Feeling is believing

Times Staff Writer

It seemed a good day to be Joaquin Phoenix -- noon, a Tuesday, the sun-dappled patio of the Chateau Marmont.

Phoenix entered holding a motorcycle helmet and sunglasses. He has two new movies out, "We Own the Night" and this Friday's "Reservation Road," his first since his interpretation of a young Johnny Cash in 2005's "Walk the Line" earned him a best actor Oscar nomination. The new films are both heavy-duty dramas requiring from Phoenix what he has evoked with stunning professionalism as an actor of only 32 -- a turmoil and vulnerability that would be almost pretty-boy, were it not for the infamous blemish above his lip, a lack of physical perfection that paradoxically means he can't be, you know, Spider-Man.

But "Walk the Line" made him, finally, a star. It was a role -- biopic of icon, made the year after the icon's death -- that could have been disastrous but was, instead, remarkable for the way it interpreted Cash's look and sound without lapsing into impression.

Phoenix says he hasn't seen the film. The last time he watched himself in a movie, apparently, was "Ladder 49," in 2004, in which he was a firefighter. Jay Russell, who directed that movie, said: "Actors who are more technically trained, British guys, they don't mind watching themselves because they can check their technique. Joaq comes from the opposite school."

So Phoenix runs on intuition, his own native intelligence, fearful of becoming objective, self-aware. Whether t this is actorly artifice or an extension of the honesty he leaves on-screen, he rejects the idea that -- for him -- watching his work would be instructive.

"I am abhorrently selfish when it comes to making movies. I have to say that I can't recall when I did see a movie I was in, I can't recall it being a pleasurable experience. And it also was of no use to me."

He had shambled onto the Marmont patio through the back, very punctual. Phoenix had his BlackBerry on the table but otherwise arrived unencumbered, dressed in cords, a loose-fitting Diesel shirt. He mentioned his girlfriend, though not by name. "Hi, beautiful," he said to a big white dog that came wandering by the table. The waitress greeted him with familiarity. The way Phoenix raved about Studio City, and loving L.A., being able to escape into the hills, you figured he lives somewhere in those snaky streets above the hotel, maybe on the Valley side.

"I know this sounds insane, but he's quite shy," James Gray, who directed Phoenix in "The Yards" and "We Own the Night" said.

ACTUALLY it didn't sound insane. Phoenix -- loathe to analyze a performance, or discuss his personal life -- comes off as engaging about his unwillingness to engage. "I enjoy the actual work, do you know?" he said. "I mean, I enjoy between 'Action' and 'Cut' and that's about all I enjoy on a movie. I don't enjoy trailer life. I don't sit in my trailer and watch TV or try to hang out and have friends come by."

"So what do you do?" he was asked.

"You basically sit and wait. It's like a . . . horse waiting in the race thing, just waiting for the gate to open."

"So you go back in your trailer and you sit and you're sort of brooding? Not brooding, but you're sort of sitting. . . . "

"It's amazing that if you're not watching 'Friends' and, like, drinking Champagne with your friends, then you're brooding?"

"No, no, no. Reading, writing, talking on the phone, whatever."

"No, I mean, you look at your script, and you think about the scene coming up, and you work on them. . . . Most of my rehearsals take place in my head and it's like, that's what that time is for. And sleep," he added. "I will sleep."

That line -- "I will sleep" -- is said with a shy flourish. Sometimes Phoenix's expression resolves itself into the hormonally overloaded, tragically love-struck teenager in "To Die For," the dark comedy in which his talent burst into view.

"Reservation Road," you sense, is another Oscar-radar performance. Though in the film he's not a Roman emperor ("Gladiator") or porn shop clerk ("8MM"). He's -- get this -- a rumpled college professor with a beard.

Phoenix spends the entirety of the film more or less in a state of obsession and anguish. Based on the novel by John Burnham Schwartz, "Reservation Road" is about a husband and father, Ethan Learner (Phoenix), undone by the hit-and-run death of his 7-year-old son, who abandons his family, emotionally, avoiding his grief by channeling it into hunting down the perpetrator, another town resident played by Mark Ruffalo.

"He's both devoted to the craft of acting and like, intimidated by the -- not intimidated, it's not the right word. I think the process is painful to him," said "Reservation Road" director Terry George, who also directed Phoenix in "Hotel Rwanda."

George ticks off the handful of contemporary actors who, like Phoenix, can burrow into the depths of character and moment -- Sean Penn, Daniel Day Lewis, Javier Bardem. "They try to be truthful to the story and the character. And it becomes a really tough thing for them."

Other comparisons: Pacino and De Niro, in the '70s. Phoenix mentions seeing Al Pacino in "Dog Day Afternoon" as an early influence. ("There are five things going on in his head, and it's extraordinary to witness.") Gray compares Phoenix's commitment, regardless, to Robert De Niro doing Rupert Pupkin in "The King of Comedy."

"He wants to be considered one of those actors," Russell said. "Whether he would ever want to admit it or not, he's a professional." Of all of Phoenix's conflicted feelings before "Action!" and after "Cut!" Russell said: "My personal wish for him is that he would stop torturing himself."

Next month, Phoenix goes to New York to shoot "Two Lovers" with Gwyneth Paltrow, a "tender little romance," funny and sad, according to writer-director Gray.

It'll mark the third film he and Phoenix have done together. Their most recent, "We Own the Night," is set in the New York of the late 1980s and has Phoenix on familiar ground as the black sheep son in a family of cops from Queens, a nightclub manager caught between a professional alliance with a vicious Russian cocaine dealer and his family of law enforcement.

Mark Wahlberg is the good brother, a cop; Robert Duvall the police chief father. That's the archetypal Hollywood architecture; the most stirring scenes are between Phoenix and Duvall -- two intelligent actors, one young, the other legendary, conveying a tortured history without saying much.

Phoenix wanted to talk about that, how Bobby's relationship with his dad is more intimate for being troubled. Gray, he said, had told him of a childhood friend who came from an abusive family but felt left out because his older siblings were hit and he wasn't. "It's such a powerful idea, that somebody could feel left out and feel that their father hated them because he didn't take the time to smack them around. Those kinds of things to me are utterly fascinating."

Not unlike, in some ways, the difficult father-and-son story in "Walk the Line." There is a touching scene at the end, a kind of reconciliation moment.

Phoenix was asked about that moment.

"I don't know, I don't remember that," he said. "I just remember walking down some stairs and saying something. That's it."

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