Joaquin Phoenix Interview, Inherent Vice
Joaquin Phoenix headlines a far-out cast of characters that includes surfers, hustlers, dopers and rockers, a murderous loan shark, LAPD detectives, a tenor sax player working undercover, and tax-dodging dentists in Paul Thomas Anderson’s adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s seventh and funniest novel, Inherent Vice, set at the tail end of the 1960s. In a psychedelic spin on the classic detective yarn where the narrative unravels as the story unfolds, Gordita Beach’s hippie P.I. Doc Sportello (Phoenix) embarks on a drug-fueled investigation into his ex-girlfriend Shasta Fay Hepworth’s (Katherine Waterston) mysterious disappearance. The impressive ensemble cast includes Josh Brolin, Owen Wilson, Reese Witherspoon, Benicio Del Toro, Martin Short, Jena Malone, and Joanna Newsom.
At our roundtable interview, Phoenix talked about his scenes with Brolin, why he never fully locked into his character, his reaction when he first read the novel and wondered how Anderson would be able to film it and capture the story’s multilayered nature, his character’s Neil Young look, how he enjoys working alone but also likes collaborating with other actors and having their performances affect his own, the inspired physical comedy bits Anderson suggested, learning about the era in which the film is set, and his total confidence in Anderson as a director who lets him try things and knows how to make it work.
Here’s what he had to say:
QUESTION: Josh Brolin was talking about the first scene you guys shot together when he kicks the crap out of you next to the car. How painful was that?
JOAQUIN PHOENIX: I think you have so much adrenaline going that you just don’t feel it until the next day. I’d been shooting for a couple weeks, but it takes me months before I stop being visibly nervous or excited, whatever it may be, just with the rush of adrenaline. It was his first day and it was just exciting. One of the first takes was running and trying to jump over the car, and so, I just had a lot of adrenaline. It probably looks worse than it was. He’s an actor. He’s pulling punches and it’s not like he’s really kicking me that hard.
Q: He was talking about how to find the variance in the performance. That could be a really freeing thing to do or a hindrance, especially if you don’t quite know your character yet. At what point did you feel like you were fully locked into Doc?
PHOENIX: I don’t think I ever did. I don’t think I have ever felt that way with the character. It’s something that I don’t want to do, because I feel like when you become rigid and you go, “Well, this is who my character is,” then it stops being real. I don’t think that we’re that way in real life. We may have something that we present to others and we behave in this way, in this circumstance, and then it changes here. I feel like that’s always a problem with a lot of performances because you’re just locked into this idea of, “This is who my character is.” And so, I’ve tried to be malleable and to take on new ideas. Sometimes things get revealed about a character that you didn’t really expect or understand. Sometimes it’s years later that you look back and think, “Oh, that’s why I was doing that.” Or maybe you just come up with a reason for it. Part of it is just fucking luck.
Q: Had you read the novel before or did you get introduced to it by Paul?
PHOENIX: No. Paul gave it to me.
Q: Did you read the book or the script first?
PHOENIX: I read the book first, and I thought, “How is he going to do this?” The characters are hilarious and madcap and out there, and they feel very authentic. I love how flawed they are. I don’t think anybody escapes that scrutiny. With these characters, you think you know who they are, and then different things get revealed about them and there are these contradictions. One of my favorite things about Doc wasn’t in the movie. We tried to get the scene in the movie and then we abandoned that early on, but it was still a really key thing for me. Shasta has just gone missing on the Golden Fang, on the boat. Doc goes to his friend, Fritz, and he’s in a panic and really emotional. He’s like, “I’ve gotta find Shasta! She’s on this boat.” Fritz has the precursor of the internet, which is the ARPANET, and he explains to Doc that these computers are all talking to each other and they’re connected around the world, and if anybody knows where Shasta is, this computer will know and have the information. And the first thing that Doc thinks of is, “Does it know where I can score?” I loved that because there is something really sweet and idealistic and kind and thoughtful about Doc, but he does have this vice and there is something that is fucked up about him. I think that that’s rare to see, and hopefully we captured that in the movie. Typically, you have those archetypes of the good guy and the bad guy, and I feel like everyone in this is multilayered. That’s one of the things that really struck me about the book and made it really exciting.
Q: What about your Neil Young look with the hair and sideburns?
