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Joaquin Phoenix on Jesus, Kendrick and acting on impulse

The cult actor stars as the messiah in his new movie - we talk spirituality and bumping into K-Dot at the Louvre

Joaquin Phoenix and Jesus Christ share more in common than you might realise. The bearded actor, perhaps the greatest of his generation, is an icon blessed with talent; his every move is scrutinised by dedicated onlookers, he’s often a spokesperson for higher powers (PTA, Spike Jonze, Lynne Ramsay, etc), and he has to travel in order to promote his cause. Still, the revelation that Phoenix plays the son of God in Mary Magdalene may, at first, sound like a punchline. After all, the last time Phoenix sported similar facial hair, David Letterman quipped, “Joaquin, I’m sorry you couldn’t be here tonight.”

However, in Mary Magdalene, Phoenix’s depiction of Jesus is serious and earnest. The actor, as ever, commits wholeheartedly to the role, culminating in an unorthodox take on the messiah: a reluctant celebrity who’s uncomfortable in front of crowds in Jerusalem. Likewise, the film itself, directed by Garth Davis (Lion, Top of the Lake), takes a more lyrical, hypnotic approach than a straight biopic. Mary, as played by Rooney Mara, first appears in an underwater dream sequence, and Phoenix’s pained facial expressions are matched by Jóhann Jóhannsson and Hildur Guðnadóttir’s evocative score – one of Jóhannsson’s final compositions before his tragic death last month.

For Phoenix, it marks another physical transformation. Here’s an actor who can belt out songs as Johnny Cash in Walk the Line, semi-convincingly troll the world with I’m Still Here, fall in love with an iPhone in Her, and perform stoner pratfalls in Inherent Vice. In 2018 alone, he’s also a potbellied hitman in Ramsay's You Were Never Really Here, a paraplegic in Gus Van Sant’s Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot, and, if rumours are to be believed, the Joker in a Scorsese-produced DC superhero movie.

What came to my mind, though, was The Master: the spontaneity of Phoenix, as Freddie Quell, marching from wall to wall in front of bemused Scientologists, or when he’s slapping himself in front of Philip Seymour Hoffman. These moments are surely unscripted – you can tell by his co-stars’ reactions – as are the occasions when Jesus loses himself in front of Mary, his disciples, and just about anyone within his vicinity. As Ramsay told us last week about his acting style: “You never know what he’s going to do next.”

So what is Phoenix like in person? Friendly, engaged and, thankfully, nothing like his reputation as a difficult interviewee. Here, the actor speaks to us about taking on the role of Jesus Christ, bypassing the conscious mind on set, and hanging out with Kendrick Lamar at the Louvre.

Do you see a connection between your status as an actor in the spotlight who’s obliged to do press, and how Jesus was the reluctant celebrity of his era?

Joaquin Phoenix: [laughs] That’s interesting. I don’t know if would quite draw that comparison, although I do understand what you’re getting at. How can you compare what I feel creatively as an actor to the struggle that Jesus felt and the conflict within him? I understand that there exists, in both of us, conflict. But I think there is, in all people, conflict. I’m sure there are things that you want to express or talk about in an interview, but you also feel like you have to satisfy your publication, and you’re concerned about the publicist and doing the right thing, and you don’t want to offend the actors. Everybody has to navigate that in their work.

But there’s a very big difference between my work, like when I’m with the director on set, and then doing press. They feel like wildly different worlds. It always takes a couple of days of doing press before I remember, “Oh yeah, there was this way of talking about it.” Because the way I talk about the work or the film in press is totally different than how I talk about it when I’m on set. 

So how immersed do you get in your roles? In the “cleansing of the Temple” scene, you break a wooden railing. I know that, in The Master, you weren’t supposed to smash the toilet to pieces.

Joaquin Phoenix: I think it’s more an act of desperation than getting into the role. It’s like, I don’t know what the hell I’m supposed to do. I try not to have a plan. Yes, I wasn’t meant to do that, but I didn’t make the decision before the take to do that. We were just doing the take, and suddenly I found myself pulling at it. So it just happened.

