Joaquin Phoenix on being Hollywood's grumpy old man and working with Woody Allen on ‘Irrational Man’


Joaquin Phoenix takes the lead in Woody Allen's latest film, Irrational Man. It's no surprise for an actor who's oddball and downbeat characters, but is he just as grumpy in person? Dave Calhoun finds out  

At 40, Joaquin Phoenix is still an uncomfortable fit for Hollywood. He’s been nominated for three Oscars: for Gladiator, Walk The Line (for which he bagged a Golden Globe at least) and The Master, but in 2011 he called the awards ‘bullshit’. Two years earlier he’d appeared on Letterman sporting a shaggy beard, acting twitchy and paranoid. It was a stunt for mock-doc I’m Still Here – which detailed his apparently disastrous, off-the-rails career switch to rapping – but it speaks volumes about Phoenix that many accepted it at face value.

This same discomfort is there when we meet near his Hollywood Hills home, the same place we interviewed him some 10 years ago. Today, we’re talking about his lead turn in Irrational Man, Woody Allen’s new one about a depressed, boozy, pot-bellied philosophy professor who falls for a student (Emma Stone) and tries to reason his way to the perfect murder. Following The Master and Inherent Vice, it’s the latest in Phoenix’s line of shufflers, mumblers and deluded idealists.

We thank him for meeting us, and Phoenix, wearing old jeans, Converse and a sports top, just smirks, before ordering lemonade (he went to rehab for alcoholism in 2005). I point to his motorbike helmet and ask what he rides. “A bike.” This is going well.

A deep breath. A pause. “So that’s funny that we met ten years ago,” he says. An awkward beat. “I don’t remember it at all.” At least you can’t accuse him of being a bullshitter. 

You’re picky about your roles. But was working with a legendary director such as Woody Allen on Irrational Man a no-brainer?
I always liked Woody as an actor, actually. I remember seeing him in Manhattan, and he has a scene at the end where he’s talking to his ex and he wants her back. He’s been such a shit throughout the film, but he never asks for the audience’s sympathy. It’s something I always want to do, but I think I always fail. I wanted to be around him and to understand how you can do that.

You famously hate to watch the films you’re in. Have you seen Irrational Man?
I haven’t. Paul Thomas Anderson [the director] got me to watch The Master, and I saw Her. Those are the only two I’ve seen. I thought I might be mature enough to watch and learn, to think: These are the mistakes that were made. But it’s still something I struggle with… Oh, this sounds stupid. Who gives a shit?

There was talk of you playing Doctor Strange for Marvel, but the role went to Benedict Cumberbatch. Would you ever be up for making a big film like that, or even a Star Wars?
Sure. When I was younger I was probably a bit of a snob about that, but [those kind of movies] have gotten better. I’ve flirted with several of those films, having meetings and getting close, but ultimately it never felt like they’d really be fulfilling. There were too many requirements that went against my instincts for character. I’ve been spoiled, I’ve never had to make those compromises.

Do you think those filmmakers end up thinking you’re awkward or hard to please?
Yeah, but I’m not just being difficult. I’m just trying to find what works for me. I don’t want to commit to something and not fulfil those obligations. I enjoy watching those movies, I just don’t know if I want to have the experience of being in them.

What sort of films do you still want to make? What roles have eluded you?
I still feel like I haven’t done the thing, whatever it is, that’s motivated me since I was young. I still haven’t achieved that feeling, the thing you’re striving for. And of course, time is running out.

You’re only 40...
Exactly. Time is running out. At the rate I’m going, that’s maybe eight movies more by the time I’m 50. I think 30 to 45 are probably the great years for an actor.

You made The Master with Philip Seymour Hoffman a couple of years before his death. What did you learn from him?
He was so thoroughly about the truth of the moment. He said that when he was younger he’d tried so hard to come up with characters, and in the end he realised that his own experience was enough. I thought that was so beautiful and you really see that in his work. It’s almost effortless.

You filmed Irrational Man last summer and haven’t made a film since. How do you fill the gaps between movies?
I don’t do much of anything. I have a pretty simple, boring life. Stupid little hobbies that aren’t worth talking about! When I’m not working, not preparing anything, I love having to think about nothing at all.

Irrational Man opens on Thu Sep 24.


Add your comment