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James Gray Says Goodbye to Joaquin Phoenix

James Gray Says Goodbye to Joaquin Phoenix

Articles - Acting

Joaquin Phoenix announced his retirement recently, and though I was profoundly disappointed, I can’t say I was surprised. Joaquin is best described as a mercurial person, so there’s a chance he might yet change his mind (selfishly, I hope he does). But his decision is consistent with the person he is and was and always will be.

Joaquin doesn’t care about anything but the work, and even then he cares only about process—never the product (he doesn’t even watch his own movies). The young man gave acting everything he had. Perhaps he just ran out of gas. I know now how hard it is to find a true original like him, and that for a time I simply got lucky.

I first met Joaquin in 1997, on a cold winter night in New York. It was a brutal evening after a brutal day, and I’d had nothing less than a brutal week trying to cast my film, The Yards. I’d met with what seemed like 100 actors, and most of them seemed talented and enthusiastic. But what they all lacked—for me, anyway—was a certain quality that separates the best from the rest: The ability to communicate a complex inner life.

The camera doesn’t lie, or so they say (though others have said it lies constantly, and both are right), but what it does above all else is magnify. If you think it, you can think it a whole lot on the big screen and you don’t have to say a word. If you don’t care, we can see that you don’t, 20 feet high. It’s a heightened reality, but necessarily a more intimate one, and if you’re at war with yourself, the medium tends to reward you. After only a few moments of conversation, it was immediately clear to me that Joaquin was that and many other things. He was conflicted, he was bright and he was hungry. Something else was obvious: Joaquin had danger. I wasn’t scared of him, but I was scared of what he might do—most of all to himself. I had to work with him as soon as possible.

Looking back on our first collaboration, I’m not sure we actually collaborated all that much. I seem to remember a whole lot of torment and angst and yelling and screaming. But I also remember consistently being amazed by the emotional depth of the then-24-year-old. I loved his feral unpredictability; he seemed ready to explode at any minute.

He was hard on himself—a true perfectionist—though just as often, his fury was directed at me. I didn’t care. We had one thing in common and that was a total commitment to the work. We will no doubt fail, we told each other over and over again, but at least we will fail giving it everything we have. He was untrained and undisciplined, usually requiring multiple takes and a great deal of coaching. So did I.

The Yards now feels like the first round of a boxing match in which neither fighter seems ready to engage. Both dance around the ring at the sound of the bell, sizing each other up, waiting for the real battle to begin. What are the strengths of my opponent? The weaknesses? What terrible surprises might be in store?

We went six years before working together again, though we did see each other frequently and became good friends. We recognized that we had the same tastes; every now and then, we would call each other, usually late at night—Did you see that movie? What a piece of shit!—and the call would last for hours.

I learned, too, that Joaquin had admirers from all walks of life. When Johnny Cash told me he could quote “that Phoenix fella” at will, I decided to put the two of them together for dinner. What followed was, of course, a meal for the ages. I could see his craft reaching a new level in Walk the Line, and I’ll confess I became a little jealous of Jim Mangold, the film’s director. I knew the next picture I made would have to have that Phoenix fella in it.

Our second picture together, We Own the Night, was different. I can’t speak for Joaquin (though lord knows I’ve tried and failed many times), but for me it was a more complex and contentious and rewarding experience. He’d matured and he’d begun to grow out of me. It was as though he understood his weapon and was figuring out how best to use it. He thought long and hard about every scene, turning it over in his mind, and he studied his script until it became hopelessly tattered and all but unreadable.

We worked night and day, rehearsing and discussing. Sometimes it would lead to horrible arguments—often my fault! I’m no diplomat—but in my (weak) defense, there were times I couldn’t distinguish with whom I was speaking. Was it character or actor?

This time he went in—and went in deep. “You want me to see my father dead in the street? Well, then, I might vomit for real.” (He did.) “You want me to be terrified of that man? Go ahead, have him belt me right in the face.” (He got walloped, but good.) “You want me to swallow that charcoal? Force it down my throat, man.” (He inhaled with relish.)

The crew was in awe of his level of commitment and it raised everyone’s game. You knew if you didn’t give it everything you had, you were letting him down somehow. There’s no amount of money you can pay an actor for that. It makes the process of motivating cast and crew a cakewalk. Thank you for that, Joaquin.

I wrote Two Lovers knowing that if Joaquin didn’t want to do it it would never get made. The role was created for him: A tormented soul, struggling, lost, lonely and, finally, beautiful and heartbreaking. Who else could do it? Who else would?

Thankfully for me, he said yes, and the shoot was the happiest of the three. We developed a shorthand, but more often than not he was on his own—and he was liberated. The result is work that seems to my eyes eerily redolent of Montgomery Clift at his best.

Forgive me, but I have trouble accepting this retirement thing. I need Joaquin’s moments of authentic heartbreak, of unfiltered emotion, of poetic humanity. Joaquin shares my passion for exploring the melancholy movements of life, the sad awareness of time’s ruthless march; and he far surpasses me in emotional intellect, always ready to recognize genuine tenderness and reject all artifice. He has embraced an elegant, higher truth.

At the end of Two Lovers, Joaquin seemed simultaneously exhausted and bored. He’d left most of us in the dust long ago.

Perhaps that’s why he’s done with acting: When you can do it all yourself and your genius has outgrown the mediocrity of others, why bother?

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