A few years ago, Joaquin Phoenix fooled film fans when he and best mate Casey Affleck made the mockumentary I’m Still Here, where they pretended that Phoenix was retiring from acting and reinventing himself as a hip-hop performer.
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It resulted in a memorably awkward conversation on the Late Show With David Letterman.
But while the making of the film was “mostly fun and exciting” and Phoenix would work again with Affleck in a heartbeat, there were challenges.
“I think people had the impression we would do something publicly and then run home giggling going, ‘We got ‘em!’, and it wasn’t like that.” says Phoenix, who lived in Puerto Rico until he was six years old.
“It was intense. It was very hard knowing it would affect other people. I didn’t like having to be dishonest to friends.”
I’m Still Here brought a new level of attention to the former child star who, despite scene-stealing and Oscar-nominated roles in Gladiator, The Master and Walk The Line, had always maintained a relative distance from the world of celebrity.
Four years on, and fans are still interested in the actor, but the beam of attention has lessened somewhat.
It’s given him the opportunity to examine the relationship between fame, the media and fans, but Phoenix admits he doesn’t feel much closer to understanding his industry, least of all the appeal to go online to see what people are saying about him or his work.
“I’m Still Here was the first time in my life when I’ve gone online to look myself up,” says the 39-year-old.
“It was very unsettling and something I’m not accustomed to. I never do that, only because I don’t trust myself to not be affected by those things.
“I’m a human being and can’t help but be affected, so I think it’s always best to avoid it.”
The virtual world is, however, very much on his mind at the moment.
In his latest film, Her, Phoenix plays Theodore, a lonely writer who falls in love with his computer’s operating system, which is called Samantha and voiced by Scarlett Johansson (who doesn’t physically appear in the film).
In other hands, Her, which is nominated for Best Film at the Oscars, could be sneering and insensitive, but with Spike Jonze directing and Phoenix at the film’s centre, it’s an endearing tale that wears its humanity firmly on its sleeve.
Phoenix, who says he was “stimulated” by the film, was taken by Jonze’s unusual perspective on a love story.
“I remember the scene where it’s the day after my character’s had sex with Samantha,” he recalls.
“It’s the uncomfortable day-after conversation, and he and Samantha both start speaking at the same time. It’s almost like that cliche of young love that you see in these movies, and yet it’s with this operating system. Spike has this unique take on that.”
Describing himself as “realistic” about his career, Phoenix has managed Hollywood on his own terms, and a few years ago dismissed the awards circuit as “bulls**t”.
The younger brother of late Stand By Me star River Phoenix, the actor landed his first roles in TV while he was still a child.
But far from being the intense, brooding presence he is on screen, in person, he makes for thoughtful and quietly friendly company, laughing at the sometimes ludicrous and baffling situations he can find himself in.
“You get inside a press conference and there’s a bunch of people who’ve obviously been sitting there for some time, because they’ve been told to get there for 10am and, of course, everyone’s late, so you go in and you’re ready for s**t,” says the vegan actor.
But Phoenix isn’t your regular star, bleating about his lot in life.
“I always get so uncomfortable,” he says, taking a drag on his cigarette. “I feel uncomfortable for journalists as well. It must be so nerve-racking. I’m thinking, ‘Here’s a bunch of people who are all uncomfortable and nervous, what do we do? Why do we do this?’ This is not the ideal situation to have a conversation!” he says, laughing.
“It’s a strange dynamic and I don’t think I’ll ever get accustomed to it. I hope I don’t. I feel like the moment I’m comfortable with that it’s probably over. It might be over now, but it’ll definitely be over then.”
Her is released in cinemas tomorrow