Joaquin Phoenix is promoting Paul Thomas Anderson’s adaptation of Inherent Vice, which comes out next month in the outside position of award season. Never want to count out PTA—or Phoenix, who despite being anti-campaign consistently gets nominated—but it’s really starting to feel like anything coming out after December 1 is late to the party. Anyway, Joaquin Phoenix is doing press, which means giving interviews. He sat down with Stephen Rebello for Playboy (I read it for the interviews) and was surprisingly accessible and likeable. Rebello even asked about River Phoenix and Joaquin didn’t punch him in the face or anything!

I’m still not sure I buy that Phoenix’s bizarre behavior circa 2008 was entirely faked for Casey Affleck’s mockumentary of celebrity culture, I’m Still Here. I still kinda think Phoenix was having a legit meltdown moment and retroactively made it about “celebrity culture” as a kind of get-out-jail-free card. I’d like to visit the alternate timeline where people accepted his would-be hip hop career and see how that panned out. If he hadn’t gotten immediately and very publicly rejected on that front, would things have gone differently?

But he talks about his, let’s call it, “sabbatical” from acting and I’m Still Here and for the first time he makes me buy into the idea that he had a master plan all along. And, after his four-year break—he started working again with 2012’s The Master, also a PTA film—he seems more settled and secure than he has in a long time, maybe ever. Again, Rebello asked about River Phoenix, specifically about his death, and Phoenix didn’t shove his teeth down his throat.

In fact, talking about PTA and The Master, Rebello brings up Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death and Phoenix simply and firmly says he doesn’t want to talk about it. Reminds me of how Jake Gyllenhaal handles questions about Heath Ledger—polite but firm avoidance. But Rebello pushes, connecting that loss to River, and I would like to reiterate—Joaquin Phoenix does not knock him right the f*ck out. Instead he says he doesn’t know what happens after death and maybe we’re all just a videogame some aliens are playing, or holograms projected from the future. Yeah, that’s more like it. 

They also not-talk about Marvel. Phoenix says he likes Iron Man but he won’t go into the rumors that he was tapped to be Dr. Strange but the deal fell apart. Though that is prime what-if casting, most of us didn’t think Phoenix would ever be able to handle the massive media machine that goes with being in a Marvel movie. This interview, though, kind of makes me wonder. He’s older, he’s wiser, he’s less ragey. He’s got the publicity skills to handle questions about deeply personal losses without maiming anyone, and he’s actually coming across quite charming. Maybe he could’ve done it after all. …Joaquin Phoenix at Comic-Con. Hahaha no, that was never going to happen.

Click here to read the interview.