He’s dark and brooding, outgrowing the shadow of his late brother, quietly unpretentious yet a young man genuinely unaware oh his true ability as an actor. Through it all, in Ridley Scott’s stunning Gladiator, he holds his own among the very best, and for this actor, it’s the work, and nothing else, that counts.
Joaquin Phoenix’s brooding quality he encapsulates on-screen initially seems to have been transmuted off camera as well. Dressed all in black, his thick hair slightly unkempt, cigarette dangling between his left fingers, there’s a hesitation to his answers to even the most obvious of questions. He pauses continuously, emerging as a nervous and agitated. He’s clearly unaware of the kind of charisma that generates from the screen. As the villainous Roman Emperor he plays with a flawless English accent in Ridley Scott’s $103m epic, Gladiator, Phoenix is an arresting and hypnotic presence.
It appears, though, the actor doesn’t seem to realise how good an actor he is. “First of all, I really think that the greatest fear for actors, is reaching the point in which they go: ‘God, I’m good at this’, because I think the work will really suffer. It’s not a conscious effort, it’s just I always hope I can do justice to the films and characters. I feel that I’ve been choosy in my roles as much as I can be, and I only work on films that I REALLY want to make.” Such films of late include Clay Pigeons, Inventing the Abbotts and U-Turn. Therefore, Phoenix adds, “I feel immense pressure from myself to do the best job that I can do, and I’m never really satisfied.”
On Gladiator, a mammoth spectacle, in which Phoenix lights up the screen as the treacherous Roman Emperor Commodus, the actor was nervous about doing the film, so sought advice from co-star Russell Crowe. “He said .Shut up mate, here’s a valium.’ “, He begins laughingly. “What he REALLY said was ‘Take it easy, it’ll be fine, just breathe deeply, we’re all in this together.’ I’d never worked on a film on quite this size, and initially it was a little overwhelming. When I first arrived at the camp, saw the sets and just the size of the crew, all that played a part in my nervousness. But Ridley [Scott, director] has such a calm nature about him and he put me immediately at ease.”
Staying true to his last name, the 26-year old has made a career out of making a couple of films, disappearing, and then reappearing from the ashes to rise upwards towards greater glory. The actor, who began his career under the name of Leaf, lived for a long time in the shadow of his older brother, River. After River’s tragic death at the age of 23, ‘Leaf’ abandoned his career for two years, making a comeback in 1995 with his performance in To Die For, directed by Gus Van Sant (who ironically directed River in one of his last films, 1993’s Even Cowgirls Get the Blues). Since then, the actor, who changed his name back to Joaquin in the early 1990s, has worked steadily in Hollywood, solidifying both his experience and reputation.
Between Leaf and Joaquin, Phoenix simply stopped acting and travelled. “My Leaf phase was 8-15, so I was a child actor and there weren’t many options in terms of films. Then I took some time off before embarking on the Joaquin phase.” The time off he refers too was five years. He stopped altogether, disappeared from the scene and travelled, mainly with his father, “through Mexico and Central America. I really liked the people there; they were spontaneous, friendly and unpretentious.” The travel bug that bit him, as a teenager hasn’t really left, he says wistfully. “It could happen again.” That period remains one of Phoenix’s happiest, he recalls. “I simply knew that I didn’t want to make films any more at that time. The scripts that I was reading for ages 15 through 18, were just ridiculous”, he adds emphatically. “There’s not a nice way to say it; the titles of them, which would just conjure up laughter. The year after Parenthood, I couldn’t find anything that was of interest to me, so if you keep on saying ‘No’ for a year, the offers stop and there’s no work at all. That was fine with me.”
After five years of disappearing, Phoenix did indeed rise from the ashes, with To Die For. “About a year before that, when I was 18, I just became interested in the work again. I guess I’d just grown as an individual and human, and felt that there were things I wanted to express.” He went back on the audition trail, “for the sake of getting my chops back and getting back in the groove of auditioning; auditioning is a whole different style of acting. So I’d go in and read for stuff like Lassie Comes Home- dog and whale movies.” For a while, it seemed like the Leaf period was coming back to haunt him. “I thought: God, this is going nowhere. Then I read To Die For.”
These days, Phoenix is a nomad in the true sense of the word, claiming he has no fixed abode. “I’m looking for somewhere, so if you know of something let me know. I WAS living in New York, then Gladiator came up, was in Europe for five months, so I gave up that place, and now I’m just looking for something.” He does add that he’s now “anxious to find a place I’d call home.” And he’s referring to more than just a house. He did also live with one Liv Tyler for three years, “but that’s over now. I seem to wander around without a real residence, but the truth is that I want a steady relationship and home and all that. It just hasn’t happened yet,” Phoenix adds with slight reluctance.
He talks briefly about being a vegetarian “which I have been since age 7.” He says that vegetarian cuisine has improved over the years, but the leather exclusions did complicate one of Joaquin’s rare modelling gigs, he once recalled. “When I did the Prada campaign”, he says, “The stylist wore the shoes. They did a separate shot of the shoes and it wasn’t me. Fortunately for Phoenix, ex-girlfriend Tyler was also vegetarian “so food was the least of our problems” he chuckles. Phoenix may be homeless, but the work is thick and fast. He’ll be soon seen with Kate Winslet in the sexual drama Quills, which features the pair “in the toughest and most unusual sex scene I’ve ever done”. The actor will also be seen in The Yards, opposite Charlize Theron. “At the moment, acting is my passion. It’s liberating and I love it. Whether that will last, remains to be seen.”