Joaquin Phoenix: Actors don’t deserve credit for their performance

Husam Asi with Joaquin Phoenix

Recently Joaquin Phoenix rattled the film industry when he dismissed the Academy Awards during an interview with Interview magazine, as ‘bullshit’ and the ‘worst-tasting carrot’ he had ever had in his whole life. But when I chat to him at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills where he has come to promote his new movie The Master, the two-time Academy nominee denied using the word carrot.

“I don’t know what the context of the conversation was. I don’t remember,” he says, recomposing himself. “I think there’s a lot of truth and wonderful things that are said at the awards and sometimes there are candidates that really deserve the kind of recognition up there, but often times there is the elements of political campaigns that feel false. I think that kind of phoniness overwhelms me and I think that’s maybe what I meant, but, listen, there are wonderful artists that wouldn’t have the opportunity to create if it weren’t for the recognitions that they get so it’s certainly not all bullshit.”

Phoenix’s main disdain for awards stems from their seductive nature, which he thinks everyone is susceptible to. “It breeds a sense of awareness that is not good, particularly when that becomes the goal of actors. So there are some potential hazards that I think you have to be aware of to not let it go to your head,” warns Phoenix, his shirt crumpled, his hair uncombed, his beard thick.

Having said that, Phoenix appreciates the profound positive impact his Oscar nominations – for portraying Johnny Cash in Walk The Line (2006) and Commodus in The Gladiator (2001) – have had on his life. “It’s undeniable that my career would be in a very different place if it wasn’t for that experience,” he says. “Typically I haven’t been in films that have made an exorbitant amount of money and that’s typically how actors oftentimes are allowed to continue to do quality work as they are considered successful.”

Nonetheless, the social aspects of the nominations were too uncomfortable for him to bear. “I don’t want to be around 200 people where you just make small talk,” he exclaims, waving his hand dismissively. “You’re going like fuck, I just spent 8 hours at this thing and I was with all these people and I never talked to anybody really. I don’t like that feeling; you always kind of leave feeling a little empty.”

Having won the best actor award at this year’s Venice Film Festival, Phoenix may have to do it all over again this year thanks to his Oscar-worthy performance in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, in which he plays a wayward WWII veteran, Freddie Quell, who falls under the spell of a charismatic sect leader, Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman). But the star insists that an actor’s performance is not solely the fruit of his talent and it should be credited to the director who guides him through the filming, the director of photography who makes him look good and the editor who selects his best takes.

“Sometimes, I think actors don’t really deserve credit for the performances in some ways because I’ve seen performances shaped so much by the director,” Phoenix exclaims. “I guarantee you that if you saw the unedited film, I don’t think you would talk about my performance in a positive way. I think you might say that there were some moments that were good and then you’d say there were things so fucking bad that you can’t imagine that I’m a paid actor. So it’s hard for me ever to take credit for a performance,” he laughs.

Yet, Paul Thomas Anderson told me earlier that he offered the 37-year-old actor little direction, allowing him to freely form the character as he saw fit. “Paul’s really humble,” Phoenix chuckles, shaking his head. “I know that he feels that he’s very free and doesn’t control things but he does in a very subtle way to allow actors to feel that it is their own experience. I think that really good directors sometimes won’t directly say do this but they give you information that you can derive something about the character.”

Phoenix confesses that although he found Freddie’s yearning for meaning in his life and his uncertainty exciting, he had no idea how to approach him when he read the script. “There is a lot of ambiguity and so there’s a lot to try and develop. It was such an interesting character because I never really had any clear answers for what motivated him. Typically, actors have all those cliched stupid questions that actors ask and I didn’t really have that. I was mostly attracted to it because I didn’t know what it was, which was scary.”

But after listening to songs that were sent to him by Anderson, Phoenix began gradually to shape Freddie’s character emotionally and physically. “I can’t remember the songs, but every song was about these broken men and the lyrics clued me in.

“I wanted him to be physically and emotionally damaged so it was like the toughest case possible which would be appealing to The Master. That he seems like a hopeless case,” explains Phoenix, who has built his career inhabiting such conflicted and broken characters.

Born in Puerto Rico in 1974 to parents who were missionaries with the Children of God, Phoenix grew in a bohemian environment. Only when his parents left the cult and moved to the US, did he and his siblings, River and Rain, begin performing music, gaining attention in local contests, which eventually lead to TV roles for himself, when he was only 10 year-old, and for his brother River, who flourished into a promising star.

Ironically, Phoenix’s first major role in feature films was in Gus Van Sant’s To Die For (1995), which he took following the tragic death of his brother River from an overdose at the Viper Room, which left the young actor with deep emotional scars, but charged him with a new energy that propelled him to stardom.

In 2009, he raised eyebrows when he announced his retirement from acting in order to focus on rap music, and began appearing in public with a scruffy beard, uncombed hair and dark sunglasses, giving the impression that he was suffering a mental breakdown. The entire episode of his fall as a movie star and his rise as a rap artist was recorded by his best friend Casey Affleck in I’m Still Here, a supposed documentary that was released in 2010.

