With roles in such movies as Gladiator and 8mm, American actor Joaquin
Phoenix is quietly proving himself as talented an actor as his late brother
River. While in London recently to promote two films, Quills and The Yards, in
which he has hugely different roles, Phoenix took part in a Q & A.
I've been told you have seen The Yards four times. What is it that makes the film so special for you, or do you always watch all your films that many times?
I don't think I've ever seen another of my films all the way through. I feel really close to the film because I was involved with the project for so long before we shot, for two years. In post-production, I talked to James Gray, the director, virtually every day. I felt like I'd been involved with it for years. It turned out exactly how I'd hoped. Often times, when you see a film, sometime your favorite scenes are missing - and you understand why, but there the scenes that I love were in the film and it all worked.
What would you say The Yards is about?
It's kind of about the falsity of the American Dream. It's an odd thing that my generation faces. We're encouraged to pursue the American Dream, but we don't really have the right moral support to make those decisions. So you have this character Willie. We know nothing of his parents - there is one reference early on to his mother. You really get a sense that there's this child who has had to grow up really quick and hard in the world. It's about betrayal and friendship and love, and how those outside forces can pollute our relationships.
Did you mind playing a supporting role, as you did in Gladiator?
I was offered the role of Leo first. I said that I wanted to play Willie. That was after Inventing The Abbotts. I wanted to try and embody that sense of confidence, and the charisma that he had, and the dialogue that he had. I wanted to get my mouth around that. To me, that's not really what's important, playing the hero.
What fascinated you about Willie particularly?
I was offered the role of Leo first. I said that I wanted to play Willie. That was after To Die For and Inventing The Abbotts: I was getting all the 'Joaquin is Jimmy'. None of my work was ever recognised. I felt it was invalidated because of my own idiocy in thinking it would be really brilliant to do press in character. In the wake of that, when I first got this film, Inventing The Abbotts was about to open. I did three or four movies before I did The Yards. I wanted to test myself, to try something different. I do The Yards, and then Gladiator comes along. Everyone says, "why did you play another villain with The Yards?" That's not how it happened. You don't say no to Gladiator.
Is it difficult to play an emotionally draining role like that?
Yeah, it's really hard. You get fuelled and reinspired by the people that you work with. Quills was one of my toughest shoots. I'd finished Gladiator and I went and did reshoots on The Yards for a week and came back to London and started rehearsals for Quills. I was exhausted. The last three weeks on Quills I didn't know if I could make it through the day. We shot virtually in order; some of the most intense scenes were in those last weeks. Usually, I wake up, go straight to work and do it. There were times when I woke up and I'd get to the set and sit there going, "f---, f---." But Geoffrey would come in, or Kate, and inspire you. It's a joint effort; you need everyone around you.
How do you characterise the relationship between your character and the Marquis in Quills?
I think that he loves him as you love the most difficult child in the world. Coulmier is one of those people that can find the best in each person and wants to draw that out of them. It's a love-hate relationship. It's very difficult. How do you deal with someone who is so antagonistic? Coulmier is a very rational and logical man. The realisation at the end of the film is that the Marquis denies his ability to love, and Coulmier denies his sexual feelings. By the end, that dream sequence, is a recognition of his humanity, and he draws out of the Marquis that he could love.
Were you familiar with the Marquis de Sade's work?
I'm totally not familiar with his work. It's not a bio-pic at all. I started to read some of the Marquis' work, and then I felt I didn't want to be that familiar with it. It was important to maintain what world we were in. This is not historically accurate. For instance, Madeleine was a prostitute; her mother would prostitute her to the Marquis. Coulmier was a four-foot hunchback with a bum leg. That was the one part that I felt was really accurate, and type-casting!
Do you take much time off?
Actually, I've had a year off. I finished Quills on 20th October last year. It was the last thing I did. I said I wanted four months off. When four months were up, I said, "where's a good script?" I couldn't find anything until now.
Are you a workaholic?
I like six-day weeks, not five-day weeks. I just want enough time to recover from the week, but not enough to get out of the zone.
Were you surprised by the success of Gladiator?
Completely, because I'm the most naive man in the entire world. I guess I thought the kids - the repeat viewers - who loved The Matrix would love black leather and 9mms. So I figured I didn't know how they are going to sell this. I wasn't sure.During the shoot, you never think about that kind of thing. That's the biggest mistake, because then you're catering and you're trying to make it appealing to an audience. By the time I'd recovered from Gladiator and Quills - I pretty much spent two months lying in bed - we were gearing up for press, and I saw that all the executives were smiling and walking around on air. Then I thought this might really hit.
How do you feel about the Oscars?
I think it can be a great thing, but there's also the Oscar curse, where people never work again. But the ugliest thing is when people try and get Oscars. It makes me sick. It's the wrong idea. Nothing really validates your work. It's always the process that excites me. Good reviews are just the icing on the cake. That's always nice when people make a connection with what you do. But there's too much talk, and it has very little with what I want to do. It's not that I'm against the Oscars; I just don't think we should let it dominate the last few months of our year, every time we make a movie. What also bothers me are the wonderful performances in films that aren't recognised. I look at most performances that are nominated and I'm pretty surprised.
How do you escape your characters?
I think it's really subtle. You only realise after months of being out of it. It's never one of those things. Any actor who says that he or she had to leave that character at home on the weekend is full of s--- and pretentious. It's more subtle than that. That's when you see through a performance, when it's all show. There's not one process for either getting into a role or out of it that I've found. For The Yards, it wasn't until a year afterwards that I looked back and wondered how I did it.
Do you still get star-struck?
I'm always surprised when people get star-struck by actors because I think they can be really lame and boring. There's no-one now. I'd be really excited to meet DJ Premiere, who's the producer for Gang Star. I've also spent some time with Robbie Robertson recently, and I absolutely love him. I think he's amazing, and could sit for hours and ask him about being in Woodstock, and being with Dylan and George Harrison. I can understand that with musicians. I would have given anything to be a fly on the wall when The Beatles were recording. For me, I'm more interested in the art-form. I'm more likely to obsess over 'Dear Prudence' and listen to it 20 times in a row, than read a biography of John Lennon.
Would you like to act on stage?
I just saw Richard II on stage. I was so nervous for everyone backstage. I don't know if I could do it. I don't know if I have the nerves for it. I still get nauseous before I film!