Joaquin Phoenix on Acting: “Don’t overthink it, let it be what it is”


Actor Joaquin Phoenix

“If you keep trying to find what’s unique in the moment, then the danger is that you miss that very thing.” – Joaquin Phoenix

Of all actors known for their unconventional approach to acting, Joaquin Phoenix might be the most unconventional. Known to shun publicity and to be extremely selective when it comes to roles, Phoenix isn’t an actor who often speaks about why he decides to take certain roles. Surprisingly, Phoenix did an interview with The Guardian about his latest role in You Were Never Really Here, in which he plays an ex-veteran with PTSD who rescues girls involved in sex trafficking. He also talks about how he portrays his characters and why he connected with acting immediately.

Phoenix is one of those actors who makes what he does seem effortless. Part of that comes out of how he approaches acting. He explains, “Just be in the moment. Don’t overthink it, let it be what it is. If you keep trying to find what’s unique in the moment, then the danger is that you miss that very thing.” In fact, Phoenix later reveals what he thinks is one of the advantages of acting on screen: “The great thing about film is that you get to make mistakes.”

One aspect of the character that Phoenix connected with was how director Lynne Ramsay described the character he would play. He says, “Lynne sent me an audio file of Fourth of July fireworks. She said: ‘That’s what’s happening inside Joe’s head.’ That’s one thing that really clicked for me.”

Phoenix approaches playing Jesus similarly, even though Jesus has been celebrated in art for two thousand years and has been portrayed countless times by actors. Phoenix says that Jesus is covered in “Lots of material. Lots of conflicting material. But, in the end, it’s a character. And, as with all characters, whether it’s Johnny Cash or whoever, you have to make it about a man; about his personal experience. And for Jesus, what makes his death such a sacrifice is that he didn’t want to die. This was a man who wanted to continue the experience of living, just as we all do. So it was important to me to find those human qualities.”

Reflecting on his origins as an actor, Phoenix looks back at the first time he appeared on camera as a life-changing moment. He recalls feeling “Instantaneous joy. The most enjoyable thing. For some kids, it’s the first time they crack a ball or score a goal. For me, it was this. I was eight years old, and I remember the first scene on the TV set so vividly. And I knew that I loved it – the physical sensation; how powerful it was. That’s the feeling I’ve been chasing ever since.”

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