"He was really generous with his time, especially because he was prepping to do another film with Paul Thomas Anderson," Johansson recalled. "We'd come in and do these amazing, productive sessions. There's no rule book to how that kind of thing works."

But it was when I asked Phoenix what he thought about Jonze's decision to recast Morton's part — ultimately creating more work for him — that the actor hit me with his "how long have you been doing this?" jab. 

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Despite being palpably ruffled, Phoenix heaped praise on Jonze and voiced support for the director's call to replace a cherished colleague in pursuit of his "vision."

"It made me have great appreciation for Spike and his tenacity and willingness to do whatever it took to get it right," said Phoenix. "He was digging and digging. I really admired that."

Immediately after our interview, the photo shoot for this story unfolded with its own challenges. At one point Phoenix stopped posing for our photographer and accused me of shooting surreptitious video of him with my phone's camera, an event that never occurred. Why would I secretly film him after our consensual conversation? I asked. Afterward, the actor said he regretted confronting me and walked me to my car.

With the sun low in a slate-gray winter sky and my tape recorder off, Phoenix seemed more at ease. He spoke expansively about a book he'd read about the unconscious mind and how, for better or worse, he had taken a more "intuitive" career track since "I'm Still Here." He talked admiringly of Michael Jordan and the former Chicago Bull's free-form approach to dunking a basketball. We shook hands and went our separate ways.

Ten days later, my cellphone buzzed with a blocked-number call: Phoenix. He'd thought about our conversation and wanted to pick things up precisely where they'd gone off-track. Specifically, he wanted to make sure I understood Morton's absence from the finished film didn't negate the actress' contribution to "Her."

"She was my partner," Phoenix said. "She was always in my head. She created Theodore as much as I did."

His disembodied voice sounded quieter and calmer than it had in person. It wasn't a hug. But it was closure.

chris.lee@latimes.com