Joaquin Phoenix refused to hug it out.
On an overcast November afternoon, in a $13-million Hollywood home with a skyline view stretching from downtown L.A. to the Palos Verdes peninsula, the notoriously press-averse actor was throwing a fit of pique — aimed squarely at me.
He had tolerated more than an hour of my questions. I was interviewing him with Spike Jonze, writer-director of "Her," the idiosyncratic yet affecting sci-fi romance in which Phoenix stars. "Her" reaches theaters in limited release on Wednesday but has already been crowned best film of 2013 by the National Board of Review and tied for best film honors from the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn.
Right from the start of our meeting, the dynamic of the duo's working relationship became clear. Jonze functions as a kind of Joaquin-whisperer/interlocutor for Phoenix; the actor serves as muse and B.S. detector for Jonze.
But when this reporter asked the wrong question — or perhaps changed subjects too abruptly or strayed toward matters Phoenix didn't care to address — the Academy Award-nominated actor went on the offensive.
"Oh, please," Phoenix said, radiating scorn. "This is so funny." He paused before questioning my journalistic integrity: "Um, how long have you been doing this?"
From there, the conversation continued but never recovered. That awkwardness did not go unnoticed by Jonze (né: Adam Spiegel), 44, the music video wunderkind-turned-Oscar-nominated auteur behind such fantastical drama-comedies as "Being John Malkovich" and "Adaptation."
"Come on, let's hug it out," Jonze suggested, throwing his arms around my shoulders and clapping me on the back.
Phoenix, however, rejected any such conciliatory measure.
"I don't want to hug it out!" the actor said, fixing me with a thousand-yard stare. "I don't want to hug out anything that doesn't need to be hugged out!"
By reputation alone, I should have expected as much. Long considered one of the finest actors of his generation, Phoenix is also one of Hollywood's most confounding leading men — brilliant or erratic, "difficult" or misunderstood, depending on who you ask — which is precisely what makes his performance in "Her" such a revelation.
After landing a best actor Oscar nomination with his brooding performance as Johnny Cash in the 2005 biopic "Walk the Line," Phoenix walked away from conventional stardom. He "retired" from acting in 2009 to pursue hip-hop music — a spasmodic transition captured in "I'm Still Here," the coked-out mockumentary starring Phoenix, who co-wrote and produced the film with Casey Affleck. In character for the better part of two years, he rejected every film-industry overture, shambling through cartoonishly awful rap performances and prompting questions about his mental stability.
But all that self-activating turmoil could hardy stand in sharper contrast to Phoenix's soulful, open-hearted performance in "Her." The film, which premiered to critical hosannas at the New York Film Festival in October, finds the actor portraying a grave divorcé who plugs back into a side of himself long lost when he discovers love in his shirt pocket.
Phoenix's character, Theodore Twombly, forms an intense romantic attachment with his smart phone's computer operating system "Samantha," a puckishly sentient, disembodied presence voiced by Scarlett Johansson. It's a demanding performance in a meticulously crafted film that plays the techno-romance for sincerity rather than laughs. And it required the actor to supply the physical emoting for both partners, registering jubilation, doubt, jealousy and trepidation — sometimes all within the span of a single scene.
Moreover, it's a far cry from Phoenix's last on-screen turn, as a toilet-smashing, paint-thinner-swilling World War II veteran who falls under the messianic thrall of a cult leader in writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson's 2012 drama "The Master," for which Phoenix scored his second Oscar nomination as actor in a leading role.
Jonze wrote Phoenix's part with him specifically in mind — a gamble the director will explain only abstrusely: "I knew I'd want to watch him, but I didn't know what he'd be like" — and traveled to L.A. to personally hand him the script. Phoenix, in turn, managed to suspend his reflexive nihilism long enough to say yes. Not that he cheered up much by the time cameras rolled on "Her," only his third film since "I'm Still Here."
"Every … movie I've ever done, I've doubted," said Phoenix, dropping the first of many F-bombs in our conversation. "Never once was I, like, 'Yeah! We're gonna do this! It's gonna be great!' I feel that way about everything."
Added Jonze: "He might say that during this interview five times."
Jonze may blanch at any suggestion that "Her" may be his most personal film, insisting each of the features, skateboard videos and short films he's directed is equally personal. But the new movie arrives with certain distinctions.
"Being John Malkovich," the filmmaker's surrealist-slapstick 1999 breakthrough, and 2002's meta-narrative dramedy "Adaptation." were both written by Oscar winner Charlie Kaufman, and the director co-wrote his $100-million big-screen blowup of Maurice Sendak's kids-lit classic "Where the Wild Things Are" with novelist-memoirist Dave Eggers. But "Her" carries Jonze's first solo "screenplay by" credit.
Following a disillusioned former journalist who composes lyrical messages at a company called BeautifulHandwrittenLetters.com in megalopolis Los Angeles of the not-too-distant future, "Her" grapples with breakup, loss and heartache in ways that throw Jonze's real-life 2003 divorce from filmmaker Sofia Coppola into a different light.
