Writer/director Gus Van Sant‘s Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot—now playing in limited release after world-premiering at this year’s Sundance Film Festival—is based on the true story of artist/cartoonist John Callahan (Joaquin Phoenix) who became a quadriplegic and nearly lost his life after a night of drinking with his friend (Jack Black). Eventually, he enters treatment for his alcohol addiction in AA and finds comfort from his girlfriend (Rooney Mara) and a charismatic sponsor (Jonah Hill). Along the way, he starts drawing irreverent and shocking cartoons which get published in the New Yorker, Penthouse, and Playboy. As you might expect from a movie that stars Joaquin Phoenix and Jonah Hill, the performances are fantastic and reason enough to seek out this film.
Last week, I landed an exclusive interview with Joaquin Phoenix. During the wide-ranging conversation, he talked about working with Gus Van Sant, how he got involved in the project, the wheelchair stunt, how he got ready for the role, playing a real person, trying to make Don’t Worry in 25 days, working with Jonah Hill, and so much more. In addition, he shared a great story about making Gladiator with Ridley Scott and what it was like making director Jacques Audiard’s The Sisters Brothers with John C. Reilly.
Check out what he had to say below.
Collider: So, I’m going to start with the most important question, the thing that everybody wants to know. How is your vegetable garden (we previously spoke about it here)?
JOAQUIN PHOENIX: It’s not good. It’s not good. Well, here’s what happened. Once you have your first garden they go, “Oh, this is where it’s happening.” But the first time it went so easy and then this last time there were a couple things which I planted for this season and had to leave suddenly the next day for five days. I asked somebody to water it but they’re just not going to care for it as much as you would. And so it really struggled and I’ve been busy for the last six weeks or something—and it was planted in June—so it’s been a struggle. My carrots are bangin’, my zucchini is bangin’, but the lettuce never came through, and are we really talking about my fucking garden?
I kind of figured everyone else was starting with the Joker. So I wanted to go with your vegetable garden.
PHOENIX: That’s a good move.
That’s the way I roll. Jumping into why I get to talk to you today, you’ve worked with Gus [Van Sant] before, but I think it’s been like 20 years. Had you guys been talking about trying to do something together for a while?
PHOENIX: I think we really have maybe, three years ago, I’ve wanted to work with him but nothing has ever come together. A few years ago we were talking about it and it just didn’t work out. But he reached out with this book and that was it.
Was it Gus that got you to do the project? Was it the script? Was it his story?
PHOENIX: It was all of those things. I know we talked about it before, but I’m not a person that will just make a movie cause I like the filmmaker. There has to be something in the character that I think is interesting to me, or challenging. And there is so much about this dude, about John, about his life. I think what I was most interested in was—that I didn’t really know much about—was just cartooning. I’ve never really paid attention to cartooners. We had comics when I was a kid, but when I saw cartoons I never thought much of it. But I started reading his book and realized what an art form it was. And it’s always nice when there are things that you can’t just pass by and not take notice of and something kind of draws your attention to it. And you realize what a powerful medium it is. And so I was really curious about that and what his process was, and how he came up with that and how he drew. I like people that are creative and driven and are passionate about something.
There’s a shot in the movie where you are going super fast wheelchair and you go flying out of it and hit the ground. Just to confirm, was this like a Tom Cruise-esque stunt? That was really you?
PHOENIX: I know that I did do that, but I know that there was also a wide shot that the stuntman did first. And I wanted to do it, but let’s be very clear. This is not Tom Cruise-esque; you can not equate jumping out of a fucking plane at 35,000 feet with rolling off of a chair. So I appreciate that. Thank you for putting me in the same class as Tom, but ain’t nothing close to it.
But I gotta’ tell you something, it looks like you go pretty hard into the ground. So I’m just curious, do you remember doing that shot? Were you hesitant? Because you’re taking a pretty nice blow.
PHOENIX: First of all, they put down like a cushion that looks like asphalt, so you’re not really just hitting asphalt. But what was scary about it is, there’s a rope attached to the chair that at some point gets taught and that’s what stops the chair from moving and you fly out of it. So I didn’t know exactly when it was going to happen. The first time as I’m moving towards the curb, I thought, “Okay, it should come right now.” And it didn’t happen. And I thought, “I’m just gonna ride off of the curb in the chair,” which is probably gonna be more painful, like the chair’s gonna crash into me. And then right as I had that thought, it stopped. I couldn’t help, just reflex, I jumped out and like rolled. And I was like, “Okay, didn’t think that was gonna happen.” So then we did the second take, and again, I anticipated it so much that I just reacted and I couldn’t just let my body go. The third or fourth take, where I just had to completely give into it, and just go, “I’m just gonna sit here until I lunge,” and, you know, I’ll fly out of the chair.
PHOENIX: That was perfect, absolutely.
You’ve worked with a lot of gifted filmmakers. What is it about Gus that you love?
PHOENIX: I’ve known him for so long, I met him first through my brother, and had so much respect for him. Gus is a director that I really credit for helping to shape the kind of actor that I am. I worked with him at a really critical moment in my career.
I was just starting out again after being a child actor and, typically, child actors, you very much feel this expectation of just achieving what’s in the script. And that’s what you’re encouraged to do. When I started working with Gus, he was the first person that just said, what’s most important, essentially, is that you feel something that you’re connected to the character in some way…that interpretation..I thought about that…not somebody else’s…not just their interpretation of the character. That was revolutionary to me because I thought that the goal was to try to satisfy what was written. I mean, [he was] the first one that kind of let me feel like, just because it says you’re supposed to laugh doesn’t mean you have to laugh. It seems so obvious now, but I think it’s something that doesn’t come up a lot when you’re young. So he was such an important figure to me and really shaped the kind of acting that I do, or try to do.
He basically gave you the freedom to act.
PHOENIX: Yeah or freedom to be.
Yeah, maybe act is not the right word. Maybe to be honest in the moment.
PHOENIX: Yeah, precisely, and to own and to surprise yourself and not have an expectation of the outcome. To not be concerned about the results but rather to let the experience determine the results. It’s still something that I try to do and all the filmmakers that I’ve worked with say that’s something that they are interested in as well. So he was very important to me.
I know you don’t like talking about your process, but when you’re playing a real person, how does that change the way you get ready for a role? Did you do anything special for this one?
PHOENIX: Well, it’s lucky that you have a wealth of information to draw from. I mean, there’s something really great about doing a character just based on your imagination and the director or writers, but with John having his autobiography it gave so much insight into his perspective. The world, if that’s what it is when you’re playing the role as you’re adopting a new kind of perspective. That was really helpful, as well as Gus had all of this homemade footage that he made, footage he shot of John. So I could see very specific movements that I didn’t expect. I’d heard that he was a quad, I thought that he had very little movements, but even the other quads that I worked with at Rancho Los Amigos—which is the rehabilitation hospital where John went—they also said that he seemed to move a lot for a quad.
This movie was made, I think, in like 25 days. How the hell did you do that?
PHOENIX: Yeah, it was really, really fast. I don’t know, I think it had a lot to do with Gus. It’s funny because the set, if you came on it, wouldn’t feel like people that were rushing because we didn’t have time. I think Gus doesn’t do many takes. Honestly, by the time I kind of realized that we were making a movie, we were done. It was so quick. I really like working that way actually.