Joaquin Phoenix refused to hug it out.
On an overcast November afternoon, in a $13-million Hollywood home with a skyline view stretching from downtown L.A. to the Palos Verdes peninsula, the notoriously press-averse actor was throwing a fit of pique — aimed squarely at me.
He had tolerated more than an hour of my questions. I was interviewing him with Spike Jonze, writer-director of "Her," the idiosyncratic yet affecting sci-fi romance in which Phoenix stars. "Her" reaches theaters in limited release on Wednesday but has already been crowned best film of 2013 by the National Board of Review and tied for best film honors from the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn.
Right from the start of our meeting, the dynamic of the duo's working relationship became clear. Jonze functions as a kind of Joaquin-whisperer/interlocutor for Phoenix; the actor serves as muse and B.S. detector for Jonze.
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But when this reporter asked the wrong question — or perhaps changed subjects too abruptly or strayed toward matters Phoenix didn't care to address — the Academy Award-nominated actor went on the offensive.
"Oh, please," Phoenix said, radiating scorn. "This is so funny." He paused before questioning my journalistic integrity: "Um, how long have you been doing this?"
From there, the conversation continued but never recovered. That awkwardness did not go unnoticed by Jonze (né: Adam Spiegel), 44, the music video wunderkind-turned-Oscar-nominated auteur behind such fantastical drama-comedies as "Being John Malkovich" and "Adaptation."
"Come on, let's hug it out," Jonze suggested, throwing his arms around my shoulders and clapping me on the back.
Phoenix, however, rejected any such conciliatory measure.
"I don't want to hug it out!" the actor said, fixing me with a thousand-yard stare. "I don't want to hug out anything that doesn't need to be hugged out!"
By reputation alone, I should have expected as much. Long considered one of the finest actors of his generation, Phoenix is also one of Hollywood's most confounding leading men — brilliant or erratic, "difficult" or misunderstood, depending on who you ask — which is precisely what makes his performance in "Her" such a revelation.
After landing a best actor Oscar nomination with his brooding performance as Johnny Cash in the 2005 biopic "Walk the Line," Phoenix walked away from conventional stardom. He "retired" from acting in 2009 to pursue hip-hop music — a spasmodic transition captured in "I'm Still Here," the coked-out mockumentary starring Phoenix, who co-wrote and produced the film with Casey Affleck. In character for the better part of two years, he rejected every film-industry overture, shambling through cartoonishly awful rap performances and prompting questions about his mental stability.
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But all that self-activating turmoil could hardy stand in sharper contrast to Phoenix's soulful, open-hearted performance in "Her." The film, which premiered to critical hosannas at the New York Film Festival in October, finds the actor portraying a grave divorcé who plugs back into a side of himself long lost when he discovers love in his shirt pocket.
Phoenix's character, Theodore Twombly, forms an intense romantic attachment with his smart phone's computer operating system "Samantha," a puckishly sentient, disembodied presence voiced by Scarlett Johansson. It's a demanding performance in a meticulously crafted film that plays the techno-romance for sincerity rather than laughs. And it required the actor to supply the physical emoting for both partners, registering jubilation, doubt, jealousy and trepidation — sometimes all within the span of a single scene.
Moreover, it's a far cry from Phoenix's last on-screen turn, as a toilet-smashing, paint-thinner-swilling World War II veteran who falls under the messianic thrall of a cult leader in writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson's 2012 drama "The Master," for which Phoenix scored his second Oscar nomination as actor in a leading role.
Jonze wrote Phoenix's part with him specifically in mind — a gamble the director will explain only abstrusely: "I knew I'd want to watch him, but I didn't know what he'd be like" — and traveled to L.A. to personally hand him the script. Phoenix, in turn, managed to suspend his reflexive nihilism long enough to say yes. Not that he cheered up much by the time cameras rolled on "Her," only his third film since "I'm Still Here."
"Every … movie I've ever done, I've doubted," said Phoenix, dropping the first of many F-bombs in our conversation. "Never once was I, like, 'Yeah! We're gonna do this! It's gonna be great!' I feel that way about everything."
Added Jonze: "He might say that during this interview five times."