‘You won’t believe how lazy I really am,” declares Joaquin Phoenix in the middle of our conversation. The 39-year-old actor, his hair now at jaw-length and slightly unkempt, is making this admission while talking about his latest movie, Her.
Not that any part of the Spike-Jonze-directed film feels phoney. In fact, the movie, in which Phoenix plays a man of the 21st century who develops such a deep relationship with his Operating System that he falls in love with ‘her’, is sincerely, Oscar-worthy good.
Phoenix’s admission, then, comes as somewhat of a surprise.
This is an actor who reportedly immersed himself so far into his Johnny Cash character in Walk the Line that he had to go to rehab.
Cutting corners doesn’t seem to fit the image of the intense actor we’ve come to know; one who’s made a career out of honing down challenging roles from Gladiator to Reservation Road and The Master. And earned top marks in the form of three Oscar nominations along the way.
“Where in South Africa are you from?” he asks, as he walks into the New York hotel and lights up an American Spirit cigarette while looking out on to the traffic of the Soho street outside.
“Joburg,” I answer, which happens to be where one of his ex-girlfriends, South African model-turned-philanthropist, Topaz Page-Green, is from too.
“It’s a great place,” he says, taking a seat. “I enjoyed being there and I really want to go back.”
In 2003, Phoenix spent some time in South Africa while filming Hotel Rwanda and he has kept his ties to this country, helping feed impoverished communities as a board member of Page-Green’s The Lunchbox Fund. “It’s a great cause, helping so many kids, of course I want to still be involved.”
It appears he can’t be all that bad as an ex then?
But Phoenix, the third of five children, and brother to the late River, who overdosed outside the Viper Room in LA 20 years ago, is not one to talk about his personal life. Born in Puerto Rico, he grew up, like his brothers and sisters, a child actor, but found the media scrutiny too much, especially in the wake of his older brother’s death at 23.
Phoenix does, however, reveal that he believes falling in love with a movie and its director can be quite like falling in love itself. “It never is one thing,” he shares, lighting up a new cigarette. “You can’t always put your finger on it.
“The same thing happens with a script,” he continues. “I just get this feeling that I want to be with this… experience. I don’t know if it means we’re going to end up loving each other; we might hate each other. But I need to have this experience,” he says, before inhaling on his cigarette again. “It’s like, I don’t know what it is, but I’ve got to find out. And sometimes you don’t find out. I’ve gotten out of three-year relationships and I still don’t know why we were together or what the point was, you know?”
Phoenix seems to have had better luck with filmmakers than with women, relating that he’s loved every director he’s worked with.
But working with someone repeatedly still makes him nervous. “Because they know when you’re lying,” he replies.
It’s around this time his casual but candid confession comes.
“No situation can be real in a movie,” he says. “There’s a green screen, and 10 people standing around you at one time, and people asking you if you need water.”
He goes on: “There are things I fake. It’s part of what’s difficult with acting. Sometimes I’m not feeling cheery and I have to play cheery. You find a way and you fake it, and hopefully it gets to the place where it feels real or at least looks like it.”
The better a director knows him, he feels, the better they’ll be able to call him on any acting that isn’t Phoenix’s best effort at making it “real”.
As for becoming a film director himself one day – seeing as he directs music videos – the actor is frank. “I’m not sure I’d be good with actors. I don’t have the patience. When I think of what I put directors through… I don’t think I’d be very good.” He may fake some things, but at least he’s honest.
• Her is on circuit countrywide.