Phoenix rises now & then...
...And when he does, it's a performance worth noting as his two Best Actor Oscar nominations will testify. Will Joaquin Phoenix's latest movie Irrational Man be another winner?
An unusually compelling actor and an often eccentric man, Joaquin Phoenix has never aspired for accolades or the trappings of fame.
Often taking long breaks from his career to further his involvement in animal rights and peace organisations, he even announced a short-lived retirement in 2010 and appeared unkempt and incoherent in public as a sort of hoax.
But when Woody Allen came calling with his latest drama Irrational Man, Phoenix, like every other actor who has worked with the Hollywood auteur, couldn't say no.
In the movie, which opens here tomorrow, the 40-year-old US actor plays brilliant philosophy professor Abe Lucas, who has lost faith in his subject and his students, feeling life is painful and meaningless.
Despite the efforts of his best student (Emma Stone), with whom he shares a deep but platonic relationship, his depression doesn't end until he overhears a conversation between strangers and decides to interfere in their business with an irrational action that turns out to have enormous consequences.
When he meets M at the Four Seasons hotel in Beverly Hills, Phoenix is relaxed and forthcoming, a far cry from the days when he visibly showed his impatience for interviews.
He is asked whether he sees his character as veteran actor-director Allen's alter ego.
"Woody's very different than what I imagined. He wasn't that Woody Allen persona that you see in the movies. He is like a general.
"There's none of the skittishness or discomfort, or being kind of overly analytical. He is like boom, to the point, and he is so strong and direct and really just the antithesis of the characters that he's played."
Allen, 79, is well known for giving his actors very little direction, but Phoenix's experience was different.
"He really understands the rhythm of the scene. Often when you hit a bump, you will spend half an hour with the director trying to identify the problem.
"Woody will come into the room and say, 'You don't say that line, you lose that line, and walk over to that window while saying that line'."
"And then you will do the scene and suddenly it just completely flows."
He added: "Most actors, your tendency is to act and to overdo it and you want to make sure that the audience really understands what you are feeling.
"He is matter-of-fact, and that was something that was new to me. I had never really had a director talk to me that way, and I really appreciated it."
Phoenix is very choosy about his work and frequently takes hiatuses between movies, even telling his agents not to send him scripts.
He explains: "I usually feel depleted after I finish a film. I really just spend time with my dogs. And that can go on for six months. Then I say, 'Send me stuff'. And then I get depressed about what I am reading, everything is garbage, and then I start panicking.
"So that's usually what it's like. For six months I am thrilled not to do anything and then it's like six months of panic, and hopefully I get lucky."
And he's been very fortunate in the past decade, with two Best Actor Oscar nominations for Walk The Line (2005) and The Master (2012) and a string of recent critically-acclaimed films like Her (2013), The Immigrant (2013) and Inherent Vice (2014).
When asked if he had a teacher who inspired him, Phoenix talks about never having that experience as he dropped out of high school at 16.
"I just went pop! And my parents sat me down real serious and got real tough with me but I was tougher.
"I just said, 'I am going to be an actor so I don't need to do that'.
"Little did I know, I actually could have used the schooling and it would have helped in my acting. At the time I was just super arrogant and I was like, 'I am not going to school'.
"And there was only so much grounding they could give, but I always had the ability to tell people no, including my parents."
Perhaps his peripatetic childhood on the road in Central and South America with his missionary parents gave him experiences that moulded his talent, and he is quick to give them credit for nurturing it.
"They were amazing and they always encouraged us to feel what we were feeling. I was never told to shut up or don't cry. So I think I am very comfortable with whatever it is that I am experiencing and I don't have any embarrassment or shame about emotion.
"I think emotion is beautiful. However, I wouldn't say that it's easy when I work, it just happens. What is difficult and challenging and exciting about working is finding that emotion."
WOODY ALLEN BY THE NUMBERS
20 Oscar nominations between Woody Allen, Joaquin Phoenix and Emma Stone
4 Oscar wins for Allen
1 month of filming in Newport, Rhode Island, for Irrational Man
45 The number of feature films Allen has directed
24 The number of times Allen starred in the movies he directed
2 The number of times Stone served as Allen's muse
13 times Mia Farrow served as Allen's muse, making her the record-holder of Allen's most frequently used actress
$207 million Allen's biggest worldwide box-office gross ever, for Midnight In Paris (2011)