it’s Joaquin’s 38th Birthday today so we are wishing him a happy birthday
When I show up 15 minutes early to meet Joaquin Phoenix for our interview, he is already there—and based on the cigarette butt in the ashtray, he’s been waiting for me for a bit. The notoriously reticent Phoenix regards me with a chuckle: “Good luck with this conversation,” he says, smiling.
Phoenix, 37, has made a triumphal return to the movies with his starring role in Paul Thomas Anderson’s intimate epic,The Master, in which he plays the lost and yearning Freddie Quell, a World War II veteran trying to clear his head when he meets the charismatic Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), an author and academic whose oratorical gifts are so silken that he seems to even be hypnotizing himself. The Master trails Freddie in his search for meaning in postwar America. But while Phoenix himself can be an evasive talker, his intent does not appear to be slipperiness or obfuscation. He simply seems uninterested in pimping himself, and is more prone to dropping his awe of Hoffman or his nervousness about working with Anderson; if Phoenix ever writes a Master making-of diary, each entry will likely start with, “Today I’ll probably be fired . . .”
Anderson made Phoenix’s eager restlessness central to Freddie—and The Master as well. I can’t think of another filmmaker whose work focuses almost entirely on anxiety. It may be something that he has in common with Phoenix, who took testing one’s limits to a new level-high or low, depending on your feeling about it—with I’m Still Here (2010), his collaboration with director, best friend, and brother-in-law Casey Affleck. Despite the haze that he created around that film—in which he announced plans to give up acting for a career in hip-hop—Phoenix wants to be understood; and in its aftermath, he wants audiences to be surprised by his performances while they’re still current. So even as Phoenix claimed that he had nothing to say (which was hardly the case), he was generous with his time and did something interview subjects rarely do: easily 20 percent of the conversation was his questioning me. He stayed long enough to be late—quite late—for another appointment, and even took a moment to chat up another lunch guest at the Sunset Tower Hotel when he excused himself from the table and bellowed, “You never call, you never write, you skipped my Bar Mitzvah,” as he strode over to give a warm hello toRichard Lewis. After Phoenix exited, Lewis leaned in and said of his old friend, “He’s a great actor—and a good man. He’s been away too long.” I had to agree.
ELVIS MITCHELL: What do you see in movies when you watch them that makes you think, This is a director who I want to work with? Or does that ever occur to you?
JOAQUIN PHOENIX: I actually like it when I’m not really familiar with the director’s work.
PHOENIX: Yeah. I remember doing a movie and the director gave me a DVD of one of his films to watch. We had this meeting, and I was like, “I like him. I want to work with him, so I don’t want to watch the movie.” I don’t know . . . I was probably foolish.
MITCHELL: Do you want to be surprised when you work with someone? Is that what it is?
PHOENIX: [pauses] I don’t know . . . I don’t know why. Obviously, there are some people, like Ridley [Scott]—I’d seen Blade Runner  and Alien  growing up, so I knew those films before we did Gladiator . But I guess I just want to base my decision off my interaction with the person, kind of . . . [sighs]
MITCHELL: So it’s not just a matter of working with somebody’s résumé. You want to work with the person.
PHOENIX: Yeah. I mean, I guess the smart thing would be to do both, but maybe it’s just laziness on my part. I don’t know. I just don’t want to have to sit through a movie. [Mitchell laughs] What the fuck? I don’t know . . .
MITCHELL: Do you find it tough to connect with movies? Would you rather be making them than watching them? Is that what it is?
PHOENIX: Definitely . . . Well, imagine being, like, a magician, and then going to watch other magicians. Sometimes you watch crap magicians. Every once in a while you see a great one and you’re like, “Oh, fuck. That’s cool.” But as a magician, you know everything that happens, and it just takes you out of the whole thing. So when you get a movie where you don’t see any of those things, that’s when it’s awesome. You’re just caught up in the moment. But with so many movies, it’s not really enjoyable.
MITCHELL: Do you think it’s because you started in the business so young and you got to see so much of this stuff happening and were aware of it at a really early age?