Many words can be drummed up to describe Joaquin Phoenix, that quirky four-time Oscar nominee who back in 2009 took performance art to new heights during a faux career switch to rapping, and who has famously bedeviled interviewers for years.
Difficult. Intense. Idiosyncratic. Odd.
But how about: sweet, self-effacing and actually quite lighthearted when the mood strikes?
“People often think he’s strange. He’s just very shy and that seems bizarre, but he’s uncomfortable being in the public unless it’s doing his thing,” promises James Gray, who’s directed four of Phoenix’s films. “He’s extremely sensitive and tender.”
So here Phoenix is, in the back room of the Bowery Hotel, greeting folks around him with full-body hugs. And there he is, happily watching a video that Marion Cotillard shows him of her son, Marcel, 3, playing with toys. “He’s amazing, really amazing,” he says.
Phoenix, 39, and Cotillard, 38, play a strangely co-dependent couple in Gray’s The Immigrant, now in theaters. Phoenix’s character preys on helpless women immigrating to New York City in the 1920s, and Cotillard’s is one of his apparent victims. When told he makes a compellingly creepy pimp in the film, Phoenix pauses and retorts, “You must not have known many pimps.”
Touché. And for someone who seems to never be at ease in the spotlight, who rarely banters with the media, Phoenix seems to be ready to let loose, a little. He doesn’t miss a beat when his 2012 drama The Master becomes confused with, of all things, 1999’s The Messenger, starring Milla Jovovich. “That’s my best work by far. You could say I’m probably the best thing in The Messenger. Most people don’t even know it’s me,” deadpans Phoenix.
Cotillard is a bit perplexed. “I should see it?” she wonders. “Did you play Joan of Arc?”
‘You just dive in and you don’t think about it’
In The Immigrant, Ewa (Cotillard) is a Polish newcomer who becomes the victim of a ruthless and manipulative yet often strangely kind hustler, Bruno (Phoenix). Cotillard, who is French and won a best-actress Oscar for playing “little sparrow” Edith Piaf in 2007’s La Vie en Rose, speaks English with a Polish accent in the film, and has absolutely no hint of her Gallic mother tongue.
“How did you do that?” wonders Phoenix.
Pas de problème, to hear how matter of factly Cotillard describes it. “The Polish accent was not as intense as the Polish itself. You never have enough to work. It was a very low-budget movie. In Paris, I’d see a Polish person, I’d try to work. So you just dive in and you don’t think about it. You just have to do your best. I listened to a lot of Polish,” she says.
Both are similar in that they’re not at ease, or at their best, glad-handing the media to sell their films. Cotillard just hides it better. “I’m so terrible at this. I think I’m a terrible actor,” says Phoenix.
Seriously, with four Academy Award nominations to his name? But Phoenix insists he’s not offered the crème de la crème of films, and chooses the best of what’s out there. “I’m not as selective as I should be. It’s so clichéd. It’s like falling in love. When you fall in love, you don’t ask a lot of questions. You have this desire to be with this person. I have to have this experience,” he says.
While other actors seem to clamor for and lap up approval, Phoenix appears to let commentary roll off his back, bad or good. “I would have to say he’s a wild animal. He’s like a cat,” says Cotillard. “Like a very big, nice cat. Like Garfield. I think he’s cool.”
“A little pudgy is what she’s getting at,” responds Phoenix.
Striking a balance
Cotillard is famously focused and ultra-prepared, but has being the mom of a toddler made her total immersion more difficult, or even impossible? “Honestly, it’s super-hard. I saw it on the last movie I did,” she says.
The actress just wrapped Macbeth, opposite Michael Fassbender. Playing the power-crazed wife of a Scottish general had a corrosive effect on Cotillard. “I’m really affected by the characters. I was playing Lady Macbeth and she’s really hard to live with. I had to send my son back to France. I don’t know exactly how to explain it, but it did not work with my son around. I didn’t want him to be affected by it,” she says. “Someone told me I had to protect myself more, but I can’t do that — protecting myself from my character is impossible. Sometimes it takes a long time to get into this person. You escape it when it’s done. Being a mum has changed everything.”
But you’d never know it from being with her in front of the camera. “You were affected by it and you were clearly in it,” Phoenix says to Cotillard of her ability to immerse herself on set. “Children actors are the best. They quickly enter into this land of make-believe. I like giving over to this world quickly. It’s just kids saying, ‘I’m Flash Gordon, I’m Superman,’ ” says Phoenix.
Or perhaps Joan of Arc. After apologizing to Phoenix about the earlier snafu, Phoenix starts laughing. “Are you kidding? That was the best part,” he says.
Phoenix, Cotillard team up for tiring ‘Immigrant’ shoot
It’s the day after the Met Ball and Marion Cotillard seems distracted. It was a long night, one filled with libations, and now she has a full day of press ahead of her, plus a premiere later tonight. So you wouldn’t fault her for being drained. But she’s not.
“I drank a bit. I just like to drink,” shrugs Cotillard. “It’s true.”
Joaquin Phoenix, who plays Cotillard’s pimp in the period drama The Immigrant, first laughs in appreciation of her honesty. Then he provides perspective.
“This is not tired. Making the movie was exhausting. You really had it tough,” he says. “We called her ‘cyborg.’ You could not stop her. She was like Terminator. She had this kid and she was tired, and I was exhausted, but it was nothing compared to what she had to do. She still showed up and was always on. It was very frustrating. She made the rest of us look very bad.”
Or, says director James Gray, upping the game for everyone else.
“You’re talking about two of the best actors in the world today. Marion has one of the greatest movie faces ever. She’s like a silent movie actress. She’s so expressive, so smart, so aware of human behavior,” says Gray. “And Joaquin is very observant. All of this resistance to talking to press is really about his very sincere fear of seeming phony. He doesn’t want to be that guy on TV. He doesn’t want to seem like a liar. I love him, obviously. He has the soul of an artist.”
For someone who famously doesn’t excel at doing press, Phoenix is at his most loquacious this afternoon.
“I know this is going to sound so stupid, but I feel like this is the first time I’ve met Marion. It was so strange,” he says, turning to her. “I can’t believe you’re a normal human being. You have such personality.”
Pause, as silence goes unfilled. “Great interview, thanks so much. I can’t stand this lull. I’m so uncomfortable,” announces Phoenix. “Well, this is great, that’s all I have to offer.”
But he gamely plays along. He and Cotillard met the first day of rehearsal. The pace of the film was so intense that they barely hung out together as actual people, as opposed to co-stars. Cotillard’s son Marcel, now 3, was a baby during the two-month shoot, which shifted from days to nights and back to days. Not exactly ideal for the mother of an infant. “I was feeding my son. I was not sleeping. I was (expletive) exhausted,” she says.