For Joaquin Phoenix, every new movie is like the first day of school.
He approaches each of them with equal amounts of dread and enthusiasm.
"I'm petrified every time," said the 26-year-old co-star of the summer blockbuster "Gladiator," who stars in the the new urban crime drama "The Yards" with Mark Wahlberg.
"Every time, I feel like it's my first movie," Phoenix continued during a recent interview at the Toronto International Film Festival. "I've never gone (to the set) and thought, 'Yeah. I know just what I'm going to do.' And I think the moment that you start thinking that you do know, you're going down. Because part of what makes people good, or the best they can be, is the never-ending desire to explore the character. And those nerves, they help you."
Phoenix has acted with formally trained veterans Richard Harris in "Gladiator," Michael Caine in the upcoming film "Quills" and Ellen Burstyn, James Caan and Faye Dunaway in "The Yards." But they never gave him any pointers, he said, "and frankly, I'm too self-obsessed to listen."
"I think you have to be. I'm not ashamed of it. It's what you have to do."
Once you're in character, he said, "you don't want to know about anybody else's process."
Such creative uncertainty also has its drawbacks, said James Gray, who wrote and directed "The Yards." Young actors like Phoenix and Wahlberg, Gray said, "can't do what a lot of elder statesmen can do, which is come on the set for a day, do something dramatic and amazing and leave. Their lack of training means that it's sometimes total lightning in a bottle with them. You'll be shocked and pleased by what they're doing, but most likely they won't be able to do it again."
In "The Yards," which is about political corruption and brutality in the awarding of contracts for the New York City subway system, Gray fictionalized real events involving characters his family knew and whose consequences touched his own family. Phoenix plays the flashy muscle man working for manufacturer and father-figure Caan. Wahlberg plays Phoenix's friend, an emotionally inert, downbeat ex-convict who becomes the fall guy for their crimes.
Gray was reluctant to cast Wahlberg, whom he knew only as a former singer.
"I kept thinking Vanilla Ice," said Gray. "I literally had no knowledge of him."
Even after seeing Wahlberg in "Boogie Nights," Gray still felt he was wrong for the role.
"I told him, 'You're the handsome guy all the girls love, and this is Travis Bickle.' And he said, 'You think I'm an underwear model, but I'm not that guy.' "
Wahlberg, who also spent time in jail, told Gray he shared the character's troubled past and pursued the role so vigorously Gray figured "he must be passionate about it for a reason. So why not give him a shot?"
Gray cast Phoenix for his "incredibly sensitive" and "virtually saintly quality. I was looking for a young Alain Delon ('Rocco and His Brothers'), and I thought he was that."
Gray said both young actors share "an emotional intelligence and ability to understand people and behavior . . . which could make them potentially magnificent actors. Both have fascinating and rich personal histories, and I think that matters a lot to their emotional understanding and level of commitment."
Phoenix's rich personal history meant growing up in a large family with sisters Summer, Rain and Liberty and older brother River, who died in 1993. He spent his childhood on the move and lived in Oregon, Mexico, Central America and Florida. He dropped out of high school to act and made his first film, "Spacecamp," at age 10 and appeared in "Parenthood" in 1989.
He also appeared in "To Die For," "Return to Paradise," "U-Turn" and "8MM."
His travels exposed him to many different kinds of people, Phoenix said, "and I've used pieces of them in every character I've played." He made the bigger-than-life emperor in the period piece "Gladiator" "as close to personal as possible." For Phoenix, it was the story of "a neglected child and totally relevant to any kind of modern father-son relationship."
The success of "Gladiator" has been important to him, he said, because filmmaking "is a business, and being in a successful film matters a great deal to the powers that be." But despite his dark good looks, his status as a pin-up boy has been exaggerated, he said.
The girls screaming his name at the Toronto premiere of "The Yards" "were my cousin who lives here and her friends. I told them, 'Make it look like I have fans.' I have, like, 10 fans, named Loco" in prison, he joked.
Gray came away from working with Wahlberg and Phoenix impressed, but with the observation that "if they get into the hands of filmmakers who are interested in characterization, then they are in amazing shape because they're able to do virtually anything."
"But if they fall prey to a lot of special effects-laden films with huge paychecks, their future is one of great wealth but not necessarily of great achievement," Gray. said. "It's up to them, frankly."