Joaquin Phoenix on His Brutally Physical Performance in ‘The Master’

WRITER’S NOTE: This article was written back in 2012.

It has been two years since we saw him in “I’m Still Here,” the mockumentary on his alleged retirement from acting and bizarre transformation into a hip-hop artist. Now, thankfully, Joaquin Phoenix has returned to acting in Paul Thomas Anderson’s cinematic triumph “The Master.” Justin Craig of Fox News calls Phoenix’s performance “brutally physical,” and Peter Travers of Rolling Stone says the actor gives “the performance of his career” as Freddie Quell, a deeply disturbed World War II veteran. Just watching the various movie trailers for “The Master” reminds us of how emotionally raw Phoenix can get whenever he is onscreen, and it is both amazing and scary as there is no doubt as to how far he will go in preparation to play a character.

It turns out Anderson had Phoenix in mind when he was writing the role of Freddie, and he admitted to being amazed at Phoenix’s acting abilities and of his discipline while on the set.

“He’s like Daniel Day-Lewis in his level of concentration. He just got in character and stayed there-for three months he didn’t stop. Joaquin is very unpredictable. A lot of the time I didn’t know what he was going to do,” Anderson said.

Phoenix himself only says so much about how his preparation for a role as he compares actors to magicians in that they “don’t talk about how their tricks work, because people would go, ‘Oh, that’s all you do?'” He did say, however, how Anderson set up two cameras for certain scenes between him and Philip Seymour Hoffman who plays the charismatic Lancaster Dodd. This allowed both actors to “be in the moment and not be worried about shooting the one side and then re-lighting and shooting from the other side.” Phoenix described this as making a huge difference for him while portraying Freddie.

There is also the story of how Anderson showed Phoenix a video of a monkey falling asleep and told the actor the monkey was him.

“Paul called me Bubbles on the set,” Phoenix said. “Bubbles was Michael Jackson’s pet monkey, and I was Paul’s pet monkey. The key to Freddie is an animal, just pure id. For the scene where he’s arrested and put in jail and all that, I just watched videos of wild animals that get into suburbia. If you’ve seen video of a deer or a bear that finds its way into suburbia and the cops have to tranquilize it, it seems as if the brain stops working. If they’re cornered, they’ll slam into walls, or one leg tries to go left while the other is going right. Its complete fear and chaos. They can’t control themselves at all. That was the key to Freddie. And Paul certainly called me his pet monkey.”

While Phoenix still says he experiences problems with acting, it does look like he has rediscovered his love for it in “The Master.” Hearing him talk about being an actor shows how much he has struggled with his gift to where he had to rediscover a whole new way of doing it.

“Part of why I was frustrated with acting was because I took it so seriously,” said Phoenix. “I want it to be so good that I get in my own way. It’s like love: when you fall in love, you’re not yourself anymore. You lose control of being natural and showing the beautiful parts of yourself, and all somebody recognizes is this total desperation. And that’s very unattractive. Once I became a total buffoon, it was so liberating.

“I’d see child actors and I’d get so jealous, because they’re just completely wide open. If you could convince them that something frightening was going to happen, they would actually feel terror. I wanted to feel that so badly. I’d just been acting too long, and it had kind of been ruined for me. I wanted to put myself in a situation that would feel brand-new and hopefully inspire a new way of approaching acting. It (“The Master”) did do that for me.”

SOURCES:

Justin Craig, “Joaquin Phoenix’s performance in ‘The Master’ has Oscar written all over it,” Fox News, September 13, 2012.

Peter Travers, “The Master” movie review, Rolling Stone, September 10, 2012.

David Ansen, “Secrets of ‘The Master’,” The Daily Beast, August 20, 2012.

Jessica Winter, “‘The Master’s’ Joaquin Phoenix on Animal Inspirations, Curb Your Enthusiasm and the Pleasures of Discomfort,” Time, September 13, 2012.

Andy Serkis on Returning to Play Gollum in ‘The Hobbit’

Gollum in The Hobbit

WRITER’S NOTE: This article was written back in 2012.

It is a thrill to see Andy Serkis return to the role of Gollum in Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.” While we marvel at the special effects which gave Gollum his unique if wretched look, it was Serkis who breathed life into the character in a way no one else could. His success in “The Lord of the Rings” got him cast in “King Kong” in which he portrayed the big ape, and audiences were begging to see him get an Oscar nomination for his brilliant performance as Caesar in “Rise of the Planet of the Apes.” Seeing Serkis return to the role that made him a star brings everything around full circle for the actor, and we are constantly fascinated at how he approaches roles that surround him with a wealth of special effects.

