Joaquin Phoenix, the Wild Card of ‘Joker’

LOS ANGELES — It wasn’t clear where the conversation with Joaquin Phoenix went off-track, assuming it was ever on track to begin with. But now he was batting me around the way a cat bounces its prey between its paws before devouring it.

At this moment, it wasn’t my questions about why, in an idiosyncratic film career, he had chosen to play the Joker, the cackling comic-book criminal, or how he had prepared for the demanding, transformative role, or what it all meant about the state of contemporary moviemaking that had set him off — though these topics would all provoke him in different ways, in time.

It was my stray observation that he could probably sustain himself on emotionally wrung-out roles for as long as he wanted, which had caused Phoenix to recoil in his seat like he was Tony Montana, about to unload on an incompetent underling.

“Oh, really?” he asked, in a sarcastic voice as dry as sandpaper. “Well, good. Thank you so much. That’s great. I was worried.” Then he grinned and let out a laugh, to let me know he was kidding. Or was he?

If you’re going to make a movie about a homicidal madman in clown makeup, you might as well get a guy who radiates low-level menace. Though he has portrayed everyone from Johnny Cash to Jesus of Nazareth, Phoenix has lately settled into a string of movies about loners (“The Master,” “Her,” “Inherent Vice”), killers (“The Sisters Brothers”) and lonesome killers (“You Were Never Really Here”) that have let him plumb the depths of human experience.

While there’s no telling where his creative wanderings will take him, it would have seemed safe to predict that a high-profile movie based on a studio-owned intellectual property wouldn’t be anywhere on that itinerary.

But here he is, starring in “Joker,” a seedy character study and possible origin story for this perpetual Batman nemesis. The movie, which is directed by Todd Phillips and will be released by Warner Bros. on Oct. 4, is neither a traditional comic-book blockbuster, nor typical source material for its leading man.

In other ways, Phoenix and his onscreen alter ego are extremely compatible, if a late August dinner at a Japanese restaurant in Studio City is anything to judge by.

The actor was never contemptuous when he spoke; he took every inquiry seriously and he responded honestly, unless he didn’t feel like answering at all.

Over the span of an hour, he ran the spectrum of emotions, from sincere and thoughtful to lighthearted to standoffish, and there was no way of knowing which questions or remarks would elicit which version of him.

Phoenix likes that potential for danger in his work, too, and he cited it as one of the reasons he wanted to make “Joker.”

“I didn’t really know what it was,” he said. “I didn’t know how to classify it. I didn’t say, ‘This is the character I’m playing.’ I didn’t know what we were going to do.”

“It was terrifying,” he continued, and he flashed that grin again.

Phoenix is 44, with hair that is a mixture of brown, copper and gray strands, and he spoke with an unexpected gentleness, like Commodus, the wicked emperor he played in “Gladiator.” (We know how it turned out for Commodus.)

Phoenix could be playful at times. When I noted how nimble he looked in some of his dancing scenes in “Joker,” he swatted away the compliment, saying, “I would get injured just from doing a light jog down the street. I’d have to be sent home.”

But some of that lightness evaporated as soon as I asked how he’d been approached about the film and he replied that he could not remember. “It sucks — this is why interviews are the worst,” he said despairingly, adding that he was tempted to make up a story “just to sound exciting.”

Nor was he in any hurry to explain his process for figuring out his “Joker” character before filming began. “It’s so stupid to talk about,” he grumbled. “I’m not going to talk about it.” (He did eventually talk about it.)

LET’S SET ASIDE PHOENIX for the moment and return to Phillips, who is best known for directing the lucrative “Hangover” comedies. At the premiere of his 2016 crime caper, “War Dogs,” Phillips found himself anticipating its tepid reception while gazing at a billboard for a Marvel superhero juggernaut. He wondered how he could possibly compete.

Warner Bros. had been having only intermittent success with its DC superhero movies — “Wonder Woman,” yes, “Suicide Squad,” no — but Phillips saw a potential solution to everyone’s problems. “You can’t beat Marvel — it’s a giant behemoth,” he said. “Let’s do something they can’t do.”

What Phillips proposed to the studio was a series of smaller, stand-alone movies that would closely examine the DC characters without conflicting with previous films. “It’s just another interpretation, like people do interpretations of Macbeth,” he explained.

