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Phoenix To Self: 'Why Am I Talking About This? ... Joaquin, Shut Up.'

The elusive actor tells Fresh Air about his new film, Her -- but he insists he's not really that interesting. "If I was driving and I heard this, I'd change the channel," he says.



January 21, 2014

Guest: Joaquin Phoenix

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest, Joaquin Phoenix, stars the new movie "Her," which is nominated for an Oscar for best picture. He received Oscar nominations for his performances in "The Master," "Walk the Line" - in which he portrayed Johnny Cash - and "Gladiator." He started his career in 1982, when he was about 8, on an episode of the TV series "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers." His brother, the late River Phoenix, was a regular in the series.

Joaquin Phoenix is a terrific actor who doesn't give many interviews, but he gave an infamous one on "The David Letterman Show" in 2009, in which he barely spoke, but managed to say he was giving up acting for a career in hip-hop. That turned out to be a put-on for his mockumentary "I'm Still Here." We'll talk about that in a few minutes.

Let's start with a clip from "Her," which is set slightly in the future. Phoenix plays a man who is heartbroken because his wife recently left him. The hole in his life is soon filled by Samantha, the voice of his new computer operating system. It's the first OS with artificial intelligence, designed to respond to your needs and personality as it gets to know you.

As they get to, quote, "know" each other, he falls in love with her, but keeps it a secret from his friends, until one of his friends, played by Amy Adams, confesses she's become good friends with an operating system.


AMY ADAMS: (as Amy) That's weird, right, that I'm bonding with an OS? No, it's OK. It's weird.

JOAQUIN PHOENIX: (as Theodore Twombly) Well, I don't think so. Actually, the woman that I've been seeing, Samantha, I didn't tell you, but she's an OS.

ADAMS: (as Amy) You're dating an OS? What is that like?

PHOENIX: (as Theodore Twombly) It's great, actually.

ADAMS: (as Amy) Yeah?

PHOENIX: (as Theodore Twombly) Yeah. I mean, I feel really close to her. Like, when I talk to her, I feel like she's with me.

ADAMS: (as Amy) Are you falling in love with her?

PHOENIX: (as Theodore Twombly) Does that make me a freak?

ADAMS: (as Amy) No. No, I think it's - I think anybody who falls in love is a freak.

GROSS: Joaquin Phoenix, welcome to FRESH AIR. It's really great to have you on the show.

PHOENIX: Oh, it's great to be here. Thanks, Terry.

GROSS: So, for this role, which is - you know, the film's set at some point in the near future. You have a mustache, glasses. You're wearing a lot of, like, orange. Your pants are very high-waisted. Did you have any involvement in creating the character's look?

PHOENIX: I think always, you know, everyone kind of goes in and thinking you have - everyone has their ideas. And you slowly start kind of sifting through it until you land on stuff that feels right. I think the thing that I love so much about making movies is the collaboration. And, you know, I've told this story before, but, you know, Casey Storm, the wardrobe designer, he's the one that picked the glasses. And, you know, we had a box of 100 glasses, and, you know, he'd grab your pair. And we tried on a few others, but it's the one that seemed right. So I think everyone kind of goes in and you have your ideas, and you start working together, and it just slowly unfolds.

GROSS: So, you know, in some ways, your female lead, your romantic interest in this, is a voice. It's the voice of the operating system. And, you know, it's been reported, so a lot of people know this, that Samantha Morton was originally cast as that voice, and then she was replaced with Scarlett Johansson. So, did you record all of your lines twice, once with Samantha Morton, and then again with Scarlett Johansson?

PHOENIX: No, not quite like that. I actually worked with Samantha Morton, she was with us on set oftentimes, and I worked with her. And then I went into the studio and I worked with Scarlett later. But I imagine - although I haven't talked to Spike - but I imagine the majority of the dialogue that was already recorded on my end probably stayed. But I'm not sure what they used.

GROSS: So, you mean, even if you did it twice, it might have been the first version that you used?

PHOENIX: Yeah. Yeah.

GROSS: What was the difference for you, as an actor, between their two performances?

PHOENIX: Really, I worked with Samantha. You know, she was on set. And so we really developed our characters together, in a way. And with Scarlett, I worked with her just in a studio. So it's just completely different experiences. You know, I had such an amazing time working with Samantha Morton, and feel so beholden to her for helping me develop this character. And then I worked with Scarlett, and she was incredible, too. And I found something new about the relationship, and we had new discoveries. And it was an extraordinary process. And I just - I feel really lucky, because I just got to work with these two great actors.

GROSS: Do you use audio programs, like Siri?

PHOENIX: You know, it's funny. We're just here - we were coming here. We were late. And my publicist, Sue, was driving. By the way, if she ever offers you a ride, don't take it.


PHOENIX: But she was driving, and we were lost. And she started using the navigation. Now, the thing is, it's amazing how you project onto these devices, because I was certain that the voice, when she was saying turn left, that she was anxious. And she was, like, you're late, and you've got to turn left. It suddenly sounded as if she was very anxious. Now, I know that's not the case, but it sounded that way.


GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Joaquin Phoenix, and he stars in the new movie "Her." So, I want to talk about - if it's OK with you - I'd like to talk about other films that you've made and talk a little bit about your life. You starred in the film "The Master" with Philip Seymour Hoffman, and I just think that's such a brilliant film. And in "The Master," you play a World War II veteran who's psychologically and physically damaged by the war, though you might have been psychologically and physically damaged even before that.


