“There’s not one approach. It depends on the scene” – Joaquin Phoenix
There are few “name” actors working today that are as enigmatic as Joaquin Phoenix — not only does he rarely pick roles, the roles he chooses tend to be so far out of the mainstream that his performances are always unique and interesting. In his latest film, You Were Never Really Here, Phoenix plays an emotionally damaged man who uses his experience as a veteran to try and do some good in the world. The unfinished film first appeared at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, which resulted in Phoenix winning the Best Actor award. To promote its release in the United States, Phoenix opened up for an uncharacteristically candid interview with the Village Voice.
Though many actors of his stature — especially those who are or aspire to be directors themselves — are particular about how they appear on camera, Phoenix explains that he feels that actors ought not to look at a performance from a behind-the-camera perspective. He says:
“I think it’s a mistake sometimes, as an actor, to think about a movie from the filmmaker’s perspective. It’s hard not to be self-conscious, and it’s one of the struggles that you have as an actor. So, I don’t ask what size lens is there and how much of my body are you seeing. I just have to inhabit the space the way I feel is right. And how the filmmaker captures that or uses it is up to them. It was important to never feel certain of how I was going to behave. The crew was amazing — particularly the camera and sound department, you know, who have to basically follow you around and capture what it is you’re doing — but there really was this feeling that the moment you locked something in, it just started to die. So it felt like things would always have to change and you’d act differently. It was really important for the film and the energy of the character to work that way.”
That means that Phoenix liberally gives credit for his performances to others who work on the film, since he admits that sometimes he doesn’t have much on his mind when he shoots a scene. He explains:
“Movies are strange, man. Sometimes, you hear the writer talk about it, and you read about some of this stuff. For example, we spoke to someone who actually does [hostage] extractions. He goes in with a team. Some of the stories that he told were impossible not to be affected by. But to be honest, sometimes you’re fuckin’ eatin’ Fritos, and you shoot a scene. [Laughs] And you want to take credit for stuff as an actor, but the truth is that it’s really the filmmaking, ultimately. Probably some of the greatest moments in movies the actor was just thinking what was for lunch. So, I don’t know, it’s hard to say. There are times where you feel affected by things, and it’s emotional. But there’s other times when you go, ‘This scene is shit, and this is not fuckin’ working.’ Then somebody tells you a year later, ‘I really love that scene. It felt powerful.’ And you’re like, ‘Oh, really?’ It’s probably different on every movie. And I think you learn something from every movie — even if the lesson is ‘Well, let’s not do that again.'”
Of course, just because Phoenix believes that he learns something from every movie doesn’t mean he has straight answers — in fact, he celebrates the aspect of acting for movies that allows him to make mistakes. He continues:
“There’s not one approach. It depends on the scene. The important thing with this movie was — and I acknowledge I probably do this a lot — to feel comfortable enough to make a lot of mistakes. To be able to say there’s not one right way for him to behave. Again, it seemed like the key was not knowing what his reaction was going to be. I’m sure that sometimes we used just a really straight version of a given scene, but we filmed so many different versions. You just dive head on into that feeling. But sometimes, when you’re making a movie, yeah, your nerves wear off and you grow accustomed to it, or you get tired, or whatever. Maybe it’s a million things over the course of the six weeks. So you just go, ‘OK, well, this is fuckin’ shit,’ and you go outside and you sit and you talk about it, and you try to connect again to what is meaningful about this moment — to try and uncover something that you can latch onto. I guess. I don’t fuckin’ know, man.”
That feeling of not knowing has led Phoenix to spend less time trying to figure out exactly what he’s doing and relying more on what he feels in the moment. He reveals, “I’ve become less interested in mapping things out, as an actor, and making decisions. Or maybe I’m just not good at doing that. Maybe, like, once I’ve made the decision, in that moment, it becomes boring. It just feels dead to me if you say, ‘This is what we’re doing.’ And so, it’s just trying to be open to inspiration and what happens in the moment — feeling comfortable enough to make those decisions.”
In fact, Phoenix reveals that currently he prefers to work on a more intuitive basis, although he has trouble articulating exactly why he feels that way today. He says:
I’ve had both experiences, and certainly, my preference is the more intuitive — because I do think that if you’ve done your work and you feel familiar with the character in the world, that’s…I don’t know, any analogy sounds stupid. It’s like you have all your ingredients, right, and so you know your basics, of what you’re going to put together. But in the moment, you try a few different.… Oh, man, I don’t want to say herbs or fuckin’ spices! That’s so terrible; I don’t want to use that analogy! But you understand what I’m saying. And that is a joy. When I was younger, I thought the whole key to good acting was figuring it out, and locking something in and nailing it. And I just find that repulsive now. It was really something that we went after on this — just trying to be available and open to what the scene might tell you. I like that way of working.