That title in and of itself is newsworthy considering who we’re talking about: Joaquin Phoenix, one of the most press-averse actors in the business, willingly participating in an interview with Vanity Fair that covers his work life, his love life, his family life, including mentions of his late brother, River. And it’s a proper celebrity profile, not just a masturbatory exercise, a good read, actually so, no, the celebrity profile is not dead, and maybe I should stop pointing out that it’s not dead because in 2019 there have been so many instances of it not being dead.
Joaquin of course is the star of Joker, the film that won the top prize at the Venice Film Festival, positioning him as one of the frontrunners for Best Actor Oscar. So he’s promoting the movie and, yes, he’s also campaigning. That’s new too, as we’ve seen – previously in Hollywood Politics, Joaquin Phoenix wanted no part of it. Remember though, when the Academy votes for Oscar, they’re not just voting on the performance, they’re also voting for the person. And what’s the goal of a celebrity profile: you read it to get to know the person. We are definitely getting to know a LOT about Joaquin here.
He talks about falling in love with Rooney Mara, about how he thought she hated him when they first worked together on the film Her. And that he was so into her he googled her, which he’d never done before. He shares memories of his brother, how his brother predicted, even when he was the big star, that it would be Joaquin who eclipsed them all. The profile also confirms that Joaquin and Casey Affleck, who used to be super tight, have not spoken in several years. Casey was married to Summer Phoenix. They’re no longer together. And, of course, there was the sexual harassment lawsuit that may or may not have happened around the same time that Casey’s marriage to Summer was falling apart which… I mean… coincidence or conspiracy?
And on top of all that, of course, is the talent, the Joaquin Phoenix Mythology. That while he’s been unknowable, he’s also had the reputation of being one of the most gifted actors of his generation. They all have a mythology, don’t they? These mysterious actors who go full method into their characters? Directors and casting agents and other actors, they all talk about the magic that the Joaquin Phoenixes of the industry bring to a set. You have to build up the magic and the mythology to balance the… eccentricity. That’s a diplomatic description. In an actress, they’d use another word: difficult.
Here’s an example from the VF profile:
Ironically, [Robert De Niro and Joaquin Phoenix] barely spoke on the set, in part because of their similar acting methods and artistic superstitions. “I didn’t like to talk to him on set,” says Phoenix. “The first day we said good morning, and beyond that I don’t know that we talked much.”
“His character and my character, we didn’t need to talk about anything,” says De Niro. “We just say, ‘Do the work. Relate as the characters to each other.’ It makes it simpler and we don’t [talk]. There’s no reason to.”
There was nonetheless some disagreement on the method to the method. Before shooting his scenes, De Niro wanted the cast to do a read-through of the script, a practice he considered standard. Phoenix, however, has often disliked doing read-throughs, part of his own mercurial “let it happen” style. Recalls Phillips: “Bob called me and he goes, ‘Tell him he’s an actor and he’s got to be there, I like to hear the whole movie, and we’re going to all get in a room and just read it.’ And I’m in between a rock and a hard place because Joaquin’s like, ‘There’s no f-cking way I’m doing a read-through,’ and Bob’s like, ‘I do read-throughs before we shoot, that’s what we do.’ ”
In De Niro’s company offices in Manhattan, Phoenix mumbled his way through the script and afterward went into a corner to smoke. De Niro invited him to his office, on a different floor, to talk, but Phoenix demurred. “He’s in front of Bob, and he goes, ‘I can’t, I gotta go home,’ recalls Phillips, “because he felt sick after that read-through, he didn’t like it.”
Phillips urged him to come up—this was Robert De Niro, after all—and Phoenix reluctantly agreed. After they talked over a few minor issues, De Niro turned to Phoenix, took his face in his hands, and kissed him on the cheek. “It’s going to be okay, bubbeleh,” he said.
“It was so beautiful,” says Phillips.
Now I want you to imagine that instead of Joaquin Phoenix, it was Angelina Jolie. And instead of Robert De Niro it was Meryl Streep. Would the reaction still be the same? Or would it be… how DARE she disrespect Meryl Streep? Who does she think she is?
This is not a criticism of Joaquin Phoenix’s “process”. But that reverence we have for an actor’s “process” is not the same for an actress’s. And in the industry, an old ass Oscar voter is reading about Joaquin’s “process” and nodding his head but reading an imagined equivalent story about Angelina (there isn’t one, by the way) with a different attitude.
But that’s Joaquin, the artist. What’s Joaquin, the person, like? Through my lens, he can be mean. There were times during this profile that I cringed with discomfort. Maybe it’s different for you. Maybe when you read the part where he tells the reporter to “enjoy your swastika”, referring to the reporter ordering fish during their meeting, you laugh, and get the joke. I don’t get the joke, but hey, maybe the joke works for you.
There are a few other incidents like that throughout the piece that cut almost to the point of cruelty – at least to me – and I suppose you could say that Joaquin Phoenix is so sensitive, so uncomfortable with this part of the job, that these were acts of protection, emotional spikes to guard his gentle soul, that are not meant to hurt. It’s a generous interpretation, and we should all be deserving of it. I’m just not sure he would reciprocate the grace.
Click here to read the full Joaquin Phoenix profile at Vanity Fair. It’s good homework for award season.