PHOENIX: Yeah. Paul always said: Is the damage because of the war? He said: I don't think it helped.


GROSS: Yeah. You meet up with this cult - you accidentally meet up with this cult leader, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, who becomes like a father figure to you. And he sees himself as this kind of prophet who can put people in touch with their higher selves and also put them in touch with their past lives. And he has all of these exercises to help accomplish that. So he puts you through one of these exercises, and it's called processing, and it's - he gives you a series of rapid-fire questions that you're supposed to answer. And the first time he does it, it doesn't go that well. The second time he insists that you not blink. And I want to play...

PHOENIX: It sounds like every interview I've ever done, Terry.



GROSS: You're not blinking, right?


GROSS: And so I want to play that scene. So here, here's my guest, Joaquin Phoenix, being questioned by cult leader played by Philip Seymour Hoffman.


PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN: (as Lancaster Dodd) Starting now, you're not to blink. If you blink, we go back to the start. Infringement. You blinked. Starting now, you're not to blink. If you blink, we go back to the start. Do you often think about how inconsequential you are?

PHOENIX: (as Freddie Quell) No.

HOFFMAN: (as Lancaster Dodd) Do you believe that God will save you from your own ridiculousness?

PHOENIX: (as Freddie Quell) No.

HOFFMAN: (as Lancaster Dodd) Have you ever had intercourse with someone inside your family?

PHOENIX: (as Freddie Quell) Yes.

HOFFMAN: (as Lancaster Dodd) Have you ever had intercourse with someone inside your family?

PHOENIX: (as Freddie Quell) Yes.

HOFFMAN: (as Lancaster Dodd) Who?

PHOENIX: (as Freddie Quell) My auntie.

HOFFMAN: (as Lancaster Dodd) Have you killed anyone?

PHOENIX: (as Freddie Quell) No.

HOFFMAN: (as Lancaster Dodd) Maybe?

PHOENIX: (as Freddie Quell) Not me.

HOFFMAN: (as Lancaster Dodd) Have you killed anyone?

PHOENIX: (as Freddie Quell) No.

HOFFMAN: (as Lancaster Dodd) How many times you have intercourse with your aunt?

PHOENIX: (as Freddie Quell) Three times.

HOFFMAN: (as Lancaster Dodd) Where's your aunt now?

PHOENIX: (as Freddie Quell) I don't know.

HOFFMAN: (as Lancaster Dodd) Would you like to have intercourse with her again?

PHOENIX: (as Freddie Quell) No.

HOFFMAN: (as Lancaster Dodd) Do you regret this?

PHOENIX: (as Freddie Quell) No.

HOFFMAN: (as Lancaster Dodd) Where's your mother?

PHOENIX: (as Freddie Quell) I don't know. Living...

HOFFMAN: (as Lancaster Dodd) Infringement.

PHOENIX: (as Lancaster Dodd) Back to the start.

(as Freddie Quell) OK.

HOFFMAN: (as Lancaster Dodd) Do you often think about how inconsequential you are?

PHOENIX: (as Freddie Quell) Yes.

HOFFMAN: (as Lancaster Dodd) Do you believe that God will save you?

PHOENIX: (as Freddie Quell) No.

HOFFMAN: (as Lancaster Dodd) Have you ever has sex with a member of your family?

PHOENIX: (as Freddie Quell) Yes.

HOFFMAN: (as Lancaster Dodd) Are you lying?

PHOENIX: (as Freddie Quell) No.

HOFFMAN: (as Lancaster Dodd) Who?

PHOENIX: (as Freddie Quell) My Auntie Bertha.

HOFFMAN: (as Lancaster Dodd) Where's your aunt now?

PHOENIX: (as Freddie Quell) I don't know, maybe home.

HOFFMAN: (as Lancaster Dodd) Are you lying?

PHOENIX: (as Freddie Quell) No.

HOFFMAN: (as Lancaster Dodd) Are you a liar?

PHOENIX: (as Freddie Quell) Yes.

HOFFMAN: (as Lancaster Dodd) Have you killed anyone?

PHOENIX: (as Freddie Quell) Yes.

HOFFMAN: (as Lancaster Dodd) Who?

PHOENIX: (as Freddie Quell) Japs in the war.

HOFFMAN: (as Lancaster Dodd) Do you regret this?

PHOENIX: (as Freddie Quell) No.

HOFFMAN: (as Lancaster Dodd) What are you running from?

PHOENIX: (as Freddie Quell) Maybe hurt a man, I think. He's - maybe he's dead, I don't know.

HOFFMAN: (as Lancaster Dodd) Where?

PHOENIX: (as Freddie Quell) In Salinas. He stole a batch of my booze, and he drank it.

HOFFMAN: (as Lancaster Dodd) Is this booze you make poison?

PHOENIX: (as Freddie Quell) No. If you drink it smart...

HOFFMAN: (as Lancaster Dodd) Are you trying to poison me?

PHOENIX: (as Freddie Quell) No.

HOFFMAN: (as Lancaster Dodd) Where's your father?

PHOENIX: (as Freddie Quell) Dead.

HOFFMAN: (as Lancaster Dodd) How did he die?

PHOENIX: (as Freddie Quell) Drunk.

HOFFMAN: (as Lancaster Dodd) Where's your mother? Where's your mother?

PHOENIX: (as Freddie Quell) Looney bin.

HOFFMAN: (as Lancaster Dodd) Is she psychotic?

