The Joaquin Phoenix Interview: Sassy, and Temperamental

That temperamental thespian Joaquin Phoenix may be riding high with his two movies out right now – Terry George’s Reservation Road and James Gray’s We Own The Night – but he’s still coming off like he’s allergic to encounters with the press. Joaquin was full of sassy punch lines during this sit-down, and made it clear from the start that he owned the conversation. The brooding arty actor did give some surprise answers, such as often thinking more about lunch than his in-the-moment scenes, a confession to being more into the steamy stuff in We Own The Night than his designated leading lady, Eva Mendes, and seeing me in ‘my’ dreams my dreams, not kidding. And all of that can definitely make you feel more like a shrink than a reporter sometimes, being around the thoroughly fascinating, unpredictable guy.

There’s a strange rumor going around that you’re also listed as the producer of We Own The Night, but that all you did in that capacity was gripe about why your scenes had been cut.

JOAQUIN PHOENIX: Ha! Well, my role as producer is really as an actor that didn’t get paid as much as he was supposed to. Therefore, they offered ‘him’ a production credit, and he agreed to it because he’s greedy. And that’s a sensitive story for me, to be perfectly honest.

Sounds like you think you’re getting the back end on this.

JP: Let’s talk about your back end!

No really, sounds like they’ve been pretty tough on you.

JP: I know, it’s very, very tough out there. No, it’s not that I wasn’t paid well, just that I wasn’t paid the crazy, exorbitant amount that I’ve been paid before.

I hear you’re not too keen about dealing with the press, what’s up with that?

JP: I try not to read about like people that I like whatever their thing is. But like I’ve read some stuff about like bands and about songs, or a particular album, and you find out that this song’s like written about his aunt or something, and you’re like, no that’s the girl that I like, I’ve been loving this girl since this song.

Like what are you doing to me, it’s about your aunt? And so, I always feel like the truth of what happens. Because I realize often times, actors just kind of lie in the press, and say they’re really affected by things.

So I wouldn’t really want to be listening to that, thinking like the guy was thinking about what was for lunch. But to be honest, I’ve done a lot of scenes where I’m thinking like what the **** is for lunch? And I can’t wait to get out of here.

When you talk about like being affected by stuff and having dreams and ****, like, if I happen to be in one of your dreams tonight, I don’t think it was because you were like so affected by this. You so put your heart and soul into the interview. I think you just like, I saw you, we were around each other, so I popped into your dreams.

I see…Okay, how come you like James Gray so much that you’ve worked with him more than once?

JP: I think its desperation, honestly. I don’t know…I think everyone else was unavailable!

What is it about James Gray that grabs you, especially with We Own The Night?

JP: It’s difficult for me to rather be able to pinpoint exactly what it is. But I think it’s just that he loves human psychology, he loves actors, and he loves talking about acting. You know, he’s just kind of available to talk about anything.

I remember I was telling somebody this example. Like if there was a funeral scene, most directors would go, well you know how everyone comes together from thousands of miles apart, and they all meet together, and everyone’s there to take care of each other. And you go oh yes, and you feel that.

Then he goes, well now, that guy’s her uncle, and he was trying to screw over that one there, and your mom actually screwed that guy. And just like, that suddenly introduces all these kind of less than favorable qualities that most humans have, and that you find those dynamics in families. And I always find that interesting.

So he kind of like delves beyond the surface in what is kind of the obvious dynamic between people. And he introduces things that you might not have thought of, or that you don’t get trained by Hollywood to think of.

What was the big plus about being the bad brother to Mark Wahlberg in the movie?

JP: He’s gorgeous to look at! No, the greatest thing about Mark is that there’s just such truth and authenticity to his performances. And sometimes I’d be sweating and panicking, like how am I gonna say this?

And Mark was very comfortable, and then we go to set, he absolutely just ****ing nailed that scene. It was unbelievable to me, that somebody could do that.

Why is that?

JP: Because it takes me a while to get anywhere. So there’s just a real, I don’t know, like a real truth, there’s something totally unpretentious about him.

Why are you into playing all these tortured characters, do you think it flexes your acting muscles?

JP: Yeah, I think I’d be bored by anything else. I mean first of all, drama is conflict. Just that simple. You want conflict in the character. If not, I’m bored to ****ing death.

I don’t know a single person in life that doesn’t have conflict. Honestly, it really just probably comes down to boredom, being bored or not. Like, I’ve been on films where they were just kind of like quote unquote regular guys. And it was really ****ing tedious and boring to me. I don’t really enjoy acting enough to not want to experience something that feels like, I don’t know, like it really affects things. It’s like, if you were a surfer, would you want to surf where there was like two-foot waves, or would you want to surf on like ten-foot waves. To me, the more kind of dramatic stories are more exciting for me, to play with.

You know, there’s just too much other stuff that goes into it, the makeup and the hair and wardrobe. And like taking pictures and doing press and all this ****, that I don’t really enjoy. It’s not worth it to me without having like an experience that would be intense.

Now, you were really getting into that sex scene with Eva Mendes. How many takes did you need to get it so, you know, real?

JP: I asked for seventy!

Was it good for Eva too?

JP: No, she said we’re done! Like that’s it. Halfway through the take she was like, oh, we’re done. I think you’ve got it. No, what was the question?

I forget by now. Did you speak any Spanish to her?

JP: Um, I didn’t practice much with her. But it was great working with Eva. But sometimes we had to tell her, like actually we’re just talking about things that you shouldn’t know about, it’s just about Bobby. So you don’t need to know. And Eva was like, oh okay. But she’s amazing.

What about working with that screen legend, Robert Duvall?

JP: Well look, I mean, who doesn’t love Duvall? I mean, he’s an unbelievable actor. I remember him making an impression on me when I was very young. I remember seeing Apocalypse Now and being like, who is this dude? And then once getting to know him, honestly, I actually value his work even more.

Especially when you look at like The Godfather and stuff, I mean, honestly, it was a little intimidating at times. Because he’s so ****ing good. It doesn’t seem like there was never a false moment. Or if there was, if he felt like there was a false moment, he didn’t show it.

And I guess I feel like sometimes I struggle with things, to give them some weight or some truth. And Duvall, his biggest thing was to talk about food, for some reason. He literally would just be like, you been to Peter Luger’s? And I was like no. And he was like, great steak. But I’m vegetarian. But we kind of fell into a dynamic, almost immediately.

We Own The Night is all about the club scene. Are you into that scene in real life at all?

JP: I’ve been in clubs. I went to these clubs in New York, and you know, I’ve been to places like when I was there in my twenties, in New York. Although it’s changed, quite a lot.

But I just think they’re awful. It’s unbearable to me. I don’t like being in an enclosed place with really loud music, and a lot of drunk people. It’s not my idea of a good time. It’s just such a miserable life.

What do you do on your time off?

JP: It’s terrible, no one ever believes me. I do nothing.

Do you read?

JP: I look at TV. I will say that I do like the Discovery Channel, which I just watch a lot. There’s like four channels, like History,

Discovery, National Geographic, and I basically just flip through those.

So how would you define your character in We Own The Night?

JP: I wouldn’t.

Prairie Miller is a New York multimedia journalist online, in print and radio, who reviews movies and conducts in-depth interviews. She can also be heard on WBAI/Pacifica National Radio Network’s Arts Express.