A year ago, he was required to go to Toronto to do publicity for The Sisters Brothers – a brilliant, quirky western inexplicably ignored at the Oscars – right at the height of the extreme diet he followed to lose an astonishing 23.5 kilograms to play the Joker. One highly respected interviewer asked then what preparation he was doing for Joker and he bit his head off: “What else have you got?” he snapped.
“I was horrible!” he laughs ruefully. “And I was nervous because we were starting to shoot on Tuesday and it was the weekend before. I remember getting on the plane and I was so furious, I was saying, ‘What good can come of this? My responsibility is to the movie I’m doing now!’”
You start to go mad when you lose that amount of weight in that amount of time.
The diet lasted for four months: two months easing into it, then two months of eating just a few thousand kilojoules a day. He can talk about it now. “You start to go mad when you lose that amount of weight in that amount of time,” he told the Venice press conference.
Fortunately, it was the kind of madness that a homicidal comic-book villain could use. He was angry because he was hungry. “If I take that away and just go, ‘What is that feeling?’ that was a really important thing for him to have: this constant boiling anger,” Phoenix says as we settle into our second location.
“His anger is the result of feeling inadequate, that he deserves something from the world that he’s not getting – he’s a textbook narcissist – and so yes, it was very helpful that I naturally had that feeling. But oddly, we started shooting and those feelings disappeared. I think I had just grown accustomed to the hunger in some ways. And then – this is going to sound so f–ked up, but I don’t think I’ve ever had so much fun making a movie.”
To use the lexicon of the comic-book movie universe, Joker is an “origin story”: this is the Joker before he became the Joker, Batman’s would-be nemesis and the incarnation of crazed wickedness as portrayed in past films by Jack Nicholson, Jared Leto and, most remarkably, by Heath Ledger in the performance that won him a posthumous Oscar.
Phoenix did not reference those earlier portrayals. He had been mulling over the possibility of a deep exploration of a comic-book villain’s story years before the Joker project came his way; their stories were uncharted territory. “And there is more expectation for a hero to follow a certain kind of trajectory. This kind of allows you to explore more complex ideas. I guess that’s why I thought, ‘oh, maybe there’s something there’.”
For the critics, his Joker is less like his cartoonish predecessors than Travis Bickle or Rupert Pupkin, the obsessive sad-sack characters Robert De Niro played in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and King of Comedy. That never occurred to Phoenix at the time, he says – even though De Niro pops up in a pivotal role in this film, playing an unctuous talk-show host – but he’ll take it.
Arthur Fleck, a former psychiatric patient who makes a precarious living as a clown hired for store promotions and children’s parties in between caring for his aged mother, is also an aspiring comedian. He carries around a notebook to jot down jokes; those pages, covered with caterpillar scrawls and furious capital letters by Phoenix himself during his long preparation for the role, are not quite what the social worker he sees each week had in mind when she urged him to keep a journal.
After a bunch of kids mug him while he’s clowning in the street, he starts carrying a gun. It comes in handy when three bully-boy city traders try tormenting him on the subway. Bang, bang, bang: he’s got the power now. He also has the publicity, as even seedy Gotham City is rocked by a triple murder. Fleck feels seen and significant for the first time. And he really is significant: the unknown killer clown becomes the poster boy for street rioters who adopt his clown mask and carry placards reading “Kill the Rich”.
Before anyone had seen it, the film was already under fire for its supposedly excessive violence and for providing a ready-made folk hero for incels – self-identified “involuntary celibates” – who are similarly furious with the world, feel entitled to attention and are demonstrably violent. Was it a right-wing apologia for angry white men? Or, to take the opposite tack, was it coming out for Occupy Wall Street?
Phoenix is the last person to make that call. “It’s always this thing where we’re trying to find ways to say, ‘it’s topical, this movie is timely’, right?” says Phoenix. “I think you can do that about most movies and I think in some ways it is. But the thing I liked about this movie is that it wasn’t didactic. And I don’t want to like influence anyone, because it’s so rare to have a movie where the audience isn’t being told how to feel and when to feel it.”
