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Jonze had admired Phoenix's past movies — "He's so alive on-screen, he's so surprising" — but didn't know if Phoenix was, in fact, retired, or if the man nominated for awards for playing madman, killer and drunk was right for cuddly Theodore, Jonze's most personal role.
The week Jonze finished his final draft of Her, he went to the actor's house and showed him the script. "That openness and that playfulness and realness and honestness, it's exactly who he is," Jonze says. "There's nothing pretentious about him. I realized, 'Oh, this is a guy who takes his work seriously but doesn't take himself seriously.' Within the first 10 minutes, I knew he was the guy that I wanted to be in this movie."
With no visible co-star besides minor parts played by Amy Adams, Olivia Wilde, Rooney Mara and Chris Pratt, Phoenix's face fills the screen. "The name of the camera was very close to my fucking eye," he groans. To help the actor feel comfortable under such close scrutiny, Jonze winnowed the production down to as few as six crew members, with original voice actress Samantha Morton around the corner saying her lines from inside a plywood box. (Johansson was dubbed in during the editing process when Jonze realized he needed a voice with more confidence and immediacy than what he and Morton had originally conceived, though he hastens to add, "Samantha deserves credit for giving Joaquin and the movie and me so much.")
"The environment on set was very intimate. Everybody respected and was affected by what Joaquin was doing," Jonze says. "When we'd cut, the set would stay quiet. That's really special."
Phoenix, of course, brushes off compliments. "As long as you're not visibly shaking in front of a camera, anyone could give a great performance with the right script and the right director." He saves his praise for the cast of the new Star Trek, a film he adores, calling their work "fucking brilliant."
He insists, "It's even more difficult to stand with a half-made, fake-ass fucking set with some weird fucking wig and say a bunch of technical dialogue and not have the benefit of people going, 'Well, this is important work so let's give it its space.' Everyone's going, 'C'mon, jerk-off! Let's do this!' "
Maybe he'll do a blockbuster like that someday. Maybe he won't. "I love comedies and I love action movies," he says. For now, he again feels like an actor who's confident about his options.
"I'm sure there were times when I went, 'Oh, fuck, it's going to be hard to do the movies that I want to do after this. Am I going to be battling this shit?' " Phoenix admits of his I'm Still Here experiment. He shrugs. "But you're always battling some shit that you fucking said, so it doesn't really make a difference."
To prove he's mended all possible fences, Phoenix's next film, The Immigrant, is by Two Lovers director James Gray, who has forgiven him for hijacking their last publicity tour. Did Gray make Hollywood's most unpredictable prankster pinkie-swear he won't pull that stunt again? "No, we didn't," Phoenix pledges, suddenly looking serious. "We didn't make jokes about that."
Scores provided by Rotten Tomatoes