Joaquin Phoenix made his film debut at
age 10 in Space Camp, a lighthearted sci-fi flick in which he and a
group of campers are accidentally orbited into space. Now in his
mid-20s, Joaquin has established himself as a serious actor with a
penchant for working with some of Hollywood's top stars. His credits
include Parenthood with Ron Howard, Return to Paradise and Clay Pigeons
with Vince Vaughn, To Die For with Nicole Kidman and 8MM with Nicolas
He sees his latest film, Gladiator, as
the rarest of opportunities -- even though he's never watched a Roman
epic before. "I never had!" he says. "I feel so
embarrassed!" Maybe it's not such a bad thing, though. "I had
to take my own fresh approach, and I certainly wasn't influenced by any
other films of the genre," he says. Joaquin spoke with iCAST about
the making of Gladiator, working with director Ridley Scott and the
challenge of playing his most complex character yet, the ambitious young
iCAST: Your performance was very
satisfying in Gladiator. What did you think?
JP: Thank you. It was an incredible opportunity, and somewhat rare,
to get not only a script that has scenes that are multi-layered and
rich, but also to work with a director like Ridley Scott. If you look
throughout his films, he's interested in the epic film visually, and a
large canvas, but he also values the details and nuances of a human
story. And it's so rare for an actor to have that opportunity.
This film has everything for me. I mean, more physical aspects of the
character, the sword fighting towards the end. And you don't always get
that -- you're either going to be doing the buddy cop movie where you're
like, "No!" and running around shooting; or it's a more
intimate, character-driven drama. But this film seemed to offer all of
iCAST: There must have been a point where you thought, this is
really hard; the vulnerability, the deceitfulness.
JP: Sure. Balancing all of that is difficult. But, you know, I had a
lot of help with Ridley. And especially in a film of this size, it can
be difficult to maintain focus. How is this scene going to fit in with
the previous scene, or the following scene? You need [to be able to ask]
a director, "Can I go here? Can I explore this part of the
character at this point, or is it giving away too much?" So we
always were riding a fine line.
Actors always talk about their characters having an arc throughout a
film. But Commodus seems to have miniature arcs within a scene. So it
was difficult to balance that. But it's kind of everything you want as
an actor. To be honest, you can just get plain bored. I know I certainly
have in the past with some roles. So there's this kind of an ideal
iCAST: What made you choose this film?
JP: This is a film where there's no reason to not do it. I thought
there was that opportunity to try something that I hadn't done before
that would be challenging to me, and that would also be hopefully unique
and enticing for an audience.
But the chance to work with Ridley, who I've admired for years [was a
big attraction]. He actually executive-produced Clay Pigeons, so I had
met him before. And he's brilliant, and Russell Crowe, who I just think
is this genius actor. There were so many reasons to do this film. I
think that's what an actor looks for, the opportunity to embody
characters from different periods and different scales of production, be
it a small film that's shot in five weeks and under 3 million; or a film
of this scale, which took five months. So each process tests you in a
different way. And that's certainly what I look for in a film.
iCAST: Have you watched movies in this genre before?
JP: I never had! When you ask me this, I feel so embarrassed! I never
had. But I actually am glad that I hadn't. And I hadn't going into
production, either. So I kind of had to take my own fresh approach, and
I certainly wasn't influenced by any other films of the genre...
iCAST: You should see Spartacus.
iCAST: Yeah, now. But it's funny, because you're sort of a cross
between a character in Spartacus and The Robe.
JP: Can I ask you a really stupid question? Who played Spartacus?
iCAST: Kirk Douglas played Spartacus. But you actually reminded
me of Laurence Olivier in Spartacus, especially the way they use your
JP: Thank you for that! I really appreciate it.
iCAST: Ridley Scott is very quiet. He's standing there with the
cigar, basically in charge of it all. Is that what keeps you going when
it gets tough, this feeling that it's okay, that someone's in control?
JP: Absolutely. On a film like this, I can't stress how important that
is. He is so patient and so calm. I don't know how he'd do it. He'd have
five cameras running, five monitors, hundreds of extras. And he'd be
watching all this.
And I know that one of the cameras is just floating between me in the
roll box [in the arena] and Lucilla, played by Connie Nielsen. And
Ridley would look at it all [using all the different cameras] and I'd
just be doing a bunch of stuff. And suddenly the radio would crackle,
"Ridley's coming on." And he'd come up and say, "I like
that thing that you did, try that again." And I was like, how the
hell did you see that? You've got tigers attacking Russell over here,
and somehow he's able to just balance all of it, take it all in, and
edit in his mind.
And even between takes, they'd be setting everything back up, and he'd
be drawing the storyboards for the following day's work, or for the
scenes that we were going to do. And they're works of art of themselves.
They're beautiful -- the detail. So I really looked for that, especially
since it was the first film of this size and caliber for me.
Initially when I arrived on the set, I just looked up and went, "Oh
no! What have I got myself into?" I thought it would be
overwhelming. But he is so reserved and calm. You just pick up on that,
pick up on that energy. I mean, you certainly can feel if somebody seems
overwhelmed and frenzied; and it's the last thing you want from a
director when they're going into a five-month shoot with a picture like
iCAST: Talk about the complexity of your character. Is it fun to
play somebody who, from one moment to the next, you don't know is going
to cry or just lose it?
