Itís never too early for a mid-life crisis
James Gray and Joaquin Phoenix take to the couch

by Rebecca Eckler
National Post

Director James Gray has decided to make good use of the third-floor hotel room where 15-minute press interviews have been taking place for hours. He's sprawled out across the couch, his hands resting behind his head, his feet hanging over the armrest.

He's acting out the role of patient, while I'm happily forced into playing psychiatrist. I want to talk about his new movie, but he wants to talk about his feelings.

But what to say to this 31-year-old, who looks 25, and worries that he's, well, over the hill? "I'm 12 years past my sexual prime," he says. "Women, however, don't reach their sexual prime until they're in their mid-thirties."

How to ease the mind of this man, the director of The Yards, starring Joaquin Phoenix, James Caan, Charlize Theron, Mark Wahlberg and Faye Dunaway, about a young man who, after being imprisoned for a crime he didn't commit, goes home to get his life on track, only to find himself, thanks to a long-time friend, drawn into the underground world of payoffs, murder and sabotage in the New York City subway yards?

He keeps getting sidetracked by male/female relationships -- I decide not to ask if he's single -- and I have to throw in questions about The Yards periodically.

"My father," he begins, "worked in manufacturing of the subway, so this movie is based on true events." No, his father hasn't seen the movie yet, because "My father is totally not a movie guy. His concept of success is when someone gets health insurance."

Suddenly, the hotel room door bursts open, making Gray jump up. The dark-haired Joaquin Phoenix is now literally lying on top of him, giving Gray a huge hug.

"Great to see you man," says Phoenix, dressed in a wrinkly white dress shirt, black suit jacket, baggy black pants and Nike sneakers. (Phoenix will later say, in a private interview, that, "You don't want to know what I've been through this last few days ... that's why I look like this. So don't judge me.") "Howz it going man?" he asks Gray. They haven't seen each other since the Cannes film festival in May.

"Oh, you know, everybody hates the movie," says Gray, sounding very Woody Allen.

When Phoenix leaves, Gray explains what just happened. No, he doesn't think The Yards is bad. "That was just our joke. At Cannes, where it premiered, even the greatest movies were being booed. So we'd greet each other with a 'They hate the movie, don't they?' "

Perhaps Gray, who became obsessed with films at age 10 when he saw Apocalypse Now, would rather talk about male/female relationships than The Yards, because, for him, movies are the "most detailed transcript of human nature." The Yards deals with a multitude of different relationships -- between friends, lovers, and family.

"How can you not be fascinated with human behaviour?" he asks. "That to me is what movies are about. That's what movies should explore."

Shortly after, I catch up with Phoenix, who is a tad (and this is understatement) upset, peeved even, as he looks at the huge movie poster for The Yards, set up in the hotel room.

"See this jacket I'm wearing in this picture? Well, they airbrushed that on me after. I was never wearing that shiny leather thing. It's a lie. It just shows they have no understanding of the character."

So what is his character in the movie about, then?

"I don't know."

Like his character in Gladiator, who murders his father, Phoenix once again plays a morally questionable role. Does he see a trend?

"Only idiots who don't know anything about movies think there's a trend. That question bores me, frankly."

Does he have anything to say about male friendships, which much of the movie is based on?

"Well, oddly enough, growing up, most of my friends were female. I can't define a good friendship."

OK. Joaquin (pronounced walk-een) made his stage name up. His real name is Leaf, but "around the 'hood in New York, I'm known as Teeth. I don't know why, that's just what people call me." I can venture a guess.