The emperor strikes back
December 2000: Joaquin Phoenix has demons. The myth surrounding his late brother River. His “hippy” family. The six “wilderness” years he took off from acting. That “moodiness”. But this year, with formidable performances in Gladiator and now The Yards, he’s finally headed into the light.
Joaquin Phoenix is Joker. And Joker is Joaquin Phoenix. In Todd Phillips’ superhero gothic-opera, the actor, 44, commands every scene he’s in, and even the few he’s not. It’s a blazing performance in an incendiary film, an origins story like no other. See Joker and meet a clown called Arthur, future nemesis of The Batman, and marvel at the most insurrectionary entry yet to the DC Universe.
The Face spotted Phoenix rising almost 20 years ago. With brilliant exclusive photography by Steven Klein, we put the actor on the December 2000 cover of the magazine, a few months after he’d gone toe-to-toe with Russell Crowe in Ridley Scott’s blockbuster Gladiator. But when writer Kevin Maher spent time with Phoenix in his Manhattan apartment, the then-26-year-old was front and centre in another gripping yarn set in a Gotham gone to seed. That film was The Yards, an indie thriller about corruption and murder in New York’s train repair depots.
Read this brilliant archive feature and meet a future Oscar-favourite called Joaquin – and also a man who, compared to his few 2019 media moments, was open, unguarded and, on more than one occasion, relaxed. No, we’re not joking.
Night. A seedy nightclub in Queens, New York. Joaquin Phoenix is on the dancefloor. His silver-grey suit is open, his purple shirt undone. His snakey hips loop left to right, riding the heavy Latino rhythm. A blonde ladyfriend bobs coquettishly before him, a slave to his charms. He is smiling. Out of nowhere, a scruffy interloper shimmies up beside his lady, humping and grinding as he goes. That’s it. One punch, and the punk goes down. Some nearby dancers squeal wildly with delight. They rush to pat Phoenix on the back, they tousle his hair, and they stroke his arm. In return he pulls a body-builder biceps flex. More squealing. More touching. And a hug from his lady. He is ecstatic. He is beaming, his eyes gleaming. He’s on top of the world. He is the shit.
Day. A fashionable restaurant in TriBeCa, New York. Joaquin Phoenix is protesting.
“But don’t you see, that confidence, that, that was the hardest thing in the film for me to pull off, man!”
It seems that the above mentioned display of devastating galumphing swagger, plucked from a superlative career-high performance in his current epic crime flick The Yards, did not come naturally to Joaquin Phoenix. (Incidentally, to the uninitiated, “Joaquin” is pronounced “Wha-keen” – there’s a story he tells, about changing his name to Leaf as a child, then changing it back again as a teenager, but it’s not important.)
In fact, his Willie Gutierrez, the savvy right hand to James Caan’s racketeer, the lover to Charlize Theron’s femme, and the gang leader to Mark Wahlberg’s ex-con, is soooo not Phoenix. “I spent the whole time going, ‘Fuck, I’m with these really tough guys, and they’re from Queens, and Mark, he’s a real Tough Kid, and they’re going to beat me up, ’cause they know I’m a fraud! I’m just this little wuss!’”
Fortunately, Willie’s aplomb is short-lived, as bribery and murder soon reduce him to a state of harrowing emotional immolation. And it’s here, in the realm of the psychologically wounded, that Phoenix bizarrely triumphs. For there is no other actor alive today who handles “hurt” as well as this 26-year-old prodigy. After all, it was Phoenix alone who saved the multimillion dollar Gladiator from corny cartoon excess. By investing the otherwise boo-hiss Emperor Commodus with the spirit of a baneful child in need of sympathy, pity and love, he became a blinding dramatic foil for Russell Crowe’s lugubrious hero.
In Ridley Scott’s epic, Phoenix revels in unexpected emotional complexity. When killing his own father, Commodus whispers out through streaming tears: “I would butcher the whole world, if you would only love me!” It’s a shattering coup de cinéma that has our hearts siding with the murderous son in what is a fiendish moment of patricide. And that has everything to do with the delicate, tragic “otherness” of Joaquin Phoenix.
Similarly, in the up and coming Quills, a satirical “romp” through the latter days of the Marquis de Sade, it is Phoenix the wavering priest who fascinates. While Geoffrey Rush’s de Sade mugs, sneers and wiggles genitals to camera, Phoenix is the epitome of self-tortured stillness. Crushed by his own desires (to rape a naked and dead Kate Winslet), and consistently spiritually shattered, his is the standout performance. His is the mood that matters.
