In Spike Jonze's new sci-fi romance, Her, Joaquin Phoenix plays a divorcee who rebounds by falling in love with his smartphone. On a recent Wednesday, however, he's a delinquent boyfriend, leaving his iPad abandoned on a chair in a Lebanese restaurant as he bounces off to the parking lot for a smoke. After a few puffs, he reconsiders and darts back inside, lest the well-dressed ladies at the next table snatch it to pay for a month of hummus.
"They said they were going to steal it!" Phoenix yelps. "I thought they looked nice!"
Back in his seat, he spins around and points, "What is that, by the way?" When the two women duly pivot, he steals the blonde's purse. "Classic move! Classic move!" he teases them. "C'mon guys, we're all playing here."
It's unclear if his victims even know they're tangling with the three-time Oscar-nominated star of Gladiator, Walk the Line and The Master as well as the upcoming Her, which has been racking up awards on its way to an all-but-inevitable Best Picture nomination.
Although the 39-year-old actor is famous for playing hotheads, in person he's a goof. Phoenix is one of the major talents of his generation, but he'd rather gush about DJ Premier ("He's such an amazing artist!") than tout his own creative process. In his black jeans and gray-streaked, shoulder-length hair, he looks more like a struggling grunge guitarist than a reluctant red-carpet walker who's all too familiar with tuxedos.
The ladies giggle nervously, not sure if they've been punked. But they have definitely been Phoenixed — flummoxed and fascinated by this charismatic joker.
We've all been Phoenixed. Five years ago, with still-fresh accolades from Walk the Line and a fantastic performance in the then-upcoming James Gray romance Two Lovers, Phoenix famously swore he had given up acting for a rap career. He grew a beard and spent the next 12 months convincing the world it was true: brawling at Miami nightclubs; performing a disastrous set in Vegas, described by Rolling Stone as "nothing short of a train wreck"; talking only about hip-hop during press for Two Lovers, his "final" film; and, of course, rattling David Letterman by refusing to play along with the grin-and-charm publicity circuit. (Letterman arguably deserved it: When Phoenix first appeared on his show in 1998, he was so gawky that Letterman compared him to Pauly Shore.)
More than 5 million viewers saw Phoenix's mumbling stunt live on Late Night, and millions more caught it on YouTube. Only a fraction saw the reason behind it: the Casey Affleck mockumentary I'm Still Here, a tricky and disconcertingly deadpan dissection of the media machine, which had devoured Phoenix's music-career mistakes like junk food. (Typical talking-head snark: "Is it a hoax? Do we care?")
Even audiences who saw the final film left confused. It was, Affleck conceded, "a hard movie to watch," even as he praised Phoenix for giving "a terrific performance ... the performance of his career." The film made only $408,983 at the box office, even as bearded Joaquin became a national joke. Ben Stiller mocked him at the Oscars, blundering around the stage while presenting the cinematography award and sticking his chewing gum on the crystal podium.
The experiment hinged on people knowing the real Joaquin Phoenix wasn't a whiny, idiot egotist who snorted coke and sniffed hookers' butts. But people didn't.
"When I was writing 'BYE! GOOD' on my hand, I thought people would be like, 'OK, this is not happening. This can't be real,' " Phoenix muses. "But whenever I did that really over-the-top stuff, some people would doubt it, but then some people would go for it more."
Was he surprised people really believed he was a shuffling doofus who didn't comb his hair?
"Well, I haven't combed my hair right now," he chuckles. "And I do have a great shuffle."
The root of I'm Still Here is Phoenix's frustration with fame. That feels true. His parents raised him to be a star but also raised him to see through the bullshit.
Arlyn and John Phoenix (then surnamed Bottom) met hitchhiking in California in 1969. The nomadic hippies quickly built a family, adding to their brood every two years: River was born in Oregon, Rain in Texas and, in 1974, Joaquin was born in Puerto Rico, where the family had followed the controversial Children of God cult, which discouraged TV and newspapers and promoted all-ages sex. (River later confessed to Details magazine that he lost his virginity at 4.) Two more sisters, Liberty and Summer, followed.