At the Hollywood luxury-home-turned-post-production facility owned by independent producer Megan Ellison ("Zero Dark Thirty," "American Hustle"), whose Annapurna Pictures bankrolled "Her," the director sidestepped any autobiographical reading of the film.
"I don't mind whatever anyone wants to take away from it," he said. "I was trying to write about relationships."
Jonze explained that during rehearsals, Phoenix's reluctant nature played a key role in shaping the material. Although the actor draws a blank on many details surrounding the production and even his own performance — "What we're learning today is that my memory is shot," said Phoenix, 39 — his halting reactions to the script compelled sweeping changes.
"I don't know if you remember this," Jonze said to Phoenix. "I don't know if you remember anything. We did a movie together, remember?" — the two laughed — "He would read a scene and then stop for a long time and be unable to read it. Eventually, he'd say it but kind of mumble because he didn't feel like he knew how to.
"Oftentimes, those conversations led to digging deeper in the scene. I'd see a place where maybe I'd cheated in the writing."
So when it came to filming "Her" in Los Angeles and Shanghai last year, Jonze made sure to insulate his lead. For Phoenix's scenes with the disembodied Samantha, on-set personnel was limited to no more than six people, a tactic more commonly applied toward sex scenes with A-list actresses than sci-fi rom-com.
"It was really … intimate," Phoenix said. "You're supposed to be sitting in your apartment talking to someone. So obviously, that's going to be more difficult if there are 30 people sitting around, like, 'Cut. OK, pass me the Doritos!' It always seems like the most important thing is the feeling in a room, the energy in a room. And that's just so much work."
Then Phoenix got up and temporarily left the interview.
Actors can be notoriously inarticulate or prickly or exasperating; something I know only too well from having interviewed the likes of Kristen Stewart and Tommy Lee Jones. But to spend time with Phoenix is to come away impressed by the open throttle of his emotions. He reacts sharply to the perceived ebb and flow of conversational vibes and with extreme presence.
Jonze filled the vacuum after Phoenix's departure and explained more about the Samantha scenes.
"We wanted it to feel like you were seeing things you weren't supposed to see," he said, "a part of somebody's life that's almost embarrassing to see."
The other Samantha
In "Her," Johansson's Samantha is an alternately nurturing and mercurial presence whose flights of artificial-intelligence-generated fancy are punctuated with breathy pauses and dusky joie de vivre. A perfect woman in all but body, she accompanies Theodore on a sea cruise and composes a piano sonata "snapshot" to crystallize their relationship before the onset of unforeseen complications that rock the lovers' insular world.
Given Phoenix's chemistry with Johansson, it's easy to overlook that the "Avengers" costar wasn't Jonze's initial choice. The director originally cast Samantha Morton as his computer operating system, arranging for the British actress to read her lines from the solitude of a soundproof box on set for the duration of the two-month shoot. In post-production, however, Jonze made the agonizing choice to recast after deciding Morton's vocal performance "wasn't right" for what he was trying to accomplish.
Last spring, months after principal photography had wrapped, the director reenlisted Phoenix to help Johansson record her performance.
"He was really generous with his time, especially because he was prepping to do another film with Paul Thomas Anderson," Johansson recalled. "We'd come in and do these amazing, productive sessions. There's no rule book to how that kind of thing works."
But it was when I asked Phoenix what he thought about Jonze's decision to recast Morton's part — ultimately creating more work for him — that the actor hit me with his "how long have you been doing this?" jab.
Despite being palpably ruffled, Phoenix heaped praise on Jonze and voiced support for the director's call to replace a cherished colleague in pursuit of his "vision."
"It made me have great appreciation for Spike and his tenacity and willingness to do whatever it took to get it right," said Phoenix. "He was digging and digging. I really admired that."
Immediately after our interview, the photo shoot for this story unfolded with its own challenges. At one point Phoenix stopped posing for our photographer and accused me of shooting surreptitious video of him with my phone's camera, an event that never occurred. Why would I secretly film him after our consensual conversation? I asked. Afterward, the actor said he regretted confronting me and walked me to my car.
With the sun low in a slate-gray winter sky and my tape recorder off, Phoenix seemed more at ease. He spoke expansively about a book he'd read about the unconscious mind and how, for better or worse, he had taken a more "intuitive" career track since "I'm Still Here." He talked admiringly of Michael Jordan and the former Chicago Bull's free-form approach to dunking a basketball. We shook hands and went our separate ways.
Ten days later, my cellphone buzzed with a blocked-number call: Phoenix. He'd thought about our conversation and wanted to pick things up precisely where they'd gone off-track. Specifically, he wanted to make sure I understood Morton's absence from the finished film didn't negate the actress' contribution to "Her."
"She was my partner," Phoenix said. "She was always in my head. She created Theodore as much as I did."
His disembodied voice sounded quieter and calmer than it had in person. It wasn't a hug. But it was closure.