Engaging, engaged, mischievous, honest. Despite his protestations that he has very little of interest to say, that he doubts anyone “sitting in the bathroom reading this” will care, that he’s “sick of the sound of my own f***ing voice”, Joaquin Phoenix emerges as a very happy and forthright stranger to meet for a chat in a hotel room. Once he’s finished his cigarette.
In 'Her', Joaquin Phoenix plays Theodore - unattached and unloved
Perhaps it’s because he knows he’s participated in an interesting film that cuts to the heart of our ambivalent relationship with technology. In Spike Jonze’s ‘Her’ set in a near-future metropolis, Joaquin plays Theodore, bristle-tached, broken-hearted, open to nobody except his Siri console named Samantha, whose purry tones, courtesy of Scarlett Johansson, soon lull him into a relationship.
Yes, you read that right - this man is dating his computer, with, bizarrely, all the usual perfections and pitfalls that mark any love affair, and it’s a mark of Joaquin Phoenix’s performance that we care for the outcome of this somewhat assymetric partnership.
Theodore becomes involved with Samantha, heard but never seen
Phoenix, despite giggling conspiratorially at the high-concept set-up of the plot, refuses to be drawn on whether this is an optimistic 21st century rom-com – the availability for love for people who don’t look like Zac Efron and, er, Scarlett Johansson – or whether this is the ultimate nexus of people’s inability to relate to each other in real time anymore.
“I don’t know who’s going to read this and then change their opinion based on what I say,” he starts, having another lug, “but… I’m always f***ing reluctant… the cool thing about movies and this movie in particular, is what subjective experiences they can be.
"I try not to read interviews with other actors if I’m going to see their movie, I don’t really want their opinions or explanations, but I’ll try and satisfy you.
"I’ll just say, I think you can argue that Samantha helps Theodore reconnect with humanity, with himself and the world he’s in. He looks at the string blowing in the wind in a different way. He’s been thoroughly disconnected with the world, and I think through their relationship, he gets more connected…” he stops short. “Maybe not, whatever you want it to be.
Theodore lives in an all-too-familiar world of technology trumping real relationships
"What’s interesting about this movie, I’ve heard people having different opinions, some say it’s anti-technology, some say it’s pro- and that’s when it works best, when people can take away something different.”
What’s certain is that something as testing, subjective, both intimate and yet elusive as 'Her' would seem to be the nearest we’ll ever get to the undoubted talents of Joaquin Phoenix appearing in a standard rom-com. He has another chuckle at this.
“You need to talk to Amy Adams about that. She’s trying to get me to do a rom-com. Because she knows that I wouldn’t want to do it.”
There is an almost audible hmmm in his head, then… “I feel like I reserve the right to change my opinion and do what I want, when I want to do it. I just do what I think is interesting.”
Everybody has a different version of ‘interesting’ these days – for some it’s a long-running TV series. Not Joaquin it seems…
“No, fuck, no,” he says equably. “That sounds fucking miserable… but I might do it tomorrow.
“Right now, when I think about it, seven weeks is a long time, never mind seven fucking seasons, but I might come to that experience. It’s not like I’m dissing TV, but I think I’d just get f***ing bored.”
Ok, then. What about a film with a number 2 after the title, then?
“I’m Still Here 2,” he replies, instantly, referring to the film that threw the cat among the pigeons, when his friend Casey Affleck followed Joaquin around with a camera, watching him semi-articulate on chat shows, heavily bearded, training to be a rapper and apparently “retired” from the film business he’d been in since childhood.
Nobody quite knew what Joaquin Phoenix was up to while he was filming 'I'm Still Here'
“I wasn’t playing a joke on the world,” he explains, when asked exactly what was going on. So was it tempting to stay out there in, for him, the novel world of non-moviedom?
“I knew that I didn’t want to retire, that was all part of the movie. Part of the joke was because, after every movie, Casey and I both say, ‘that’s it I’m done,’ after every movie, and each time it’s a case of, ‘Don’t be an idiot, what else can you fucking do? Just be happy you’ve got a job because you’ve managed to fool people enough.’ That was the joke.
“The truth is I’ve always found it fulfilling, even when it’s hard, it’s always been interesting. I just have to make sure it stays that way.
“When I was younger, I remember watching these actors I really admired, in the 1970s movies, and then I’d see those same actors, at some stage usually around their forties, I’d notice they were wearing similar clothing in their movies, in what seemed like nice locations, and it suddenly occurred to me that they be making those decisions, based on a nice shoot, being in comfort, and I was scared of that, being complacent, of being in that place, so I don’t know that I’ve succeeded.
“I found myself recently reading a script and going, ‘oh no, that’s going to be cold,’ and I thought ‘Oh, fuck, it’s happening, I’m 39, another year and it’s over, it just happens, you hit your 40s and you just get soft. I’m so scared of that.”
Well, that sounds like an aroma of integrity I’m sniffing, despite his simultaneous assertions that “I reserve the right to do romantic comedy, seven television series, commercials…
An aroma of integrity? He asks me to clarify – admirably so, when a lot of actors would happily take that compliment without the need to understand it, particularly.
“Well, you won’t just sign up to something, because it’s easy, and it's a million dollars, a beachside location, and casts you against a beautiful, nubile leading lady…” is how I begin.
“Well, hold on,” he laughs and stops me there. “When you put it like that, I’m starting to reconsider things.”
'Her' starring Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johansson, Amy Adams, directed by Spike Jonze, is in UK cinemas from Friday 14 February. Watch the trailer below...