Joaquin Phoenix for “The Yards”

One has the very distinct feeling that Joaquin Phoenix would rather be anywhere than yet another press junket, this times amidst the hurly burly of the Toronto International Film Festival. Swaggering in dressed all in black and attempting to light a cigarette, Phoenix looks exhausted, pretends he is drunk before reluctantly sitting down to face a typical barrage of questions.

He makes no bones how he feels but happily admits that we journalists don’t exactly get off lightly either. “I know you guys have it rough. All I do is come in for 3 days and then piss off.” Phoenix is referring to life at a film festival and we met, it was his umpteenth interview of the day. “I don’t mind doing these print interviews, what I really hate id the TV, 12 interviews an hour pretending to be oh so fresh, which I’m clearly not, as you can see”, the actors says half-smilingly. “By the time I get here, I’m just so fed up.”

The reason why young Mr Phoenix is talking to me again, is because of a nifty little film noir thriller called The Yards, in which Phoenix stars opposite Mark Wahlberg as the two young guns who get caught up in a socio-political scandal involving the mob and the New York transit system. The periods may be different, but his latest character is not too far from that in Gladiator, the best toga epic in decades, in which Phoenix aced the complex role of Emperor Commodus and helped Russell Crowe guarantee that the movie was chock block with intense personal moments and not just spectacle.

With these two films, it appears that these days, the 25-year old actor seems to gravitate to the dark side in choosing his roles. Not that he likes that definition. “I really hate when people put that label on a film, that it’s ‘dark.’ I don’t know what that means. What people call dark, to me actually makes it more interesting. For example, I think that the characters are really complex and ambiguous in The Yards. I don’t think that, for James (Gray, director), that things are black and white or good and evil or dark or light. I think that it’s all things, that the world is complex. If other people see black and white, I see a lot of colours. That’s certainly something that I’ve tried to do, which is to find all parts of the person that I’m playing in my films, to understand what leads them to the place where we find them in the film.”

Interestingly, with The Yards, Phoenix was originally offered Mark Wahlberg’s more heroic character to play, but felt that Guttierrez was the more challenging of the two. “I was involved with the film for at least two years prior to shooting and only Inventing the Abbots and To Die For had been released. So when I first read this script, I just thought the Leo character would be too easy for me; I knew exactly what the notes were, whereas the Willie arc I thought was amazing.” The reason being is that the character is not as straightforward as he seems. “It seems like he’s on top of the world and has everything, but it’s all a fa├žade, and trying to play that was far more interesting to me.”

The young men of The Yards-his scheming, upwardly-mobile character Willie Guttierrez and Wahlberg’s stoical ex-con Leo Handler-are also complex because they are part of this generation of lost youth with particular problems, Phoenix explains. “In The Yards, it’s clear without it being shoved down your throat like you might find in flashbacks in other films, that there is no familial support,” Phoenix says. They are really a misguided generation, a generation with divorced parents, a generation that doesn’t really have support of their parents. They don’t have that guidance.” Which means that the characters create their own moral code and make serious errors of judgment.

Which is the antithesis of Phoenix in his own life. Although his now famous parents are divorced, the actor grew up in a warm, loving, hippie household with four siblings. He is still extremely close to his family. Joaquin, who once used the name Leaf, is the middle child. River, who died of a drug overdose in 1993, would have been 30 this summer. Rain is 27, Liberty is 23 and Summer is 22. Their parents, John Bottom and Arlyn Dunetz, changed their legal surname to Phoenix and created a family of actors and chain-smoking vegans.

Life is full of contradictions. Acting wise, Phoenix is working consistently and is loving every minute of it. He will next be 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”. Adds Phoenix on the subject of acting: “Acting is my passion. It’s liberating and I love it. Whether that will last, remains to be seen.” Given the Oscar buzz surrounding the actor for both Gladiator and The Yards, we will see Phoenix for years to come.