PHOENIX: (as Freddie Quell) Yes.

HOFFMAN: (as Lancaster Dodd) What is the name of your aunt?

PHOENIX: (as Freddie Quell) Bertha.

HOFFMAN: (as Lancaster Dodd) How did you come to have sex with your Auntie Bertha?

PHOENIX: (as Freddie Quell) I was drunk, and she looked good.

HOFFMAN: (as Lancaster Dodd) And you did it again and again.

PHOENIX: (as Freddie Quell) Yes.

HOFFMAN: (as Lancaster Dodd) Have you ever had bad thoughts about Master Peggy?

PHOENIX: (as Freddie Quell) Yes.

HOFFMAN: (as Lancaster Dodd) What did you think?

PHOENIX: (as Freddie Quell) I thought you were fools.

HOFFMAN: (as Lancaster Dodd) Am I a fool to you?

PHOENIX: (as Freddie Quell) No, sir.

HOFFMAN: (as Lancaster Dodd) If you were locked in a room for the rest of your life, who would be in there with you?

PHOENIX: (as Freddie Quell) Doris.

HOFFMAN: (as Lancaster Dodd) Who's Doris?

PHOENIX: (As Freddie Quell) Best girl, my girl I'm going to marry one day.

HOFFMAN: (as Lancaster Dodd) Is she in Lynn?

PHOENIX: (As Freddie Quell) Yes.

HOFFMAN: (as Lancaster Dodd) Lynn, Massachusetts?

PHOENIX: (As Freddie Quell) Yes, sir.

HOFFMAN: (as Lancaster Dodd) Then why aren't you with her?

PHOENIX: (As Freddie Quell) Well, I'm in here.

HOFFMAN: (as Lancaster Dodd) Why aren't you with that lovely girl?

PHOENIX: (As Freddie Quell) I got no reason. I'm a fool.

HOFFMAN: (as Lancaster Dodd) Do you love Doris?

PHOENIX: (As Freddie Quell) Yes.

HOFFMAN: (as Lancaster Dodd) Is she the love of your life?

PHOENIX: (As Freddie Quell) Yes, sir.

HOFFMAN: (as Lancaster Dodd) Then why aren't you with her?

PHOENIX: (As Freddie Quell) I don't know.

HOFFMAN: (as Lancaster Dodd) Yes, you do. Tell me why you're not with her if you love her so much.

PHOENIX: (As Freddie Quell) I told her I'd come back, and I never went back, and now I - I got to get back to her.

HOFFMAN: (as Lancaster Dodd) Why don't you go back?

PHOENIX: (As Freddie Quell) I don't know.

HOFFMAN: (as Lancaster Dodd) Why don't you go...

PHOENIX: (as Freddie Quell) I don't know.

HOFFMAN: (as Lancaster Dodd) Close your eyes.

GROSS: That's such a great scene.


GROSS: That's my guest Joaquin Phoenix with Philip Seymour Hoffman, in a film from "The Master." My questions are nothing compared to those questions.


GROSS: So tell us a little bit what you did to get into Freddie's mind. Freddie's mind is such a strange place to be.

PHOENIX: Yeah. It was so strange, because with Freddie, it was like whenever you would think that you figured something out, then it suddenly would fall apart. Like it was one of those characters where the more questions I had, the more uncertain I was about things, the better it was. It was just this ongoing process. I mean, there's a lot of characters I think where you try and really - you get to a solid place with them. You sort of have a certain understanding. Freddie, it seemed like the less I understood, the less I understood, because I don't think that he understood. I don't think he understood what motivated him.

GROSS: No, he had no self-awareness at all. Absolutely.

PHOENIX: No. And so, it was interesting. It was very frustrating in the beginning, because I couldn't really get a straight answer. And then I think that when I just stopped worrying about the answer, I started finding it.

GROSS: My guest is Joaquin Phoenix. He stars in the new movie "Her." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Joaquin Phoenix. When we left off, we were talking about his Oscar-nominated performance in the 2012 film "The Master," written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. Phoenix plays a World War II vet with serious mental health problems who falls in with a cult leader.

One of the things I love so much about your performance is what you did with your body, because your spine is all twisted. You often stand...

PHOENIX: That's actually how I stand normally. I usually just fake posture for most other movies.


PHOENIX: So that's actually how I look all the time.

GROSS: I doubt it.


GROSS: You keep your hands on your hips with your elbows all the way back. You're just - your character is so uncomfortable in his body. And there's a sense of disorientation, of constant physical disorientation you get from watching you, in addition to insisting that's how you really stand. You know what? You know what? I have a clip. I asked Paul Thomas Anderson about this when I interviewed him about directing "The Master." And I was telling him how, like, incredible I thought your - the posture that you had created for the role was and how it seemed so perfect for this character of Freddie, who was so disconnected and lacking in a center and everything. And so I want to play you what Paul Thomas Anderson had to say about that. And this was right after I talked to - I asked, mentioned like your shoulders, about how your shoulders are, you know, your hands on your hips and your shoulders are back and your elbows are back and you're all bent and twisted. So here's what he had to say.


PAUL THOMAS ANDERSON: Kind of early on, Joaquin let me know that he, actually, his shoulder is kind of bent a bit. I think from birth, he has a kind of a messy shoulder. And he's probably spent a lot of time trying to hide it or stand up straight, so that he can twist his body around. And he sort of said: Do you think it would be all right if I do this? And I said, sure, great.

