Joaquin Phoenix is telling me that he’s sick of the impression people have that he’s awkward or difficult. To which the blindingly obvious answer is, stop playing all those awkward, difficult characters. Actually don’t. There’s no one better at it.
To be fair, Phoenix shows us his gentler side in his new film Her. He’s quietly dazzling as Theodore Twombly, a sensitive writer in Los Angeles around 2025 who falls in love with his computer operating system (think Siri, circa the release of the iPhone 87). Theodore is a big softy: “Everything makes you cry,” his ex-wife tells him snarkily. As messed up as the next guy, he is possibly one of the least troubled characters the 39-year-old actor has given us—a lifetime of pain away from Freddie in The Master or the beardy, shambolic quasi-Phoenix of the hoax doc I’m Still Here.
When I arrive at his hotel, Phoenix is yawning and bleary-eyed. He flew into London yesterday, and jetlag has kept him awake till the early hours. Then, just as he got off to sleep, the fire alarm went off. Was he forced to pad downstairs in his dressing gown? “I wish!” Phoenix flashes a dudish grin. “I have a great gown.”
He is sexily dangerous on screen, less so in the flesh, dressed in an M&S-y V-neck jumper, longish hair slicked down. Two packs of American Spirit cigarettes (he plans to quit) sit on the table in front of him. He’s chatty until the tape recorder goes on. At which point he stiffens like he’s getting a root canal without anaesthetic. I tell him how much I enjoyed Her. His eyes narrow: “That’s what you do. You lead with a compliment.”
Here we go… This is why Phoenix terrifies journalists. (Thankfully I don’t get the smackdown he gave one writer last year: “Um. How long have you been doing this?”). Unlike a lot of actors, he is in full possession of a bullshit radar and hates being interviewed. Still, I’m not having it. I loved Her. Isn’t it normal to tell someone when you like their work? Phoenix thaws: “Yes, I just don’t think I’m responsible for that,” he mumbles, trailing off, “But that’s… awesome.”
No one in their right mind would accuse Phoenix of being arrogant. And I suspect his biggest issue with interviews is the fear that he’ll come across as pretentious, or a bit of a dick. He doesn’t. Sweetly, he describes the actor’s relationship with a director as being the “employee.” Spike Jonze, who made Being John Malkovich and Adaptation., wrote the character of Theodore for him. But that didn’t stop an attack of self-doubt. Phoenix liked that Theodore was the opposite of the “macho” characters in most films, but he worried that he might come across a bit Forrest Gump.
“He has a warmth and kindness that you just don’t see that often,” he says. “I was concerned whether that would be believable.” Most of all, Phoenix was scared that he wouldn’t be good enough: “I always think acting is hard. Probably I make it hard. It’s probably really easy. But, every time, it feels difficult and unobtainable.”
He stops and pulls a face. “That stuff sounds much worse when you read it. The whole ‘Joaquin Phoenix is tortured’ thing.” He’s not, he insists. But surely he can relax after three Oscar nominations and regularly being tagged The Finest Actor of His Generation? Phoenix splutters, laughing. “Only if I’m the only person in that generation! No. That’s ridiculous!”