Street Fighting Man

 By Mark Adams AOL Entertainment (2001)

Actor Joaquin Phoenix on life, strife and the American Dream

IN2FILM: Was it your character Willie Gutierrez's pursuit of the American dream that drew you to this role?

JOAQUIN PHOENIX: I liked the dichotomy of his ambiguity, that he is a good guy but he is also a bad guy at the same time. When I read the script, I wasn't sure where his character was going to go. He so wanted that tired-out American "dream", to move in the fast track of love and business and live the big-house/big-car life, wife-and-kids sort of life, that Frank Olchin (James Caan) has. He wanted to entirely change his life for this dream. There's not much I'd change about my own life because I feel grounded, something my parents taught me to be, but the characters in the film don't seem to have a background of family and love to hold them together.

IN2FILM: Can you understand his motivation?

JOAQUIN PHOENIX: Absolutely. Most of us live in a society which verges on the pursuit of the American Dream - you are surrounded by images of "the good life". However, a lot of people don't have the moral support or guidance to make these good life decisions and things start to slip away from them. I don't condone the actions of the hooligans in the film, but I must sympathise with them and try to understand what leads to these actions.

IN2FILM: What was the toughest scene to shoot?

JOAQUIN PHOENIX: Without a doubt the street-fighting sequence between me and Mark (Wahlberg). It was the hardest scene I've ever shot. Obviously we'd rehearsed it and it was all staged, but we went out there fighting for real. It has to look realistic and capture the brutality of the street fight. I think it's one of the greatest fights I've ever seen. James set up three cameras and we just went. The next day we were black and blue all the way down because we had to do more than the one take that we had planned, because during the first take - which is what you see until it cuts - we lost our elbow pads. They literally went flying - which is crazy because elbow pads don't fly. You battle to get them off when you've finished with them.

IN2FILM: Was your director James Gray a hard taskmaster?

JOAQUIN PHOENIX: You do what you have to do to make a film right. Kick it into shape. I liked Little Odessa a lot and I really trusted James shooting The Yards. He had an emotional commitment. Every single scene was important, life and death important, to him. I actually don't think there's one false moment in this film.