By Oliver Lyttelton | www.oliverlyttelton.com September 9, 2012 at 10:49PM
Don't call it a comeback, he's been here for years. Joaquin Phoenix has been appearing on screen for nearly three decades, initially under the name Leaf, but really came to attention in 1995 in Gus Van Sant's "To Die For," a film that really put him on the map. And across the next decade and a bit, in everything from blockbusters "Gladiator" and "Signs" to his hugely impressive collaborations with James Gray on "The Yards," "We Own The Night" and "Two Lovers," Phoenix steadily revealed himself as one of the most talented and committed actors of his generation.
And suddenly four years ago, he seemed, at a distance, to go off the rails -- appearing in public looking disheveled and disturbed, under sunglasses and a mountain-man beard, and announcing that he was retiring from acting for a career in rap. As it turns out, it was all an elaborate piece of performance art for a film directed by his brother-in-law Casey Affleck, entitled "I'm Still Here," and Phoenix has made about as impressive a comeback as you could ask for, returning in a lead role in Paul Thomas Anderson's "The Master," which most have touted him for to win an Oscar for, with collaborations with Spike Jonze and again, James Gray, on the way.
But in a rare interview with the LA Times, Phoenix admits that "I'm Still Here" caused serious problems when he tried to return to more traditional acting. "For some time," the actor tells the paper, "people didn't know if [the gag] was continuing in some way. I would go in for meetings and they were not sure if I was [messing] with them or not. There was a noticeable drop in quality from things that I had looked at before 'I'm Still Here.' I thought, 'Wow, I've certainly limited myself in terms of the kind of work I can do. I can still get a job, but it's not the job I want to get.' "
Fortunately, Anderson had long wanted to work with Phoenix, and had written the part of Freddie Quell, the disturbed, hard-drinking ex-navy man who falls under the spell of the charismatic Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), and his "Cause." And Phoenix says that the transition from his previous project wasn't as difficult as you might imagine. "I was so fortunate to make this film after 'I'm Still Here' because in many respects, there were a lot of unknowns that we could discover in the moment. That was very similar to where we would go in 'I'm Still Here,' [when we] we threw all the rules out the window. That was so exciting. It was so much fun to make. It was horrible, but it was great. And I was so nervous about what it was going to be like to be back on a movie set."
Luckily, any nervousness he felt isn't to be seen on screen -- both our reviews of the film found that Phoenix gave an astonishing performance, which will certainly be remembered come Oscar season. For more from the actor, including the origins of his distinctive walk in the film, his avoidance of research into Scientology, and the unlikely role a fart machine played in the shooting of the project, head over to the LA Times. And you'll be able to see the results when "The Master" comes to theaters starting this Friday, September 14th. Check out the latest clip from the film below titled "Gone To China," which announces a New York screening at the legendary Ziegfeld to benefit the Film Foundation on Tuesday, September 11th. You can purchase $10 tickets here.