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How Joaquin Phoenix chooses roles? ‘Usually just a feeling’

“Inherent Vice” director Paul Thomas Anderson gave Joaquin Phoenix a picture of Neil Young as inspiration for his “look.”
“Inherent Vice” director Paul Thomas Anderson gave Joaquin Phoenix a picture of Neil Young as inspiration for his “look.” Warner Bros. Pictures

Joaquin Phoenix calls himself “selfish.”

He’s talking about the thought process he uses when it comes to selecting scripts. With “Her” he challenged the modern concepts of relationships, while in “The Master” he pushed for more discussion when it comes to faith. Even a film as mainstream as “Walk the Line” deconstructed the accepted thinking about fame.

It’s as if a project doesn’t appeal to Phoenix unless it’s going to command the audience to crawl inside the character’s mind with him and fumble around with notions like right vs. wrong and art vs. substance.

It might seem like that’s what Phoenix is doing, but he says that his process isn’t that grandiose.

“I don’t think about the audience when I’m picking a role,” Phoenix says. “I don’t really know why I make the decisions 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. It’s something you don’t understand but you just have to experience it and nothing can keep you away from it.”

His latest acting love affair is with “Inherent Vice,” a film from director-writer Paul Thomas Anderson that is based on the book by Thomas Pynchon. It’s a tale set in 1970 that weaves and waddles from a psychedelic funk to a film noir crime drama.

Phoenix plays a private eye who lives his life in a drug-induced haze. He works in a world filled with the strangest cast of characters this side of Alice’s Wonderland.

Phoenix has one method to the madness for selecting projects: He loves to work (contrary to what you heard around his faux retirement a few years ago).

“I dread having days off and the weekends are the hardest thing to get through,” Phoenix says. “Paul and I were always talking about how we wished we could just keep shooting straight through.”

The biggest nightmare for him is to have only a minimal number of scenes. He thinks it would be impossible to work on a project, leave and then return to work. His ideal working conditions are to always be in front of the cameras.

It might not be as hard as he thinks since he’s found success with large and small roles. “Gladiator,” the film that earned him his first Oscar nomination, was the last major project Phoenix worked on where he was in and out of scenes. Then there were the far more complicated roles with “The Master” and “Walk the Line,” which also earned him Oscar nods.

Work on “Inherent Vice” started months before the cameras rolled. Anderson gave Phoenix both Pynchon’s original book and the script to read.

Phoenix had started reading the book a second time when he realized that with a character this strange and different, there was a chance of knowing too much about the role.

“I want to be confused by what is going on,” Phoenix says. “It also didn’t help that Paul combined characters. I would remember the dialogue, but remember it being said by someone else.”

Phoenix depended on Anderson to keep him going in the right direction. The pair are comfortable working together after doing “The Master” together.

“He’s always searching for something else. In a movie, because you have so little time and it’s so expensive, people will lock on, in a rigid way, as to what the scenes about,” Phoenix says. “Paul is really unique in that he understands there’s the way it is in the script, but he will also ask what else is going on.

“He will ask if there’s something else we haven’t discovered yet. I like that way of working. It keeps everybody working and searching really hard to find something unexpected.”

It was Anderson who showed Phoenix a photo of rocker Neil Young to help the actor understand the look he was going for with the character of Doc Sportello. Phoenix put his own spin on the wardrobe to complete what he calls “an organic process” of acting.

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