By Elizabeth C.
“IT SEEMS LIKE EVERY TIME WE CAME TO SOME CONCLUSIONS ABOUT FREDDIE, IT FELT WRONG,” Phoenix tells Interview magazine of the aimless soul he plays in Paul Thomas Anderson’s critically acclaimed The Master. He could just have been easily talking about himself.
“He didn’t understand what was pushing or pulling him or why,” Phoenix, 37, said of Freddie Quell, the character that has earned him some of the best reviews of his career. “…It was perfect for me at the time, because that was kind of the approach that I wanted to be taking in acting as well: to not know what it is and to give in to the moment. It’s so rare to get a chance to do that because everything about movies is that we all know that we’re heading to this point — that’s where we have to get. …It just takes all the fucking joy and the beauty out of it. You’re missing everything.”
During Elvis Mitchell’s thoughtful conversation with Phoenix, the actor reflects on his refusal to settle for acting’s pat approach, and reveals a self-punishing perfectionism that makes him harder on himself than any critic.
“Dishonesty is so ugly on film,” he says. “You just act, and it’s so ugly, and I don’t want to do that. I mean, everything that they teach you when you’re a kid about acting is completely fucking wrong. They tell you to memorize your lines, follow your light, and hit your marks. Those are the three things that you shouldn’t do. You should not learn your lines, you should not hit your mark, and you should never follow your light. Find your light — that’s my opinion.
Phoenix, nominated for Oscars for his mesmerizing performances in Gladiator and Walk the Line, defies the easy characterizations of many of Hollywood’s leading men. He isn’t classically handsome. He’s indifferent to praise, going so far as to tell Mitchell that the awards circuit is “utter bullshit, and I don’t want to be a part of it…It’s the stupidest thing in the whole world.”
He doesn’t even seem to particularly care that people perceive him as a bit off his rocker. And like his character Freddie, he’s also susceptible to influence — a la his brother-in-law Casey Affleck who manipulated him into flirting dangerously with career suicide in the hoax film, I’m Still Here. “I thought Casey and I had actually achieved ultimate success with I’m Still Here, if your definition of success is completely destroying your career-which was somewhat the intent. But doing that movie was one of the best things that I’ve done and that I’ll ever do.”
In short, Phoenix loves tripping over the lines between numbing safety and a sort of rapturous terror.
“I don’t want to nail it,” Phoenix declares in Mitchell’s must-read piece. “I want to go into the courtroom and feel like I might lose the case. I want it to be scary — and it still is. I’m almost 38. I’ve been acting for 30 years. But I still get nauseous the day before and have weeks of incredible anxiety. …For the first three weeks of shooting, I’m just sweating.
“It’s pure anxiety,” he says, “and I love it. “