We haven’t seen much of Joaquin Phoenix in the last four years, and when we have, he’s sometimes been obscured behind dark glasses, beard, extra weight and a general haze of disorientation. But Phoenix is long done playing “JP,” the dissolute alter ego who renounced acting in favor of a doomed hip-hop career and famously caught David Letterman off-guard, as chronicled in Casey Affleck’s underrated quasi-documentary I’m Still Here (2010). Now, Phoenix is making a triumphant return to a more traditional mode of screen acting. He’s wrapped Spike Jonze’s Her, in which he falls in love with the voice on his computer’s operating system, as well as James Gray’s Nightingale, an Ellis Island period piece co-starring Marion Cotillard and Jeremy Renner.
And in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master (in limited release Friday; opening wide on Sept. 21), Phoenix plays an alcoholic, traumatized World War II veteran who comes under the sway of Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), known to his acolytes as Master, the founder of a Scientology-like movement known as the Cause. The day after The Master’s North American premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, TIME sat down with the press-shy actor. You can read TIME’s profile of Joaquin Phoenix in the issue on newsstands now, available to subscribers here.
TIME: Have you seen The Master?
Joaquin Phoenix: I’ve seen a rough version, with no score. I thought it was a comedy. I did! I laughed the entire time I was watching it. I was sitting with Paul and I said to him, “This is hilarious.” I have this horrible sense of humor where I think discomfort is funny—partly because I experience discomfort a lot, and it’s a way of laughing at it and getting a release.
There’s an incredible scene in which Freddie has to answer a barrage of questions from Dodd, without pausing or blinking, becoming increasingly agitated. I’ve seen the movie twice, and both times you could feel the entire audience let out their breath when Dodd finally says, “Close your eyes.” How did you, Paul, and Philip prepare for that scene?
Magicians don’t talk about how their tricks work, because people would go, [affects prim, nasally tone] “Oh, that’s all you do?” [laughs] No, we work very hard! We are working. Very. Hard. Paul set up two cameras to capture us from both sides, so we could be in the moment and not be worried about shooting the one side and then re-lighting and shooting from the other side. That made a huge difference. We spent the most amount of time on the very last bit, when Phil smokes a cigarette and says, “I like Kools.” I started laughing every time he said “I like Kools” and kept blowing the take. And then you’d hear Paul start laughing and I’d start laughing again. It’s funny to think of it as an intense scene, because my memory of it is just uncontrollable laughter.
(MORE: TIME’s Complete Coverage of the Venice Film Festival, including Richard Corliss’s The Master review)
We learn so much about Freddie through how he walks and moves. What were the keys to his physicality for you?
First, Paul will write many, many scenes that won’t make it into the movie. There were a lot of scenes where we saw what Freddie had experienced in the war, and a lot of the physical damage that had occurred. There is reference to some of that in the beginning of the film. He was physically scarred as much as emotionally scarred by his experience in the war. Then Paul kept sending me all these songs by artists from the period, Judy Garland, Nat King Cole. A lot of the songs also had references to physical damage. If you’ve ever seen a stray dog that’s skin and bones and has a limp and is on the streets—that’s Freddie. Paul gave me a film called On the Bowery [a semi-scripted depiction of Manhattan’s Skid Row]. That was astonishing to me, because I’d never seen alcoholism depicted like that. That was huge and important. Also Let There Be Light [John Huston’s documentary about traumatized World War II veterans]. These are guys who are clearly damaged.
I told Paul that I was going to do things that would probably feel very uncomfortable to me, that I didn’t know if they would work, and I would rely on him to tell me. I guarantee if you saw some of the rushes you would think I was the worst thing in the world. It’s a process I don’t completely understand. I don’t know that I want to.
You told the New York Times that Paul showed you a video of a monkey falling asleep and said, “That’s you.” But what does it mean to be the monkey?
Paul called me Bubbles on the set. Bubbles was Michael Jackson’s pet monkey, and I was Paul’s pet monkey. The key to Freddie is an animal, just pure id. For the scene where he’s arrested and put in jail and all that, I just watched videos of wild animals that get into suburbia. If you’ve seen video of a deer or a bear that finds its way into suburbia and the cops have to tranquilize it, it seems as if the brain stops working. If they’re cornered, they’ll slam into walls, or one leg tries to go left while the other is going right. It’s complete fear and chaos. They can’t control themselves at all. That was the key to Freddie. And Paul certainly called me his pet monkey.
And did you appreciate that, Joaquin?
I did, I didn’t mind it at all! I love having a master. I have no problem serving my director. That’s my job. I want to make them happy.
(MORE: Joaquin Phoenix: A Career Fizzled, Or A Career Revived?)
The last few years have actually been the second time you took a break from acting. The first was when you were a teenager, and you traveled to Mexico and South America.
I went to Mexico with my father and my sisters. There was a place called—Puerto Angel, maybe?