Joaquin was raised in Caracas, where his father was the cult's "archbishop of Venezuela and the Caribbean." Despite Dad's fancy title, the kids supported the family by dancing for pocket change on the streets while their parents gradually distanced themselves from the group. When Joaquin was 3, the same year the family unanimously became vegetarian, they fled to Miami on a cargo ship.
By 5, Joaquin's world had changed radically: The family resettled in L.A., where Arlyn was secretary to the head of casting at NBC. (At home, the only TV channel they had was PBS.) To celebrate their resurrection, they gave themselves a new last name: Phoenix.
The Phoenix family lived a dual life: half hippie, half Hollywood. There was no formal schooling. Instead, the kids busked in Westwood and carpooled to auditions. River appeared on Family Ties and after-school specials about dyslexia; Joaquin had roles on Hill Street Blues, Murder, She Wrote and Alfred Hitchcock Presents. The brothers crossed paths once when Joaquin landed a cameo on River's goofy CBS musical Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.
But while River looked like an innocent heartthrob, the darker, stockier Joaquin was stereotyped into more somber, sidekick roles. The very first line Steve Martin says about the character played by 15-year-old Joaquin (then going by Leaf) in the movie Parenthood is, "There's a kid with problems."
That year, in his first-ever print interview, he chirped to the L.A. Herald-Examiner, "I am different, but I don't really mind. I enjoy it." After Parenthood, he took a six-year, self-imposed break to dodge what he dismissed as "banana in a tailpipe" roles, then returned to acting at 21 for Gus Van Sant's To Die For as a dumb high school punk seduced into murdering Nicole Kidman's husband. The film is a comedy, but Phoenix and his future best friend and brother-in-law Affleck play the outcasts-turned-killers as arrestingly sincere — you could plop their characters into any serious teen drama.
"It was when I first met Casey and I remember thinking, 'We have to play this totally straight, but people are probably going to think that Gus just found kids on the street,' " Phoenix recalls. He smirks. "Maybe he kind of did."
His younger sister Summer swore to W Magazine that Joaquin was the funniest one in the family, but despite his insistence that he wanted to do a big, dumb comedy, the roles kept getting gloomier: a hippie awaiting execution in Return to Paradise, a snuff-film peddler in 8MM, and finally, his first prestige blockbuster, Gladiator, as the bloodthirsty Emperor Commodus.
Commodus could have been played as camp. He did, after all, adore wearing head-to-toe white leather (technically faux, in accordance with Phoenix's veganism). Yet Phoenix layered in Commodus' pain and insecurity. He honestly can't understand why everyone — his father, his sister, his empire — prefers the slave Maximus, sniffling to his dad, "I would butcher the whole world if you would only love me."
The butcher's unexpected depth won Phoenix his first Oscar nomination and an exhausting spin on the awards circuit. He went on Letterman and forgot his own birthday.
Joaquin Phoenix had made his reputation playing tragic characters. Yet what calcified his public image as a tortured actor happened during his teenage hiatus: his panicked phone call to 911 as he watched his beloved older brother die outside the Viper Room. The call was broadcast across TV news outlets, the worst moment of his life served up for public consumption.
When Joaquin returned to the screen two years later, River's shadow was something he couldn't dodge and wouldn't discuss. He did few interviews and was rarely pictured in the tabloids, preferring to stay at home with his girlfriend of three years, Liv Tyler, and best friend Casey Affleck, who eventually married Joaquin's sister Summer. Following his breakup with Tyler, Joaquin's date to premieres and award shows most often was his mother or one of his sisters. He kept his world small and his ears closed to media chatter, trying to let the work speak for itself.
But as his films got harder, so did the press tours — and the sense that Phoenix really might not enjoy being so different.
