Joaquin Phoenix is one of our most brilliant yet most elusive actors, so it was surprising to see the normally interview-shy star sit down for a roundtable discussion with a group of journalists (including Den of Geek’s yours truly) at the recent Los Angeles press day for Inherent Vice. The film, adapted from the Thomas Pynchon novel by screenwriter/director Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights, There Will Be Blood, The Master), has divided critics over its narrative style, yet Phoenix’s performance as the perpetually stoned, confused and lovelorn private detective Larry “Doc” Sportello has garnered almost universal acclaim.
The film is set in 1970 and follows Doc as he is asked by his ex-lover Shasta (a glowing Katherine Waterston) to investigate the disappearance of a Los Angeles real estate magnate who is also her former boyfriend. But when Shasta herself vanishes, the trail leads Doc into a series of surreal encounters with his hardcase LAPD antagonist Detective Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), a surfer-turned-CIA-informant (Owen Wilson), a drug-addled dentist (Martin Short), a mysterious boat and a conspiracy involving Nazis, smuggled goods, more drugs and a shady psychiatric clinic.
The movie’s end-of-the-‘60s setting, hallucinogenic vibe and Phoenix’s unreliable narrator may prove confounding to some viewers, but there is a lot going on under that hazy surface. And the same goes for Phoenix, who admitted in our roundtable chat that he couldn’t always follow the story either — and preferred it that way. He also spoke about reuniting with Reese Witherspoon in the movie, working with Anderson again after The Master and, yes, those stories about him being courted to play Doctor Strange.
Do you look at a project and go, this is something I can really wrap my head around and the audience is gonna really wrap their head around or is there something else about scripts that attract you?
Joaquin Phoenix: I’ve got to say I’m really selfish. I don’t think I think about the audience. And I don’t really know why I make the decisions that I make. I wish I did just so I could give you a solid answer in an interview. But it’s usually just a feeling. It’s kind of like falling in love, you know. It’s just like you don’t really understand it but it’s just something that you have to experience and nothing can keep you away from it. You know I try to come up with reasons but I don’t fully understand it.
You’re either almost in every scene or in every scene of this film.
I’m so sorry.
Did you feel the weight of that on you or was it actually kind of joyful to be really that involved?
I like working all the time. I dread having days off and the weekends are the hardest thing to get through. I mean Paul and I would always talk that we wished that we would just keep shooting straight. I’m not able to do it. I wish I could. I would just marvel that some of the other actors that would work for a couple of days and they’d be off for a week. You know, Katherine came in and she worked in the first couple of weeks and then she was gone for like three weeks. And that’s so difficult to do, to like come back in after three weeks and just get in the groove. I need to be there every day and I find it really difficult to have breaks.
Did you always feel that way?
Well sometimes I didn’t have a choice. I mean there was some time before I had the opportunity to work on something every day. You know you start out doing supporting roles but yeah, from very early on it was really — I remember doing Gladiator and I worked in the first couple of weeks and then I was off for like three weeks. And it was very difficult for me to get back into it.
Did you go back and read the book (Inherent Vice) and learn more about Doc there or was everything already in the script?
Paul gave me the book first. And so I read the book and then read the script. And then I went back and I started reading the book again and then I just started — I set out to read it a second time and halfway through I just thought like I don’t want to know this too well. I want to be confused by what’s going on. And so then I would just kind of pick up the book occasionally if there was a scene that we were working on that I was trying to find something new. But Paul had this way, like first he would sometimes combine characters, right, because he couldn’t use all the characters from the book. And so he would take dialogue from one character and apply it to another.
I would remember the dialogue but I would be confused why Jade (Hong Chau) was saying it because I didn’t remember that Jade was saying it (in the book). And then Paul would stir that up and really make me feel really confused about it. And so I’d be doing a scene with Jade and he would walk around and he would just look at her suspiciously and I’d say, is she involved with the Golden Fang? Did she know about Shasta? And he would be like I don’t know man, you’re just gonna have to figure it out. And so he just really created this environment where I was confused and really never knew what was gonna happen next or what role somebody was playing in the overall story.
Did you figure it out?
No, I still haven’t figured it out.
So that was deliberate on his part. Did that extend to everybody?
I’m not sure. I’m not sure. I don���t really listen to a director when they talk to other actors unless they want me included and they say come in and listen to this conversation. I try not to, so I’m not really sure how he dealt with the other actors.
I get the feeling that you and Paul got on really well. What’s the secret sauce of the two of you working together?