But a couple days into the film, he just sort of was feeling more comfortable and just kept sliding into this skin that he was doing that kind of - these movements that were so incredible. I didn't - I just didn't want to jinx anything and say: What are you doing, or what's going on? You know, it's kind of - you're in the middle of make-believe. You don't want to break the spell. You just kind of want to watch him do whatever he's doing. And I kind of had my own theories about it, because, you know, he puts his hands on his hips, and this sort of stuff about his kidneys being all torn up from the war.

Maybe something happened. Maybe it's just easier. Maybe it's comfortable for him to kind of reach back and hold his kidneys and help him stand. But then again, yeah, there's always that thing, you know, sort of the way somebody holds himself is an extension of what's going on with them on the inside. And I buy that, too, for sure.

GROSS: So, Joaquin Phoenix, was Paul Thomas Anderson onto something about you thinking about protecting your kidneys in the way you were placing your hands?

PHOENIX: Yeah. I never specifically thought that that's what it was. When I first started the film and when I first read the script, there was a great deal of flashbacks where we actually saw these injuries, and these were things that were going to shoot. But as the film progressed, we didn't end up shooting those things. So I had kind of been developing this physical reaction to these things that I thought might be happening and what we might be seeing, but we were no longer shooting them and seeing them, I imagine because of budget.

That's actually what I love about movies. Like, when you start kind of investigating them and going into it, you realize that so much of it sometimes is just like luck. Because, you know, you just, you don't know how it's going to go, and I think you just like come up with these ideas, and you're just trying things they don't know what's going to work. You don't know what the final film is going to be. That's why I always give credit to the directors, because I feel like they're the ones that are ultimately responsible for the performance.

GROSS: So what was the twisted shoulder that Paul Thomas Anderson was referring to that you had?

PHOENIX: Oh, yeah. I mean, I was just born - I just have - my left shoulder is just off a little bit, but it's not that - it's not really that noticeable. And, yeah, I mean, I've always, you know, I've wanted to like use it, but I don't think that it's anything - it's not what you see in the movie. It's not like there's something that is hidden. I was joking with you.

GROSS: I figured.


GROSS: And another thing you do in this role is that you talk out of the side of your mouth, and it slurs your speech. And you look almost as if you'd had a small stroke that affected one side of your face. Can you talk about deciding to play it that way?

PHOENIX: Yeah. My dad sometimes would talk out of the side - you know, he'd clench down one side of his mouth. And just thought it represented tension in this way...

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

PHOENIX: ...somebody that's just - that's blocked and tight. And so I actually went to my dentist, and I had them fasten these metal brackets to my teeth, and then I - on the top and the bottom. And then I wrapped rubber bands around it to force my jaw shut on one side. And, you know, as - this was about, you know, this was in the beginning, before we started shooting. And after a couple of weeks, the bands, they just weren't, they weren't really strong enough to kind of hold it. And so I ended up just getting rid of the rubber bands. And I still had these metal brackets in, so it made me constantly aware of my cheek, you know, and they had these pointy tips, so they would tear up the cheek a little bit. So I just then was just constantly aware of it, and then was able to just kind of keep it sort of my own - this is so (bleep) stupid. What am I talking about this?

GROSS: Because I asked, and because it's interesting.


PHOENIX: It's not interesting. It's just so stupid.

GROSS: It's interesting. No.

PHOENIX: No. If I was driving and I heard this, I'd be - I'd change the channel.

GROSS: I wouldn't.

PHOENIX: I'd be like, why - can you shut up?


GROSS: Really? Does it bother you like that?

PHOENIX: No. I mean, I don't know, sometimes I just, you know, I just think, who cares?

GROSS: We, who love movies, care. Does that help answer the question?




GROSS: So there's another scene I have to - you know, I love this film so much, and I love your performance in it. So forgive my curiosity, but one of my favorite scenes in the film is you and Philip Seymour Hoffman, the cult leader who's become like a father figure to you, you're both arrested and you're put in adjoining jail cells. And he's all about control. You know, he's all about controlling people and controlling everything, and it's always all about him. And you're kind of uncontrollable, because you're kind of like an animal, in a lot of ways, who can't be housetrained. Like, and...


GROSS: And the way you're walking around in the cell, your posture is somewhere almost between like a monkey and a chicken. You know, like your bent over. Your head and neck is forward, and you're so angry and you're so frustrated and so kind of pent-up and claustrophobic. You just start kicking at the porcelain toilet in your cell. And you kick it so hard, it shatters. And...

PHOENIX: It was a very old toilet.

GROSS: Yes. Well, this is another thing I asked Paul Thomas Anderson about, the director of the film. And he said that when you kicked the toilet, like, it wasn't supposed to break, like, that to happened, accidentally.

PHOENIX: Well, it was...

GROSS: Yeah.

PHOENIX: Yeah. I mean it was just a toilet that was there, but it was a very old toilet, and I think those things degrade.

GROSS: No, exactly, because where you shot was a former prison that was now, like, a prison museum, and it's like an antique toilet. And so...



GROSS: But I was wondering, like, once I found that out, like, when you realized that you'd, like, smashed this, like, antique toilet in like the prison museum, you just kept going. And so did Philip Seymour Hoffman. He's just - he doesn't even blink. He just keeps going and going on with his lines. And was there a part of you that wanted to go, oh, my God. I just broke this toilet. Now what? You know?


PHOENIX: I don't remember. I don't think so. I don't think I was thinking about the toilet.


GROSS: Because you were so in character?

