubts and particular needs on set that, he argues, are not suited to effect-heavy movies: “I think the trouble is that I’m not very good and I need a lot of help; I need the entire set to be working to help me. The only way I can work is to be very close to the director and the acting. At least people like Paul make you feel that is a priority.”

He’s still here, but he’s as on-edge as ever.

‘The Master’ is released in London on Friday