Later Phoenix strenuously denied that he had ever retired from acting or taken on rap music, insisting that it had been an act for I’m Still Here. “You got to be fucking kidding me,” he explodes in incredulous laughter. “I don’t do music, I never have.”

Nonetheless, the experience of making I’m Still Here has profoundly changed his perspective on acting and deepened his understanding of himself. “I think that when I was younger I tried to really control my performances and I tried to really plan things out and I took a certain pride in the amount of work that I had done. At some point I felt in some ways that I was preventing myself from discovering things that maybe were beyond my understanding at the time when I was studying it and that the best thing was to study and work and come up with my plan but to be completely open to whatever may happen in the moment and that really came to pass when I did I’m Still Here and then led into this movie.”

Listening to Phoenix speaking about acting with such passion, enthusiasm and deep appreciation, one would doubt that he had or would ever contemplate quitting his coveted craft. It’s evident, however, that he loathes the inevitable social aspects and the hazardous fame that come with it.

“I don’t want to feel like I’m this different thing or that I am like special in some way; it makes me feel funny,” he reflects. “I’m shy and it’s uncomfortable, and you navigate it because you have no choice,” he laughs in resignation.

A lot has been said about Phoenix’s eccentric personality and unpredictable behaviour, which is evidently not completely untrue, but what I also sensed in him was frustration at being misunderstood, dismay at being judged and a yearning to be left alone.


Politics and controversy at Toronto Film Festival

Ben Affleck’s Argo was universally hailed as a clear winner at TIFF

There is no other film event that transforms its host city the way Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) does. During the 11-days, the sleepy city of Toronto becomes the thriving epicentre of the film industry, hosting thousands of industry professionals and film fans from all over the world, who come to savour the new offerings of world cinema.

Walking down the streets of downtown Toronto, you are bound to see long lines of film goers snaking around the block, waiting patiently in the scorching heat to see one of the 375 movies screened in the festival or hear the deafening screams of lucky star-spotters as they catch a glimpse of one of the hundreds of attending stars.

Thanks to the large number of premieres, TIFF attracts more  stars than any other festival. They parade the red carpet, shake hands, sign autographs and mingle with the swooning fans. Feeling at ease in Toronto, the celebrities are everywhere: in the bars, restaurants, hotel lobbies and the ubiquitous parties.

But TIFF is not only about stars and parties. Since its inception, 37 years ago, the festival has become one of the best barometers for Oscar contenders. Almost every executive, publicist, critic or reporter in Hollywood descends on Toronto in order to be the first to get a sneak preview the likely champions of the upcoming award season. This year a few contenders have risen above the dizzying foray.

Top of the list is the political thriller Argo, which was universally hailed as the forerunner in next year’s Oscar race.  Directed by and starring Ben Affleck, the film tells the true story of a CIA operative who contrives an audacious plan to smuggle out of Iran 6 US embassy employees, who managed to flee when the embassy was raided by Iranian demonstrators and take refuge at the Canadian ambassador’s house.

The movie received a rapturous applause and a standing ovation from the audience. Later, Ben Affleck was joined by his wife Jennifer Garner, his best friend Matt Damon and the rest of the cast to celebrate the success of the film at a glamorous restaurant.

Coincidentally, the morning after Argo’s premiere, Canada announced the closing of its embassy in Tehran, and a day later the American consulate in Benghazi and embassy in Cairo were stormed by angry demonstrators, which resulted in the death of the US ambassador to Libya.

The main competitor for Argo was another socio-political movie, The Master, which has been creating a lot of buzz since its premiere at the Venice Film Festival, where it won the best director for Paul Thomas Anderson, and co-stars Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman shared the best actor prize.

The Master has reportedly sparked hostility from angry Scientologists, who urged its producer Harvey Weinstein to cancel its release. Based on the life of Scientology founder, L. Ron Hubbard, the film tells the story of a WWII veteran, who gets manipulated by a charismatic sect leader.

Jennifer Laurence captivating performance at Silver Lining Playback made her a frontrunner at the Oscar’s race

Notorious for his uncanny ability to sense award-worthy projects, Harvey Weinstein offered another yet different potential Oscar contender: the light-hearted Silver Lining Playbook, which was applauded by critics and audiences alike.

Directed by David O’Russell and starring Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence and Robert De Niro, the dark comedy centres on a bipolar former teacher (Cooper) who is taken under the wing of a widow (Lawrence) as he struggles to fit back in society. The captivating performances of Cooper and Lawrence make them natural frontrunners in the upcoming Oscar race.

Other movies dealing with disabilities that attracted attention were The Sessions, in which Helen Hunt bares all as a sex surrogate therapist who helps a comatose poet lose his virginity.  And Jacques Audiard’s Rust and Bone, in which Marion Cotillard delivers a riveting performance as a whale trainer who finds love after losing her legs in an accident.

Tom Hanks was also in town promoting the highly anticipated Cloud Atlas, six interwoven stories and grand themes of karma and compassion. The film, directed by Tom Tykwer and the Wachowski brothers,  didn’t live up the hype, leaving the audience confused and critics divided.