PHOENIX: No. I don't know if I'm so in character, but just, yeah, because you're working. I mean, I think at that point, it would obviously an important scene, and it's something that we had been talking about for months, and the scheduling of it kept changing, I think, based on the location and what was available. And so, you know, when we got there, it was Phil's last day. And I think what's important is that your - that you try to get into, just try to get into the right mental state. And so I think that's - that's all that you're thinking about, you know, at least for me. So I think that probably when we were finished with the take, I think the only thing I thought of is: What you want me to do differently, Paul? Or what you want to do, what, you know? So I don't, you know, I remember afterwards, it was a thing, and they said it was this antique, you know, equipment that was broken. It was a mistake. I'm sorry. I apologize to everyone involved.

GROSS: Have you ever slept with a member of your family? No. I'm kidding.


PHOENIX: No, I haven't.


PHOENIX: But I did blink.

GROSS: You did blink. OK.

PHOENIX: Yes. Actually, I've been blinking a lot. I was actually - I've just been, my publicist, I can see her through the glass, and I've just been mouthing to her, I'll kill you, and never again, and giving her the bird.


PHOENIX: So I haven't been keeping my eyes from blinking.

GROSS: Joaquin Phoenix will be back in the second half of the show. He stars in the new movie, "Her." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: I'm Terry Gross back with Joaquin Phoenix. He stars in the new movie "Her," which is nominated for an Oscar for Best Picture. When we left off, we were talking about his Oscar-nominated performance in the 2012 film "The Master," which was written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. Phoenix plays Freddie Quell, a World War II vet who's having serious mental health problems and gets involved with a cult leader, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman.

So, apparently, in the movie you stayed in character in between scenes.

PHOENIX: Oh, come on, please. I don't even know what that is.

GROSS: Well, I'll tell you what I interpreted that as being, is that you kept the posture, that you kept the affect of the character, as opposed to just relaxing and being, you know, totally yourself.

PHOENIX: I'll just say this, then you just do what you're supposed to do. I'm fulfilling my obligations as an actor.

GROSS: OK. Obviously, that's making you uncomfortable so I will move on.


PHOENIX: I'm just saying - no, it's just because I think that sometimes we just, I think sometimes we make a big deal out of it and I think that it's just, I think it's just what you're supposed to do as an actor. You're supposed to do your work and that's what I felt was for that particular job.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. No, I just...


GROSS: I always think it must be odd, you know, complicated if like one actor is kind of staying in character and another actor isn't. And you're kind of, maybe you're alone in your trailer. I don't know. In my fantasy like you're together in a room and one person is in character and another isn't and so there's this kind of mismatch.

PHOENIX: No. I mean I think you - I think on that I did spend a lot of time alone, and oftentimes, you do go back to your trailer and you're alone. But I think everyone always have their own process and every process is valuable. You know, there are sometimes you come in and, you know, you're telling jokes in the morning and you're talking with the crew and then you go do a scene, and everything is useful. And it's just finding what works for you for that particular job. So, you know, I think it's tough, or I imagine it's tough for director working with a few different actors that all have different processes, even when it's not that extreme, just sometimes people have different needs. And, but, you know, as an actor or maybe as a selfish actor like me, I've never really considered too much other people's processes. I think you just kind of try and do what works best for you in the film in the character.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Joaquin Phoenix and he stars...

PHOENIX: And I'm sorry.


GROSS: He stars in the new movie "Her." Can I ask you about the mockudocumentary, fake documentary that you made with Casey Affleck?


GROSS: Right. So...

PHOENIX: Mockudocumentary?

GROSS: So here's how I first found out that something was going on - which is, I guess, the way a lot of people did, when you made that appearance on David Letterman as, you know, as yourself and coming on, but saying that you were giving up acting and you wanted to go into hip-hop instead. And you hardly said a word during this. You were so uncommunicative. And Letterman was kind of at his wits end. He was very funny. But he compared...


GROSS: He said it's like interviewing the Unabomber at one point, or something along those lines.

PHOENIX: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: You had like really long, scraggly hair and a really long beard and you were wearing sunglasses.

PHOENIX: That's exactly how I look right now.

GROSS: Is it?



GROSS: So...

PHOENIX: You know what?


PHOENIX: Yeah. Sorry.

GROSS: Oh no. No. You were going to say something.

PHOENIX: You had a specific question.

GROSS: Oh, yes. So people who saw that, before they even knew that there was a documentary because you were making it at the time - or a mockudocumentary - people thought, like, did you see Joaquin Phoenix on Letterman? God, he's gotten so weird. Like, what's happened to him? So what was it like for you before people had any idea what this was really about, to have all these people thinking that you'd kind of gone off the deep end?

PHOENIX: I'm not sure that I thought about it that much. I mean the only thing that bothered me was that it might be difficult for me to work again because obviously I wasn't retiring and obviously I wanted to continue to make films, and a certain kind of films. So the only thing that really gave me pause was at some point, wow, will this really affect my career?

But, you know, so much of the way that we made the movie didn't allow us the time to really consider things, and by the time we did, it was too late and we had painted ourselves into this corner. It's funny because when I was going on Letterman, initially the idea was, you know, we're going to make some noise and do something much more extroverted and kind of big and out there and possibly even, you know, going around the stage. We weren't quite sure. Because we were trying to imagine, you know, at this point we still hadn't - Diddy hadn't agreed to be in the film and that's who we wanted to be the producer that I went after that told me no.

