Joaquin Phoenix takes unpredictable path in ‘The Master’
Johnny Cash in “Walk the Line,” the ruthless emperor’s son Commodus in “Gladiator,” and now a violent, wayward World War II veteran, Freddie Quell, in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master”: Does Joaquin Phoenix play dangerous, intense and troubled so well because it’s not much of a stretch?
The actor has blurred the boundary between difficult professional and personal personas for years, cutting off photo shoots and appearing disdainful of interviewers. Most notably, there was his long dive into performance art in 2010 — in which he grew a shaggy beard, went monosyllabic in TV appearances and pretended to quit acting, delving into a world of debauchery to transform himself into a rapper for the film “I’m Still Here.”
So it was a bit of a jolt to find Phoenix, 37, light, open and impish on the Chateau Marmont patio on a recent Saturday morning. Dressed in a rumpled light blue dress shirt, dark blue cords and heavy black boots that seem inappropriate for an 80-degree day, Phoenix came armed with a pack of American Spirit cigarettes, a lighter and a surprising sense of mischief.
“I don’t want to disappoint you, so I’m going to smoke,” he joked, moments after the Hollywood retreat granted special dispensation to the Oscar-nominated actor to light up.
Perhaps Phoenix’s buoyancy has something to do with the mounds of early praise and Academy Awards talk already being heaped on “The Master,” which opens Friday. Though some early viewers have found the film mystifying and frustratingly complex, Phoenix’s unpredictable performance opposite Philip Seymour Hoffman has been roundly lauded.
Hoffman plays Lancaster Dodd, a.k.a. Master, a man with a controlled, erudite air who in the late 1940s pens a book not unlike L. Ron Hubbard’s “Dianetics” and starts to amass a following verging on cultish. Into his orbit comes Phoenix’s Freddie, a giant ball of impulse who seems to be perennially fighting or fornicating. A kinetic, dangerous man-child, it’s unclear what has left Freddie so profoundly unable to function well as a human being — perhaps it’s the horrors of war, a turbulent childhood or the toxic amounts of homemade moonshine he’s constantly consuming.
An early, intense scene sets up their dynamic: The Master wants to assess Freddie’s personality by asking him a series of questions, and orders Freddie not to blink when answering. At one point, the Master asks: “Are you unpredictable?” and Freddie’s reply is supposed to be a scream.
But Phoenix fretted that it would ring false.
“I was worried about it for months,” he recalled. “This is horrible. I’m stuck on this little piece. I’m just going to have to do something that feels unexpected for me. Of course, then I’m just like a little 8-year-old. Paul and I are both stupid, little 8-year-olds that love potty jokes and things of that nature.”
Phoenix’s solution? Ask the prop guy to acquire a flatulence machine (yes, they make such things) to alleviate the tension during the moment.
“I was just going to do this for me, for the first couple of takes, to kill the expectation of the scream, because I felt this pressure to do this thing that I couldn’t do.”
Hoffman delivered the line, Anderson cued the machine and everyone cracked up. “We did it, we laughed, and then we just kept doing it and we never went back to the screaming thing,” said Phoenix, whose improvisational flatulence made the final cut. The scream was killed. “It’s certainly not the scene where we finish and everyone is saying, ‘Ooh, brilliant.’ We were little stupid 8-year-olds laughing at each other’s fake farts.”
“The Master” is Phoenix’s first film to arrive in theaters since “I’m Still Here,” but it’s not the only thing he’s been at work on. He’s made a movie with director Spike Jonze’s called “Her” in which he plays a lonely writer who falls in love with his personal computer’s new operating system. And he will appear in “Nightingale,” a new film from frequent collaborator James Gray.
Last week, Gray showed a short clip of “Nightingale” at the Telluride Film Festival; it features Phoenix as yet another dark, complex character and stars Jeremy Renner and Marion Cotillard.
The films are a welcome opportunity for Phoenix, who initially found Hollywood giving him a bit of a cold shoulder when the bizarre fake documentary premiered.
“For some time, people didn’t know if [the gag] was continuing in some way. I would go in for meetings and they were not sure if I was [messing] with them or not,” said Phoenix. “There was a noticeable drop in quality from things that I had looked at before ‘I’m Still Here.’ I thought, ‘Wow, I’ve certainly limited myself in terms of the kind of work I can do. I can still get a job, but it’s not the job I want to get.’”
Yet Phoenix says he doesn’t regret the year and a half he spent on the film with his close friend and brother-in-law, Casey Affleck. The whole process required the very private actor, who lives in Los Angeles, to do many things outside his comfort zone. He spent hours online reading about himself to track his “character’s” public demise, and he had to make a spectacle of himself, a challenge for someone who relishes that he can “cruise through” life rarely getting recognized.
As it turned out, “The Master” — and Anderson’s meditative filmmaking style — proved to be a superb segue back into more traditional projects, the actor said.
“I was so fortunate to make this film after ‘I’m Still Here’ because in many respects, there were a lot of unknowns that we could discover in the moment. That was very similar to where we would go” in “I’m Still Here,” he said. “With ‘I’m Still Here’ we threw all the rules out the window. That was so exciting. It was so much fun to make. It was horrible, but it was great. And I was so nervous about what it was going to be like to be back on a movie set.”