There is something defiantly modern about Phoenix. For a start, there’s the dark, wolfish beauty. Not the pretty-by-numbers looks of culturally sanctioned poster-boys – see Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Brad Pitt, even his own late brother, River. Instead he has an altogether edgier appearance. Like he’s come from somewhere deep within the subconscious of stardom. His face is angular. His brows are cloudy, his nose sharp, and his mouth is scarred (not the result of a harelip operation, but a birth scar). And his eyes: he has wholly expressive, savage green eyes.
He is his own mythic character. His life weaves inexorably through his work. He’s the loyal son of a wandering family, the loving brother, and the perpetually tortured St Sebastian. He does vulnerability, pain and anguish to perfection.
But does that mean he’s not really, you know, like, happy?
On the arse end of Eighth Avenue, beyond Greenwich Village and Soho, sits Phoenix’s favourite TriBeCa restaurant, just a block away from the Hudson River. Here, in the name of urban renewal, cement bags lie stacked against walls and jackhammers ceaselessly batter the pavements. In the midst of redbrick chaos, roofless buildings and half-opened garages sits a snazzy eatery.
Joaquin Phoenix is holding imaginary barbells over his head. “I’ve never pumped iron in my life! But I was there, in the gym, I was like, uurrrhhhhhhh!” He’s wearing faded blue denims, trainers, and a white T‑shirt – the table is outside, it’s late October, but it’s an Indian summer at 25°C. He has shades on and is smoking like a chimney. When speaking, he plunges his hand deep inside the front of his T‑shirt, generously scratches his chest/belly/ribs, badly stretching the cotton neck. He can be occasionally deadpan and humourless. Or he can be hilarious – he does a delicious Ridley Scott impersonation (basically an American cockney with a giant cigar jammed into his back teeth: “Aahroigh, now, darling, you goh a be a bih extra, you know!”). But he’s generally just kinda sweet, and he has a winning smile. When he’s excited, he slurs. When he’s uncomfortable, his sentences implode.
For now, though, he’s slightly giddy, explaining the vagaries of bulking up for The Yards. “I was doing everything. Like a real man! Like, (lifting invisible barbell to full extension) urrhhhh! Like, grunting, too!” He pauses and, suddenly saddened, stares into his artichoke salad (he’s a strict vegan). “I felt like such an ass. So embarrassing. Me, at the gym. It’s ridiculous.”
And there it is, that signature trait: the undercutting of confidence. On the Gladiator set, director Ridley Scott said that he always felt sorry for Phoenix, because he looked “wounded”. Even Richard Harris (as Marcus Aurelius, his murdered dad) concurred that “Joaquin doesn’t believe he’s good – you have to tell him!”
Phoenix retorts, keeping things up-tempo: “Well, come on, there you have it! I mean, look at Richard Harris! He’s out of his fucking mind!” He laughs, but doesn’t answer the question. He tries another approach. “I just have such high expectations. Every time I see a movie I’m in I go: ‘Fuck it! That scene was supposed to be good, and it’s terrible!’”
That doesn’t explain it. Casey Affleck, friend and co-star in his 1995 breakthrough movie To Die For, has likened him to an eight-month-old baby. Vince Vaughn, his co-star in two 1998 movies, Return to Paradise and Clay Pigeons, has called him a scared child, but one who can “look like the guy in the pool room you don’t want to mess with!”
Phoenix tosses his head back, as if in pain. “‘This is my problem with interviews and with quotes! I don’t think there is a person on this fucking planet that you can define with one sentence. Not with one fucking interview! Not with a hundred fucking interviews! ’Cause we don’t fucking know what we are! Sometimes I don’t even know who I am, what’s my nature!”
Hence, perhaps, the vulnerability. James Gray, director of The Yards, puts it best when he says: “Joaquin is just kind of his own thing. He is his own mess. He’s a happy and a beautiful mess. But he is a mess, nonetheless.”
At 15 years old, Phoenix went AWOL from showbiz. For six years. As a child actor he was in kiddy fodder like Spacecamp (1986) and Russkies (1987), had a cameo in The Fall Guy, and smart support in Parenthood (1989). And then he just left. Went travelling around Mexico, South America and Cuba. It’s that mythic thing again. Like Heathcliff (not the cat, the other one) he just disappears, and comes back a man. He has made a point of revealing little to the press about what are, to Phoenix, the wilderness years. In fact, he has made a point of revealing little to the press, period. His jungle sabbatical has become a symbol, an explicit reminder that Joaquin Phoenix is different.
Yeah, yeah, of course, of course. But what was he doing all that time? What was he thinking?
“During that time I was probably thinking more about getting laid than anything else.”
So you went travelling to lose your virginity?
Did it take six years?
“Yah, I’m very slow. But, you know, I was 15, and whatever it is that started up, that chemical thing…”
“… yeah, you really start to go, wow, what’s going on? And I spent a lot of the time sitting on the beach and faking little dramas in my head.”
