In Spike Jonze’s new sci-fi romance, Her, Joaquin Phoenix plays a divorcé who rebounds by falling in love with his smartphone. On a recent Wednesday, however, he’s a delinquent boyfriend, leaving his iPad abandoned on a chair in a Lebanese restaurant as he bounces off to the parking lot for a smoke. After a few puffs, he reconsiders and darts back inside, lest the well-dressed ladies at the next table snatch it to pay for a month of hummus.
“They said they were going to steal it!” Phoenix yelps. “I thought they looked nice!”
Back in his seat, he spins around and points, “What is that, by the way?” When the two women duly pivot, he steals the blonde’s purse. “Classic move! Classic move!” he teases them. “C’mon guys, we’re all playing here.”
It’s unclear if his victims even know they’re tangling with the three-time Oscar-nominated star of Gladiator, Walk the Line and The Master as well as the upcoming Her, which has been racking up critics' awards. Although the 39-year-old actor is famous for playing hotheads, in person he’s a goof. In his black jeans and gray-streaked shoulder-length hair, he looks more like a struggling grunge guitarist than a reluctant red-carpet walker who’s all too familiar with tuxedos.
The ladies giggle nervously, not sure if they’ve been punked. But they have definitely been Phoenixed — flummoxed and fascinated by this charismatic joker.
We’ve all been Phoenixed. Five years ago, with still-fresh accolades from Walk the Line, Phoenix famously swore he had given up acting for a rap career. He grew a beard and spent the next twelve months convincing the world it was true: brawling at Miami nightclubs; performing a disastrous set in Vegas; talking only about hip-hop during press for Two Lovers, his “final” film; and, of course, rattling David Letterman by refusing to play along with the grin-and-charm publicity circuit.
More than 5 million viewers saw Phoenix’s mumbling stunt live on Late Night. Only a fraction saw the reason behind it: the Casey Affleck mockumentary I’m Still Here, a tricky and disconcertingly deadpan dissection of the media machine, which had devoured Phoenix’s music-career mistakes like junk food. (Typical talking-head snark: “Is it a hoax? Do we care?”)
The root of I’m Still Here is Phoenix’s frustration with fame. That feels true. His parents, who met while hitchhiking in California in 1969, raised him to see through the bullshit, even as they raised him to be a star. The third of five siblings, Joaquin was born in 1974 in Puerto Rico, where the family had followed the controversial Children of God cult, which discouraged TV and newspapers and promoted all-ages sex.
The family fled the cult when Joaquin was three and ended up in L.A. two years later. There, he and his siblings lived a dual life: half hippie, half Hollywood. There was no formal schooling: The kids sang for money in the streets and carpooled to auditions.
But where his older brother, River, looked like an innocent heartthrob, the darker, stockier Joaquin was stereotyped into more somber sidekick roles. The very first line Steve Martin says about the character played by fifteen-year-old Joaquin (then going by Leaf) in the movie Parenthood is, “There’s a kid with problems.”
After Parenthood, Joaquin took a six-year, self-imposed break, then returned to acting at 21 for Gus Van Sant’s To Die For, playing a dumb high-school punk seduced into murdering Nicole Kidman’s husband.
The roles kept getting gloomier: a hippie awaiting execution in Return to Paradise, a snuff-film peddler in 8MM and, finally, his first prestige blockbuster, Gladiator, as the bloodthirsty Emperor Commodus. His portrayal’s unexpected depth won Phoenix his first Oscar nomination.
But as his films got harder, so did the press tours.
After capturing the drunk and unhinged Johnny Cash in Walk the Line, Phoenix voluntarily checked himself into rehab to clear his head and, he quipped, rally support for his second Oscar nod. After checking himself out, he was barraged by journalists prodding him to say he drew on his brother River’s fatal overdose to reflect Cash’s pain at losing his older brother. He shut them down, storming out of an interview with Rolling Stone.
Three years later, Phoenix was on Letterman, acting like he’d lost his mind.
Given the ratio of people who watch entertainment TV to people who watch art-house flicks, it’s no wonder a vague sense lingers that Phoenix actually went crazy — and that, if he didn’t, his duped fans deserve to be mad.
“We never approached it like a hoax — in fact, it became the burden of it,” Phoenix sighs. “Hoax, to me, implies that the purpose of it is just to fool people.” But the prank had become the story. Everyone was asking if Joaquin Phoenix had gone crazy. No one was talking about the entertainment-news nightmare he’d wanted to expose.
By the time his next film, Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, was finally released, in September 2012, four years had passed since Phoenix’s last real film, James Gray’s Two Lovers — a gap even he barely believes.
But though The Master won Phoenix his third Oscar nomination, it’s his follow-up film — Spike Jonze’s Her — that feels like his official comeback. His Theodore Twombly — lonely ex-husband, former L.A. Weekly writer and man who spends too much time talking to screens — is his most normal character, well, ever. Paradoxically, audiences weaned on Joaquin the Weirdo can finally trust that he’s acting.
Her is set in a Los Angeles that feels about two eye blinks in the future. Most people wear an earpiece that connects to their next-generation smartphone, an all-in-one device with an upgraded Siri programmed with intuition, empathy, curiosity and the ability to learn and evolve. Theodore’s operating system, Samantha, voiced by Scarlett Johansson, quickly becomes his best friend and, eventually, his girlfriend.
Theodore and Samantha live a full relationship arc that couldn’t exist without Johansson’s brisk and pitch-perfect voice performance. But technically, Her is still a one-person love story (or really, one-human) about a man who’s also relearning to love himself. And the only face of their romance is Phoenix’s.
“He represents both characters on screen,” Jonze explains. “His reaction is what helps give her credibility.” When Samantha talks,
Phoenix reacts, his keen green eyes absorbing her words while his expressive eyebrows furrow down in frustration or lift up in wonderment. In some single-take stretches, all he does is react, quietly going from cranky to enchanted to cracking up as she convinces him to stop sulking and get out of bed.
The week Jonze finished his final draft of Her, he showed Phoenix the script. He didn’t know what to expect, but was quickly charmed.
“That openness and that playfulness and realness and honestness, it’s exactly who he is,” Jonze says. “There’s nothing pretentious about him. I realized, ‘Oh, this is a guy who takes his work seriously but doesn’t take himself seriously.’ Within the first ten minutes [of meeting him], I knew he was the guy that I wanted to be in this movie.”
He adds, “Everybody respected and was affected by what Joaquin was doing. When we’d cut, the set would stay quiet. That’s really special.”
As for Phoenix, he again feels like an actor who’s confident about his options.
“I’m sure there were times when I went, ‘Oh, fuck, it’s going to be hard to do the movies that I want to do after this. Am I going to be battling this shit?’ ” Phoenix admits of his I’m Still Here experiment. He shrugs. “But you’re always battling some shit that you fucking said, so it doesn’t really make a difference.”