Keira Knightley failed to impress in Anna Karenina

The Brits were here in force too but, unlike the previous few years, their movies didn’t dominate the festival. Keira Knightley, accompanied by director Joe Wright, attended the premiere of Anna Karenina, which benefited from sumptuous production design but was short on character development and performance, leaving critics and audiences unimpressed.

Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts hit the parties to promote The Impossible, a harrowing story about a family who reunite after being ruptured by the 2003 Christmas tsunami. While Olivia Williams was accompanying her co-stars in Hyde Park On Hudson, Bill Murray and Laura Linney, while promoting the movie about the love story between the American president Franklin D Roosevelt and his distant cousin Margaret Stuckley.

Harry Potter’s Emma Watson also delighted her fans as she marched down the red carpet at the premiere of her new teen movie, Perks of Being A Wallflower, in which she falls in love with an introvert freshman.

But the star who provoked the loudest screams and most attention from fans was Twilight’s Kristen Stewart, who endowed Toronto with her first public appearance since the revelation of her love affair with the director of Snow White and the Huntsman. She arrived in Toronto to attend the premiere of her new movie On The Road.

While stars glittered on red carpet and at glitzy parties, studio executives and other buyers were hunting treasures in the darkness of screening rooms. But it seems that

Helen Hunt bares all in The Sessions

treasures were in short supply this year.

Nancy Utley, the head of Marketing at Fox Searchlight, told me that she had watched 20 movies, but nothing had tickled her fancy, leaving the festival empty handed. Her sentiment was echoed by the other studio executives, such as Stacey Snider from DreamWorks who came looking for new talent. “I was impressed by a Danish director, and the director of Impossible, and the David Geffen documentary,” she told me when I bumped into her in the hotel lobby. The lucky directors will most likely be invited to the studio, which is headed by Steven Spielberg, for a chat.

By contrast, however, the co-chairman of Lionsgate, Rob Friedman, told me that he felt good about the movies that his company had acquired during the festival, including Thanks For Sharing, Much Ado About Nothing and Emperor.

By the second week of the festival, many of Hollywood’s big players have left Toronto, which gradually fades back to normality as the festival begins to wind down.

Korean movie Pieta wins Venice Film Festival

South Korean Kim Ki-duk’s drama Pieta beat the big players from Hollywood and won the Golden Lion award at the 69th Venice Film Festival on Saturday. The film tells the story of a brutal debt collector who cripples those who can’t pay, until he meets a woman who claims to be his mother.
Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, the most talked about film of the festival, had to be content with the Silver Lion for best director. The movie’s stars, Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman, shared the best actor award.

Purportedly based on the  Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, The Master centers on a an unsettled WII veteran (Joaquin Phoenix) who is manipulated by a cult leader (Philip Seymour Hoffman).

Another film dealing with a religious theme, Paradise: Faith, from Austrian director Ulrich Seidl’s, won the special jury prize. The film, a dark comedy about a self-flagellating Roman Catholic woman married to a paraplegic Muslim,  made headlines in Italy when a Catholic organization accused the filmmakers of blasphemy for showing a woman masturbating with a crucifix.

The best actress award went to Hadas Yaron, who  plays a Hasidic teenager struggling with a difficult decision in the in yet another religion-theme drama from Israel, Fill the Void.

This year’s Venice Film Festival jury was headed by filmmaker Michael Mann, and included actress Samantha Morton, filmmakers Matteo Garrone and Pablo Trapero and the artist Marina Abramovic.

Ben Affleck’s Argo fires up Canadians at TIFF

Argo, one of the most talked about movies at Toronto International Film Festival was premiered last night at the Roy Thompson Hall.

Ben Affleck in Argo

The political thriller is based on the true story of the 6 Americans who succeeded in fleeing the US embassy in Tehran when it was stormed by Iranian demonstrators, following the toppling of the Shah in 1979. The escapees took refuge in the Canadian ambassador’s home, until they were smuggled out of Iran by CIA operative Tony Mendes (played by Ben Affleck).

Ending with a thank you note to Canada for assisting in saving the 6 Americans, the film received a rapturous applause by the Canadian audience. The nail-biting, suspenseful film was also praised by critics and is predicted by many to dominate the upcoming awards season.

Before the screening, director Ben Affleck, accompanied by his wife, actress Jennifer Garner, walked down the red carpet followed by the rest of the cast, which includes Bryan Cranston, John Goodman, Kyle Chandler, Alan Arkin and Taylor Schilling.

Just as the Argo premiere after-party began in earnest a few blocks away in Terroni, another movie that created a lot of buzz, Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, was having its own premiere. It centres on an unsettled naval veteran (Joaquin Phoenix) who is manipulated by a cult leader (Philip Seymour Hoffman).

Later at midnight, Martin McDonagh’s Seven Psychopaths received its world premiere, which was attended by the director and his cast, including Colin Farrell, Woody Harrelson, Christopher Walken, Abbie Cornish, Olga Kurylenko and Sam Rockwell.