You are absolutely f—– right! It was an incredibly idyllic experience, waking up every day at sunrise and catching a horse bareback. No paved roads. I built thatched huts on a farm with other kids my age, and later I worked in a bar. There were natives, Americans, Italians, all different cultures living together. It was a very safe environment where you didn’t worry about your kid wandering down the street. Some of my friends in the States were experiencing a lot of fear and conflict with their parents as they became teenagers, and that just didn’t exist down there. After a while I came back to the States and started acting again.
Did you like being a child actor?
Yeah, it’s f—– fun! My only frustration was that I didn’t like the stories that were written for kids my age. On the first job I ever did, there was a fight scene. I was eight years old, and though I knew it wasn’t real and they were actors, I was emotionally affected by it. I felt the adrenaline race through my body. There are kids who get on a BMX bike when they’re eight years old and they go, “Whoa, this is incredible,” and grow up to do extreme sports. It’s the same for me with acting.
And it’s incredible to find other actors who experience it. In the scene in The Master where Phil is arguing with the fellow who’s saying that the Cause is a cult, I saw Phil genuinely shaking with power and energy and things coursing through his body that he couldn’t control, because he was putting so much into the scene. I did not want him to look at me, I did not want to make eye contact with him, I tried to stay away from him. I was terrified of him, because he was a f—– volcano.
You said earlier that discomfort is funny to you. I’m Still Here is a brilliant comedy of discomfort. Is that what you set out to make?
It was like, ‘Well, what if we could just do the hardest-core version of Curb Your Enthusiasm? Seinfeld, The Sarah Silverman Program, Curb Your Enthusiasm—everybody plays themselves. I mean, Ellen! Ellen was called Ellen. But it’s not them; it’s a distorted version of them. There was something so exciting about saying, “This is me, but now I get to make ‘me’ whatever I want it to be.” The thing that made me go “Ah, I’ve figured out how to do this” was a documentary called Overnight, about the making of the movie The Boondock Saints. The guy who wrote and directed The Boondock Saints had started making this documentary with his friends where they would show the process of making his first film. Then things went sour, but he’d signed a release, and he couldn’t un-sign. I thought, “That’s what you could do. I could start making a movie with my friend, I sign a release and I can’t pull back on it as things go bad.”
I also got really fascinated by reality shows, particularly celebrity reality shows, like Celebrity Rehab. Frankly, it was some of the best acting I’d ever seen some of these people do. It’s so obvious that it’s manipulated and such total bulls—, and yet there’s something so terribly exciting about that, so dangerous and ugly and scary and fantastic!
(SEE: Where does I’m Still Here rank among the top stories of 2010?)
In retrospect, is there anything you would have done differently on I’m Still Here?
We would have figured out the distribution differently. We would have realized what a f—– racket it was. We had no idea. Money men, they’re all just f—– gangsters. If you want to distribute a movie, you have to go through certain channels and that’s that. There are all these incredibly crazy costs—like, I’m sorry, what costs $50,000, because your cousin has this company that does that? It felt like there was no way we could do this without spending hundreds of thousands of dollars. We didn’t have the time to seek out alternative forms of distribution, which I think are possible now with the Internet.
You appeared on Late Show with David Letterman as your I’m Still Here character ostensibly to promote Two Lovers. The film’s director, James Gray, had mixed feelings about how the film was overshadowed by your character’s antics.
I don’t know that anyone would have taken much notice of Two Lovers, let’s be honest. Magnolia distributed it, and I don’t think that they’re a company that’s putting a lot of money into advertising. The simple fact of the f—— matter is that money is why you know about a movie or don’t know about a movie. Once in a while, you get lucky—word of mouth or some critics can make you take notice and make a movie pop. But more often than not, it’s not because the actor is going on f—– Letterman that people are seeing the movie. It’s advertising. I don’t know what attention it would have gotten, if any, and there’s probably an argument that it got more attention because of it.
However, if it could have been avoided, I absolutely would have. But I was painted into a corner and I had no choice. I either had to give up on this thing that I had already been shooting for six months, or do what I did. James knew what was happening. And of course, it makes me feel terrible if it did affect Two Lovers in any negative way, because obviously I have a great deal of admiration and love for James and for his work, and I would never want my personal stuff to get in the way of a film. It was a tough situation.
What did you take away from the experience of making I’m Still Here?
Part of why I was frustrated with acting was because I took it so seriously. I want it to be so good that I get in my own way. It’s like love: when you fall in love, you’re not yourself anymore. You lose control of being natural and showing the beautiful parts of yourself, and all somebody recognizes is this total desperation. And that’s very unattractive. Once I became a total buffoon, it was so liberating.
I’d see child actors and I’d get so jealous, because they’re just completely wide open. If you could convince them that something frightening was going to happen, they would actually feel terror. I wanted to feel that so badly. I’d just been acting too long, and it had kind of been ruined for me. I wanted to put myself in a situation that would feel brand-new and hopefully inspire a new way of approaching acting. It did do that for me.