TORONTO — Throughout the new film “I’m Still Here,” Joaquin Phoenix insists he’s done with movies — acting, the Oscar-nominated “Gladiator” and “Walk the Line” star says, is “fraudulent” and “misery to me” — as he tries to rock the mike in his new calling as a hip-hop performer.
Now it looks as if Phoenix is backing away from his “I’m retired” pronouncement.
Several producers have said in recent days that they have been approached by Phoenix’s talent agents about their client’s return to movie roles. Though no deals have been announced, the preliminary conversations suggest that Phoenix could be in front of cameras soon — and not just as a guest next week on “Late Show With David Letterman,” the scene of Phoenix’s infamous monosyllabic appearance in February 2009.
Over the last several weeks, Phoenix has been offered parts in the upcoming movies “The Raven,” “The Sitter” and “The Avengers,” according to someone who works closely with the actor, but he turned them down because they weren’t the right fit. Like the producers, the person asked not to be identified so as not to jeopardize future work with Phoenix.
Separately, two women who worked in prominent positions on “I’m Still Here” who had sued director Casey Affleck for sexual harassment and intentional infliction of emotional distress have settled their lawsuits against the filmmaker, a spokeswoman for Affleck and a lawyer for the women said Monday.
Throughout the making of the film and in the run-up to its release Friday, Hollywood debated whether the movie was an authentic documentary about an artist at a professional crossroads or a contrived piece of performance art. Critics and audiences have argued over the endeavor’s authenticity, but both Phoenix and Affleck have insisted that it was not a prank.
Phoenix, who appears disheveled, bloated, cavorting with prostitutes and snorting what appears to be cocaine in “I’m Still Here,” has gotten himself back in physical shape. In contrast to his yeti-like appearance in the film, Phoenix showed up last week at the Venice Film Festival well-groomed, slimmer and wearing a closely tailored suit — looking like a movie star, in other words. Several executives who had been interested in casting Phoenix said that they had little doubt he would work again.
Phoenix’s talent agent, WME’s Patrick Whitesell, has been open to discussions about roles for the actor, according to one executive who asked not to be identified. The talent agency, which never completely stopped pitching Phoenix during his apparent stint as a rapper, declined to comment.
“I’m Still Here” opened to mediocre box-office business of $97,000 in 19 locations Friday. It goes into wider release this weekend in about 110 locations and will be available through distributor Magnolia Pictures’ video-on-demand outlets Sept. 24.
Studios had not given up on Phoenix even during the filming of “I’m Still Here,” which purports to trace Phoenix’s attempts to get people to take his career switch seriously. “This is me changing my life in front of your eyes,” Phoenix says to some friends at one point in the film. “I want to leave something special on earth.”
In one scene in the movie, Ben Stiller shows up during the casting of Focus Features’ offbeat love story “Greenberg” to see if Phoenix would be interested in a starring role. (The meeting does not go well, with Phoenix insulting Stiller and his blockbuster comedy “There’s Something About Mary.”) And there had been interest in casting the actor in at least one other art house movie, and likely more, in the latter half of 2009 and the early part of 2010. But nothing came of the talks, executives said.
Phoenix’s last feature film role was in 2008’s “Two Lovers,” a drama with Gwyneth Paltrow that started filming in late 2007. It was during the promotion of the movie, which was released in U.S. theaters in February 2009, that Phoenix appeared on Letterman’s talk show, where his unkempt appearance and disjointed mumblings turned the interview into a YouTube blockbuster.
In the film, Phoenix describes the appearance as a fiasco. “I’m so stupid,” he says. “I’m just going to be a joke forever.”
Phoenix skipped the film’s screenings at the Toronto International Film Festival in recent days, as did Affleck (although both attended the world premiere in Venice). The director said in a statement read aloud by Toronto co-director Cameron Bailey on Friday that the film had been subjected to a “misguided and surprisingly reductive debate in the press.” Affleck declined to be interviewed.
In July, two key crew members on “I’m Still Here” filed lawsuits against Affleck and his company, Flemmy Productions, accusing the director of sexual harassment and inflicting emotional distress.
Producer Amanda White alleged that Affleck breached his verbal agreement to pay her $50,000 after months of work on the film, also describing in detail how she was “forced to endure uninvited and unwelcome sexual advances in the workplace.” Among White’s claims: that Affleck hired transvestite prostitutes “for his personal gratification” during filming, referred to women as “cows,” manhandled her when she rejected his sexual advances and instructed a camera operator to flash his genitals at her on several occasions. She was seeking a $2 million settlement.
In a separate action, cinematographer Magdalena Gorka sued Affleck and Flemmy, claiming she was subjected to a “near daily barrage of sexual comments, innuendo and unwelcome advances” by crew members, encouraged by Affleck. In that suit, Gorka described awaking one night to find the director in bed with his arm around her “caressing her back, his face was within inches of hers and his breath reek(ing) of alcohol.” She was seeking $2.5 million in damages.
In a motion filed with the court in July, an attorney for Affleck, Martin Singer, said White “concocted this fabricated sexual harassment lawsuit over a year after she failed in her devious attempt (to) extort a better production deal.” Brian Procel, the attorney representing both Gorka and White, declined to comment for this story. Singer did not respond to requests for comment.
In a statement released Monday by Affleck’s spokeswoman, the parties said the lawsuits “have been resolved to the mutual satisfaction of the parties” and are being dismissed.
(Times staff writer Chris Lee contributed to this report.)