PHOENIX: You’re absolutely right. It was modeled after Neil Young. Paul brought some photographs in. Early on, it was one of the first things that we talked about and looked at. You never know. It’s like you have these ideas, but then you have to try it out. So I just started trying to grow out the beard. I remember it had grown and it was quite substantial, and I was like, “Okay. We’re going to do it.” I was so nervous, because once we do this, that’s it. We’re kind of locked into it unless something changes. And then, we finally shaved it. And I was like, “Yup, that’s right. That looks right.”
Q: Sasha Pieterse described how she saw you transform before her eyes when a scene began and change on a cellular level. Is it fun to work on a set like this with other actors where the director gives you the latitude to work out scenes together and sometimes surprise each other?
PHOENIX: First of all, I’d say when you come in to do interviews, you try to say things that are nice about the other actors. You try and say things like, “They’re so good that they change on a cellular level.” That’s very sweet of her, but I don’t think that’s true. I’m just like a monkey stumbling around trying to say some lines. I think when you talk about latitude, a lot of people talk about Paul giving this sense of freedom. He allows you to think that, but he is absolutely in total control. That’s kind of the beauty of working with him. He makes you feel like you are dictating the actions of your character, but you know that he is there really guiding it along. I do like working with other actors. (whispers) Actually I prefer working alone. (Laughs) But, if you are to work with other actors, working with this cast is a dream.
Q: Have you had that opportunity? I guess “Her” was probably the purest example of working alone?
PHOENIX: Yeah, it was the most fun I ever had. (Laughs) No, the thing is, I like working all the time. I hate taking breaks. I don’t like the weekends. It was enjoyable to have the director’s full attention, and to be focused like that is great. It’s just such a rare experience but I like it. It’s like the other end of the spectrum working on this, but it’s really enjoyable. I do like to collaborate, and I like hearing other people, and I like how somebody’s performance will affect my own.
Q: Your choices as well with some of the physical comedy bits are so inspired, like your take when you get hit in the back of the head. It’s a bold move to go dukes up.
PHOENIX: Can I tell you something? That’s Paul. We did it, and my first approach was just a complete knockdown, like in boxing where you see somebody’s life go out of them and crumble. I did that take, and then we were nearly done, and Paul was like, “Wait a minute. Do you think there’s something else?” I said, “I don’t know.” He was like, “What if you just try maybe to put up a fight?” I said, “Well, let’s try it.” So, that was Paul.
Q: What about the era? Did you get much into learning about the era?
PHOENIX: I’m like the kid that crams for tests and never remembers anything. I know there are some actors, like I’ve read interviews and I’ve seen them, where they’re like scholars about the period and what they’re talking about. I’m always amazed, and I go, “How did you manage to learn all that and learn your lines?” I never remember anything at times. I keep everything from a movie, every single call sheet that I have, every single note. I have boxes. And so, when I’m moving, I need a box from a movie, and I’ll see a box and I’m like, “Oh, that’s a movie from six years ago.” I’ll look at it and go, “Wow, I read that book? I don’t remember reading that book.” There’s all this different material that I used and I don’t remember it. I don’t know why. I guess I’m probably not really interested or something.
Q: Is it just for nostalgia that you keep all that stuff or is there another reason?
PHOENIX: Yeah, I guess. I don’t know. There’s something about just going, “Oh! September 17th.” You have the call sheet and it tells you what you were doing on that date. I don’t know why. I should burn them all.
Q: Someday they could be part of a really detailed Joaquin Phoenix museum.
Q: How much of a trust do you feel with Paul?
PHOENIX: Total. On “The Master,” I mean, there’s like… You must understand, on every movie, there are scenes that are so bad, like work I did that was so bad. I remember being really fucking panicked with “The Master.” And then, by and large, he got rid of a lot of the bad stuff, and he somehow made things [work]. He’ll shoot around. He won’t tell you, “Stop doing that thing. That’s really bad.” He thinks that maybe you’re using it because it’s helpful. He’ll just find a way to frame it so you’re not seeing those things. Sometimes you find that you’re fidgeting with something. He won’t say, “Don’t take that out of your hand.” He’ll just frame it out so that you don’t see what’s happening. And so, I totally trust him. It allows me to really go out there and try things that seem like they shouldn’t work, and I just trust that he’ll make it work.