I think anyone that works with Paul would get on really well with him. He’s really inclusive and warm and thoughtful and makes you feel — he’s one of those people that makes you feel like you’re important and you have value even if you don’t. And he deserves all the credit. I just –- again, it’s like when you fall in love with somebody, I don’t know. I just really like him. It’s hard to say why. I like his demeanor and I like the way that he sees the world and that he’s always searching for something else, you know.
I mean in a movie, particularly because you have a little amount of time and they’re so expensive and people try and kind of lock on in a rigid way what the scene is about. It’s, “This is a scene in which you have an argument with this girl and that’s a device that leads to this scene.” And Paul is really unique. He goes, “Yeah, there’s that but what else is going on? Is there something else that we haven’t discovered yet?” And I like that way of working It keeps everybody just searching and working really hard to find something unexpected.
Did you do any ad libbing or did you really have to stick to the script?
I wanted to stick to the script and the book. One of the things that’s difficult when you adapt a book that you like so much is there’s dialogue which you just love, you know. Pynchon’s words are great. I remember trying to get this dialogue into a scene and it wasn’t working. I just couldn’t do it. Sometimes it just doesn’t translate. And that was really difficult. But no, there wasn’t a lot of improv, at least from me, but Paul will oftentimes shoot multiple versions of a scene, you know. Sometimes you’ll shoot five takes of a scene and then he’ll come in and say maybe we should switch this dialogue around and, you know, say whatever you want. And he more than likely won’t use that, but the feeling that you’ve created while kind of veering off the script is something that you then bring to the written version.
I read somewhere that Pynchon sort of snuck onto the set.
I read that too.
So is that true?
I had read that too. My publicist showed it to me. I think Josh said that and I had no idea. It’s probably fucked up. I never asked, like I just figured like, I never asked Paul once, is Pynchon around? Is he curious about this? I just figured that wasn’t his process and I respected that.
I wanted to ask you about working with Reese for the first time since Walk the Line. Are you more comfortable in your skin now than you were at that time?
I don’t know. I feel very uncomfortable right now since you asked me that question.
I loved working with Reese Witherspoon and she is a great actor and but, you know, it’s funny because it had been ten years but it’s like nothing had changed because we did the first scene and she was like, “So that’s how you’re gonna do it? All right, well, I’ll have to save this again.” And I was like, okay, here we go. And it’s true. She made the movie last time and she’s great in this.
Was it almost like no time had passed at all?
You know it’s funny. I really didn’t think about Walk the Line. I really didn’t think about that experience. I think the first scene we did was really a big scene and so you just worry about remembering your lines and you’re getting in the theme of it and, you know, the ideas that you want to do and are you listening to the other actor. So I never really thought about it that way.
You almost did a Marvel movie. How close did you actually come to playing Doctor Strange?
I don’t know.
Let me put that another way. Were you uncomfortable with that being so publicly discussed and that it was out there that you were talking to them?
No. I like all sorts of movies. I know that I typically do dramas and I guess what I consider independents but I like all sorts of different movies and I’m just looking for good characters and big ideas and a great filmmaker. Sometimes the fit is right and that’s it. But those guys make great movies. I loved Iron Man. I like Guardians of the Galaxy. I really like the movies that they make. I enjoy watching them. I think they do them really well. The superhero movies are just like, they’re our versions of like those great kung fu movies, you know. I enjoy that.
Can we talk a little bit about your look for this? How much input do you have on your look? Because there are times you were John Lennonish and other times I thought you were Charles Mansonish. Were those choices by you or…
It’s a process, you know. I would say that Paul and Mark Bridges, the costume designer, are really obviously a big part of that. The first thing that Paul showed me was pictures of Neil Young, actually, and he had those same kind of sideburns and he had this kind of straw hat. And so then you just go into the costume fitting and there’s all these clothes and hats and you just start trying stuff on and it just tells you what’s gonna work and what isn’t gonna work, you know.
You really have to just be malleable, and sometimes your ideas that you have when you are sitting in your room alone reading the script, that you think are great, aren’t and don’t work. You go in and you try those clothes that Mark had, those shirts that he would love, you know, and then we’d try them on and go like, it actually just doesn’t look right. Like, the idea’s great but it just doesn’t fit. So it’s just really an organic process. But when you work with people like Mark Bridges you know that you’re gonna have just so many great options to choose from.
What do you like to do when you’re not acting?
It always seems like you’re being like evasive or trying to hide something but I think there’s so much that gets talked about when you’re an actor that you have no control over, so those things that are yours that you do, you just tend to not really want to talk about. But I think the exciting part of my life is when I’m working and when I don’t work I like a very simple, quiet existence. So nothing really exciting to report.
Inherent Vice is out now in limited release and will expand nationwide in early January.