NEW YORK — The Joaquin Phoenix who’s being interviewed today for his new movie, “Her,” is different — very different — from the Joaquin Phoenix seen in the movie.
Phoenix’s character, Theodore, wears large glasses and a small mustache. He’s buttoned-down and recessive, in a tech-nerd sort of way. Even when he falls in love, and the movie pivots on the rather unusual love affair he has, Theodore falls in love rather bashfully. Some people fill a room. Theodore empties it. In an increasingly business-casual world, he’s business-fussy.
The Phoenix who very much fills a SoHo hotel room is a lot more bash than bashful. A crossed leg jiggles as he talks, and he talks fast, in an enthusiastic rasp. He swigs from a bottle of Voss water. Talking on his cellphone before the interview starts, he paces. He’s dressed like a college sophomore on break: leather jacket over red zip-up sweatshirt over dress shirt over lime-green T-shirt; black jeans; pink socks and black Chuck Taylors. Phoenix hasn’t shaved in a couple of days, and his hair’s tied back in a ponytail. One look, and Theodore would likely flee — or call the police.
There’s an even bigger difference between actor and character. Phoenix is talking to a real person. Theodore spends much of “Her” talking to his computer operating system. That’s the aforementioned unusual love affair. The system becomes his girlfriend. Theodore calls her Samantha, and Scarlett Johansson supplies her voice.
“Her,” which opens Christmas day, has earned three Golden Globe nominations: for best actor in a comedy or musical; best picture, comedy, or musical; and best screenplay, for writer-director Spike Jonze.
‘There’s something endearing about him, something very earnest about him that I liked a lot.’
Clearly, the Golden Globes liked “Her.” Did Phoenix like Theodore?
“He’s a likable character,” Phoenix says. “There’s something endearing about him, something very earnest about him that I liked a lot. He’s not a typical male character you see in films. I really liked that. I mean, I don’t think you’ve ever seen a character turn down a three-way!”
This depends on whether your definition of “three” requires corporeality. In the movie, Samantha, not having a body herself, of course, tries to arrange . . . well, never mind.
Theodore marks a departure for Phoenix. But then his has been a career full of departures. “He can do anything,” says Jonze, talking about what made him think of Phoenix for the part. “There’s something so open and unpretentious and self-deprecating about him, but not in a phony way.”
That self-deprecation is evident in how eagerly Phoenix offers praise to others: Jonze, for one, but also peers. “The most difficult job in the movie fell on Scarlett,” he says. “My favorite actor,” he says of Josh Brolin, who costars with him in Paul Thomas Anderson’s upcoming adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s novel “Inherent Vice.” “I guarantee you’ll be blown away by his performance.” And Phoenix says that someday he’d like to play a CGI-generated character because of Andy Serkis, in “Rise of the Planet of the Apes.” “One of the best performances I’ve seen in years,” Phoenix says.
Self-deprecation has taken a more notable form in Phoenix’s own body of work. Or self-effacement might be a better word. Just when it seems Phoenix has become one kind of actor, he becomes another.
He started out as a juvenile on TV, part of an acting clan, including late brother River and sister Rain. With his beetling brow and dark good looks, he was like a younger, more intense Matt Dillon (whom he helped murder in “To Die For,” 1995). His hissably villainous Commodus earned Phoenix a best supporting Oscar nomination for “Gladiator” (2000). That Roman emperor could hardly be more different from the bruised and brooding but stalwart Johnny Cash of “Walk the Line” (2005). He got a best actor Oscar nomination for his performance, as he did for “The Master” (2012). Phoenix’s Freddie Quell was truly one-of-a-kind: dangerous, damaged, searching, even more of a mystery to himself than to the audience. In between those two roles came the biggest shock of all: a bearded, bloated, blowhard version of himself in the faux-documentary “I’m Still Here” (2010), directed by his brother-in-law, Casey Affleck.
After some of those guys, it starts to make sense that Theodore — who makes a living writing love letters for clients, lives alone in a sterile high rise, and moons over his ex-wife (Rooney Mara) — may seem likable. Not that likability in a character is relevant, says Phoenix.
“Even people with unlikable traits, it’s fascinating, as an actor, to experience that and explore it. At some point I get to say goodbye, and it doesn’t have to be your friend. Sometimes it’s best and exciting to play characters you don’t like. Part of the joy of being an actor is having these experiences you wouldn’t otherwise have.”
Phoenix says that the mustache was Jonze’s idea. The glasses were mutual. “We weren’t sure if we were going to do it. Then I tried one pair on, and it just fit.”
Something that simple can make a difference in a performance?
“Absolutely!,” Phoenix says. “I’m able to rely so much on the environment and props and the wardrobe, and I love those things to help define the character and how he interacts with the world. The shoes that you wear: The viewer may not see them, but they affect how you walk and how you carry yourself. All of those pieces are important. We all use our clothes to identify ourselves, to wave our flag.”
Phoenix, who’s been acting professionally since he was 7, turns 40 next year. Is that a good age for an actor? Middle age having the reputation it does, some actors might bridle at the question. Phoenix visibly brightens.
“When I was in my 20s, I couldn’t wait to get into my late 30s. I always thought those were the best parts. There’s greater importance put on your looks and attractiveness in your 20s: parts where you wear tight shirts. When you get older, you’re able much more to explore. I always felt jealous of actors in their late 30s or 40s. Of course it’s very different for an actor than actress, undoubtedly. So I’m really excited about my next few years.”
The scenes with Samantha, where Phoenix has only a voice to interact with, were hard at first, he says. Johansson dubbed her voice later. For the actual filming, the actress Samantha Morton was in a soundproof room elsewhere on set and Phoenix listened to her on an earpiece, as Theodore does on screen. (In an unusual move even by Hollywood standards, Morton was replaced after the movie had finished shooting. “It was only in post production, when we started editing, that we realized that what the character/movie needed was different from what Samantha and I had created together,” Jonze told Vulture.com in an e-mail.)
“Movies are always difficult,” Phoenix says when asked how it was to perform without another physical actor to play scenes with. “Let’s say that we were shooting this scene, us sitting here, right? There’s a master [shot] from over there. When the camera comes in over my shoulder to shoot you, well, suddenly this chair and the camera can’t be in the same place. So now I’m sitting on an apple box and I’m leaning as close to the camera as possible so as not to block you. Now see if that isn’t strange!
“This was a bit more strange,” he chuckles. “The more interesting thing was how it actually became the norm. At some point this just was this relationship and how we communicated. Certainly those first few weeks took a lot of getting used to. ‘I’M ACTUALLY TALKING TO SAMANTHA OVER THERE,’” Phoenix shouts. Doing so, he sounds very un-Theodore.
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.