In particular, Phillips was fascinated with the Joker, who had been so memorably played by Jack Nicholson (in Tim Burton’s “Batman”) and by Heath Ledger (in Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight”).

As Phillips saw it, there was still room to tell a new story about this villain, closer in spirit to grimy urban narratives he admired, like “Taxi Driver,” “Death Wish” and “The King of Comedy.”

In the “Joker” screenplay written by Phillips and Scott Silver, the protagonist is Arthur Fleck, a troubled clown-for-hire in rundown, uncaring Gotham City. While its citizens shun him and stomp on him, Arthur descends into a cycle of retribution and violence, becoming a folk hero for all the wrong reasons. “You want to root for this guy until you can’t root for him any longer,” Phillips explained.

Still, this circus needed a clown, and both Phoenix and Phillips acknowledge that the actor was not quickly sold on the project. “He was not keen on jumping into costume in any comic-book movie,” Phillips said. “It’s not necessarily in his five-year plan — although I don’t think he has one.” (Despite trade publication reports that the “Joker” team was seeking Leonardo DiCaprio, Phillips said, “We wrote the movie for Joaquin.”)

Over about three months, Phillips repeatedly visited Phoenix’s home, answering his many, many questions about the character and hoping to win him over through sheer persistence.

“I asked him to come over and audition me for it,” Phoenix said. “It wasn’t an easy decision, but he kept saying, ‘Let’s just be bold. Let’s do something.’”

As Phillips recalled, “I kept waiting for him to just say, ‘O.K., I’m in,’ And he never did that.” Where Phoenix is concerned, he said, “You just never get a yes. All you get is more questions.”

He and Phillips had more fruitful disagreements in the months Phoenix spent getting into character ahead of filming. They concurred that the actor should undergo a drastic weight change, but Phoenix, who had slimmed down for past roles, wasn’t eager to do it again.

“It’s a horrible way to live,” Phoenix said. “I think he should be kind of heavy. Todd was like, ‘I think you should do the real thin person.’” Phoenix lost 52 pounds for the part.

Phoenix trained with a choreographer and studied videos of famous dancers (“I won’t say who”), and he and Phillips challenged each other with ideas they found in books (“I’m not going to tell you what those books were”). The actor learned to apply his own greasepaint and kept a journal of half-formed jokes and frenzied thoughts that appears in the movie.

Phillips said Phoenix’s greatest misgivings about “Joker” were its explicit ties to comic-book mythology, represented most prominently by the character of the outspoken, out-of-touch billionaire Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen), whose son, Bruce (Dante Pereira-Olson), will grow up to be Batman.

“He never liked saying the name Thomas Wayne,” Phillips said. “It would have been easier for him if the movie was called ‘Arthur’ and had nothing to do with any of that stuff. But in the long run, I think he got it and appreciated it.”

Comic books are not unknown to Phoenix. He collected them avidly as a teen, though he preferred brutal Marvel antiheroes like Wolverine to DC’s staid pantheon. In 2014, when Marvel was casting “Doctor Strange,” the studio sought Phoenix to play the super-sorcerer, but he reportedly broke off negotiations, and in the end Benedict Cumberbatch got the gig. Phoenix declined to explain to me why he did this; “I think they — I don’t know,” was all he said.

Of course Phoenix had seen and admired Nicholson’s and Ledger’s versions of the Joker, but he claimed to be “blissfully naïve” about the immense expectations to measure up.

When Phoenix did some interviews before “Joker” started production and was quizzed about how his performance might differ, he said he realized, “This is a really big deal,” adding, “I’m so, like, not in the game that I didn’t know people would do this.”

FOR A THREE-TIME OSCAR NOMINEE, Phoenix can be charmingly unaware about showbiz scuttlebutt and vocabulary. (“Tentpole movies, is that’s what it’s called?”) But he is also a trickster who spent months of his life pretending to have given up acting for hip-hop, as preserved in Casey Affleck’s utterly fake 2010 mock-documentary, “I’m Still Here.”

His reputation for volatility precedes him, but it also makes filmmakers more avid to work with him. James Gray, who has directed Phoenix in four features, said that when they first worked together, on his 2000 crime drama, “The Yards,” the actor could be fitfully brilliant.

“He didn’t have full control of his instrument,” Gray said. “He was like an Olympic diver who didn’t know the formal rules of the Olympics yet.”

