STORY WRITTEN BY AMY LONGSDORF
For 21st Century Media
Joaquin Phoenix might have a reputation for volatility thanks, in part, to his assorted retirements and comebacks through the years.
But, breaks and vacations aside, Phoenix has been a working actor for more than three decades and is a lot less flaky than he might initially appear.
Remember his infamous “Late Show With David Letterman” appearance back in 2009, where he looked dazed and confused as he announced his retirement from acting? That turned out to be a big hoax, or as Playboy called it “an elaborately staged, drawn-out Andy Kaufman meets Sacha Baron Cohen–esque performance piece.”
These days, with the one-of-a-kind stoner noir “Inherent Vice” hitting theaters, Phoenix is happy to admit that he plans on acting for the rest of his life.
“What else [am I ] going to do?,” he says with a laugh. “It’s funny because I realize that it will probably mean more to [me as I get older] then it did in my twenties, right?
“When you’re young, your goal is to make it. And then you go, “Whoa, I’d rather slowly work my way up, and still have a job when I’m sixty or seventy.
“You’ve got a lot of time, and that’s when you’re, like, “Give me something to do because I don’t want to just sit inside all the time.” That’s definitely my goal. I want to stick around!”
Given the brilliance of many of his performances, Phoenix shouldn’t have a hard time realizing that dream. A three-time Oscar nominee, the actor has enlivened movies as wide-ranging as “To Die For,” “Signs,” “Gladiator,” “Walk The Line,” “Two Lovers,” “The Master” and “Her.”
Phoenix refuses to take much credit for his work, through, attributing his longevity in the movie business to both luck and the company he keeps.
“I don’t think you can separate an actor’s work from the directors [they work with],” he says. “I think that I’ve been very fortunate to work with the directors that I’ve worked with, and I think that’s the difference between someone you might think is a good actor, and someone you might think isn’t.
“If I’ve done anything worthwhile, it’s because of the people I’ve worked with.”
For “Inherent Vice,” Phoenix is working with one of the best filmmakers in the business. The ’70-set movie, which London’s Guardian newspaper dubbed “a ramshackle triumph,” was overseen by Paul Thomas Anderson, who’s best known for “There Will Be Blood” and “Boogie Nights.”
Phoenix first worked with Anderson on 2012’s “The Master” and enjoyed their second collaboration even more thanks to Anderson’s willingness to let his actors improvise.
“When people talk about Paul, they talk about how he gives you such freedom, and such latitude,” says Phoenix, 40. “It’s true, but I always think of when I was learning to drive.
“When I was pretty young, my dad took me driving. I sat on my Dad’s lap, and he made me think that I was steering and in control of the car, but his hands were [on the steering wheel], and his feet were on the pedals. And I think that’s part of what Paul does.
“He gives you the feeling that you’re in control, and you’re dictating what’s right for your character, but, ultimately, he’s the one that’s behind [it all]. But, knowing that, and trusting him, and feeling safe in his hands, it allows you to try things you might normally avoid.”
Based on Thomas Pynchon’s 2009 novel, “Inherent Vice” is the saga of perpetually stoned Southern California sleuth (Phoenix) named Doc Sportello who reluctantly agrees to help his ex-girlfriend (Katherine Waterston) locate her missing real-estate mogul boyfriend.
The film, which has been described as a cross between Robert Altman’s “The Long Goodbye” and a Cheech and Chong movie, co-stars Owen Wilson, Josh Brolin, Martin Short, Jena Malone and Benicio Del Toro. Playing the small role of a district attorney and Doc’s sometime-girlfriend is Reese Witherspoon, who co-starred with Phoenix in “Walk The Line.”
“It was so nice!,” says Phoenix of the pair’s reunion. “I think that might’ve been my only contribution to casting was suggesting her … I like working with Reese so much. She’s such a good actor!
“I don’t know what it is about her, but she seems so calm on set. I’d been shooting for three weeks, and we went to shoot our first scene together … and I’m sweating so much that they’re coming over and taking the sweat off my face between takes. And she just seems totally cool, and in character, and there.
“It’s wonderful because she’s great but it’s frustrating too because it’s like, ‘Why are you so calm? This seems so easy for you.’ It was really nice to see her again, and work with her.”
As for what Phoenix makes of his character, he’s a bit more reticent.
“I always have a hard time when I do press describing [my] characters because I don’t think I ever analyze characters in an objective way … I’m not sure what, if any, understanding I have of the character. It just becomes a part of your life. It’s just something you’re experiencing.
“I think maybe, in the past, I would try and come up with these fixed ideas of who my character was. But more and more, I try not to do that because I think it breeds a certain rigidity, and I want it to feel alive and vibrant, and not routine.”
Not every one of Phoenix’s movies has hit the box-office bullseye but his performances, almost without fail, have been adventurous and daring.
Unlike just about every actor his generation, Phoenix has resisted the temptation to appear in a superhero movie.
“I’ve talked about it,” he says. “ I’ve considered a few of them. But I have yet to find something that I think really would make sense [for me].
“Obviously, the bigger budget, the bigger investment, the more you have to appeal to a wider audience so that kind of limits the stories you can tell.
“I don’t really want to work that way. I like working the way where you’re being true to the character in the story, and you’re not really considering the audience. I know that sounds [screwed up], that you’re not considering the audience, but you have to be true to whatever it is that you’re creating.“
Outside of an appearance in Woody Allen’s next, as-yet-untitled movie, Phoenix has no more projects liked up. Ever since he began landing roles in 1980s movies like “Parenthood” and “Russkies,” he’s always been patient about waiting for the thunderbolt of inspiration to strike.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do next,” he says. “It’s not easy, and it is easy. You don’t know what’s going to come next, but you read a lot of scripts, and when the right one comes along, it’s undeniable.
“And you just go, ‘That’s it.’ It’s like a waiting game. I’m envious of actors who have their next three movies lined up, but I have never been able to do that.
“It’s just really hard to imagine what you’re going to want to experience in nine months. I don’t know what movie I’ll want to do next year.”