“Usually when I’m done with a movie, I take the clothes off for the last time, get out of there and never want to hear about the character again,” says actor Joaquin Phoenix.
Imagine how he feels about doing publicity, as he’s doing right now for the drama “We Own the Night.”
Best known for his Oscar-nominated portrayals of sorely vexed Roman emperor Commodus in “Gladiator” and country icon Johnny Cash in “Walk the Line,” the 32-year-old actor is pleasant and forthcoming (about the work) on the phone from California — some of his very best acting, we suspect.
Set in the ’80s, director James Gray’s “We Own the Night” centers on two Brooklyn brothers: Joseph (Mark Wahlberg), who has followed in the footsteps of his father (Robert Duvall) to become a cop, and Bobby (Phoenix), a coked-up nightclub manager so eager to distance himself from his family that he changed his last name. When Russian mobsters escalate the drug trade in the midst of a police crackdown, life on both sides of the law is irrevocably altered.
Phoenix has appeared in 18 films in the past 12 years. But to hear him tell it, “it’s not particularly fun to act. I don’t like set living. Some adjust to it, become accustomed to going to their trailer. I don’t like going to makeup or wardrobe, so it has to be for something I’m really going to commit to.”
Rehearsing? Not a fan: “I don’t like to specifically define what each line is going to be or what’s going to happen until I’m there,” he says. “I think there’s too many variables. It’s impossible to rehearse in a hotel room when you don’t have wardrobe and props around — important factors in how you play something. Watching actors, seeing ideas come to somebody, seeing them fight for the idea of what they’re trying to say — that’s what’s interesting.”
Second or third takes? Possibly big mistakes, he says: “If I make a discovery about something, a scene or a moment where I feel it suddenly clicks, I don’t really want to analyze it and figure it out. Should I have to do it again, I’m now approaching it from the outside in as opposed to the inside out.”
Not surprisingly for an actor who does not watch his performances on-screen, Phoenix doesn’t watch dailies (cuts from the day’s filming).
“Never,” he says. “Some people can watch themselves in dailies and maybe make adjustments. But for me the idea is to not be self-aware, but to try and be in the moment and experience something and the director hopefully knows how to capture it. Not to make a face but to have a feeling, and that feeling is what makes your face look a particular way. ... It’s like doing (an) angry face as opposed to being angry.”
Phoenix is known for intense character preparation; he once said, “I hate acting. I try to BE.” He spent time working in a Baltimore fire station for the 2004 drama “Ladder 49,” and before filming 2005’s “Walk the Line,” Phoenix spent nearly a year practicing in character, taking voice and guitar lessons (and won a Golden Globe and a Grammy for his portrayal of Cash).
He presumably did not snort cocaine and engage in running gun-battles preparing for “We Own the Night,” but he avoided on-set friendships and opportunities to talk craft with the likes of Oscar winner Duvall.
Phoenix says: “When I’m making a film, it’s not an acting class. Although I don’t know what an acting class is, I never did one. I’m not there to learn about acting, but to perform, to be this character.”
As much as he admires and respects Duvall, he worked hard to create an antagonistic relationship to mirror the one between the film’s law-enforcing father and wayward son.
“I wanted (Duvall) to feel like I was an irresponsible idiot, which is how I think he thought of me while we were working; maybe he still does,” Phoenix says. “We became friends and laughed afterwards.”