Phoenix rising

Joaquin Phoenix walks back to mainstream attention with two drastically different roles that deal with grief, justice and revenge and even though he may not like the public attention that comes with fame, he is handling it better this time around

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Published: Wed 24 Oct 2007, 11:06 AM

Last updated: Sat 4 Apr 2015, 8:48 PM

JOAQUIN PHOENIX is everywhere again, and he isn't thrilled about it.

Moviegoers last saw Phoenix two years ago in "Hotel Rwanda" (2005) and in his Oscar-nominated performance as Johnny Cash in "Walk the Line" (2005). He did the promotional and awards rounds for both films, and then vanished again to wherever it is he goes between projects.

Now he once again has two films to promote, this time opening only a week apart, with "We Own the Night" arriving in theatres on Oct. 12 and "Reservation Road" on Oct. 19.

"I don't plan the dates," Phoenix says. "It just happens that way. I don't know, maybe it's better this way. I get this (talking to the press) out of the way all at once."

Phoenix plays distinctly different characters in "We Own the Night" and "Reservation Road." In the former he's Bobby, a cocaine-addicted nightclub manager who's estranged from his brother, Joseph (Mark Wahlberg), and their father (Robert Duvall), both of whom are Brooklyn cops. When his brother barely survives a hit, Bobby tries to bring down the shooter and his crew. And in "Reservation Road" he plays Ethan, a professor from a small Connecticut town who, after his son is killed by a hit-and-run driver (Mark Ruffalo), wrestles with issues of grief, justice and revenge.

During an interview at a Manhattan hotel, Phoenix - his salt-and-pepper hair curly and messy, a cigarette in his hand for every second of a 30-minute interview - is a bundle of nervous energy. Though he detests interviews, he's friendlier and more communicative than is often the case.

Speaking about "Reservation Road," which is based on a novel by John Burnham Schwartz, the 32-year-old actor says that it was the story's mix of family drama and thriller that grabbed his attention. He didn't concern himself with finding the right balance between those elements, however, because he had full confidence in director/co-writer Terry George, with whom he had worked on "Hotel Rwanda."

"I wouldn't have wanted to have done a movie about a grieving family and that's it," Phoenix says. "I feel like we've seen those. It was also having this other element, the thriller element, that was interesting to me. But the balance of it wasn't a concern to me, because it wasn't my problem.

"I'm not the director," he continues. "I'm not shaping the movie, the speed of the cuts or the score or whatever those various elements are that give it a sense of it being dramatic and quiet one moment, then intense. I'm the type of actor that tries to be as subjective as possible. I don't think about the audience or whether this will work as a thriller.

"For me, it's the opposite of what I should do as an actor," Phoenix says. "I can't speak for other actors. Other actors are awesome at it, and they know the size of the lens, and I have never learned about those things, because I don't think that's what it's about for me. I focus simply on what my character is experiencing."

In this case, he found plenty in Ethan to occupy himself.

"I've played a lot of characters that were quite emotive and intense," Phoenix says, "and I liked the quiet intensity of somebody going through an internal conflict and not really showing what he's going through.

"For most actors it's about emoting," he continues, "especially in something like this, where a child dies. This guy has lived a life of reason. He's a man of words, and he's conscientious and he's calm and he's raised two kids. You get the feeling, from seeing him in the class with his students, that he's a voice of reason.

"Suddenly these things that have always been there for him are completely failing him," he says. "He doesn't have the words. The system is not supporting him. He calls 911 and the cops are there in 90 seconds, but then he feels that the police aren't helping him at all and suddenly he becomes quite primal, in a way. And I liked the transformation."

Phoenix credits George for letting him experiment with his performance, and praises Jennifer Connelly, who plays Ethan's wife and previously co-starred with him in "Inventing the Abbotts" (1997), for rolling with the resulting punches.

"It's that awful cliche, acting is reacting," Phoenix says. "You're hostage to the director and the people around you, especially on a film like this, which is about feeding off each other and what's not being said. Jennifer was incredibly brave and committed. I say 'brave' because Terry and I tried something different: I (usually) don't like rehearsing and defining things too much, but I literally would not learn my lines until I arrived on set, and most of the time I had multiple lines, that Terry and I had discussed, that might be said in a moment. This character doesn't know what he's going to say next, so I never wanted to know what I was going to say.

"There's an argument on the porch," he adds, "and I had all these things I could say, that I'd heard from victims' families, that were applicable and rang true, but I never knew what I was going to say.

"It's a process, and another actor has a completely different set of needs," Phoenix says. "We were shooting very quick, virtually no rehearsals, a lot of handheld camera, and I'd already worked with Terry, so it was amazing to see all these amazing actors with different approaches coming together and saying, 'F--k it, we're jumping into this.' Jennifer was incredible at that."

When "We Own the Night" comes up, Phoenix says all the right things about the chance to share the screen again with Wahlberg, his co-star in "The Yards" (2000). He practically leaps off the couch in excitement, however, when talking about writer/director James Gray.

"Honestly, I just love working with James," Phoenix says. "We talked about working together again for quite some time. The collaboration is just so much fun. It's so much fun to invent characters. It sounds like we have this great intellectual discussion, but we sometimes just go, 'Am I comfortable talking to girls?' So there are yes-and-no questions that help you define somebody.

"Working with him, there's so much room for exploration," the actor continues, "because that's what he thrives on. He's (amazingly) detail-oriented, but completely willing to throw it out the window if he feels that the actors are finding something more interesting or adding something to it.

Phoenix can and surely will disappear again once he finishes launching "We Own the Night" and "Reservation Road." He craves privacy and, for an Oscar-nominated celebrity, he's pretty much left alone.

"I can't take credit for it completely," the actor says. "Part of it is public demand, or lack of demand. Let's be honest, I don't think there's the interest in me the way there is for Brad Pitt. I think that plays a big part of it. There are people who are more appealing to whatever that market is, that tabloid market.

"I don't think I fall into that category," Phoenix says. "I'm not sure if it's the films I make, the way I look, whatever it may be. It's not like they're coming at me in hordes and I have managed to get around it. It's pretty rare that I feel stalked, but I have some experience in having one person follow me as I walk to dinner with my girlfriend, saying my name behind me. That makes me sweat and feel nauseous and uncomfortable. So I'm very thankful I don't have much of that."

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