It’s hard to believe it’s been twenty years since Joaquin Phoenix was nominated for an Academy Award for his role as the duplicitous, peevish Roman emperor Commodus in Ridley Scott’s revenge epic Gladiator. At twenty-four years old, the blossoming actor put the world on notice that he was a force to be reckoned with by delivering a subtle yet commanding performance. And it was just the beginning.

Since the turn of the millennium, Joaquin has been busy building an extraordinary career as an unpredictable and uncompromising actor for the ages. His level of commitment and his risk-taking nature has put him up there with giants like Heath, Bobby D., Daniel DL, and Leo; of this, there is little dispute. 

In the attached video, Directors on Working with Joaquin Phoenix, some of the most celebrated and masterful auteurs in the world opine on the enigmatic thespian and give insights into his unique talent and eccentric approach to the craft.

James Gray, who worked with Phoenix on the crime thriller We Own the Night says that Joaquin is a throwback to a classic period in Method Acting. However, the director goes on to say, “Now, if I called him a method actor to his face he’d want to hit me.” Gray explains what makes Joaquin such an asset when you have everything riding on an anticipated film. “He’s an explosive, totally unpredictable presence on set … in the best sense.”

At first glance, Joaquin Phoenix seems a little off. Obviously, his intensity and no-nonsense demeanor contribute to the off-kilter countenance of a tortured artist. But it’s also his physical appearance. Phoenix is gifted and possibly cursed with an asymmetrical posture that he uses to great effect in many of his momentous film roles. The actor’s actor hasn’t spoken much about his condition in public, but he did confess on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, “I’ve had a bad neck since I was very young.” It actually seems like he has some form of spinal scoliosis or Sprengel’s Deformity with his sloping, uneven shoulders, concave chest, and swinging gait. Paradoxically, his physique gives him a great deal of power to express the ineffable and to tap into the animal nature of every fallen man.

Paul Thomas Anderson, director of such seminal and groundbreaking films as Punch-Drunk Love, Boogie Nights, and There Will be Blood has had the pleasure of working with Joaquin on the purported Scientology-themed The Master, as well as the stoner noir period piece Inherent Vice. In the attached video, Anderson talks about Phoenix’s postural challenges and how he used them to create an almost Quasimoto-like character in the troubled and volatile soldier Freddie Quell. In the film, Phoenix exaggerates and exacerbates his normal posture and affects a serpentine misfit hellbent on destruction. It’s really quite stunning to watch the transformation of a man into a twisted manimal. 

“A couple of days into the film he just kept sliding into this skin where he was doing this movement that was incredible, I just didn’t want to jinx anything and say ‘What are you doing?’ or ‘What’s going on?’ You’re in the middle of make-believe; you don’t want to break the spell,” Anderson shares.

By just about all accounts, Phoenix gives an absolutely mind-blowing performance in Todd Phillips’s 2019 anarchist-inspired, nuclear-blast of a motion picture Joker. The already slender actor lost fifty-two pounds for the role, which gives his unique frame an emaciated, nearly alien-like quality. Joker is far from a DC comic-book movie, it’s actually a heart-wrenching and prescient treatise on the anguish and despair of mental illness. Phoenix all but embodies the sad clown and terrorist threat, Arthur Fleck. Of Joaquin’s performance, Phillips says, “What I like about Joaquin is his unpredictability. He’s playing jazz while other people are doing math.”

Before you accept a role or step on set, think about how you want your director to speak of you after a given project has been completed, and do as Jack Nicholson’s character Frank Costello recommends in The Departed: “Act accordingly.”

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