Joaquin Phoenix slapped Napoleon costar Vanessa Kirby without warning after pair agreed to ‘shock each other’

Two actors play Napoleon Bonaparte and Joséphine de Beauharnais in Ridley Scott’s forthcoming film

Tom Murray
Wednesday 02 August 2023 06:15 BST
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Napoleon costars Vanessa Kirby and Joaquin Phoenix have opened up about the creative freedoms they offered each other while filming Ridley Scott’s new film.

Phoenix, 48, plays the titular French Emperor while Kirby, 35, plays Joséphine de Beauharnais with whom he had a tumultuous relationship. The movie will explore the leader’s ambitions of world domination and the darkness surrounding his volatile marriage.

During a scene depicting the historical couple’s divorce, Napoleon slaps Joséphine, which was an unscripted moment in the film.

“We were using the real words from their divorce in the church,” Kirby told Empire magazine in a recent interview. “When that happens, you can faithfully go through an archival re-enactment of it and read out the lines and then go home. But we always wanted to surprise each other.”

“[Kirby] said, ‘Look, whatever you feel, you can do.’ I said, ‘Same thing with you.’ She said, ‘You can slap me, you can grab me, you can pull me, you can kiss me, whatever it is,’” Phoenix recalled in the same interview.

“We had this agreement that we were going to surprise each other and try and create moments that weren’t there, because both of us wanted to avoid the cliché of the period drama. And by that I mean moments that are well-orchestrated and designed.”

Kirby added: “It’s the greatest thing when you have a creative partner and you say, ‘Right, everything’s safe. I’m with you. And we’re gonna go to the dark places together.’”

Joaquin Phoenix and Vanessa Kirby in ‘Napoleon’

“We encouraged each other, demanded of each other, to challenge ourselves to shock each other in moments,” Phoenix said of the slap scene. “And that’s what came out of that, that moment.”

In another interview with Empire, Scott spoke about Phoenix’s intense preparation for the role.

“[Phoenix will] come in, and you’re f***ing two weeks’ out, and he’ll say, ‘I don’t know what to do,’” Scott said.

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“I’ll say, ‘What?!’ ‘I don’t know what to do.’ Oh God. I said, ‘Come in, sit down.’ We sat for 10 days, all day, talking scene by scene. In a sense, we rehearsed. Absolutely detail by detail.”

Scott and Phoenix previously worked together on the 2000 blockbuster epic Gladiator. Phoenix played Commodus in the film, the adversary of Russell Crowe’s Maximus Decimus Meridius.

“I had such an incredible experience working with Ridley on Gladiator, and I was so young. It was my first big production,” Phoenix told the magazine. “I really yearned for that experience again, or something similar.”

The cast members’ full interview will be published in the Thursday 3 August issue of Empire.

Napoleon is slated for release in cinemas on 22 November.

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