Joaquin Phoenix in "The Master." (The Weinstein Company,…)
Johnny Cash in "Walk the Line," the ruthless emperor's son Commodus in "Gladiator," and now a violent, wayward World War II veteran, Freddie Quell, in Paul Thomas Anderson's "The Master": Does Joaquin Phoenix play dangerous, intense and troubled so well because it's not much of a stretch?
The actor has blurred the boundary between difficult professional and personal personas for years, cutting off photo shoots and appearing disdainful of interviewers. Most notably, there was his long dive into performance art in 2010 — in which he grew a shaggy beard, went monosyllabic in TV appearances and pretended to quit acting, delving into a world of debauchery to transform himself into a rapper for the film "I'm Still Here."
So it was a bit of a jolt to find Phoenix, 37, light, open and impish on the Chateau Marmont patio on a recent Saturday morning. Dressed in a rumpled light blue dress shirt, dark blue cords and heavy black boots that seem inappropriate for an 80-degree day, Phoenix came armed with a pack of American Spirit cigarettes, a lighter and a surprising sense of mischief.
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"I don't want to disappoint you, so I'm going to smoke," he joked, moments after the Hollywood retreat granted special dispensation to the Oscar-nominated actor to light up.
Perhaps Phoenix's buoyancy has something to do with the mounds of early praise and Academy Awards talk already being heaped on "The Master," which opens Friday. Though some early viewers have found the film mystifying and frustratingly complex, Phoenix's unpredictable performance opposite Philip Seymour Hoffman has been roundly lauded.
Hoffman plays Lancaster Dodd, a.k.a. Master, a man with a controlled, erudite air who in the late 1940s pens a book not unlike L. Ron Hubbard's "Dianetics" and starts to amass a following verging on cultish. Into his orbit comes Phoenix's Freddie, a giant ball of impulse who seems to be perennially fighting or fornicating. A kinetic, dangerous man-child, it's unclear what has left Freddie so profoundly unable to function well as a human being — perhaps it's the horrors of war, a turbulent childhood or the toxic amounts of homemade moonshine he's constantly consuming.
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An early, intense scene sets up their dynamic: The Master wants to assess Freddie's personality by asking him a series of questions, and orders Freddie not to blink when answering. At one point, the Master asks: "Are you unpredictable?" and Freddie's reply is supposed to be a scream.
But Phoenix fretted that it would ring false.
"I was worried about it for months," he recalled. "This is horrible. I'm stuck on this little piece. I'm just going to have to do something that feels unexpected for me. Of course, then I'm just like a little 8-year-old. Paul and I are both stupid, little 8-year-olds that love potty jokes and things of that nature."
Phoenix's solution? Ask the prop guy to acquire a flatulence machine (yes, they make such things) to alleviate the tension during the moment.
"I was just going to do this for me, for the first couple of takes, to kill the expectation of the scream, because I felt this pressure to do this thing that I couldn't do."
Hoffman delivered the line, Anderson cued the machine and everyone cracked up. "We did it, we laughed, and then we just kept doing it and we never went back to the screaming thing," said Phoenix, whose improvisational flatulence made the final cut. The scream was killed. "It's certainly not the scene where we finish and everyone is saying, 'Ooh, brilliant.' We were little stupid 8-year-olds laughing at each other's fake farts."
"The Master" is Phoenix's first film to arrive in theaters since "I'm Still Here," but it's not the only thing he's been at work on. He's made a movie with director Spike Jonze's called "Her" in which he plays a lonely writer who falls in love with his personal computer's new operating system. And he will appear in "Nightingale," a new film from frequent collaborator James Gray.
Last week, Gray showed a short clip of "Nightingale" at the Telluride Film Festival; it features Phoenix as yet another dark, complex character and stars Jeremy Renner and Marion Cotillard.
The films are a welcome opportunity for Phoenix, who initially found Hollywood giving him a bit of a cold shoulder when the bizarre fake documentary premiered.
"For some time, people didn't know if [the gag] was continuing in some way. I would go in for meetings and they were not sure if I was [messing] with them or not," said Phoenix. "There was a noticeable drop in quality from things that I had looked at before 'I'm Still Here.' I thought, 'Wow, I've certainly limited myself in terms of the kind of work I can do. I can still get a job, but it's not the job I want to get.'"