I think, for me, when acting is at its best is when I’m not making conscious decisions. Like I have a field of options available to me, and then whichever one feels right in that moment, I do that.

“I don’t know what the hell I’m supposed to do. I try not to have a plan” – Joaquin Phoenix

Mary Magdalene and You Were Never Really Here would make an intriguing double-bill. Do you see a parallel between the characters?

Joaquin Phoenix: I usually don’t think about things that way. But I’m curious, why do you see it like that? 

For me, it was mainly seeing these two lone figures making sacrifices for others, and not looking particularly happy about it.

Joaquin Phoenix: Yeah, that’s interesting. Usually when I’m done with one character, I move on. I rarely compare characters or see what their similar or dissimilar qualities are. 

Has doing Mary Magdalene affected you spiritually or religiously? From what I gather, you’re not necessarily the most religious person.

Joaquin Phoenix: No, I’m not religious. When I got the script, it was a period when I had a greater curiosity about spirituality that was growing in me. When I read the script, it was something that I wanted to experience, and to feel, in a way. It was just chance.

Does that distance from religion help you when playing the role?

Joaquin Phoenix: It would be a different movie, right? Obviously, Christianity didn’t exist when Jesus was alive. So there was nothing set. I was able to approach it as the man, and not the icon. I think that was important.

Do you ever feel the need to act in order to exist? I’m thinking of the time you retired with I’m Still Here

Joaquin Phoenix: I didn’t actually retire! [laughs] This is going to sound really fucking lame and hippy-ish and pretentious. But in some ways, acting, at its best, you get into a state where only the present moment exists, and time seems to stop, and you’re not aware of all the things that normally we feel in our lives, or whatever our thoughts are. Things that make us happy or our insecurities or our fears or our wants and desires. Everything stops for a moment.

“Acting, at its best, you get into a state where only the present moment exists, and time seems to stop” – Joaquin Phoenix

In some ways, I feel like it’s something I try to achieve through meditation, a moment where the daily things that happen seem to subside for a moment. So for me, the best scene is if I suddenly hear “cut!”, and I go, “Huh? What? Oh, we’re done with the scene? How did it go? I don’t know.” That’s the very best. It’s that idea of bypassing the conscious mind, and finding the creative flow.

I’m sure when you’re writing some of these questions, [he taps on my notebook] and it looks like you’ve been very thorough, there must have been moments where you’ve written a whole bunch, and you go, “Oh, it’s been two hours. I don’t know where I was.” It’s that feeling. It’s such an amazing feeling. That’s the thing I chase in acting.

But you don’t feel that doing interviews?

Joaquin Phoenix: Occasionally. We all love the same thing. We’re all interested in the same thing, right? When there are interviews when you can have a conversation with somebody, and you feel like you’re communicating with somebody, I enjoy that opportunity. I love hearing how people interpret the movie, and it might be different than my own. It’s interesting. That’s the whole point of anything creative.

Sometimes I struggle with the more rigid, “here’s five minutes in front of a TV camera” thing, or a press conference where it’s loud and there’s cameras going off constantly, and you go, “How can you have a real conversation when I’m up on a stage, and you’re down there, asking a question while the cameras are going?”

I’m sorry, that’s fucking weird. [laughs] I don’t want to be comfortable with that. But I enjoy the opportunity to talk to people. I was just doing Berlin and Paris, and now I’m here, and potentially Dublin. You’re hearing from so many people how they were affected by this film. That’s cool. I love talking about movies.

Going back to what you said earlier, it doesn’t sound like you’re one of those actors who’s thinking about camera placement, or doing things with your eyes because of where the lens is?

Joaquin Phoenix: I’ve never, never done that. I still don’t know what sized lens does what. I don’t adjust my performance. I don’t say, “Oh, this is a mid shot, so I can give it a little less.” I don’t do that. I always think that the actor’s job is to be truthful in that moment. The filmmaker can adjust the camera based on that, right? If you’re truthfully explosive in the moment and it’s too intense, but the camera’s close to them, they back it up. Or sometimes, you bring it down. It’s a constantly changing thing.