After capturing the drunk and unhinged Johnny Cash in Walk the Line, Phoenix voluntarily checked himself into rehab to clear his head and, he quipped, rally support for his second Oscar nod. (Not that he really cared if he won. "I don't think I've ever seen a movie and been, like, 'That was fucking amazing — was he nominated for that?' " he says. "Maybe we should just do the awards 20 years later and then you can actually tell if something's any good.")
He soon checked himself out and was barraged by journalists prodding him to say he drew on River's fatal overdose to reflect Cash's pain at losing his older brother in a table-saw accident. He shut them down, storming out of an interview with Rolling Stone. On the red carpet at the film's L.A. premiere, he turned the tables on an AP reporter. "Do I have a large frog in my hair?" he asked. "Something's crawling out of my scalp." When the journalist awkwardly demurred, Phoenix pressed on. "No, but I feel it. I'm not worried about the looks. I'm worried about the sensation of my brain being eaten."
Three years later, Phoenix was back on Letterman acting like his mind actually had been devoured.
The intro of I'm Still Here is a fast-forward through his life: young Phoenix leaping off a Panamanian waterfall, a barely older Phoenix singing on a street corner with his siblings in matching gold jumpsuits and, finally, a grown-up Phoenix pacing in his Hollywood Hills backyard overlooking the Los Angeles nightlife wondering, "I don't know what happened to me first. Whether they said that I was emotional and intense and complicated or whether I was truly complicated and intense and then they responded to it."
Truth? Fiction? Truth as fiction? Phoenix won't concede an inch. The kiddie-band clip was real, but the Panama footage was fake — Affleck shot it with a child actor in Hawaii and re-recorded it over a VHS copy of Paris, Texas, until it looked vintage. As for that vulnerable-sounding quote, Phoenix laughs, "How fucking stupid is it to think about yourself in that way?"
Still, he makes it hard to trust his words. Asked if he still speaks Spanish, he regretfully says no, "because I'm in California and nobody speaks Spanish here." Then he stuffs his cheeks full of tabbouleh and deadpans, "Do I have something in my teeth?"
Ultimately, it's his work ethic that proves his rap career was a stunt. He spent five months training himself to lower his voice two octaves to mimic Johnny Cash. If he truly wanted to rap, he'd have rapped better.
Given the ratio of people who watch entertainment TV to people who watch art-house flicks, it's no wonder a vague sense lingers that Phoenix actually went crazy — and that if he didn't, his duped fans deserve to be mad. Matt Damon told The New York Times he warned Phoenix and Affleck, "If they don't know whether it's a joke, they will not forgive you, and they will savage your movie."
"We never approached it like a hoax — in fact, it became the burden of it," Phoenix says. "Hoax, to me, implies that the purpose of it is just to fool people." But the prank had become the story. Everyone was asking if Joaquin Phoenix had gone crazy. No one was talking about the entertainment news nightmare he'd wanted to expose, a feeding frenzy he felt was so vital to examine that he risked his career at the height of his success.
Three years later, the exponential growth of Twitter has led to an even steeper rise in Internet hoaxes, memes for a day and tweets heard around the world. Now that every unhinged sorority girl, asshole airline passenger or kid taking a selfie next to his grandmother's casket can be a 24-hour media joke, I'm Still Here feels increasingly vital. And now that we're certain the whole thing was a stunt, Phoenix's personal risk, which he likens to "standing on a cliff and thinking about jumping, and just having your friend push you," feels even braver.
After I'm Still Here was locked, Phoenix confessed everything to his agents and told them he was looking for work. They weren't happy but they forgave him. "I don't think they were ever going, 'Fuck, we're losing a real money-maker here — this is a bummer, what are we going to do?' " he laughs. "I make them nothing every fucking year."
