Joaquin Phoenix Interview – WE OWN THE NIGHT

     October 11, 2007




Opening up tomorrow is “We Own the Night,” the new film by James Gray (“The Yards,” “Little Odessa”). In the movie Joaquin Phoenix plays the son of a police captain who has parted ways with his family and gone off on his own. Here’s the synopsis:


Bobby Green (Joaquin Phoenix) has turned his back on the family business. The popular manager of El Caribe, the legendary Russian-owned nightclub in Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach, he has changed his last name and concealed his connection to a long line of distinguished New York cops. For Bobby, every night is a party, as he greets friends and customers or dances with his beautiful Puerto Rican girlfriend, Amada (Eva Mendes), in a haze of cigarette smoke and disco music.

But it’s 1988, and New York City’s drug trade is escalating. Bobby tries to keep a friendly distance from the Russian gangster who is operating out of the nightclub – a gangster who is being targeted by his brother, Joseph (Mark Wahlberg), an up-and-coming NYPD officer, and his father, Burt (Robert Duvall), the legendary deputy chief of police.

We Own the Night, an emotional crime thriller about a man who has chosen to hide his past only to discover that he has to confront an inevitable future, takes its title from the motto of the 1980s-era NYPD street crimes unit. Written and directed by James Gray (The Yards, Little Odessa).



So to help promote the film, Sony recently held a press day and all the stars did roundtable type interviews.



During our 20 minutes with Joaquin, we discussed his relationship with James Gray, working with Mark Wahlberg, Eva and Robert Duval, his other movies coming up and a lot more. As a big fan of Joaquin it was really cool to hear him speak in person.



As always you can either read the transcript below or download the MP3 of the interview by clicking here. You can also watch some movie clips from the movie here.



“We Own the Night” opens tomorrow at theaters everywhere.





Question: Mark said that your only role in producing this movie was to ask why a particular scene of yours hadn’t been cut from it.



Joaquin: My role as producer is really as an actor that didn’t get paid as much as he was supposed to therefore they offered him a production credit. He agreed to it because he’s greedy [laughter] and that’s essentially the story for me to be perfectly honest.



Q: Don’t you get anything on the backend? Don’t you get points?



Joaquin: Let’s talk about your back end. Lets talk about some of your stuff and get into that. [laughter]



But they didn’t give you any money?



Joaquin: I know, pobrecito. I know. It’s very, very tough out there. No, it’s not that I wasn’t paid well, it’s just I wasn’t paid the crazy exorbitant amount that I’d been paid before.



I think James is the only director you’ve worked with more than once.



Joaquin: That’s true.



And he obviously likes working with you for whatever reason.



Joaquin: I think it’s desperation, honestly. I think everyone else was unavailable.



What is it about this guy that you trust more than you have other filmmakers?



Joaquin: It’s not who I trust more. I’ve talked with virtually every single director I’ve worked with about working together again and it rarely comes up for a number of reasons. But, I do like working with James a lot. It’s difficult for me to be able to pinpoint exactly what it is. But, I think it’s that he loves human psychology. He loves actors. He loves talking about acting. We just exchange texts, e-mails and phone conversations. We’re getting ready to do something in November. I always forget what the process is like in a movie and now we’re getting ready for something. He’s just available to talk about anything and I really enjoy that because, to me, that’s what the prep period is about. You just have a lot of yes and no questions in some ways. I’ve never found a director that wasn’t really available for the actor but James just has an interesting way of looking at things and what he’s trying to conjure. Nothing is really just what it seems. I was trying to think of an example and I can’t think of one but it’s almost like if there was a funeral scene, let’s say you were talking about it trying to figure out what everybody might say, ‘well, you know how everyone comes together from thousands of miles apart and they all meet together and everyone’s there to take care of each other?’, and you go ‘oh, yes. Do you feel that?’ He goes, ‘well no. That guy’s your uncle and he was trying to screw over that person. Your mom, she screwed that guy’ and he suddenly introduces all these less than favorable qualities that most humans have and you find those dynamics in families. And, I always find that interesting. He’s delves beyond the surface and what is kind of the obvious dynamics between people and introduces things that you might not have thought of. Or, that you get trained, in a sense, by Hollywood to not think of. I think it’s rare that you find that. [looking at all the tape recorders] This is like I’m like the Lord of Gadgets. They’ve all come to me. It’s like “Evan Almighty”.



What do you like about working with Mark?



Joaquin: He’s gorgeous to look at. No, Mark is really hard-working. It means a lot to me. I think it’s something that I value in other people but I think the best thing about Mark is there’s such truth and authenticity in his performances. I’m always surprised. I hate revealing the truth but I remember doing this scene with him and James had just come up with brand new dialogue for him literally, as we’re walking to set, he’s come up with this new dialogue and I had some as well so, of course, I’m sweating and panicking and figuring out how am I gonna say this? Mark looks really comfortable. Then we go to set and he absolutely, fuckin’ nailed the scene. It was unbelievable to me that somebody could do that because it took me a while to get anywhere. It was just good enough where I got to and he just kind of did it so there’s a real truth, something totally unpretentious about him. It just feels like he’s there.



