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Joaquin Phoenix: 'I feel like Santa Claus'

PhotobucketYou wouldn't necessarily figure Joaquin Phoenix for a morning person. It's 9am in California, the line is bad, his phone is faulty. Yet this is a man ecstatically happy. It sounds like you're at sea, I say, between the beeps and crackles. "Oh great! I'm so glad it's not just me!" He sounds genuinely over the moon. You'd be less thrown if he just grunted.

Phoenix is an unpredictable interviewee. Will you get the mumbler? The joker? The Phoenix of I'm Still Here, his mockumentary about chucking it all in for a career in hip-hop? Or the guy who smoked his way silently through the press conference for The Master at the Venice film festival, followed by fractious chats and a no-show at the awards ceremony? Two months ago, the US critic Elvis Mitchell extracted a great, unwieldly interview from him riffing on ambition and identity, race relations and the virtues of uncertainty. The piece made waves because Phoenix damned awards season as "bullshit" ("it's the worst-tasting carrot I've ever tasted") and said the Oscar campaign around his 2005 Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line had made him profoundly uncomfortable (he was also nominated for Gladiator five years previously). He's since offered some sort of backtrack, but clams up when I raise it.

Mostly, though, Phoenix is just genial. He laughs almost constantly; a high guttural clucking, punctuated by long pauses and apologies and puffs on a breakfast cigarette. For one so self-conscious in his career choices, he's remarkably unself-regarding to talk to; almost as rackety and frank as Freddie Quell, his character in Paul Thomas Anderson's film – our movie of the year, of which his performance is the centrepiece. Quell is a damaged second-world-war navy vet; groggy on paintstripper liquor, reeling from a broken heart, who falls under the spell of Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the baloney-preaching leader of a Scientology-style cult. But where Freddie stumbles about, twisted and listless, Phoenix – on the phone at least – freewheels more breezily. It doesn't feel like a performance. But I guess the best ones never do.

Hello, Joaquin, The Master has won much acclaim, yet it's also baffled people a bit. Why do you think people are so eager for answers – both about the film, and in life?

Are you fucking serious?


I don't fucking know. I don't know why people are eager for answers. I'm gonna say something that will probably offend somebody.

But the search for answers is why people are susceptible to the likes of Dodd, right?

I guess. I do agree that by their nature humans are very inquisitive. But I don't know why. I think related to the film … oh fuck it, I'm just gonna offend somebody; I should just shut up.

No, go on.

No, I got nothing to say!

OK, why do people want to place their faith in other people?

Isn't it just real simple? Our awareness of our mortality, and how that terrifies us.

Does it for you?

I think it drives everybody in some way. As you become older you become increasingly aware of your mortality. It's a subconscious thing – I don't think you wake up every day and go: 'Fuck me, I'm dying, I'd better do something.' I think early on the drive is just that people tell you you're supposed to be driven, you're supposed to do something by the time you're 25; to have gone to college or got married, and then at some point your drive is just that you're aware of your mortality. That's just my theory.

To what extent do you think Freddie changes?

An eternal lasting change? I dunno. There's no one great epiphanous moment. That felt accurate. Things do change and then he just reverts back to his animalistic self.

Is Freddie just more honest than most people? He's perceived as the nut-job, but he's consistent and honest whereas everyone else is talking rubbish.

Sure, that makes sense.

Are people overly hung up on the ability of people to change?

I think whether you like it or not you're going to change in some ways. I don't know. I don't care anything about it.

How much of you is in Freddie?

I don't know. It's hard. Can you really accurately analyse yourself?


It's always difficult to go: 'Oh, this is me and this isn't me.' But of course there's elements of yourself in every character. I think it is just you, really. I'm sorry. I honestly don't think about things that much.

Sure, that's fine. This is good.

Well, you have very low standards.

Thank you. Well, you take what you can get. So what do you think about?

Ha ha ha ha ha. No, no, no, no, no. Who cares?

I care.