Phoenix resolved to let the chatter die down while he waited for a good part. Months ticked past. I'm Still Here came out in September 2010 and he was still waiting for the right role, fueling the debate about whether his retirement from acting had been real. He reportedly turned down the role of the Incredible Hulk in The Avengers. He didn't know what he was waiting for, only that his first film after all the fuss couldn't be a lark or a flop.
"It's like you're not in a relationship and you get lonely, so you're like, 'I just want to hook up and be with somebody and just do it.' You're probably going to fuck it up when you do meet that good person because you've just been in this other fucking game," he explains. "It's a ridiculous analogy, but I think when the right thing does come, it's undeniable, and you're in the right place and ready to give yourself to that completely."
Finally, in April 2011, Paul Thomas Anderson announced that Phoenix would play the lead in his ambitious period drama The Master. That took another five months to start shooting. By the time The Master was finally released in September 2012, four years had passed since Two Lovers, Phoenix's last real film — a gap even he barely believes. (He checks his IMDb page on his phone and chuckles, "I'm looking this up?")
In the first scene of The Master — the first glimpse of Phoenix playing someone other than himself since 2008 — he pokes his head up from behind the rail of a World War II battleship in a military helmet, squinting anxiously as if preparing for attack. The image is apt. But critics ceased fire when they saw his Freddie Quell, an alcoholic, animalistic veteran who lurches across the screen like his legs are caught in a trap.
Freddie is frail but frightening, and he thoroughly Phoenixes an egotistical cult leader named Lancaster Dodd, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman. In scene after scene, the two men wrestle, mentally and even physically. Dodd tries to tame Quell's savage psyche, while Quell flails for Dodd's affection, being too bull-headed to accept that the cause uses him as a Don't.
Hoffman was cast first; he urged Anderson to hire Phoenix because he "scares me." Phoenix lived up to both of his reputations: the madman and the artist.
On set, instead of hitting his marks, he'd wander wherever the moment demanded. On screen, he feels raw and looks ragged — his cheeks gaunt, his eyes pinched and suspicious. On a first viewing, you're not sure if you're watching an actor embrace insanity or succumb to it. It's a hell of a performance, and it won Phoenix his third Oscar nomination.
He took the awards circuit as seriously as ever, which is to say not at all. When the Los Angeles Film Critics Association presented him with the Best Actor plaque, he wisecracked, "I'm assuming that the Los Angeles film critics were banned from seeing Lincoln." When Meryl Streep called his name among the Academy Award nominees, Phoenix looked at his lap, shook his head and continued chewing his gum. It looked rude, but the Oscars had attacked first: In his show-opening number, Seth MacFarlane crooned, "There's Joaquin in his threads, hope he's on his meds."
Anderson didn't mind. "Listen, God, how mad can you be at an actor that's that good at his job and that bad at promoting your film?" he insisted to Time Out London. "I want my movie stars to be dangerous, annoyed and incapable of taking horseshit. I prefer them that way."
Statuettes aside, it's Phoenix's follow-up film — Spike Jonze's Her — that feels like his official comeback. His Theodore Twombly — lonely ex-husband, former L.A. Weekly writer (ahem) and man who spends too much time talking to screens — is his most normal character, well, ever. Paradoxically, audiences weaned on Joaquin the Weirdo can finally trust that he's acting.
Her is set in a Los Angeles that feels about two eye blinks in the future. No one wears sci-fi leotards; they're in tasteful, high-waisted tweeds. Most people also wear an earpiece that connects to their next-generation smartphone, an all-in-one device with an upgraded Siri programmed with intuition, empathy, curiosity and the ability to learn and evolve.
After speed-reading a book of names in 0.02 seconds, Theodore's operating system, voiced by Scarlett Johansson, dubs herself Samantha. She just as quickly becomes his best friend and, eventually, his girlfriend. With the device snuggly safety-pinned into his breast pocket so her camera faces the world (a touch Phoenix brainstormed himself), the two go on dates to Walt Disney Concert Hall and the beach. At night, they lounge in his room and have, yes, phone sex.