Were you always going to be Bobby and Mark be Joe from the outset? Was there ever a possibility that you would play Joe?



Joaquin: Well, it depended on Brad Pitt’s availability, then Leo’s availability. I remember talking about playing Joseph with James when we first talked about it. First it was Joseph, then he started talking about Bobby but it was like on ‘The Yards’, me and Mark switched back and forth. I don’t know. At some point, it became clear like the last three months that I was gonna play Bobby.



This and your character in “Reservation Road’, do you have an affinity with those kind of characters. Does it flex your acting muscles in a way that other characters don’t?



Joaquin: Yeah. I think I’d be bored… first of all drama is conflict. It’s just that simple. You want conflict in the character. If not, I’m bored to fuckin’ death. I don’t know a single person in life that doesn’t have conflict. It’s a movie so they’re like extreme versions of these things, these things that we don’t necessarily experience in life and it’s a way to experience and study it. I think, honestly, it probably just comes down to boredom, being bored or not. Because I’ve been on films where they were just like, quote, unquote, regular guys and it was really fuckin’ tedious and boring to me. I don’t enjoy acting enough to not want to experience something that really effects things. Like if you were a surfer, would you want to surf where there were like two foot waves or would you want to surf on ten foot waves? To me, the more dramatic stories or more exciting for me to play or else I’d just… there’s too much other stuff that goes into it; the make-up, the hair and the wardrobe and taking pictures and doing press and all this shit that I don’t really enjoy. It’s not worth it to be without having an experience that would be intense.



With this and ‘Reservation Road’, I’m sitting there going ‘is Joaquin gonna be all right’? It looks like you’re going to some very dark places.



Joaquin: It’s an awkward position to be in. It’s like I’ve read some stuff about bands and songs or a particular album and you find out that song is written about his aunt or something and you’re like ‘hell, I’ve been loving this girl because of this song. What are you doing to me? It’s about your fuckin’ aunt?’ [laughter] I always feel like oftentimes, actors just lie in the press and say they’re really affected by things or else I think it ruins the experience should anybody happen to read this. I think it can potentially ruin the experience. I wouldn’t really want to listen to that thinking that the guy was thinking about what was for lunch. But, to be honest, I’ve done a lot of scenes where I’m thinking like ‘what the fuck is for lunch? I can’t wait to get out of here’. People talk about being effected by stuff and having dreams and shit, if you go home and I happen to be in one of your dreams tonight, I don’t think it’s because you were like sooo effected by this, putting your heart and soul into these interviews. I think it’s just we were around each other so I popped into your dreams.



Did you have only one take of that Eva Mendes scene?



Joaquin: I asked for seventy! But we did only get one take.



But was it as good for Eva?



Joaquin: She said ‘we’re done. That’s it’. Halfway through the take, she was like, ‘God we’re done. I think you got it’.



But how was it to work with Eva? Did you get to practice your Spanish on her?



Joaquin: I didn’t practice my Spanish with her. It was great working with Eva. They were like ‘we cast Eva Mendes’. I was like ‘great’. Then I met her and we were walking to the hotel and there were all these cameras and I was like ‘oh, sorry. I know, it drives me crazy’. So, she walked one way and I went the other way and they followed her! ‘Who is this woman”. But with Eva I was surprised. James and I would get together every weekend throughout filming and go over the following week’s work and figure it out and all throughout rehearsals every day. Eva was there every, single day. We had to tell her ‘actually, we’re not talking about anything you should know about. It’s just about Bobby. You don’t need to know’ and she’d be like ‘oh, okay’. But it’s kind of rare to find people… you can really get away with just kind of showing up as an actor. It’s not like a bad thing. But, you don’t really have to come in on weekends. The fact that she wanted to and was willing to do that, I thought was really good. I thought she was really amazing. It was a really difficult role to do and she’s amazing. Again, there’s a scene where we’re talking in a car being driven and she’s really amazing. When you think about the fact that we’re sitting on a street with lights around and there’s dudes rocking the bumper from outside and then, just beyond the tape, are dudes taking pictures of Eva trying to get through, and she’s doing the scenes and you’re like ‘fuck’. Because, don’t you watch movies sometimes, and you have that thing of ‘I could fuckin’ do that’. Everyone has that thing like it’s not so difficult and, in a lot of ways, it’s not but those situations; you have an emotional scene and it’s utterly ridiculous. There’s literally four dudes running around your car pumping it like that and you’re supposed to pretend people are after you.



Is this next character you are doing with James in this new romantic film as dark?



Joaquin: Yeah. I wouldn’t know.



How would you define that character?



Joaquin: I wouldn’t.



What’s the name of the character you play?



Joaquin: Don’t even know.



First of all, you appear in my dreams every night [laughter].



Joaquin: Room 674.



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Can you talk a little bit about working with Duvall?



