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.