JP: It's endless -- the directions that Commodus could go into. It's
always fun exploring it. I remember going into this scene, which after
is what we called the "Busy Bee" scene, in which I explain,
"If his mother so much as dah-dah-dah, he will die..." and
this whole kind of thing. I had always wanted Commodus to have this kind
of confined rage - so that you were never sure in which direction he was
going to go. He always seems to be twitching and boiling underneath. I
thought it was kind of the ideal opportunity for him to just lash out
and blow his top. And I said to Ridley, "Do you think that's right?
I was thinking about just screaming right now here at the end, 'Am I not
merciful?' when he reaches the line." And he said, "Yeah,
yeah. Try it." So we did it.
So it's things like that that are fun and exciting. When you get to set,
there are a number of paths to take with a character. It seemed like the
work was never done. We could never do enough to discover this guy.
iCAST: Can you explain how you prepared for the scene with Richard
Harris? Working with Richard Harris is quite an achievement as well.
JP: First, the dialogue in and of itself just was powerful. When I
first read it, it hit me emotionally. And then I just -- I magnify those
moments. And I go away alone, and I just play the dialogue over in my
head, over and over. I'm afraid that I can't really do myself justice in
explaining the process. But I just tried to get to the root of that
pain, of a child's feeling of neglect, and this great regret.
What's important is, he's fighting to hold back this emotion, and yet
it's finally this confrontation. I always imagine that the speech that
he has is something that he's said in his head a thousand times in his
fantasy, talking to his father -- as if it's something he always wanted
to say. And then suddenly he has the opportunity. But there's almost
this reluctance and this fear to give in. And finally, the emotion just
becomes so overwhelming, and it's just this sudden outpouring.
iCAST: Did you have to gain weight for this role?
JP: No, I put on weight. Initially I thought that I wanted to be
built, muscular, throughout the course of the film. So first, leading
into pre-production, I worked out for a couple of months, just eating a
lot, putting on weight, and getting more muscular for a lot of fight
scenes. And then once I became Emperor -- we shot somewhat in sequence,
suddenly I was like, "Oh, fuck all that! I'm not going to the
gym!" And I started eating a lot. I wanted him to put on weight. I
wanted to try and show this decadent nature, and I thought it would help
me age a little bit. Because in the beginning of the film, I really
wanted him to be the young prince in waiting, and there's something more
disheveled and scraggly about him. Like, I had my hair permed twice.
And then as he becomes emperor, I just wanted to alter his physical
appearance, because you leave that story for a few months, and it's
Russell's journey. And when you come back, I thought it was really
important to alter his physical appearance as much as possible. So at
that point I put on some weight. I don't know if you noticed, but
there's this fabulous Roman bloat that I had.
iCAST: And you're a vegetarian, aren't you? So what did you eat?
JP: Pasta! And also if you have vodka before bed, like three times a
week, it helps a lot.
iCAST: What was it like being with the cast after hours?
JP: It was this little community. We shot in Malta, and it's an
island. And we called it The Rock, because we just felt imprisoned.
There was nowhere to go. The first week, you go all over the island --
that's it. So we'd all just get together every night after work and
talk, play backgammon. But mostly, we just had political debates. Derek
Jacobi and I just started those. But he was really interested in an
actor's responsibility, if any, for political causes. So we used to get
in these big table discussions -- of which I won't share any with you!
iCAST: Do you feel now that you are more comfortable working on
films of this size?
JP: Yeah, certainly. In many ways, this was the icebreaker. But, you
know, honestly, I go into every film petrified. There's so much riding
on it. And once you're done, it's done. It's in the can. There's nothing
you can do about it. And it's overwhelming. Once you get into the
wardrobe and you get on set, you really forget about how much money is
being put into your production. It's just you and the director and the
iCAST: That's the part that you enjoy, the intimacy?
JP: That's all I want. That's all I'm after. The process is what
interests me the most. Ridley and I would sit between setups, and I'd
just stay on set all day long, and just talk to him, and pore over the
script. And there's nothing more exhilarating. It's kind of the greatest
high in the world -- to discover something new about the character that
you hadn't seen. It's just that moment where the light bulb goes off in
your head, and you go, "Oh my God, yes! We could play it like that.
This would be really interesting if we..."
It's kind of endless. In the scene with Connie Nielsen, where I talk
about a father's dream, "Life, it's a dream, a frightful
dream." And at the end of that scene, it kind of ended as a number
of the other scenes had ended, with me saying, "Stay with me
tonight." And she said no and walked away.
And all three of us were trying to find a more interesting version of
that scene. So we came up with laying her down on the bed, talking
during this whole thing. She feels very sympathetic towards my
character. And I lay her down, and go in for the kiss. We called it the
Abort Mission scene, because as I went to kiss her, I just decided no,
because it's not really what Commodus wanted. His sexual desires were
just masking his true needs.
And so that kind of thing, it's just rare. And it's so exciting to take
a scene in a completely different direction. I mean, we absolutely
altered what that scene was, and what an audience would have walked away
feeling, had it stayed in its original condition. There's nothing quite
like that. That's what I love to do