But in the years and films together that followed — “We Own the Night,” “Two Lovers” and “The Immigrant” — Gray said, “He began to understand, frankly, that there weren’t limits, and he started to become fearless.”

Gray acknowledged that Phoenix possessed “a powder-keg quality,” but that it came from a place of commitment and conviction.

“If you’re not prepared, he will know it, and he will let you know it,” Gray said. “You have to do your homework.”

Phillips said there were moments when Phoenix lost his composure on the set of “Joker,” sometimes to the bafflement of his co-stars.

“In the middle of the scene, he’ll just walk away and walk out,” Phillips said. “And the poor other actor thinks it’s them and it was never them — it was always him, and he just wasn’t feeling it.” And after taking a breather, he said, “we’ll take a walk and we’ll come back and we’ll do it.”

Robert De Niro, who appears in “Joker” as a smarmy late-night host on whom Arthur is fixated, did not encounter this side of Phoenix and said the actor was a consummate professional.

“Joaquin was very intense in what he was doing, as it should be, as he should be,” De Niro said. “There’s nothing to talk about, personally, on the side, ‘Let’s have coffee.’ Let’s just do the stuff.”

De Niro, who played disturbed loners in several of the movies that inspired “Joker,” said he could understand why actors and audiences continued to be drawn to these characters. But he also observed that having a fascination with Travis Bickle doesn’t make you Travis Bickle yourself.

“People identify with it in some way — not that they go to those extremes,” he said. “They can understand the sentiment. Sometimes those things are cathartic.”

Phoenix, for his part, was not inclined to tell anyone how to interpret “Joker,” or to consider the possibility that some of its elements — whether the film’s brutal gun violence or ambivalence about protest movements — might make it the wrong movie for a not-so-subtle moment. “However you want to talk about it, dude, that’s on you as a journalist,” he told me.

And he seemed almost angry, at first, when I asked if “Joker” might be a bad omen for filmmaking, if it means that character-driven movies can only get made at this scale if they’re based on established pop-culture characters. “I don’t even know what you just said,” he growled.

But when I rephrased the question slightly, he gave a calmer, more measured answer. “It’s up to the artist to find the way to tell stories that are meaningful,” he replied. “If my nephews are not going to sit through a two-hour movie, what are you going to do? You just have to pursue what’s truthful to you, and either someone’s interested or they’re not.”

It was hard to imagine that Phoenix would gracefully navigate all the promotional appearances and glad-handing that such mass-market movies require — obligations that are likely to increase after “Joker” became the surprise winner of the Venice Film Festival’s Golden Lion award, its top prize, which in past years has gone to future Oscar winners like “Roma” and “The Shape of Water.”

But Phillips said his star was free to approach these duties however he wanted. “If he goes on Jimmy Kimmel and walks off after two minutes, I’d be like, ‘That’s my boy,’” Phillips said proudly. “He follows his own rhythm.”

But where does Phoenix want it to take him? He isn’t the sort of actor who plots his career five pictures in advance, and he doesn’t have a personal production company working around the clock to develop new projects. When I asked him whether he thought he needed this kind of Hollywood apparatus, he gleefully reminded me that only moments ago, I had said he would never have to worry about where his next role was coming from.

“So which is it?” he said with mock apprehension. “Make up your mind! Five minutes ago, I was sitting back, laughing, going, ‘Well, I’m set.’ Now you have me very, very nervous.”

But seriously, folks: Phoenix said his criteria for choosing work are actually quite clear-cut. “I don’t really care about genre or budget size, anything like that,” he said. “It’s just whether there is a filmmaker that has a unique vision, has a voice, and the ability to make the film.”

Phoenix also said it was easy for him to sit out for months at a time when he feels he’s become overexposed. At a certain point, he said, “you don’t want to see this” — meaning himself — “on a poster. You’re driving down the street, you go, ‘Again? This face? It is so tired. Enough.’”

To do what he wants to do, Phoenix said there is only one question he needs to consider, and it’s laughably easy: “What’s going to keep me excited or inspired, and wanting to work hard?” he said.

And he’s just going to keep asking it until that joke isn’t funny anymore. “If I don’t feel like I’m pushing myself in some ways, I’ll get bored, or maybe they’ll get bored of me,” he said. “I don’t know who’s going to get bored of who first.”

Dave Itzkoff is a culture reporter whose latest book, “Robin,” a biography of Robin Williams, was published in May. @ditzkoff

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