Joaquin: Yes, of course. Fuck, man. Who doesn’t love Duvall? He’s an unbelievable actor. I remember him making an impression on me when I was very young. I remember seeing ‘Apocalypse Now’ and being like ‘who is this dude?’ It’s pretty amazing. Then, once getting to know him, I value his work even more in some ways, especially when you look at ‘The Godfather’ and stuff. He’s so dissimilar to that character. Honestly, it was a little intimidating at times because he’s so fuckin’ good. There was never a false moment. Or, if he felt like there was a false moment, he didn’t show it. I guess I feel like sometimes I struggle with things to give them some weight or some truth and Duvall… they’re like ‘rolling, speed’ and he’ll lean over and tell you a joke or his biggest thing is to talk about food for some reason. He literally is like ‘have you been to..’. I’d say ‘no’. ‘Great steak’. ‘I’m a vegetarian’. He’s amazing. He was immediately that character. We kind of fell into that dynamic almost immediately. We had one night where we kind of just started improving and he did the most amazing thing. He did this one gesture in a church. We’re having a conversation early on in the film and I get up to leave and I get up to step over the pew and he just put his hand out as if I was going to fall and this was after a little argument. It was a beautiful choice because here is this father and son that are at odds and still that instinctual, kind of paternal quality of reaching to make sure your son’s okay. Just little things like that I thought were really beautiful.



How did the second nomination compare to the first one?



Joaquin: I don’t think it was much different. I still have to go around, do a lot of things, wear the suit, hey ‘hi’.. I really haven’t thought that way. I think I got out of a lot of stuff the first time because Russell did everything. I just really didn’t have to do it. And, I was working as well. I was out of the country when ‘Gladiator’ came up until the Oscars but for ‘Walk the Line’ I was here so they had me. I had a few more things to do.



Are you in line for anything else after the next James movie if the strike happens?



Joaquin: I don’t know. I don’t know what I’ll do.



Your character in this is comfortable in the club scene but are you comfortable in that world? Is that your scene, personally?



Joaquin: Do I feel comfortable? No, it’s not my scene but I don’t think I have a scene is the trouble. I’ve been to clubs. I went to these clubs in New York. I’ve been to places like when I was in my 20’s in New York although it’s changed quite a lot. I just think they’re awful. It’s unbearable to me. I don’t like being in an enclosed place with really loud music and a lot of drunk people. It’s not my idea of a good time. So, I went and I was talking to a lot of these people that ran clubs, going around, looking in the back room and the offices, how they did it. It’s just such a miserable life. But, honestly, they’re there to like five in the morning and then back at like three in the afternoon. It just seems like a miserable.



So what do you like doing when you have time off?



Joaquin: It’s terrible. No one ever believes me. I do nothing. TV? I will say that I do very much like Discovery Channel which I just watch a lot. There’s like four channels that are like History, Discovery and National Geographic and I basically just flip through those.



What do you recall from the night of your accident in the Hollywood hills?



Joaquin: Uh, it was day. I remember that. So that’s a good start. It was funny, I don’t remember being frightened at all, just more like fascinated that I was turned sideways and [something] was broken. I just heard this German voice saying ‘please relax’. I was like ‘I know that voice. Is it God’? [laughter] And it was literally, did you see ‘Grizzly Man’? When he listens to the video of the guy getting killed and he tells the guy’s girlfriend, ‘don’t ever, ever watch’. It was that same voice. I was like ‘I am relaxed’ and he’s like ‘no. You must relax’. I think I really was relaxed.



Robert Duvall comes in.



Robert: Don’t believe a word he says. [They hug]. Tell your brother-in-law (Casey Affleck) he was great in Jesse James.



Joaquin: He’s great, fuckin’ great. That’s an amazing story, him.



Back to the accident. There’s a story that Werner told you not to light a cigarette and there was a puddle of gasoline right next to you. Do you recall that at all?



Joaquin: That’s totally ridiculous. No, because Werner disappeared before I had my cigarette. Another guy came around the back. The car was tilted in such a way that, if I climbed out the passenger side, the driver side was on the street, it was tilted at some lookout and I thought that the weight would then roll it over so I can’t go out that way. And then this guy opened the very back door and it wasn’t Werner. It was the other guy. And, I crawled through and said ‘thanks very much’ and I turned around and Werner was long gone. Then I smoked next to the firemen.



Casey is your brother-in-law. Do you get together with Ben and go to family parties?



Joaquin: [Waves his arms in the air] The Phoenix/Affleck party! Come on! I gave myself first billing. No, we don’t get together for parties but I go over and visit my sister and my nephew and my brother-in-law. Do you go to parties with the family. We were spending Christmas together. Have you guys seen Assassination of Jesse James’? Fucking….



He’s in ‘Gone Baby Gone’.



Joaquin: I haven’t seen that yet. Did they do press here for that?



They did a press day in Toronto.



Joaquin: That’s an unbelievable story how he got that job. He really persevered. It’s pretty incredible. I think his work is awesome.



You don’t talk in Spanish?



Joaquin: Un poquito.



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