On a late October afternoon, the day before his 45th birthday, Joaquin Phoenix sits in a Los Angeles hotel suite and somewhat sheepishly lights an American Spirit cigarette. Back in August, he had managed to quit smoking for about three weeks, he explains, but then he started up again when he traveled to the Venice Film Festival in September for the world premiere of his new film “Joker.” “It’s awful,” Phoenix says, shaking his head. “I’ve got to stop.”
It’s perhaps understandable that the actor has fallen back on a stress-relieving crutch like smoking given the head-spinning journey he’s found himself on lately. A grim, gritty take on the origin of the comic-book world’s most iconic villain, director Todd Phillips’ “Joker” rode into theaters last month on a wave of headline-grabbing controversy and sharply divided reviews and became an instant smash.
The Warner Bros. film has taken in nearly $1 billion worldwide to date, setting a record for the highest-grossing R-rated movie of all time, and Phoenix’s turn as the troubled would-be-comedian-turned-murderous-evildoer Arthur Fleck has put him at the heart of this year’s lead actor Oscar race.
Plenty of films reap box office riches, but “Joker” has proved to be a bona fide cultural phenomenon. Fans have been making pilgrimages to a stairway in the Bronx to reenact the scene in which Fleck does a high-kicking dance down those steps. Endless think pieces about the movie have exploded across the internet, and viewers have pored over its every detail for clues about what it all means. Phoenix’s Joker suit was, according to one survey, among this year’s most popular Halloween costumes.
All the attention has been a lot for Phoenix to wrap his brain around. This is an actor who has always held fame at an ironic remove, to the point that he made a fake documentary, 2010’s “I’m Still Here,” chronicling his supposed crackup and decision to become a rapper. “I don’t think I expected this movie to be successful,” he says. “I don’t know if I had any expectation. Honestly, Todd and I were just trying to make something that didn’t end our careers.”
Before “Joker” came along, Phoenix had turned down a number of offers to star in comic-book movies. This wasn’t out of some aversion to the genre per se, he insists. (“I’m open to anything — I will consider a live-action version of ‘Road Runner.’ ”) He simply worried about being swallowed up by the sometimes soulless franchise machinery that often goes along with superhero fare.
“I remember, like eight years ago, I was told, ‘Movies are changing. They’re not making the movies that you want to make, so you’ve got to do one of these,’ ” Phoenix says. “It makes sense. It probably is a good strategy. But for me, I guess the fear was that you’d get locked into doing something repeatedly that you don’t really care about, that doesn’t motivate you or excite you.”
But despite Phoenix’s apparent resistance, Phillips was bent from the start on enticing the actor — who has earned three Oscar nominations for his work in 2000’s “Gladiator,” 2005’s “Walk the Line” and 2012’s “The Master” — to bring the Joker to life.
“There’s a little wildness in Joaquin’s eyes,” Phillips says. “I jokingly say he seems like an agent of chaos. He likes blurring the line between what’s real and what’s not. Just based on what I’d seen of him in movies or on TV doing interviews, there was something about that chaotic nature that just felt right.”
Though it took Phoenix four months to finally agree to sign on to the project, he was won over by Phillips’ vision for a grounded character study more akin to Martin Scorsese films like “Taxi Driver” and “Raging Bull” than the typical comic-book movie with its CGI spectacle, capes and quips. “Most movies feel so rigid; every moment is designed,” Phoenix says. “This felt like it was untethered and without a blueprint.”
Working with a budget of $55 million — just a fraction of the typical comic-book movie — Phillips and Phoenix pushed each other to delve ever deeper into Fleck’s complex, disturbed psyche. From the start, they felt there was more than enough to uncover. “In the second or third week of shooting, I was like, ‘Todd, can you start working on a sequel? There’s way too much to explore,’ ” Phoenix says. “It was kind of in jest — but not really.”
Phillips makes it clear there is nothing in the works at the moment, but he’s not opposed to the idea of a sequel. “But it couldn’t just be this wild and crazy movie about the ‘Clown Prince of Crime,’ ” he says. “It would have to have some thematic resonance in a similar way that this does. Because I think that’s ultimately why the movie connected, it’s what’s going on underneath. So many movies are about the spark, and this is about the powder. If you could capture that again in a real way, that would be interesting.”
In the run-up to its release, “Joker” got off to an auspicious start, earning raves at Venice and winning the festival’s top prize. But soon, controversy began to swirl around the film as some critics questioned whether, in an age of all-too-frequent mass shootings, its depiction of an alienated loner wreaking bloody vengeance on an uncaring society was irresponsible and even dangerous. As the criticism intensified, Phoenix appeared to some to be trying to dodge the issue, at one point reportedly walking out of an interview with a reporter for an hour after being asked whether he was concerned the movie could inspire violence.
Looking back, Phoenix says now, he had felt blindsided by the controversy. Based on his own research into the type of people who commit assassinations and mass shootings, he feared that lending credence and media oxygen to the debate might do more to inspire some disturbed would-be killer to try to grab the limelight than a film about a fictional character ever would on its own.
“It was an awkward position to be in because I thought, ‘Well, I can’t address this because this is the thing that is potentially part of the problem — that’s precisely what you shouldn’t do,’” he says. “So it suddenly seemed like I was being evasive and trying to avoid this topic because it made me uncomfortable. But really I was thinking, ‘This is the very thing that would excite this kind of personality.’ ”
After weeks of what he calls “noise and meshugas,” Phillips says he feels vindicated to see that the film — which both he and Phoenix say was never meant to glorify the Joker’s behavior — has struck a chord with audiences around the world.
“It’s not the box office but the reception that’s been vindicating,” Phillips says. “It’s the fact that I get emails from people telling me that the movie made them look at their sister who suffers from schizophrenia in a different light. Ultimately, the movie is about the power of kindness and the lack of empathy in the world, and the audience seems to have picked up on that. It’s amazing that a movie that was supposed to inspire, as they put it, mass mayhem really has just inspired a bunch of people dancing down staircases. I think that speaks more to our times than anything.”
If anything, Phoenix says, the ongoing debate over “Joker” is a testament to the movie’s ability to stir emotions and questions that continue to swirl in the minds of moviegoers long after they leave the theater. Is Arthur Fleck a victim of cruel circumstances or a monster of his own making? Did the events of the movie really happen the way we see them or were they the product of Fleck’s deluded mind? Is he even really the Joker or did he perhaps only inspire the comic-book villain as we’ve come to know him?
Phoenix is still pondering many of those things himself. “It’s been super interesting how people react to the movie and what they see — and to me, all of those answers are valid,” he says. “Normally you have to answer those questions. But this really is participatory and interactive. It’s up to the audience. That’s so rare, especially with a big studio movie, and I don’t want to ruin that by saying, ‘No, this is what it is.’ To me, there are so many different ways to view this character and his experience that I don’t think you can come up with a particular meaning.”
To him, it’s those ambiguities that make the film worthwhile. For the record, Phoenix says, he does personally believe that Fleck is the actual Joker. “But I don’t know,” he adds with a wry smile. “It’s just my opinion.”