Was it a right wing apologia for angry white men?
As an actor, he doesn’t want that either. While Joker’s origin story includes hints of an abusive childhood and the constant pain of being outcast, Phoenix never wanted to nail those things down as the explanation for his becoming a monster. “I never wanted to answer that. As soon as I got close to identifying certain motivations or behaviours, I backed away from understanding it. That is the joy of the character: to not completely understand what he is.”
And Fleck finds joy, in his own wicked way, as the Joker. “You go from somebody who is wound tight, constantly having to suppress these feeling and thoughts that are coming up, feels inadequate, feels insecure, feels the weight of the world and then feels total liberation. He is a despicable person – I’m not saying he’s not – but he is experiencing total freedom.”
Until a week ago, it was simply unthinkable that a comic-book movie could win the top prize at a European film festival. It also seemed an unlikely match for Joaquin Phoenix. Phoenix was a child actor – he started in television series when he was eight – who made an unusually smooth transition to the adult world as Nicole Kidman’s teenage acolyte in To Die For (1995) by the impeccably indie director Gus Van Sant.
Following a string of starring roles including studio successes Gladiator (2000) and Walk the Line (2005) – both of which won him Oscar nominations – he claimed to have retired and spent two years living as an aspiring rap artist, turning his own life into a performance art piece, for his brother-in-law Casey Affleck’s mockumentary I’m Not Here (2010).
Vilified by those taken in by so much and such effective acting, he has wandered a road less travelled ever since, choosing such idiosyncratic projects as Spike Jonze’s Her, Garth Davis’ Mary Magdalen (where he met his partner Rooney Mara) and Lynne Ramsay’s nightmarish thriller You Were Never Really Here, rated by many off-Hollywood critics as the best film of last year.
Since playing that version of himself in I’m Not Here, he has said, he has followed his instincts. He’s not an actor you would expect to see in a DC Comics spin-off. He’s not an actor you would expect to see working with Todd Phillips who, among other things, made The Hangover series.
It was Phillips, however, who was the drawcard here. “For me, I don’t really care if it’s studio or not or the size of the budget,” says Phoenix. “It’s always the filmmaker. Is this a filmmaker who has a unique way of telling the story and something that is specific to them? Todd is certainly that filmmaker. He’s not a gun for hire. Whether you value some of his movies, or all of those movies, nobody could make those movies but him.
“I think The Hangover movies are brilliant. I think people sometimes misinterpret them and see them as kind of bro movies, but I think he is really commenting on those people.” I was surprised to discover he made a memorable documentary years ago about punk muso G.G. Allin, whose trademark outrage was defecating on stage. “Yeah! Which I saw years ago. He’s totally punk rock.”
You can see why that would draw Joaquin Phoenix, who makes the point in every interview he does that he wants to push himself into the same kind of extreme effort athletes summon at the end of a race.
So I have to ask him: is he never tempted to ditch that intensity for some time out? To become Cary Grant? He ponders the question seriously. “I like watching those movies but I feel I’d be bored,” he says. “I guess I look for characters who feel like they are going through some transformation because it’s drama. In real life changes unfold very slowly, but in drama it’s an hour and a half, so what is going to be the most extreme thing? I love exploring those things, maybe because it’s so different from my life. I don’t have a lot of turmoil.”
So he won’t be telling any jokes himself in the near future? Phoenix’s face slides into that familiar slow half-grin, the one that can suggest self-deprecation as easily as menace. “Oh no,” he says. “I couldn’t do that.”
Joker is released on October 3.
Stephanie Bunbury joined Fairfax after studying fine arts and film at university, but soon discovered her inner backpacker and obeyed that call. She has spent the past two decades flitting between Europe and Australia, writing about film, culture high and low and the arts.