Joaquin Phoenix: Man behind the screen

Updated on Jan 24, 2006 08:34 PM IST

The actor, who has just won a Golden Globe for his portrayal of Johnny Cash, talks about how he got under the legendary hellraiser?s skin.

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None | ByWill Hodgkinson (HT Style), Mumbai

By coincidence and entirely unconnected to playing him on screen, Joaquin Phoenix met Johnny Cash shortly before he died. Cash was a fan of Ridley Scott’s film Gladiator, in which Phoenix played the effete, cowardly and malicious Emperor Commodus, a role for which he gained considerable weight, developed a pasty complexion and kept a sword in his hotel room.

In the bizarre way in which famous people summon other famous people because they like their work, Cash invited Phoenix to his house for dinner. “It was six months before I had heard about this film,” says Phoenix. “I saw him with June and with his grandchildren, being kind and showing a love that could not be faked.

Then when I was leaving, he started quoting to me the most sadistic dialogue from Gladiator with obvious relish. I was fascinated that this was the same person.” June Carter Cash said of her husband that there were two men inside him: John the caring family man and Cash the selfish bastard. “He appreciated both sides of himself,” says Phoenix. “He didn’t suppress either the family man or the shit-kicker, which is what made him such a fascinating character and such a complex person to portray.”

It is this complex portrayal that just won Phoenix a Golden Globe for best actor in a musical. When we meet, he is much more eloquent about the process of his craft than most actors, but he makes it clear that he won't deviate into talking about the personal.

It's not really that surprising given that it was Joaquin who called the emergency services when his elder brother River had taken a drug overdose in the LA club Viper Room on October 31, 1993, the frantic recording of which was subsequently broadcast across the world.

Born in 1974 to missionaries from the Children of God religious sect, Phoenix was a child when he followed River and his sister Rain into acting. He started in adverts, although adverts for meat, milk and junk food were strictly off-limits according to his vegan, health-conscious parents. (Phoenix is still vegan. He refused to wear leather sandals for Gladiator.)

By the late Eighties River Phoenix had become the natureloving poster boy of a new politically committed, clean-living Hollywood, which made it all the more shocking when he died of an overdose. I am told before our meeting that any mention of this event will result in the swift termination of the interview.

Phoenix gave up acting altogether in the wake of his brother's death until the offer of a part in 1995 by Gus van Sant, the director who had given River his most memorable role as a narcoleptic hustler in My Own Private Idaho. In Van Sant’s To Die For, Phoenix was compelling as a monosyllabic juvenile delinquent seduced by Nicole Kidman’s murderously ambitious weathergirl into killing her husband. It marked him out as a talent to watch and drew him away from the shadow of his brother's tragedy.

Since then he has jumped between the mainstream and the independent and specialised in amoral characters, playing a corrupt, heroin-dealing conscript in Buffalo Soldiers and the vile Commodus in Gladiator. Both films portrayed the last days of an overstretched empire, America and Rome respectively. Walk the Line is the closest Phoenix has got to an apolitical, conventional lead role.

The seriousness with which Phoenix takes his job can prove a strain on directors. For a key scene in Walk the Line in which Johnny Cash plays to the prisoners at Folsom Prison, Phoenix made crew members act as wardens. He told them not to allow the extras playing inmates to eat, drink, or go to the toilet, believing that this was necessary to create the tense atmosphere required.

And during a long night shoot for Gladiator he “wasn’t feeling it” and refused to act. Eventually the director Ridley Scott kicked his chair away, charged at Phoenix from the other side of the set, and screamed: “You’d better get on with your fucking job!” “That was the fire I needed,” he recalls. “I can’t fake it and just say, ‘I’m yelling now!’' I know if I’m lost in the moment or not.”

Having responded to my compliments about his portrayal of Cash with the most perfunctory grunt, Phoenix explains how he came to understand Cash’s songwriting process by writing his own, claiming that his version of Cash’s Folsom Prison Blues is not based on the recorded track but on what he imagines a work in progress might sound like. “I don’t know which version of the song is in the film, though,” he says. “I haven't seen it.” Phoenix is known for never reading his reviews.

Now it turns out that he avoids watching the films he’s in, too. It’s a sign of the intensity with which he works, throwing himself so completely into the process. “I don’t bring my life into a character at all,” says Phoenix through a fog of smoke from American Spirit cigarettes, the organic, ecologically friendly brand that provides both altruistic contentment and damage to one’s health. “I abandon my life when I work. I don’t wear the clothes or listen to the music that defines who I am. I don’t communicate with friends or family. It sounds intense, but it’s the process of getting there that is really hard.”

For Walk the Line, “getting there” meant learning to sing and play guitar for the first time, practising scales to match Johnny Cash’s speaking voice, listening to nothing but Cash’s music and only reading his biographies and interviews in the months leading up to filming. “It’s always been the case for me,” he says. “If I play a waiter I’ll get a job as a waiter.

Expectations are low because we’re accustomed to shortcuts in acting, but I think we have a sense of when something is authentic and when it isn’t. With this part I didn’t think I had to sound like Cash, but I certainly had to know how he felt when he was singing.” Phoenix cites a scene in Walk the Line in which he sings Johnny Cash’s version of Bob Dylan’s It Ain’t Me, Babe. “I remember hating that song. It made me think of Sonny and Cher,” he says. “For that reason I couldn't see how to do it.

But [Walk the Line’s musical director] T-Bone Burnett told me that Bob Dylan wrote this song about his fans. “Go away from my window, leave at your own chosen speed. I’m not the one you want babe, I’m not the one you need.' Suddenly it had a meaning to me, and I could see how it had meaning for John, and I sang it in a whole different way.

Maybe you wouldn’t have noticed the difference, but I certainly knew how different I felt when I was singing it.” Walk the Line is a very traditional film. It focuses on the romance between country music’s great rebel and June Carter, Johnny Cash’s second wife and a member of country music’s founding family, as played by Reese Witherspoon. Phoenix looks nothing like Johnny Cash — he’s smaller, prettier and distinctly lacking in the hard lines of amphetamine-carved cheekbones — but his conviction pulls him through.

Witherspoon plays Carter, who struggled to live up to her image as the homecoming queen of country music, as a tough but big-hearted woman who knows what’s best for her man. Judging by how much movie audiences love a romance they can believe in, the film looks set to cement Phoenix and Witherspoon’s place in Hollywood’s premier league.

“With public figures involved in a relationship it seems that there is a machine behind their love so oftentimes,” says Phoenix, who was formerly engaged to the actress Liv Tyler. “But with John and June it just was true. They shared the stage, they shared the bedroom and they shared everything in their life. They respected each other: he saw value in her art that others didn't and she was a pillar of strength for him and didn’t take any of his bullshit.”

Like so many actors, Phoenix seems nondescript in person when compared to the presence that fills the screen. And one guesses that his problems start when the shooting finishes. “Every movie soaks into you for a certain amount of time,” he says, sinking into his chair.

“It’s like growing a beard: tiny steps, little growth. Suddenly your beard is whacked off and you say, ‘Fuck me! I’m naked!’ You can no longer rely on the world that you have created. The rug has been pulled from under you and suddenly there’s... nothing. The job finishes and you say, ‘What do I do? How do I act? What is my life?’ It can be very lonely.” Then he stands up, politely shakes my hand, and says goodbye.

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