Theodore and Samantha live a full and complex relationship arc that couldn't exist without Johansson's brisk and pitch-perfect voice performance. But technically, Her is still a one-person love story (or really, one-human) about a man who's also relearning to love himself. And the only face of their romance is Phoenix's.
"He represents both characters on screen," Jonze explains by phone from Miami, where he's in the thick of his own press tour. "His reaction is what helps give her credibility." When Samantha talks, Phoenix reacts, his keen green eyes absorbing her words while his expressive eyebrows furrow down in frustration or lift up in wonderment. In some single-take stretches, all he does is react, quietly going from cranky to enchanted to cracking up as she convinces him to stop sulking and get out of bed.
Jonze started work on the script during the last months of postproduction on Where the Wild Things Are, the same stretch where Phoenix was freaking out the media. They barely knew each other, so Jonze didn't know what to believe. "That Letterman performance, I saw it on YouTube when it came out, and it was so convincing I didn't think he could be faking it," Jonze admits. "I loved it either way. So fearless! To not care, to really not care what anyone thinks of him on that level, is just so punk rock."
Jonze had admired Phoenix's past movies — "He's so alive on-screen, he's so surprising" — but didn't know if Phoenix was in fact retired, or if the man nominated for awards for playing a madman, a killer and a drunk was right for cuddly Theodore, Jonze's most personal role.
The week Jonze finished his final draft of Her, he went to the actor's house and showed him the script. "That openness and that playfulness and realness and honestness, it's exactly who he is," Jonze says. "There's nothing pretentious about him. I realized, 'Oh, this is a guy who takes his work seriously but doesn't take himself seriously.' Within the first 10 minutes, I knew he was the guy that I wanted to be in this movie."
With no visible co-star besides minor parts played by Amy Adams, Olivia Wilde, Rooney Mara and Chris Pratt, Phoenix's face fills the screen. "The name of the camera was very close to my fucking eye," he groans. To help the actor feel comfortable under such close scrutiny, Jonze winnowed the production down to as few as six crew members, with original voice actress Samantha Morton around the corner saying her lines from inside a plywood box. (Johansson was dubbed in during the editing process when Jonze realized he needed a voice with more confidence and immediacy than what he and Morton had originally conceived, though he hastens to add, "Samantha deserves credit for giving Joaquin and the movie and me so much.")
"The environment on-set was very intimate. Everybody respected and was affected by what Joaquin was doing," Jonze says. "When we'd cut, the set would stay quiet. That's really special."
Phoenix, of course, brushes off compliments. "As long as you're not visibly shaking in front of a camera, anyone could give a great performance with the right script and the right director." He saves his praise for the cast of the new Star Trek, a film he adores, calling their work "fucking brilliant."
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He insists, "It's even more difficult to stand with a half-made, fake-ass fucking set with some weird fucking wig and say a bunch of technical dialogue and not have the benefit of people going, 'Well, this is important work so let's give it its space.' Everyone's going, 'C'mon, jerk-off! Let's do this!' "
Maybe he'll do a blockbuster like that someday. Maybe he won't. "I love comedies and I love action movies," he says. For now, he again feels like an actor who's confident about his options.
"I'm sure there were times when I went, 'Oh, fuck, it's going to be hard to do the movies that I want to do after this. Am I going to be battling this shit?' " Phoenix admits of his I'm Still Here experiment. He shrugs. "But you're always battling some shit that you fucking said, so it doesn't really make a difference."
To prove he's mended all possible fences, Phoenix's next film, The Immigrant, is by Two Lovers director James Gray, who has forgiven him for hijacking their last publicity tour. Did Gray make Hollywood's most unpredictable prankster pinkie-swear he won't pull that stunt again? "No, we didn't," Phoenix pledges, suddenly looking serious. "We didn't make jokes about that."