And so we were just kind of hoping that the way things were going to play out was that we were going to get Diddy and we were going to play music and we knew that he would say this is no good and you're not ready to do this. And then I would've said that I canceled David Letterman and that I would try to get the show back and save my career. And so that was kind of the idea. But we didn't know that we had Diddy. We didn't know that we had all these other pieces.

And so just before I had gone on, Casey is like, listen, I think you've got to play this broken; I think the best way to put this together is that you will have gone and seen Diddy and he will say that your music is not working out - or whomever we ultimately get. If Diddy says no, we'll have to find someone else, but whoever it is, and then this is just heartbreak. This is just walking out there and knowing that you failed the thing you want to do. And so you're just virtually catatonic. And so it was just this kind of switch 180 degrees from what we initially kind of talked about doing. And so it was really literally like when I was out the door. And so it never really allows the time because of the process and how to much just, you know, we didn't get multiple takes oftentimes. So I think, like, if I'd had the time maybe to think about it more, I might have changed my opinion.

GROSS: Well, the premise of this documentary is that you're tired of acting and you're going to go into hip-hop because you're tired of the character of Joaquin Phoenix and your output has been fraudulent.

PHOENIX: It is a boring character.

GROSS: For the first time you're going to do something that really represents you. And I'm going to play another short clip from the documentary in which you're talking about, you know, why you don't want to act anymore.


PHOENIX: (As himself) I love those rare, pure moments in between action and cut, but everything else was (bleep) misery to me. We talk about it being this creative expression and really, you're just a (bleep) puppet. You're this dumb (bleep) doll that wears what someone else tells you to wear, stands where someone else tells you to stand, says what somebody else tells you to say. That's not expression. That's not creativity. And I have more to offer than that. My purpose on this earth is not to interpret somebody else's words or to try and capture a moment for somebody else. It's to bring what is inside me out.


PHOENIX: You know what's funny is so much of it is interpreting somebody else's words, like Casey's words.

GROSS: Oh, oh that's so funny. Casey Affleck, who is your collaborator on the film and also your old friend and brother-in-law.

PHOENIX: Mm-hmm. Yeah.

GROSS: That's really so funny.

PHOENIX: I mean, you know, he's really more the boss. Collaborator maybe, but he's more the boss.

GROSS: That's hysterical. So he was like almost feeding you those lines about your authentic self?


PHOENIX: Yeah. There's so much of me. I don't think people realize, I don't think people really give Casey the credit in some ways. But, yeah, there's a good deal of that was scripted, some of my favorite parts. There's a part where Edward James Olmos, where he gives this amazing speech and, you know, it's something that Casey wrote. So it's just that funny that I was saying that any which is based on stuff that, you know, I mean Casey and I both did it together but still, so many of those ideas and thoughts were him and so it's just that it's funny to hear.

GROSS: Is there ever a part of you that feels like an actor is like a dog who's told, like, where to stand and what to wear and...

PHOENIX: No, not in that way. I think you do, I think you are, I do consider myself an employee. You know, I work for someone else. I consider the director to be in charge and I'm there to help them achieve their vision. But I don't think that, I don't see that as a bad thing.

GROSS: So the documentary was supposed to be, you know, a comedy, like a spoof of documentaries and - what? What?

PHOENIX: Well, we thought it was funny.

GROSS: Yeah. And a spoof of a certain kind of actor. But no one knew how to take it at first and a lot of people thought it was for real. What were you expecting? Did you assume people would kind of get what your intentions were?

PHOENIX: Again, I don't think we knew and that was the joy of making it. I don't think we really knew what was going to happen. I mean, you know, it's funny because we thought that the whole joke was that when I announced that I was retiring, nobody would mention it again. You know, we thought the whole joke was that I was going to make this huge announcement and nobody was going to care, right? And so that was kind of, that was our starting point. And then I don't think people cared that much. But there was still some news, you know, because it's the Internet and you got to fill it with something. So there were enough people were talking about it. And so then we were surprised by that. We were surprised they were actually, press was calling and saying, like, is this real? So it kind of ruined our first joke. And so then you're just, you're basically just adjusting to what happens out in the real world and how you interact with people.

GROSS: But that put you in the position of having to lie to real people so that the documentary would still feel real.


PHOENIX: Yeah. I mean it was interesting because they were friends of mine - close friends that, you know, I'd want to do scenes with. And basically, Casey noticed that when I told people and I tried to do a scene, it's not that they changed, but I did and it became less real for me because they knew. And so he just started this campaign of insisting that I don't tell anybody. And I think it was really smart because I think there's that thing that happens to an actor, you just are goofing around and you start winking at your friends. And I think that when I didn't tell people, I think that made me uncomfortable in a way that worked really well for the character and I think that's something Casey recognize early on.

GROSS: My guest is Joaquin Phoenix. He starred in the new movie "Her." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: Let's get back to my interview with Joaquin Phoenix. When we left off, we were discussing the 2010 film about him called "I'm Still Here."

At the beginning of the documentary we've been talking about, where you're playing a version of yourself who wants to stop acting and go into hip-hop...


PHOENIX: Documentary.

GROSS: Yeah. So at the very beginning of it, there's some real footage of you and your siblings as children performing, like singing and dancing.

PHOENIX: Yeah. Yeah.

GROSS: So tell us about that stage of your life when you were performing with your siblings.

