Joaquin Phoenix on 'The Sisters Brothers' and Why He Hates Behind-the-Scenes Videos
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.
Thrillist: I just saw the movie an hour ago. I'm still processing everything. I know you don't watch your films though.
Joaquin Phoenix: I haven't seen it.
What drew you to this film? Were you hankering to make a western?
Phoenix: No. I was sent the book, and the writing's so fantastic. There's just a really unique, amazing dynamic between the two brothers that I thought was really interesting to play with. It initially was that, and then I spoke to Jacques. I don't know what it is, you just get a sense of a person sometimes, and he had a really interesting grasp of these four unique characters. I just thought it was a unique tone. So I thought, Can you really do this? Can you pull this off? I thought it was interesting. So I just said, "Fuck it."
You're known for intense performances, but you've also done great comedic work, like in Inherent Vice. When you're doing something like this where the tone bounces around, is doing the funnier side freeing at all?
Phoenix: Well, this one was a struggle because the first couple of scenes that we shot had that kind of lighter color. I felt like maybe I'm finding it. And then we switched to the latter half of the movie for like two or three weeks and that was, just, it fucking did my head in. I wasn't prepared for it.
Oh, really? Why?
Phoenix: I think that for me it was really important to find that kind of, the more humorous tone of Charlie. I think it was a struggle to get it back. I don't know why. Oftentimes you shoot out of order, but for some reason on this it really felt very difficult for me.
Is there a way you can typically prepare yourself for those tonal shifts?
Phoenix: It's all in the book and the script. It's all there. You know what the goal is. I think sometimes it's dealing with your own emotions that come up in the day, right? That's the fucking struggle. I don't have a clearly chosen method that works. It changes each time.
You did an interview with Will Ferrell. Did you know John C. Reilly through him?
Phoenix: No, I know John through Paul [Thomas Anderson].
That makes sense.
Phoenix: I had met him before. I didn't know him well. The idea of us playing brothers was just inherently funny. I just thought there's something funny about that, particularly if I'm the brother that has this sense of power. I think that those dynamics between the brothers... It's so complicated, actually, and there's just this love that's fueled by, like, resentment and guilt. This trauma. And yet people that don't know how to talk about these things, right? They don't possess the vocabulary. For Charlie, he couldn't conceive of talking about his feelings in that way. The emergence of Eli's sensitivity, of his empathy, of his understanding is terrifying to me. It's something I just don't know. Even though I couldn't say it. My greatest fear is being alone. I need him. The way that I think I can keep him is by constantly making him feel that he is less intelligent and less capable, and therefore he needs me. I'm always trying to keep him down to maintain the sense of power. You know, the younger brother, as a child, killed the father. And I use that against him. He already has his own guilt about that. So he sticks around and takes care of me because he feels guilty. There's something so interesting in their history. It just felt like, yeah, the whole movie could have been that.
Between this and You Were Never Really Here, you are playing these characters who kill. Killing is their line of business.
Phoenix: I know. And with the gun? I was like fucking terrified. It's so funny because, man, I really struggled. The gun-wranglers or whatever they are called were looking at me. Up until two days before, it was a struggle. I don't like guns. I've never used guns. Maybe I shot one time when I was a kid or something. Even though there's not even a real fucking bullet. Just holding it and the noise, I didn't like it.
The guns were really loud. The sound must have been strange.
Phoenix: The caps we were working with there were ones that were louder and ones that weren't. But the ones you're hearing were probably put in after the fact. But -- no joke -- John and I both were very uncomfortable with the guns.
Obviously it just happens to be the case that these movies came out in the same year. But is there something that interests you about these people that have this inclination?
Phoenix: I didn't think of them as being really connected. I think there's a different drive that Joe [from You Were Never Really Here] had. But I can see there are some similarities, but no I don't think about that.
Do the guns affect you differently than other violence you've had to do?
Phoenix: Just because it's loud and you feel like you have this thing that's on your side and you go, Am I going to pull it out and is it going to go off accidentally? Most violence in movies it's so not -- it's like a sex scene or something. It's so not real. This is why I fucking hate behind the scenes videos. If you see scenes before the sound effects they put in, it looks ridiculous, honestly. It's rare that the actual doing of the thing affects you. There's the thinking about things constantly that affects you in some ways. Just movies you wouldn't even think of. I did a movie years ago [Reservation Road] where my son was hit by a car and I watched a lot of horrible graphic videos of people being hit by cars. And that's eight years ago and I still think about that. It's just awful. So there are those things. The research, oftentimes, will affect you more than the actual doing, it feels like a fucking school play or something.
It's now confirmed that you're going to be doing the Joker…
Phoenix: I am?
Phoenix: I don't know.
It has been reported.
I was going to ask about the madcap comedy violence of a character like that and that's what made you want to take it on.
Phoenix: I'll talk about this another time.
Sounds good! For later! Filed away! Back to The Sisters Brothers. It seems like a fairly brutal shoot. What was that like?
Phoenix: By movie standards, it was difficult at times, but there's something really enjoyable about it. There's a camaraderie that's formed. You're so removed from everything. We would drive an hour from where we were staying to base camp, get dressed, and then drive a half-hour to the middle of nowhere. In between takes, nobody goes back to the trailer. You just sit together. So John and I just had a lot of time, and this is really important, to spend together. And obviously it's accurate, it's what they were doing. You get as close as you can to what the characters were experiencing. But there was also, yeah, there was a wonderful crew so there was just a great energy in the air. Particularly Jacques is one of the hardest working people I've ever known in my life. He was like a machine. I've never seen anything like it. There were days when I was like How are we going to walk up this fucking hill again?, take after take, and he would just be there right by you. So I think that he was the great motivator in this scenario. And also John.
You once famously said in an interview that you thought the Oscars are bullshit. I was wondering if that still stands and if you heard the talk of their new Outstanding Achievement in Popular Film? [Editor's Note: After we spoke to Phoenix, the Academy decided to postpone the addition of this new category, but his answer still stands.]
Phoenix: No, I haven't heard about that. I think, like everything in life, it's complex. In an interview, it gets reduced. The hour, two-hour conversation that I had with Elvis [Mitchell] just gets taken down to this quote. Like when I say "the Oscars," I guess, I'm talking about the whole thing. There is a part of it that I think I never understood. Even though I was working since I was a kid, I didn't watch the Oscars, I didn't read entertainment magazines. I didn't really understand that part. And the first time I went to the Oscars I was like, what is this two hour thing leading up to it where everyone's dressing up in this way and kind of posing and this feels ridiculous and it feels sort of far removed from what I thought acting was about. I don't know what I thought that it would be, right? I don't like that part of it. But that's not the whole part of it, right? I think when there are films that otherwise wouldn't be seen and they get recognized, now even more than ever it feels like it's such an important part of the industry and what it can do for certain films and certain actors. And to be totally frank, I mean if it weren't for the Oscars I wouldn't really have a career. I've never been in really successful movies. I've been in maybe two successful movies, right? So it's like, I recognize the importance that it's played in my career, but I think I'm going to wear like a beautiful dress if I ever go back. I'm going to wear a beautiful dress and I'm going to pose.