Well, that's very sweet of you. We'll have tea sometime and we can talk about it.

OK. Can I ask you two more questions?


So I'm treating you, in this situation, like a sage, like you have all the answers. Is that a common experience for you?

No, is it to common for you to be treated like the Master?

Oh no! Fuck no! You're just asking questions to which you know better answers. That's not the feeling that I'm getting from this at all. I wish I was because I'm sure it must feel nice.

Do you ever feel like that?

No, I don't. I think that sometimes maybe I feel like Santa Claus at a mall when a kid wants to take your picture.

Kids try to take your picture?

No, I'm thinking about the other night. I went to see this band and this guy came up and said: 'Oh, can I take a picture of you; I'm a real fan.' And I said: 'Look, man, I just got here, if it's OK, I don't wanna just walk in and take a picture – it'd make me feel awkward.' And he just turned and walked away, very angry at me. It didn't seem like it was someone you revere, it was more like I was some three-headed bullfrog they wanted to snap a picture of.

That doesn't sound good.

I think that I'd actually prefer that but I'm just saying I don't have the experience of being treated with great reverence.

But to be a three-headed bullfrog is to be a freak.

Yeah, but I'd rather just be a fucking little Santa Claus than someone treated with some reverence. And by the way, that happens maybe once every 17 and a half years so it's not something that I deal with on a regular occurrence.


I think part of it is you can either go places where that's bound to happen. And honestly I haven't been in that many successful movies.

That's crazy.

No, it's true! I'm not complaining. But it's funny you would ask about people talking to me with reverence because I don't really have that experience.

Do you feel more more like Freddie, then? Do you fall under the influence of people?


Is it true that Paul Thomas Anderson asked you to be in Boogie Nights and There Will Be Blood?

Ah, who knows?

So, there's this quote from Baudelaire …


The French poet.

Oh yeah, the guy who invented the bicycle.

Oh, did he? I don't know.

I'm fucking with you.

OK! It's hard to know.

I'm sorry.

Anyway, he said: "All prizes demean those who receive them."

Where are you from?


I just worked with Samantha Morton and you sound very like her. But she's not from London I think.

I think she's more from the Midlands.

Did I offend you by saying that?

A little bit.

However, I will say this, it think she was doing a bit of an accent.

What's the film?

It's called Her [directed by Spike Jonze]. It hasn't come out yet.

There's that line in the film: "You've wandered from the proper path." Is there a proper path? And should people wander from it?

I think a proper path is subjective. I don't really believe in absolutes. There's not just one fucking proper path. Everyone has different need and different desire and different things they're trying to explore and understand; I don't think there is a proper path. But if there is and I'm wrong and you find out you better fucking call me and tell me I don't have any kind of guarantee about there being a proper path.

But people talk about a righteous way.

Oh, come on, that's totally subjective.

Yeah, but what else is there?

I don't know.

Well, if you find out you better let me know too. What will people say about the film in 20 years?

You must understand I really don't read reviews or the press … I don't know what people will say in 20 years. I don't even know what they're saying about it now.

Do you care at all?

I think in some ways the answer is yes. You work on something that you hope will maybe resonate for people at some point, but am I going to think about it for the next 20 years? No. There's no telling. They love and celebrate

OK. Is there anything you'd like to say to people?

There's nothing in particular I feel I want to say, and when I do I usually call one of my friends and that usually does the job. But if I have a need to, like, address maybe more than five people I'll give you a call.

Good. You sound really happy. Are you happy?

Yeah, I mean … I'm just whatever. I think sometimes doing interviews is very funny. And I'm happy because I'm going meet a friend and meet a fighter who I liked for a couple of years. So I'm excited.

Like a boxer?

He's a mixed martial arts fighter. He does a particular form I really like and he's just really amazing and it's really exciting to watch him fight.

Have a good time.

I'm really sorry, I'm just too dim to have any sort of philosophical conversation. We should talk about Tabasco or something.



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