PHOENIX: Yeah. Well, we'd always, you know, my brother played guitar since he was like 4 years old and all of us who just kind of grown up singing. Actually, my siblings did and I kind of was there and they said just don't project that much. Just, you know, just try and stand and dance around, don't say too much.


PHOENIX: Yeah. And I think that, you know, at the time we were just doing, you know, it would just be like, well, you know, practice and what you do and how do you get out there? And we used to go down during the holidays and go down to Westwood and we would perform on the streets. And it's pretty amazing and I haven't seen that footage in so long. And, I mean I don't remember seeing it ever. And, but I know there was somebody that came down and had filmed us at one point. And, yeah, it was just something that we would do on the weekends.

GROSS: What kind of songs would you do?

PHOENIX: We do like - well, I was just about to say, yeah, we do like Beatles covers. And then there were a couple originals. And I think that what's in the movie is one of the originals. I think it's called "I'm Going to Make It."


GROSS: And so was the ambition to become like the Jackson 5 or something?

PHOENIX: I'm not sure. I'm not sure. I think that in some ways, you know, we were five kids and I don't think, we didn't have - there were no kind of like extracurricular activities because we didn't really have the money for that. So it was really like what are these kids going to do? I think we all had really strong personalities and we all I think had something to express or say. So I think it was just, how can we get them all together? How can we all be together doing something that they enjoy doing? And so my house was kind of like that. It was like, it was very much about imagination, creativity and something that my parents always encouraged.

Again, I mean this was, you know, the early '80s and I don't know what video games really were available, but we weren't, we didn't do that. We didn't really play video games and things like that. And so it was really always about, you know, invention, creating something, imagining something. And, you know, we used to just do skits at home and, you know, create characters, an idea for something. And we would dress up and we would take our parent's clothes and we would put on these talent shows for our parents, and it was just kind of an extension of that.

GROSS: Your parents were followers of a group called Children of God, which I've read a little bit about and sounds like it was like an evangelizing, almost a cult group?

PHOENIX: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And that the founder saw himself as a prophet. And so the first few years I think of your life you were living in Puerto Rico, but your family also traveled around South America - maybe prophesying?

PHOENIX: Mm-hmm. Yeah. Yeah. They were introduced to this group through a friend of theirs that occasionally would come down and I think that those groups, they never - I don't think they ever, like, announce themselves as cults. I think that...

GROSS: No, of course not. Yeah.

PHOENIX: ...the whole thing is that, you know, we're a religious community. And I think that, you know, my parents believed that there were people that shared their ideals. You know, I think initially what happens is that they weren't a part of a the group but I think that you go and you talk about the group, you talk about religion, or whatever may be, and at some point they say whether, yes, you should be involved with the group.

And I think when they got - this was about two years, I think that they were involved and at some point my dad just was like, you know, I don't really know precisely what's happening here but it doesn't seem - it doesn't seem great and this doesn't seem like this is what we imagined it would be and the kind of idea that we had in our head. And it seems like there's somebody who sees themselves in a position of power and that's not what we're about. So they left the group.

And so I think a lot of - and this was early '70s. And I think that, you know, I remember when I was a kid there was a program on, I think, "20/20" about the group. And I remember my family watching it and my parents they were like, huh. My dad was - my mom was like I (bleep) knew it.

And it's hard to - you know, you hear, like, cult and you imagine, like, everyone knows what it's getting into but you realize that the people that make up these cults oftentimes are relatively normal people. They are doctors, they are lawyers. They are people that I think don't really - I think they're fooled in some ways. And I think that they believe.

GROSS: Was it helpful to know that when you were filming "The Master" which is about a cult group?

PHOENIX: No. I mean, maybe. But to be honest, I didn't think about it that much. Like, after I did interviews people talked about it but it wasn't a big part of my life. It's only been a big part of my life in doing press and talking about it.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

PHOENIX: But, you know, I have no memories, I was so young. And it was nothing that ever - it wasn't something that was important to my family. It wasn't this major milestone in our lives. I think it was something that, you know, my parents were coming out of this time when I think a lot of people were questioning their lives and they were trying to find a different way. And I think they didn't want to have precisely the lives that their parents had had.

And I think they were trying to find a different way of getting through life. Yeah. But I didn't really think about it. It's weird - there's so many things I think when you're making a movie that I'm just not one of those people that goes like, ah, did I experience - do I identify with this in some way? I never really think about it like that.

GROSS: My guest is Joaquin Phoenix. He stars in the new movie "Her." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: Let's get back to my interview with Joaquin Phoenix. He stars in the new movie "Her" which is nominated for an Oscar for Best Picture. You were acting starting from when you were how old? Around six?

PHOENIX: The first job I think I was eight.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. So was that your idea or your mother's idea to actually try to get roles?

PHOENIX: Why did you just put it on my mom's?

GROSS: It was your mom's, did you say?

PHOENIX: Why - no. Why do you just put it on my mom's?

GROSS: Oh. I asked if it was you or her.

PHOENIX: I'm just (bleeped) with you, Terry.


PHOENIX: No. It was - I mean, if you're asking if my parents were pushy stage parents, no. Obviously. The fact, you know, I mean, they are the opposite of that. I think there are oftentimes where, you know, it must be really hard for a parent when your kid's like I want to do this and you go you're probably going to get your ass kicked. And no parent wants to say, you know, keep doing it.

But I think that we were just really strong willed. I think we just knew that we were going to act or something like that in some way. I'm not quite sure how but, you know, I know that we - it was something that we pestered our parents about. And it just, it happened kind of naturally. You know, my mom worked at NBC. She worked for this casting director and, of course, we would visit her sometimes.

