Joaquin Phoenix slapped his ‘Napoleon’ costar Vanessa Kirby — because she said he could

 Separate pictures showing actors Joaquin Phoenix (wearing a dark jacket) and Vanessa Kirby (wearing a gold-hued dress).
“Napoleon” stars Joaquin Phoenix and Vanessa Kirby mutually agreed to be spontaneous — even if it meant getting physical — while playing the French emperor and his wife Joséphine.
(Michael Buckner / Variety via Getty Images; Mike Coppola / WireImage)
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Joaquin Phoenix unexpectedly slapped Vanessa Kirby while shooting a scene for “Napoleon.”

It was done, he said, to maintain an element of surprise. And, surprisingly, Kirby had actually given her consent.

Oscar winner Phoenix plays the titular role in Ridley Scott’s biopic about the French military commander and Kirby plays his wife, Joséphine de Beauharnais. In an attempt to reflect the emperor and empress’ chaotic relationship in the late 1700s — and infuse spontaneity into the historical material — the actors allowed themselves to go to dark places, they said in a new Empire interview that was conducted prior to the Hollywood actors’ strike.

One such dark place involved the unscripted slap Phoenix planted on “The Crown” star’s face.

“We were using the real words from their divorce in the church,” Kirby told the magazine. “When that happens, you can faithfully go through an archival re-enactment of it and read out the lines and then go home. But we always wanted to surprise each other.”


Phoenix, a famously immersive actor, said he and the “Mission: Impossible” franchise star mutually agreed to do “whatever” they felt they needed to do, including getting physical.

“I said, ‘Same thing with you,’” Phoenix added, “She said, ‘You can slap me, you can grab me, you can pull me, you can kiss me, whatever it is.’ So we had this agreement that we were going to surprise each other and try and create moments that weren’t there, because both of us wanted to avoid the cliché of the period drama. And by that I mean moments that are well-orchestrated and designed.”

Kirby, 35, praised the “Joker” actor for being so open to the process: “It’s the greatest thing when you have a creative partner and you say, ‘Right, everything’s safe. I’m with you. And we’re gonna go to the dark places together.’”

Phoenix, 48, added that the two of them “encouraged” and “demanded” that they challenge themselves to shock each other. And the slap is what came out of one of those moments.

The moment did not, however, appear in the trailer that Apple TV and Sony Pictures Entertainment released last month.

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The “Walk the Line” star last teamed with Scott in 2000’s “Gladiator,” the Roman Empire epic in which he played Commodus. Though the acclaimed director has approached Phoenix for other projects over the years, the actor passed because neither of them felt the films were “as demanding for both of us” as “Gladiator” had been.


“I really liked the idea of jumping into something with Ridley that was going to be that,” Phoenix said. Scott, meanwhile, told a slightly different story, revealing that Phoenix didn’t know what to do with the role of the French emperor weeks before production began.

“He’ll come in, and you’re f— two weeks’ out, and he’ll say, ‘I don’t know what to do,’” Scott told the magazine. “I’ll say, ‘What?!’ ‘I don’t know what to do.’ Oh God, I said, ‘Come in, sit down.’ We sat for [10] days, all day, talking scene by scene. In a sense, we rehearsed. Absolutely detail by detail.”

“Napoleon,” written by “All the Money in the World” screenwriter David Scarpa, opens in theaters on Thanksgiving.