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Joaquin Phoenix talks about becoming the Joker

He’s on a short list for a lofty label: one of the greatest actors of his generation. Joaquin Phoenix just doesn’t see it that way. “Luck,” he says, summing up a career that includes three Oscar nominations and an expected one for “Joker.”

“Honestly, it wasn’t an easy decision at first. … But there was something that was drawing me toward it,” said the soft-spoken actor. He’s talking about taking on the iconic role last played by Heath Ledger in 2008’s “The Dark Knight.”

“As we went through prep, this role started becoming something more than I could have anticipated,” the 44-year-old said. “It was one of the greatest experiences of my career.”

Directed by Todd Phillips (“The Hangover”), the film stars Phoenix in the origin story of one of the great comic book villains. He plays lonely, part-time clown and aspiring stand-up comic Arthur Fleck who lives in decaying Gotham City in a crumbling tenement where he dwells unhappily with his sickly mother Penny Fleck (Frances Conroy). When drunken Wall Street thugs attack him in a subway car, Arthur snaps.

Review-Journal: What is your idea of a great Sunday?

Joaquin Phoenix: I love reading books. Hanging out with family. Watching a movie. A little dinner. I might do a little research if I’m working on a new character.

What was the appeal of the Joker?

It was so exciting and inspiring. I guess, in some ways, it seemed limitless on how you could interpret the character and what you could do with it. It didn’t feel like there were any rules. And that was very attractive to me.

Phillips said he wrote the part for you, but it was hard to get you to commit.

He came to my house a lot. Finally, he said, “You have to say if you’re in or you’re out.” That’s not the way I do it. It’s not how I work. I think it took me about five months to say yes. And I said yes because of Todd.

How did you find the perfect Joker laugh?

What’s great about making movies is you get a lot of chances. After 10 takes, you get the one that you really love, and then you have to find that laugh again three days later. There are times when I still don’t think I nailed it.

Did you have to go to a dark place internally to find this role?

I didn’t struggle. It was enjoyable. It was a challenging acting experience, which made me happy. It was energizing. This character felt more like a discovery, which was exciting. There were so many possibilities of how he may behave in any given moment.

What was your objective with Joker?

You just try to be as true to the character as possible. It was a challenging movie, but it was important and hopefully it is the beginning of conversations, and makes people think. Your responsibility as a creative person is to present ideas that start a conversation.

You’ve said that a director’s input is crucial.

The perfect analogy is when I was a kid and learned to drive. My dad took me driving. I sat on his lap and he said, “Drive.” I really thought I was steering and in control of the car, but my dad’s fingers were on the wheel and his foot was on the pedal. A good director gives you the feeling that you’re in control.

Your brother River was instrumental when it came to your film education.

I was 15 or 16 when my brother came home from work. He had a VHS copy of a movie called “Raging Bull.” He sat me down and made me watch it. The next day, he woke me up and made me watch it again. He told me, “If you’re going to start acting, this is what you’re going to do.” He didn’t ask me. He told me.

What do you know now about acting that you couldn’t know when you were younger?

When I was younger, I’d say, “Well my character would never do that.” I try not to do that now because it breeds rigidity. And I know that, if you live long enough, people do all kinds of things that you think they wouldn’t do.

How do you define the perfect Joaquin Phoenix role?

I want it to feel alive, vibrant and not routine. Frankly, I feel that’s what’s missing from a lot of movies. We go into films and we’re told, “This is who this character is.” Then we stick with it. It’s the most fun to find things that we didn’t expect over time and as the story unfolds — both for the actor and the audience.

You sound like someone who loves his job.

Acting has given me such an incredible life. I don’t take a moment of it for granted and I have such gratitude. I can’t wait to get to work.

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