Were you surrounded by native women in grass skirts?
“No, it wasn’t really like that. It wasn’t like coconut and ‘bumtittybum-tittybum’. And I had a Catholic girlfriend. But she wouldn’t, uh, share loving.”
So were you successful?
“Did I ever get laid?”
“Technically yes. But I ended up going for a 40-year-old Eastern European woman.”
“(Smiling widely) Yeah.”
Is that a joke?
An anecdote, from James Gray. One day, while shooting The Yards, Phoenix was found crying in his trailer. It seems that someone had crossed the line; they had asked about River. “I said to Joaquin: ‘You don’t talk about that ever, do you?’ He said, ‘No I don’t!’ in a very curt way. And I had to respect that. I never, ever brought up his brother.”
It is safe to say that Joaquin Phoenix doesn’t like talking about his brother.
Phoenix came back to movies a man. A changed man. On Halloween 1993, on the cusp of international stardom, River had died of an overdose outside The Viper Room in Los Angeles. Joaquin was there. His frantic 911 call was taped and played by a salacious news media on heavy rotation by the hour, every hour, for weeks to come. It can’t be simply coincidence that his first movie choice after this tragedy, To Die For, was an excoriating satire on the rapacious vapidity of the news media. Surely there’s that connection between what happened to your brother and…
“(Slamming directly into the question) I don’t think I was really aware of that at the time, perhaps subconsciously I was.”
It must have struck you, though?
“(Lighting cigarette and toying with glass) Alright well, I mean, you know, I won’t say ‘struck me’. You know, what do you mean ‘struck’, anyway? He had absolutely, I think it was, it was, also during the time, it was kind of…”
A tall, elegantly dressed woman saves the day. She lightly touches Phoenix’s shoulder. She tells him she’s from a short film festival and wonders if he’d like to be on their celebrity jury. He doesn’t tell her to fuck off with her short film festival. Instead he tells her that he’s really busy, but that she should contact his agent. He shakes her hand and gives her a warm, day-sustaining smile.
“I’ve never really had anything like that happen before. Huh. So where were we?”
You were being struck by the satire in To Die For.
“Right, I was saying that the low point in that period in terms of media coverage of an event was, eh, was OJ Simpson.” (Nice recovery!) “Yeah, that was it. It was wild, it was a charged time.”
Phoenix wowed in To Die For. As the guileless student seduced into murder by Nicole Kidman’s media whore, he was stunningly eccentric. Whether jerking off to the weather report or crying to the cops, he still engendered the utmost sympathy. He then had an “explosive” cameo in Oliver Stone’s U‑Turn as hillbilly hardass Toby N Tucker (TNT – you have to see it). He did a campaign for Prada, where a non-vegan stunt model wore the leather shoes. And on Inventing The Abbots he first met Liv Tyler, with whom he was to have an on-again-off-again relationship for three years. “It’s like the restaurant where you first met your girlfriend. Every time you pass it you think of her. That’s the way it is with …The Abbots.”
He dominated the kids-in-foreign-jail flick Return To Paradise, and was wonderfully camp in Joel Schumacher’s much maligned parable of snuff moviemaking, 8mm. Then came Gladiator, and his wounded, love-starved Commodus. Shockingly, Jude Law, in post-Talented Mr Ripley modishness, originally tested for Commodus. Imagine the film with Law and all his Veruca Salt petulance: “I want to be emperor, and I want to be emperor now!”
Which brings us back to sympathy, pathos, vulnerability and Phoenix. He relents, and posits an opinion. “I guess it probably has to do with how I was raised. You know, my father, he would sit down and talk and introduce me to guys that everyone else would fucking run away from. He always saw humanity in each person.”
John – daddy – Phoenix was born John Bottom. In 1972 he and wife Arlyn joined the Children Of God cult. They changed their name to Phoenix to symbolise rebirth within the flames of God. And because Bottom is a duff name. As proto-missionaries, they travelled around South America for five years. During this time the eldest kids, River and Rain, would sing about God on the streets of Caracas. The Phoenixes eventually became disillusioned with the increasingly creepy sect (with its “free love” recruitment drives) and moved back to the US with now four Phoenix kids in tow – River, Rain, Joaquin and Liberty. They wound up in LA and had another, Summer. Here, in LA’s Westwood, Joaquin often found himself singing Beatles tunes on street corners under a watchful parental eye. The common shorthand used to describe the Phoenix parents is that they were hippies who…
Phoenix lunges forward and whips off his shades.
“This is just what I was saying last night! I said: ‘I can’t wait till someone brings up hippy again, ’cause I want them to define hippy, ’cause I don’t know what a hippy is.’”
