Joaquin Phoenix on being hitman Joe, Jesus, and those Joker rumors
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There was an early scene in Joaquin Phoenix’s latest film that required him to get shot in the leg and then limp through the rest of the Lynne Ramsay-directed movie. It didn’t feel right to the Oscar-winning actor.
“I just said, ‘Lynne, I’m not going to limp through the f—ing movie. Like, I f—ing hate seeing actors limp through action movies. He’s been shot in the leg, I’m not going to do it. Maybe he can get shot in the face and then he can pull his tooth out,’” Phoenix tells EW.
You Were Never Really Here — no connection to Phoenix’s 2010 mockumentary I’m Still Here in which he famously claimed he was retiring from acting, although in both films his characters are faced with an existential crisis — sees the Oscar-winning actor play not-so-regular Joe, a former FBI agent suffering from acute post-traumatic stress disorder who is hired to rescue young girls from brothels. He is contracted to save a senator’s teenage daughter but after he extracts the girl, he learns her father is dead and things quickly start to go wrong.
Hollywood has a love affair with isolated vigilante hitmen, often in slick action thrillers with car chases, elaborate fight scenes and lots and lots of blood – think Keanu Reeves as a suit-clad John Wick single-handedly annihilating masked assassins or Jason Statham as a turtleneck-clad Arthur Bishop in The Mechanic, sneaking up on thugs within the walls of a skyscraper. But Phoenix, 43, said Joe is different.
“It was like fighting the cliché and trying to avoid those pitfalls,” Phoenix says. “How could we make it more emotional, how could we make it feel more connected to him in a different way?”
Ramsay not only acquiesced to Phoenix’s suggestions about his character, but together they started scouring the script, based on Jonathan Ames’ novella of the same name, to strip it of anything that felt stale. For one, Joe is older and wearier and a little out of shape compared to some of his action movie contemporaries. Joe does get shot in the face and pulls out his tooth with a visceral crack and crunch, and in another scene, Joe walks into a brothel and savagely beats anyone standing in his way with a hammer. But in more intimate moments, we see Joe prostrate in total silence and crippled by fragmented memories.
“I never wanted to do narrative flashbacks that feel like they’re telling you a piece of their story. I always thought his head was filled with broken glass,” Ramsay says.
Ramsay — who empathetically explored the mind of a mother of a high school sociopath in 2012’s We Need to Talk About Kevin— also drew upon Joe’s frayed relationship with his elderly mother, whom he lives with and cares for. Phoenix says the script had initially portrayed that dynamic as idyllic, with Joe being a perfect son — something that, again, didn’t feel right.
“I thought if you’re really like a caregiver for somebody who is elderly, inevitably there’s a part of you that has to grow frustrated with them,” he explains.
It comes back to how Ramsay wanted to defy genre norms. “We were thinking a lot about bringing femininity to the character, vulnerability, human and f—ed-up. He’s kind of failed the mission, in a sense, that would never happen in another film, but those were all the things we were fascinated by,” she says.
Below read more of EW’s interview with Phoenix, where he discusses what draws him to a role, playing Jesus, and those Joker rumors.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: I’m intrigued by actors who play roles like this, which are incredibly intense and emotional, and I wonder how much of that role gets into your head — how do you go home at night after scenes that are brutal? Is it easy to walk away after you’re done or do you live with the character for a while?
JOAQUIN PHOENIX: There’s no way to answer this without sounding like a f—ing jerk. I don’t know, I always hate, just, like [how] I was affected by this. Every movie, you just basically marinate in the research until it’s like impossible — if you read about one subject matter for weeks or months, of course it’s going to affect you. But I don’t … hopefully it’s not a conscious … I always feel like performances are bad when I see too many conscious decisions, like actors trying to show things, so I hope I didn’t do that, I tried not to show anything. But inevitably you’re going to be affected by this, it’s a brutal world but to be honest. There’s also times where you’re sitting around between takes and me and Lynne are just like telling each other jokes, so it just becomes your life and I think that was part of the thing — when does Joe find humor in things or what is his relationship with his colleagues? It’s like, everything is … you’re seeing a snippet of somebody’s life but they’re like a full human. There’s times that they sit around and watch a f—ing movie, they eat food, so it just becomes your life for a brief period of time.
