Duarte Garrido, Arts and Entertainment Reporter
As soon as he enters the room, you know you’re about to witness something special.
It’s not the heavy beard he now sports, or the unbranded, clumsy cap. It’s not even his size, his feline eyes or the enigmatic scar which cracks his upper lip.
In fact, on a more thorough examination, there’s nothing about Joaquin Phoenix’s physical appearance which makes him stand out from anyone else.
His voice is raucous and off-pitch, his mannerisms uncomfortable – the way he inadvertently covers his mouth while speaking, avoids eye contact – but there is an aura to him.
Something which whispers “I don’t give a f***” to every single journalist in the room. And he doesn’t.
He even says so. Not in so many words, but in the way he calls everyone “motherf******” in a mocking tone, in the way he cancels all TV interviews last-minute and decides to do a round table instead.
This could be perceived as standard diva-like behaviour but, for some reason, it feels more human than anything else.
“This is day five for me and I get so sick of the sound of my own voice, I just can’t do it…” he says, entering a room with five reporters. Any further excuses are left at the door.
Sometimes I hate preachy movies, movies with an agenda.
We are all there to see him, even though many of his co-stars are doing separate interviews in the same hotel.
Even though he isn’t the main star in the film.
Phoenix is playing Jesus Christ in a movie about Mary Magdalene. Directed by Garth Davis, the film offers a fresh take on the last days of Christ, as seen by his most faithful and misrepresented disciple.
“In the Bible you have two options of women, you either have the virgin or the prostitute, the sinner,” Phoenix explains.
“It’s unf****** believable that it is still happening, that there was this Pope Gregory who issued a statement saying that the two Marys are all the same Mary, and came up with the idea that she was a prostitute.
“And so the story of Christ’s ministry through her eyes was excluded in the official books. Somebody made that choice to exclude her thoughts on the life of Christ.”
What Phoenix is referring to is the so-called Gospel of Mary of Magdala, a scripture which was omitted from the New Testament by the Catholic Church and which shows Mary not as a prostitute, but as “the apostle of the apostles”.
“Clearly she was an important part in the movement, she was the only disciple that we know that was there at his crucifixion and his resurrection,” he says.
“There’s no mention in the Bible of her being a prostitute. So these were the things that were created, I assume, when the Church became more formed and clear in his vision of what it wanted to be.
“There seemed to be an overt intention to exclude women from that process. And I think that is totally relevant to what we see today.”
Phoenix is more comfortable when talking about things he wants to talk about. He is intelligent, doesn’t bite baits.
When asked about his religion in a movie which accepts Christ as a miracle worker, he prefers to see things differently.
“When Garth and I discussed the healing scene on the beach, we realised this was a time when, if you had a physical deformity or were mentally disabled, people thought you were possessed by demons,” he says.
“And I think the power, in some ways, of what we’re saying is: here’s this man that really saw you and would touch you, and look at you, and validate you, at a time when everyone in your community would shun you.
“And I thought that was such a beautiful idea to me, instead of literally curing blindness. That was what healing was in some ways, and it took it away from literal healing.”
For Phoenix, it appears the movie offered him a fresh approach to life and to spirituality. You move the topic from “religion” to “spirituality”, and suddenly the elusiveness turns into a spoken mantra.
“We all are flesh and spirit. It just confirms what I’ve always naturally felt,” he says.
“I think part of [preparing for the role of Jesus] is finding contemporary figures who have also lived those values, like sister Helen Prejean or Reverend James Lawson, who had a tremendous impact on the civil rights movement and worked with Dr King.
“He still teaches a workshop on non-violence in Los Angeles that I attend.”
Wait, what? Joaquin Phoenix takes pacifism classes?
“In a way it was how I found a way not to be reactive, emotionally. I think that a lot of our aggression and violence are things that are learned.
“And we can train ourselves to react to things differently and find a way to communicate non-violently.”
What first made me giggle is now making me think.
“When I say non-violently I don’t mean just physically, but also verbally violent,” he says.
“It’s not this hippie idea, you know – ‘everything’s cool! Peace!’ – but it’s actual work, where you actually develop techniques.
“That’s very appealing to me.”
I look around the room, and realise we are all listening to this weird, bearded man talking about pacifism and understanding. I swear at one point someone asks him if he sees himself as a preacher.
“Motherf*****, c’mon,” he fires back. “Are you serious?! Of course not.
Being enlightened is being willing to constantly work at your life and try to be the most considered, empathetic, thoughtful person you can be.
“I think often-times we have this big expectation that politicians and world leaders should figure it out, and sometimes it’s very frustrating when you see the state of the world and sometimes you feel overwhelmed.
“You think: Oh f***! It’s everywhere! There’s just violence, hunger and disease and it’s overwhelming. So how can I behave in my own life?
“You think: ‘I’m gonna get away for five years and meditate in this mountain and then I’ll be enlightened.’
“But the thing is, being enlightened is being willing to constantly work at your life and try to be the most considered, empathetic, thoughtful person you can be.
“It’s not about achieving this one stage and then you’re f****** zen and everything’s groovy and you just float through the f****** air.”
So is that the message of the film? Is that why he took the role?
“Sometimes I hate preachy movies, movies with an agenda,” he says.
“You don’t know how things are going to affect people so, sometimes, if you’re creative, your job is to follow your inspiration that moves you and hope that people will be affected by things and perhaps will think differently about the world.
“But I’m in no position to tell what motherf****** should do with their lives.
“I have experiences and things that I lived which I hope will inspire people to think differently about something they haven’t thought about, but that’s as much as I can do.”