IF magazine - ISSUE 15.2 - 5/19/00
Emperor Interruptus

With Ridley Scott’s GLADIATOR looking like a critical and financial hit, attention has been lavished on star Russell Crowe, but Joaquin Phoenix’s surprisingly vulnerable turn as the film’s villain, Commodus, has been getting attention as well. Best known for smaller, quirkier movies like TO DIE FOR or CLAY PIGEONS, Phoenix says he had no compunctions about joining Scott and Crowe on the mammoth production that was GLADIATOR.

“It was an incredible opportunity and somewhat rare,” Phoenix says of the experience. “Not only to have a script that has scenes that are multi-layered and rich, but also to work with a director like Ridley Scott who seems to encourage that in his actors. If you look throughout his films, he’s as much interested in the more epic film visually and a large canvas but he also values the details and nuances of the human story. It’s so rare for an actor to have that opportunity.”

Phoenix says that the film encompassed a lot of physical work for him, such as the sword fight at the end of the film.

"It seems that usually you’re either going to be doing the buddy cop movie where you’re running around shooting or it’s a more intimate character-driven drama," he says. "But this film seemed to offer all of those possibilities.”

For Phoenix, putting his trust in Scott was what doing the film was all about. “I had a lot of help from Ridley,” the actor admits. “Especially on a film of this size it can be difficult to maintain focus and know how one scene is going to fit in with the previous scene or the following scene. That, to me, is where I really need directors to let me know if I can go somewhere specific with the character at a certain point or is it giving away too much."

He says actors are always riding a fine line. "Actors always talk about having a character arc throughout the film, but Commodus seems to have miniature arcs within a scene," he adds. "It was difficult to balance that, but it’s kind of everything you want as an actor. To be honest you can get really bored with some roles, and I certainly have in the past.”

Phoenix has turned down his share of big-budget productions, and with good reason. “I always wanted the option, but some of the larger scale productions that I would look at would just be filled with clichés and be typical shoot-em-ups,” the actor says. “That’s why when I got this script I pursued it endlessly. And once I read for Ridley, he said he wanted me and he’s been such a support to me throughout the whole process. If he would have backed off at all I probably wouldn’t have been in it.”

Nevertheless, Phoenix didn’t find himself checking out any other gladiator movies after he won the part of Commodus. “I’m actually embarrassed to say that I haven’t seen any others, but now I’m glad that I didn’t because none of those movies were an influence on me,” Phoenix says, adding that instead he put his trust in Ridley Scott. And he found himself astounded at the director’s ability to manage such an immense production. “I don’t know how he did it,” he says. “In the Colosseum scenes, he would have five cameras running, five monitors and hundreds of extras, and there would be one camera floating between me and Connie Neilsen, and I would just be doing a bunch of stuff and figuring that he would watch it all later in the dailies.

"Then the loudspeaker would go on and say ‘Ridley’s coming up’ and he would come up and say ‘I liked that one thing you did’ and I thought ‘how the hell did he see that?' " he continues. "He’s got tigers attacking Russell Crowe over here, and he’s able to balance all of that stuff and sort through and edit in his mind. Even in between takes, he’d be drawing the storyboards for the following day’s work and they were works of art in themselves."

Phoenix found himself in a production that required more than the usual amount of physical preparation for his character, including training in sword fighting and the necessity of building up a convincing “imperial” physique.

“I thought I wanted to be muscular for the film so I worked out for a couple months and put on more weight for the fight scenes,” the actor recalls. “Then once I became emperor we shot in sequence and I thought ‘fuck all that, I’m not going to the gym!’ I wanted to try out this decadent nature of his and I thought it might help me age a little bit. I really wanted him to be the young prince in waiting and then become more disheveled as he becomes Emperor and alter his physical appearance because you leave that story for a few months and it becomes Russell’s journey. So I put on some weight there."

The preparation was all part of a continual cathartic experience that Phoenix says he undergoes on every movie. “I go into every film petrified," he admits. "There’s so much riding on it and once you’re done you’re done, it’s in the camera. It’s overwhelming so in some sense once you get in wardrobe and get on set you forget about the budget and it’s just you and the director and the other actors.”

Phoenix was particularly rewarded by his character, an unpredictable and strangely sympathetic young man who’s just looking for love in all the wrong places. “The direction that Commodus could go into was endless,” Phoenix says. “I remember after the ‘busy bee’
scene I’d always wanted Commodus to have this confined rage so you were never sure which direction he was going to go in, just that he’d always be boiling underneath. I thought that was an ideal opportunity for him to finally just blow his top and scream this one line ‘Am I not merciful?’ It’s things like that that are fun and exciting when you see that there are a number of paths to take with a character. It seemed like we could never do enough to discover this guy.”

Phoenix says he can’t really quantify the acting process, but he does acknowledge that he has certain goals in mind. “The dialogue in and of itself was powerful and it hit me emotionally,” he explains. “Then I magnify those moments and go away alone and play the dialogue over in my head. I was just trying to get to the root of that pain of a child’s feeling of neglect, and this great regret. And he’s fighting to hold back this emotion and I always imagine that this speech he says is something he’s said in his head a thousand times and fantasized about it, that it’s something he’s always wanted to say, and suddenly he has the opportunity. But there’s almost
this reluctance and fear to give in but the emotion becomes so overwhelming.”

An important part of Commodus’ character was an underlying, illicit desire for his sister Lucilla, played by Connie Neilsen. “The scene with Connie Neilsen in which I talk about life being a frightful dream, that line was a suggestion from Connie very early in the production,” Phoenix says. “And that was one of several scenes where I sort of say ‘Stay with me tonight,’ and she says no and walks away, and all three of us were trying to find a more interesting version of that scene. And we came up with leaning her down on the bed and going in for the kiss, and we called it the ‘abort mission’ scene because at the last minute I decide not to. It’s not really what Commodus wanted because his sexual desires were just masking his true needs.”