Serkis first played Gollum over a decade ago, and the character was 600 years old back then. “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” takes place sixty years before the events in “The Lord of the Rings” so he looks a little better here, but that is not saying much. But what has really changed about how Serkis plays Gollum is the technology involved in filmmaking. While “The Lord of the Rings” movies were shot on film, “The Hobbit” was made digitally. Serkis talked with Fox News’ Ashley Dvorkin about the differences this time around.

“So I was acting with Elijah Wood and Sean Astin and we would all play out the scenes together, so that hasn’t changed,” Serkis told Dvorkin. “But the thing that’s changed is that I had to then go and shoot it again on the motion capture stage. So I had to repeat everything twice. So I shot everything twice in effect. Whereas 12 years later, now we have full performance capture on set so I can just play the scene once – I’ve got a head mounted camera which is capturing all my facial expressions. The suit is able to act in a live action set and we just played the scene like, two conventional actors playing the scene with each other. So it’s much, much better.”

Gollum, be it in “The Lord of the Rings” or “The Hobbit,” has always resembled a heroin addict who is relentlessly eager for his next fix. In talking with Katy Steinmetz of Time Magazine, Serkis said the character’s physicality was “borne out of his addiction to the ring.” The way he describes it, this really was the best way for him to fully inhabit the character, and he talked about the inspirations which played a part in his performance.

“His personality, the involuntary way in which his body spasms when the word Gollum comes out of his mouth, is connected to the guilt that he carries with him in his throat from murdering his cousin,” Serkis told Steinmetz. “He is described by Tolkien in many different ways, as a puppy with Frodo and a spider and a frog. I based him a lot on Francis Bacon’s paintings, the agony and torture, which are in turn based on Eadweard Muybridge’s photographs. The references for me were very layered.”

Seeing Gollum move all over, as if he is completely incapable of staying in one place for more than a couple of seconds at a time, makes this seem like one of the most physically demanding roles any actor could take on in their career. I am constantly interested in how Serkis can keep his energy up while playing a character like this as he must get worn out often while on set. He went into more detail with James Rocchi of MSN Entertainment about just how physical playing Gollum is for him.

“It’s very physical. Gollum is an incredibly physical role,” Serkis told Rocchi. “And it’s a combination of physicality and of course vocal. They’re so entwined with each other, so meshed with each other. It’s a pretty exhausting role, but I had such fun playing it with Martin (Freeman who plays Bilbo Baggins). It (the cave scene where they first meet) was the very first thing we shot on the movie as well. It was day one of 276 days of shooting, and there was I was face to face with Martin finding his way into playing Bilbo. And we shot the scene in its entirety every single time. And then Pete would move the camera between takes and let us roll it again. We would just play the whole scene out. And it was really, really exciting when we’re doing it.”

After playing Gollum in several movies, you might think Serkis would be sick to death of this role by now. However, this does not prove to be the case as the character has had a huge impact on his life. He even told Dvorkin he has a full-sized sculpture of Gollum made by WETA (the digital visual effects company based in Wellington, New Zealand) sitting in his office at his home. Even he is not blind as to the positive impact Gollum has had on his acting career as a whole.

“He’s been like a watershed character for me twice in my life now,” Serkis told Dvorkin. “First of all because not only because he is an amazing character to play the first time around but it was also the beginning of this journey into a performance capture which has enabled me to play so many other amazing roles. By virtue of the fact of him arriving that whole other list of characters has been what I’ve been working on the last decade. And then coming back full circle to playing him again in ‘The Hobbit’ also has brought me to directing. So both times, he’s not only been this amazing creature and great character to explore, but has shifted my life.”

It looks like we will be seeing more of Andy Serkis as Gollum in the future as Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit” is now being expanded into three movies instead of just two. Many fans still have some issues with this as J.R.R. Tolkien novel is only 300 pages long, but Serkis is more than confident in Jackson’s ability to pull this particular trilogy off. Since the actor has already spent a number of years working with Jackson, his belief in the director seems more than justified.

SOURCES:

Ashley Dvorkin, “‘The Hobbit’s’ Andy Serkis has full-size Gollum sculpture in his house,” Fox News, December 14, 2012.

Katy Steinmetz, “The Hobbit’s Andy Serkis on Getting Inside Gollum’s Skin,” Time Magazine, December 11, 2012.

James Rocchi, “Interview: Andy Serkis of ‘The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,'” MSN Entertainment, December 17, 2012.