Joaquin Phoenix Is (Still) Still Here

Rebounding from a movie that pissed off and confused America, the actor gives one of his best performances in Spike Jonze's Her

Truth? Fiction? Truth as fiction? Phoenix won't concede an inch. The kiddie-band clip was real, but the Panama footage was fake—Affleck shot it with a child actor in Hawaii and rerecorded it over a VHS copy of Paris, Texas, until it looked vintage. As for that vulnerable-sounding quote, Phoenix laughs, "How fucking stupid is it to think about yourself in that way?"

Still, he makes it hard to trust his words. Asked if he still speaks Spanish, he regretfully says no, "because I'm in California, and nobody speaks Spanish here." Then he stuffs his cheeks full of tabbouleh and deadpans, "Do I have something in my teeth?"

Ultimately, it's his work ethic that proves his rap career was a stunt. He spent five months training himself to lower his voice two octaves to mimic Johnny Cash. If he truly wanted to rap, he'd have rapped better.

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. Matt Damon told The New York Times he warned Phoenix and Affleck, "If they don't know whether it's a joke, they will not forgive you, and they will savage your movie."

"We never approached it like a hoax—in fact, it became the burden of it," Phoenix says. "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, a feeding frenzy he felt was so vital to examine that he risked his career at the height of his success.

Three years later, the exponential growth of Twitter has led to an even steeper rise in Internet hoaxes, memes for a day and tweets heard around the world. Now that every unhinged sorority girl, asshole airline passenger or kid taking a selfie next to his grandmother's casket can be a 24-hour media joke, I'm Still Here feels increasingly vital. And now that we're certain the whole thing was a stunt, Phoenix's personal risk, which he likens to "standing on a cliff and thinking about jumping, and just having your friend push you," feels even braver.

After I'm Still Here was locked, Phoenix confessed everything to his agents and told them he was looking for work. They weren't happy, but they forgave him. "I don't think they were ever going, 'Fuck, we're losing a real money-maker here—this is a bummer, what are we going to do?'" he says, laughing. "I make them nothing every fucking year."

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Phoenix resolved to let the chatter die down while he waited for a good part. Months ticked past. I'm Still Here came out in September 2010, and he was still waiting for the right role, fueling the debate about whether his retirement from acting had been real. He reportedly turned down the role of the Incredible Hulk in The Avengers. He didn't know what he was waiting for, only that his first film after all the fuss couldn't be a lark or a flop.

"It's like you're not in a relationship and you get lonely, so you're like, 'I just want to hook up and be with somebody and just do it.' You're probably going to fuck it up when you do meet that good person because you've just been in this other fucking game," he explains. "It's a ridiculous analogy, but I think when the right thing does come, it's undeniable, and you're in the right place and ready to give yourself to that completely."

Finally, in April 2011, Paul Thomas Anderson announced that Phoenix would play the lead in his ambitious period drama The Master. That took another five months to start shooting. By the time The Master was finally released in September 2012, four years had passed since Two Lovers, Phoenix's last real film—a gap even he barely believes. (He checks his IMDb page on his phone and chuckles. "I'm looking this up?")

In the first scene of The Master—the first glimpse of Phoenix playing someone other than himself since 2008—he pokes his head up from behind the rail of a World War II battleship in a military helmet, squinting anxiously as if preparing for attack. The image is apt. But critics ceased fire when they saw his Freddie Quell, an alcoholic, animalistic veteran who lurches across the screen as though his legs are caught in a trap.

Freddie is frail but frightening, and he thoroughly Phoenixes an egotistical cult leader named Lancaster Dodd, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman. In scene after scene, the two men wrestle, mentally and even physically. Dodd tries to tame Quell's savage psyche, while Quell flails for Dodd's affection, being too bull-headed to accept the cause uses him as a Don't.

Hoffman was cast first; he urged Anderson to hire Phoenix because he "scares me." Phoenix lived up to both of his reputations: the madman and the artist.

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