Before heading into my interview with Joaquin Phoenix, I get a warning from a publicist: It's a bit smoky in there. Sure enough, the hotel conference room is filled with the smell of American Spirits, which the actor puffs on as we speak. It's not news that Phoenix smokes a lot -- most profiles will mention something similar -- but it is key to the Phoenix experience. It's a sensory one that keeps you just a bit on edge.
Earlier in the morning, I saw Phoenix's latest film, The Sisters Brothers, a western that arrives in theaters today to glowing reviews. It's the third movie he's had in theaters already this year, a run that started with the startling and phenomenal You Were Never Really Here and continued with Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot, a biopic about a recently paralyzed alcoholic cartoonist. In The Sisters Brothers, which is based on the novel by Patrick deWitt and directed by French director Jacques Audiard, Phoenix plays Charlie Sisters, an excitable hitman who, along with his more empathetic brother, Eli (John C. Reilly), is tracking a man named Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed) and his trick for collecting gold.
The surprising part of The Sisters Brothers is not that Phoenix is good. That almost goes without saying. It's how the movie's slow, thoughtful pace defies the shoot-em-up genre, adding a level of pathos that is unexpected. Charlie lacks inhibitions, but there's a broken soul beneath his bravado that eventually emerges. I spoke with Phoenix about the movie, which required him to take on the uncomfortable task of wielding a gun.