For Anderson — whose “Magnolia,” “Boogie Nights” and “There Will Be Blood” have earned him five Oscar nominations — Phoenix was the actor he had been looking to work with for years. Anderson offered him parts in “Boogie Nights” and “Punch Drunk Love” only to have Phoenix turn them down. Finally he landed him for “The Master,” knowing that putting him up against Hoffman would make for some kind of actor’s master class.
Anderson admits that there were times when he didn’t really write much for Phoenix to do, but that wouldn’t stop him from creating something original.
“It’s like giving away a bit of a magic trick,” said Anderson, speaking by phone from Paris, between his promotional duties for the film in Venice and Toronto. “I would hate to expose something, but I’d be lying if I said he wasn’t incredibly methodical and thoughtful about what he was doing but probably only in service of being able to then be completely unpredictable.”
While the two never discussed at length what Freddie should look like, it quickly became clear to Anderson that Phoenix was losing a significant amount of weight to play this alcoholic fresh from the war. Phoenix also maintained an awkward gait, where he pulled his pelvis back, sucked in his stomach and placed his hands on his waist — a walk Anderson loved but never questioned.
“It’s like when you are playing make-believe with your kids and you are so tempted to ask them what they are thinking or why they are doing something but the last thing you want to do is break the spell,” said Anderson, who realized in the editing room that Phoenix was perhaps holding onto his kidneys because they hurt from either a war injury or from all the booze. “You just sort of hope they will keep doing it and they won’t stop. Whatever he was doing, it felt so right and looked so good, the last thing I wanted to do was stop and break the spell of make-believe and ask questions of why.”
According to Phoenix, Anderson doesn’t worry about continuity. The writer-director is open to improvisation and often scenes that might take up one-eighth of a page can shoot for a day and a half.
“Paul just really let me waste film,” said Phoenix, who began acting at age 8 and was first recognized for his role as a sullen teenager in 1989’s Steve Martin comedy “Parenthood.” Yet until he starred opposite Nicole Kidman in Gus Van Sant’s “To Die For,” he was best known as River Phoenix’s younger brother and the person who called 911 when the popular actor overdosed in 1993 at the Viper Room. “Sometimes we would do three takes and they would all be completely different. I like that. I feel like everything you learn as an actor growing up is wrong. You’re supposed to hit your mark, find your light and know your lines. Those are all things that just make things wooden, dull and boring.”
Because Freddie is such an impulsive, dangerous character — and Anderson never tells the audience why Freddie is the way he is — Phoenix wasn’t able to put him together in what he calls the traditional way: analyzing the character, understanding why he did certain things, studying the time period.
“There were a lot of times when we asked ourselves why he did certain things he did and we couldn’t really come up with an answer. And that’s OK,” Phoenix said. “Once I accepted that he was just a dog, just a monkey who is ruled by instinct or impulse is when I was able to let go and stop trying to force my ideas on it.”
‘He’s incredibly shy’
Gray, who worked with Phoenix on “The Yards,” “We Own the Night” and “Two Lovers” before “Nightingale,” describes his close friend as extremely dedicated and introverted. “He’s incredibly shy, which you wouldn’t believe. People don’t believe that. They think it’s an act or something,” said Gray, adding that once before a television interview he was doing with Phoenix, the actor vomited in the green room because of nerves.
Yet the director is constantly surprised by what the actor will do for a part. “He will do anything that the film requires. He’ll do anything the character requires. He’ll do anything you ask of him. He doesn’t suffer fools gladly, of course, which is to say that he’s constantly yelling at me and calling me an idiot, but his dedication is second to none.”
Phoenix’s transition from performance art back into traditional films feels completely natural to Gray. “I think he’s driven by things that other actors are not driven by,” said Gray. “He’s driven by the experience he thinks he will have in exploring a side of human behavior that is not frequently explored. I don’t think he thinks much about the end product.”
One thing Phoenix said he didn’t do to prepare for “The Master” was to delve into Scientology, the body of beliefs and related practices that was created by Hubbard and whose adherents including a number of Hollywood personalities, most notably Tom Cruise. The actor said he and Anderson spent no time discussing cults or the celebrity-centric religion.
“I thought, ‘Well, it’s something that my character is not familiar with, so it’s not something that I really want to understand.’ I don’t think Freddie is involved with them, has given over to them and has bought it. I don’t think he understands it at all,” he said.
Though much of the chatter surrounding the film has focused on its parallels to the often-controversial Scientology, Phoenix says he doesn’t see it as a movie about religion. “Even if Paul felt inspired by something, I think it was just inspiration, and I don’t think it’s fair to the film or fair to Scientology,” he said. “I don’t think the movie is about Scientology. I don’t even think it’s about a cult or religion. I think it’s more about a relationship between these two men and this love affair that they have.”
Yet even after the months of preparation and the lengthy production schedule throughout California, Phoenix is not convinced he understands Freddie more clearly than when he first read Anderson’s script. That uncertainty may explain some of his discomfort to this day.
“To be honest, I don’t know if I know more about the character then I did when I started. I don’t know if I ever understand things in that way. It’s something I always struggle with in interviews. You want these concrete answers to things that I don’t think I have nor do I want.”
And with that, he dropped a $20 bill on the table, offered a firm handshake and a sly grin. Slipping on his Ray-Bans, Phoenix escaped out a service entrance to reclaim his private life once again.
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