He fixes his lancing eyes into his best “pool room stare”.
“How do you define a hippy? If you’re saying that my parents were searching for a way of living that allowed for artistic expression, then yes they were doing that. Were they lazy, did they sit around smoking pot, doing nothing? Fuck no!”
His upper lip curls into a snarl.
“These are two of the hardest-working people to raise five kids! With no fucking money! And they did fucking everything. And so, it’s a bit insulting to me, and it kind of pisses me off when my early childhood is, uh… But it’s not for me, it’s mainly for my parents, ’cause I think that that’s unfair.”
Can a close family be debilitating by isolating you from the world?
“It can, but any isolated situation is not going to foster worldliness. And it’s odd, but I think everybody from a big family probably wants to find their independence. You try and break away, you try to find your strength and successes on your own.”
And do you feel like you’ve found success on your own? Like you’re out from beneath River’s shadow?
Like you’re more successful than he ever was?
Phoenix’s eyes are cast downward. There’s nothing at first, and then a sharp, shaky intake of breath. Then: a long, painful, incomprehensible sentence. What he seems to be saying is that he suspects, if River was still alive, that River would be as famous, if not more so, than he is now. What he actually says is:
“I don’t do – I never really thought about that. (Biting lip) I mean I don’t know if I agree, or also, I think that you know, I’m 26, and my success is because of what’s happened in the last year. And I think that, um, so you know, I, I don’t, um, it may just seem surprising to me, ’cause I don’t, um… I guess it probably wouldn’t be the case if, you know, if… (Pause) ’Cause if you do anything, so I think that, so what’s the question?”
Do you compare yourself to him?
Would you have liked him to witness your success?
“No, no, that’s kind of the least, kind of the last thing, I don’t really think about that.”
Phoenix finally breaks his hardcore, unflinching eye-contact.
“Sorry, my smoke’s going in your face. It’s kind of the last thing I’d think about, kind of. You know I don’t think: ‘Oh, I wish he were here to see my success!’ (Another pause) It’s kind of like: ‘I wish he was here!’ But not so he could go see some movie that I’m in.”
A week later, Phoenix is in his apartment on New York’s Lower East Side. From here he occasionally goes out clubbing. Even then he prefers to sit alone and watch. He has a Ducati motorbike, but he hasn’t ridden it this year.
A giant bay window faces out onto the East River. The apartment is almost bare, but for the enormous amount of hi-fi equipment scattered lazily around the room. “It’s my futuristic science fiction war zone!” he says cheerily. He is in the same blue jeans and white T‑shirt. He’s upbeat, and kinda sweet. He slides around on black socks. He has packing to do.
He’s leaving for Europe, for the set of his new film, Buffalo Soldiers. It’s a “dark satirical comedy that exposes the hypocrisy of the military”, and it’s set on an American base in Germany. It stars Phoenix, Ed Harris and Scott Glenn.
Since last week he has been on Letterman. There, he was quite the entertainer, toying playfully with “Dave”, grabbing papers and throwing pens.
“It’s surreal to me to be on that stage, it’s wild. But I kinda just go out there and wing it.”
He told the story about changing his name. The crowd loved it. The newspapers love him too: The Yards reviews are out, and they’ve creamed themselves over Joaquin Phoenix. And rightly so. His is an incendiary performance, igniting the screen with the charms of a street hustler, yet dogged and doomed by insecurities and frailty. As in Gladiator, he is again a dazzling foil, this time to Mark Wahlberg’s doleful patsy protagonist. It is a performance that could well lead him into the arms of an Oscar statuette next year.
But for now, it’s time to look back. Time for a pop-quiz recap.
The category is vices: smoking or drinking?
“I would have to say smoking.”
Childhood movies: Parenthood or Spacecamp?
Vegetarianism: McDonald’s or Burger King?
Leather or PVC?
Fame or fortune?
Girlfriends or sisters?
“Uhuhu! That’s not fair! They’re totally different! This is very difficult! I just don’t know.”
Nude actors: Geoffrey Rush or Kate Winslet?
“Well, Winslet. But that’s because it’s difficult working with this fucking moose swinging right next to you. And there are a couple of scenes in Quills where I didn’t quite get there – I blame Geoffrey Rush’s cock.”
Necrophilia or jerking off?
“Well, I don’t, eh, but obviously masturbation!”
Porn or snuff?
“I don’t know, whatever floats your boat, man.”
New York or Latin America?
And finally, happy or haunted?
He shoots a “no-brainer” look. “Happy!”
Joaquin Phoenix has some packing to do. He looks around. His room is a mess. He’s a mess. A happy, beautiful mess.