I try not to be aware of the camera. But there are times when you go into a scene, and all you see are lights and boom operators and cameras. You know then, “I’m not in this.” You have to figure out a way to find your way back in.

When’s the last time you auditioned for a role?

Joaquin Phoenix: I can’t remember. Probably Gladiator.

Garth said he couldn’t imagine anyone else in the role of Jesus. If you don’t audition, how do you feel the confidence to go, “I can play this”?

Joaquin Phoenix: I never feel the confidence to think, “I can play it.” Never. There’s never a script where I go, “I’ve got this.” It’s more that you’re drawn to the idea, to the experience. You go, “I have to have this experience.” I’m certain that every time it’s going to be a failure. It’s that feeling of “I have to make this, I have to make this, I have to have this experience” – that’s all I’m looking for.

Do you listen to music when you prepare for roles? I think Lynne Ramsay said you both listened to Aphex Twin for You Were Never Really Here.

Joaquin Phoenix: There was one day when she was showing me images, and she was mixing in different music. So we were just going through songs. I played her some songs that I thought were very beautiful, and she was just playing me a bunch of stuff. But sometimes I do.

Is it the same with other films? For instance, with Inherent Vice, did you listen to lots of Neil Young beforehand?

Joaquin Phoenix: Oh, yeah. Paul will give you an iPod full of music. He did it on The Master as well. With Lynne’s film, she kept sending me these audio files of fireworks. So I was listening to that. On Gus’s film, I was listening to Bob Dylan, because John Callahan was a real Bob Dylan fan, and also some of Callahan’s own music.

Are you still listening to hip-hop in your spare time?

Joaquin Phoenix: It’s funny, I haven’t really been listening. Other than Kendrick, I don’t really listen to that much. I don’t know why. I think I’m getting old. Like, I still really love DJ Premier’s production on Gang Starr, and Black Moon. It’s the sound of the beat and the production samples they use that I like. Occasionally, I hear stuff and go, “Oh, wow. That’s cool and exciting.” But I’m not actively searching it out either like when I was a kid.

Are you going to direct any more music videos? It’s been a while since your last one.

Joaquin Phoenix: No, no, no, no, no.

Maybe you can direct a new Kendrick single?

Joaquin Phoenix: No! I wouldn’t want to ruin his thing. I actually just met him recently, by chance.

Oh, wow. Where?

Joaquin Phoenix: In Paris. Me and my nephew were at the Louvre. We were leaving, and my nephew was like, “That’s Kendrick.” I was like, “Yeah, right.” He goes, “No, it’s Kendrick.” I turn around, and… I’ve never done this, but I said, “Hey, how are you?” Yeah, he was playing a show the next night, but we were leaving to come here. It was amazing. You feel this energy coming off of him. It’s beautiful.

“I think Kendrick was the first time in a long time that I was really listening to a song” – Joaquin Phoenix

Is it possible to have that same obsessive emotional connection with films as we do with music?

Joaquin Phoenix: Yeah? What do you mean?

I think about the ending of Two Lovers all the time, but that’s different from feeling the urge to listen to, say, “King Kunta” 10 times in a row.

Joaquin Phoenix: Sure. Of course, it’s different. But there are some cinephiles who’ve watched every Godard movie fucking 10 times. It is different, of course. I don’t really know why. It’s funny, because I feel like it’s been a while… I think Kendrick was the first time in a long time that I was really listening to a song. Because there’s playing music in the background and getting into the chorus. And then there’s sitting, and listening, and hearing subtle little musical shifts and lyrics. And that’s such an exciting feeling.

I remember when I was a kid, I could just sit for fucking hours! Just playing stuff over and over again. I don’t know what happens, or at least with me as I age, where I don’t have that same obsession to listen. But with Kendrick’s records, it was the first time in a long time where I felt that obsession.

Mary Magdalene opens in cinemas on March 16