Joaquin Phoenix on We Own the Night

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With his undeniable talent and his chameleon-like ability to transform so believably into his characters, Joaquin Phoenix has become one of the most brilliant actors of his generation. His intensity and quest for constant perfection in his craft make him intriguing to watch on the big screen, but it’s his unpredictable behavior and brutal honesty that makes him fascinating for a journalist to interview him.

At the press junket for Columbia Pictures’ cop thriller We Own the Night, Phoenix could not have been more entertaining as he came in puzzled by the “square hollow” table the studio set up for us and immediately walked out. We looked stunned for a second knowing that he’s left interviews before and weren’t sure if he was coming back. Fortunately he did a couple of minutes later with a plate in hand for his lit cigarette laughing and talked to us for quite some time about his new role.

ComingSoon.net: Mark said that your only role in producing this movie was to ask why a particular scene of yours hadn’t been cut from it.
Joaquin Phoenix: My role as producer is really as an actor that didn’t get paid as much as he was supposed to therefore they offered him a production credit. He agreed to it because he’s greedy [laughter] and that’s essentially the story for me to be perfectly honest.

CS: Don’t you get anything on the backend? Don’t you get points?
Phoenix: Let’s talk about your back end. Lets talk about some of your stuff and get into that. [laughter]

CS: But they didn’t give you any money?
Phoenix: It’s very, very tough out there. No, it’s not that I wasn’t paid well, it’s just I wasn’t paid the crazy exorbitant amount that I’d been paid before.

CS: You’ve now worked with direct James Gray twice.
Phoenix: I like working with James a lot. It’s difficult for me to be able to pinpoint exactly what it is. But, I think it’s that he loves human psychology. He loves actors. He loves talking about acting. We just exchange texts, e-mails and phone conversations. We’re getting ready to do something in November. I always forget what the process is like in a movie and now we’re getting ready for something. He’s just available to talk about anything and I really enjoy that because, to me, that’s what the prep period is about. You just have a lot of yes and no questions in some ways. I’ve never found a director that wasn’t really available for the actor but James just has an interesting way of looking at things and what he’s trying to conjure. Nothing is really just what it seems. I was trying to think of an example and I can’t think of one but it’s almost like if there was a funeral scene, let’s say you were talking about it trying to figure out what everybody might say, “well, you know how everyone comes together from thousands of miles apart and they all meet together and everyone’s there to take care of each other?”, and you go “oh, yes. Do you feel that?” He goes, “well no. That guy’s your uncle and he was trying to screw over that person. Your mom, she screwed that guy,” and he suddenly introduces all these less than favorable qualities that most humans have and you find those dynamics in families. And, I always find that interesting. He’s delves beyond the surface and what is kind of the obvious dynamics between people and introduces things that you might not have thought of. Or, that you get trained, in a sense, by Hollywood to not think of. I think it’s rare that you find that.

CS: What do you like about working with Mark?
Phoenix: He’s gorgeous to look at. No, Mark is really hard-working. It means a lot to me. I think it’s something that I value in other people but I think the best thing about Mark is there’s such truth and authenticity in his performances. I’m always surprised. I hate revealing the truth but I remember doing this scene with him and James had just come up with brand new dialogue for him literally, as we’re walking to set, he’s come up with this new dialogue and I had some as well so, of course, I’m sweating and panicking and figuring out how am I gonna say this? Mark looks really comfortable. Then we go to set and he absolutely, f**kin’ nailed the scene. It was unbelievable to me that somebody could do that because it took me a while to get anywhere. It was just good enough where I got to and he just kind of did it so there’s a real truth, something totally unpretentious about him. It just feels like he’s there.

CS: Were you always going to be Bobby and Mark be Joe from the outset? Was there ever a possibility that you would play Joe?
Phoenix: Well, it depended on Brad Pitt’s availability, then Leo’s availability. I remember talking about playing Joseph with James when we first talked about it. First it was Joseph, then he started talking about Bobby but it was like on “The Yards,” me and Mark switched back and forth. I don’t know. At some point, it became clear like the last three months that I was gonna play Bobby.

CS: This and your character in “Reservation Road,” do you have an affinity with those kind of characters. Does it flex your acting muscles in a way that other characters don’t?
Phoenix: Yeah. I think I’d be bored. First of all drama is conflict. It’s just that simple. You want conflict in the character. If not, I’m bored to f**kin’ death. I don’t know a single person in life that doesn’t have conflict. It’s a movie so they’re like extreme versions of these things, these things that we don’t necessarily experience in life and it’s a way to experience and study it. I think, honestly, it probably just comes down to boredom, being bored or not. Because I’ve been on films where they were just like, quote, unquote, regular guys and it was really f**kin’ tedious and boring to me. I don’t enjoy acting enough to not want to experience something that really affects things. Like if you were a surfer, would you want to surf where there were like two foot waves or would you want to surf on ten foot waves? To me, the more dramatic stories are more exciting for me to play. There’s too much other stuff that goes into it; the make-up, the hair and the wardrobe and taking pictures and doing press and all this s**t that I don’t really enjoy. It’s not worth it to be without having an experience that would be intense.