I imagine you probably get asked a lot about whether you have a preference for dark, tormented characters who live on the edge and what draws you to them, but you’re also just a person who probably likes comedies as well as dramas. It’s trying to understand why you’re drawn to these types of characters.
Yeah, I don’t know, it’s funny because I look at the four movies that I’ve made this year or last year and I wouldn’t say that they were like all intense dramas, and so for me, it feels like the impact for a finished film feels particularly tense, but I didn’t … I don’t know why, to be honest. I didn’t really have the feeling of when I read this script that I have to do this movie. I feel like, it was something that grew and started presenting itself to me as I started researching it and spending time with Lynne. I don’t really know what drew me to the movie — I think maybe it was one of the first times where I was, I guess maybe I was kind of interested in working with Lynne. I think maybe what it is, it’s the not knowing that attracts me. It’s something that seems like so, a world that I don’t understand and it seems so distant from me, and maybe I want to find a way in — what is this puzzle, what can be solved, what can be figured out? I don’t know why, but I don’t sit back going “I want to do this” — I don’t know, I don’t understand why I want to do it.
I realize asking something like, “do you like comedy or drama?” can be reductive.
Yeah, but it’s just a way in. I think what I always discover when I do press is that I don’t think about things in the way that an audience does, right? And I should, right? That’s backwards?
I don’t think you have to, it’s up to us (as reporters) to ask you those questions, isn’t it?
[Agrees…] No, I don’t think you have to and actually I think it’s the wrong way for an actor to approach things. I mean, I don’t know what the wrong way is, it’s just wrong for me.
Everyone has their own story about why they took on a character and film — every moment of this film seemed to try to flesh out who this man is and why he is.
You’re right, that’s what the experience was, it was something that was discovered each day. It was really one thing that we had — one thing that Lynne and I talked about that was really important to me — was that no scene was just a bit of information to move us to the next scene; it was an opportunity to discover something more about the character, and it may not match up with our idea of where we think that it’s going, but let’s just be really open to the possibility. And I definitely gifted her with two hours of total f—ing garbage that was useless, in the quest to uncover something. There’s so much that like, I’m sure if you saw some of these other scenes or outtakes, you’d go like, “That’s the worst thing I’ve ever seen in my life.” There’s so many … I was like, “God, why would you think that would work?” but that’s part of, for me anyways, the most exciting part of the process — there are no mistakes and you don’t make these decisions about the rules of the character and the world, which is something that I used to do, that idea of like, “What is my character?” or, “My character would never do this.” I’d go like, “F—, I don’t know what he’s capable of and we just have to put him in these situations and react to it.” And that’s what I think was so fulfilling about making the film, was that it kind of exceeded my expectations based on my aspirations of when I first read this script and what I thought it could be, and it started taking on a life of its own.
We’ll also be seeing you play Jesus in the upcoming Mary Magdalene film. How do you go about taking on the role of a religious figure?
Just to maybe, to go in the opposite direction of a religious figure, and to try to uncover the man. I guess maybe, again, I don’t really know, I’m just saying sh—, I’m trying to think of stuff, but I don’t really know why I ever do a movie. I can’t tell you, it’s just a feeling that I have, and I guess there were things that were curious, if you were like, actually, you’re having this experience, what would it look like? Here is our understanding, so what we’ve been told about the miracles, the healing, but like what is that actually like, what does that mean? So I guess there’s just maybe a curiosity about having that experience and it’s taking it away from the icon and trying to uncover the man, because I think that’s what makes the crucifixion such a sacrifice, that it demands somebody that loves being human and having this experience and felt these human emotions that we feel so strongly, and so I just became curious about what that might be like.
It’s interesting when you take on a character that is so well-known … speaking of which, there are rumors you’re playing the Joker. Is there any truth to that?
This is all super interesting. I have no idea about this. There’s absolutely nothing I could say about this subject.
You Were Never Really Here opens Friday in select theaters.