And he was this really amazing, beautiful man, Joel Thurm, I owe so much to. And he - I think he was one of the first that was like, you know, these kids are - they seem like they've got a lot and they're talented and you need to consider getting them an agent. And that's really how it happened. You know, we didn't kind of come out trying to do that; it just was kind of a natural evolution.

GROSS: Were the adults on the set, the directors and the actors, were they nice and generous and kind to you? Or did you ever end up in tears because somebody was kind of thoughtless in the way they handled a criticism?

PHOENIX: So I didn't understand. What was that?


PHOENIX: I was too busy giving my publicist the finger so I couldn't - I'm sorry.


PHOENIX: Tell me again. So tell me again.

GROSS: When you were on the set as a child.


GROSS: Were the adults, the actors, the directors nice and generous and kind? Or did they sometimes, you know...

PHOENIX: Yeah, of course. What do you mean?

GROSS: ...holler at you and make you cry?

PHOENIX: Oh, come on. No, come on. This kid - who's rude to kids? No. You know, when you're a kid on a set you're like royalty. You know what I mean? It's the best world. Everyone is like, oh, do you want some snacks? Do you want something?


PHOENIX: And again, like, not to make a big deal of it but we were really broke. So sets were like, holy (bleep). Look at all this stuff I have. It's amazing. Food and there's all these people here and everyone seems really happy. And it's a set - there's really nothing like being on a movie set or TV set. It's just an incredible energy that's so exciting.

So, obviously, as a kid, you know, you're like I could go to school or I could be hanging out with these people. And, you know, it's so interesting because there's so many different kinds of people that are on film sets. So, you know, the earliest - the first show I ever did was a small guest starring spot with my sister on a show that my brother was starring in called "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers."

And, you know, they needed a young girl and boy for a guest starring spot and I think it was probably just easy to cast us since we were already there. You know, so I don't think we were very good but they cast us. Maybe it was out of necessity. That's basically been my career ever since.


PHOENIX: And so - but it was just like - it's so funny, because it was just a natural progression. And it's interesting because I was eight years old and I distinctly recall the feeling in my body once we had shot this scene. And it was so exciting. It was just - so I remember just feeling like I was buzzing. Like my whole body was vibrating because it was just so exciting to have experienced this thing that wasn't real but at moments felt like it was real.

And it's just basically the feeling I've been chasing ever since.

GROSS: So do you watch a lot of movies now? And do you watch your own films?

PHOENIX: I have. You know, for a long time I didn't. I thought I would improve if I didn't watch them but that didn't happen. So I started watching them again.


PHOENIX: But, no. You know, it's funny because I hadn't watched for a long time and Paul really got me to watch "The Master."

GROSS: Paul Thomas Anderson? Mm-hmm.

PHOENIX: Yeah, Paul Thomas Anderson. And so I have. I've seen them since then.

GROSS: And how does it feel to see yourself?

PHOENIX: It's so much fun.


PHOENIX: No. You know, honestly, it's tough. Because I think of that - you know, it's why I stopped watching in the first place, is that you just see your mistakes. But I think where that used to be crushing I think now I try to just go, OK, well, you know, you (bleep) but here's what you could do to prevent that from happening in the future.

GROSS: So, Joaquin Phoenix, we're about to wrap up but before we do...

PHOENIX: Thank god.

GROSS: ...I want you to promise me - promise me...


GROSS: ..that you're not going to fire your publicist for having set up this interview.

PHOENIX: No, I won't. I won't. But I will make you another promise.


PHOENIX: I promise never to ever make you go through this again.


GROSS: Oh, that's not the promise I was looking for.

PHOENIX: Really. Because you're too good and you don't deserve this. No, honestly. You deserve somebody who really enjoys talking about themselves.

GROSS: But I had a great time talking with you.

PHOENIX: No, I had a great time too. And I'll talk to you any time. I just don't know I'm going to come on to your show. But I'll be happy to talk to you on the phone because I really am a fan of yours. I mean, I really enjoy this program.

GROSS: Oh. Gee. Thank you. Because I'm a big fan of yours. So thank you so much.

PHOENIX: Why? Did you think I was lying when I told you that earlier?

GROSS: You know, I'll be honest.

PHOENIX: You seem surprised this time.

GROSS: I'll be honest with you. Some people say they like the show and you realize what they like is just, like, NPR in general and they really never heard the show. So I always take it with a grain of salt.

PHOENIX: Oh, well, that is what I meant.


PHOENIX: No. I kid. Yeah, cool.

GROSS: Joaquin Phoenix, thank you so much.

PHOENIX: OK. But also just call me Joaquin. Don't do Joaquin Phoenix. It's just - you can just call me Joaquin.

GROSS: Joaquin, thank you so much.

PHOENIX: Terry, I don't know your last name, thank you very much.


GROSS: Joaquin Phoenix stars in the new movie "Her," which is nominated for an Oscar for Best Picture.


GROSS: I've got some FRESH AIR news. We have a new associate producer for online media, Molly Seavy-Nesper. And if you follow us on Facebook, Twitter, or Tumblr, you'll already kind of know her because she's been filling in while the position was vacant. In addition to handling our social media, she's doing the content for our webpage, working with NPR's Beth Novey and Nicole Cohen.

If you want to find out more about Molly, she introduces herself on our blog on Tumblr at Welcome, Molly.

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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