CS: With this and “Reservation Road,” I’m sitting there going “is Joaquin gonna be all right?” It looks like you’re going to some very dark places.
Phoenix: It’s an awkward position to be in. It’s like I’ve read some stuff about bands and songs or a particular album and you find out that song is written about his aunt or something and you’re like “hell, I’ve been loving this girl because of this song. What are you doing to me? It’s about your f**kin’ aunt?” [laughter] I always feel like often times, actors just lie in the press and say they’re really affected by things or else I think it ruins the experience should anybody happen to read this. I think it can potentially ruin the experience. I wouldn’t really want to listen to that thinking that the guy was thinking about what was for lunch. But, to be honest, I’ve done a lot of scenes where I’m thinkin’ like “what the f**k is for lunch? I can’t wait to get out of here.” People talk about being affected by stuff and having dreams and s**t, if you go home and I happen to be in one of your dreams tonight, I don’t think it’s because you were like sooo affected by this, putting your heart and soul into these interviews. I think it’s just we were around each other so I popped into your dreams.

CS: Did you have only one take of that Eva Mendes scene?
Phoenix: I asked for seventy! But we did only get one take.

CS: But was it as good for Eva?
Phoenix: She said “we’re done. That’s it.” Halfway through the take, she was like, “God we’re done. I think you got it.”

CS: But how was it to work with Eva? Did you get to practice your Spanish on her?
Phoenix: I didn’t practice my Spanish with her. It was great working with Eva. They were like “we cast Eva Mendes.” I was like “great.” Then I met her and we were walking to the hotel and there were all these cameras and I was like “oh, sorry. I know, it drives me crazy.” So, she walked one way and I went the other way and they followed her! “Who is this woman?” But with Eva I was surprised. James and I would get together every weekend throughout filming and go over the following week’s work and figure it out and all throughout rehearsals every day. Eva was there every, single day. We had to tell her “actually, we’re not talking about anything you should know about. It’s just about Bobby. You don’t need to know” and she’d be like “oh, okay.” But it’s kind of rare to find people. You can really get away with just kind of showing up as an actor. It’s not like a bad thing. But, you don’t really have to come in on weekends. The fact that she wanted to and was willing to do that, I thought was really good. I thought she was really amazing. It was a really difficult role to do and she’s amazing. Again, there’s a scene where we’re talking in a car being driven and she’s really amazing. When you think about the fact that we’re sitting on a street with lights around and there’s dudes rocking the bumper from outside and then, just beyond the tape, are dudes taking pictures of Eva trying to get through, and she’s doing the scenes and you’re like “f**k.” Because, don’t you watch movies sometimes, and you have that thing of “I could f**kin’ do that.” Everyone has that thing like it’s not so difficult and, in a lot of ways, it’s not but those situations; you have an emotional scene and it’s utterly ridiculous. There’s literally four dudes running around your car pumping it like that and you’re supposed to pretend people are after you.

CS: Is this next character you are doing with James in this new romantic film as dark?
Phoenix: Yeah. I wouldn’t know.

CS: How would you define that character?
Phoenix: I wouldn’t.

CS: What’s the name of the character you play?
Phoenix: Don’t even know.

CS: Can you talk a little bit about working with Duvall?
Phoenix: Yes, of course. F**k, man. Who doesn’t love Duvall? He’s an unbelievable actor. I remember him making an impression on me when I was very young. I remember seeing “Apocalypse Now” and being like “who is this dude?” It’s pretty amazing. Then, once getting to know him, I value his work even more in some ways, especially when you look at “The Godfather” and stuff. He’s so dissimilar to that character. Honestly, it was a little intimidating at times because he’s so f**kin’ good. There was never a false moment. Or, if he felt like there was a false moment, he didn’t show it. I guess I feel like sometimes I struggle with things to give them some weight or some truth. They’re like “rolling, speed” and he’ll lean over and tell you a joke or his biggest thing is to talk about food for some reason. He’s amazing. He was immediately that character. We kind of fell into that dynamic almost immediately. We had one night where we kind of just started improv-ing and he did the most amazing thing. He did this one gesture in a church. We’re having a conversation early on in the film and I get up to leave and I get up to step over the pew and he just put his hand out as if I was going to fall and this was after a little argument. It was a beautiful choice because here is this father and son that are at odds and still that instinctual, kind of paternal quality of reaching to make sure your son’s okay. Just little things like that I thought were really beautiful.

CS: Are you in line for anything else after the next James movie if the strike happens?
Phoenix: I don’t know. I don’t know what I’ll do.

We Own the Night hits theaters on Friday, October 12.