Filmmaker James Gray sighs the sigh of that 1,000th Joaquin Phoenix question.
It’s not a sigh of impatience, but of resignation. When your A-list star, your muse in three movies, abruptly announces his “retirement” from acting after finishing your latest collaboration (“Two Lovers”), when he still shows up to promote the film, even in a discomfiting David Letterman TV chat, the questions will come. It’s just that Gray, who directed Phoenix in “The Yards,” “We Own the Night” and now “Two Lovers,” has no answers.
“I just don’t understand,” Gray says from New York. “I don’t really talk to Joaquin socially. I know him in a work capacity. I hear from him, now and then, outside of work. But I don’t get it. I don’t.”
Phoenix made his announcement last fall at a film festival and underlined it by scrawling “Good Bye” on his knuckles and holding the hands up to the camera. He made a widely ridiculed appearance as a rapper and is being followed by Casey Affleck, who is allegedly making a documentary about his friend’s “retirement,” leading many to call the whole affair a hoax. So instead of plugging his critically acclaimed movie (The New Yorker’s Anthony Lane compared it to the classics “Rear Window” and “In a Lonely Place”), Gray is avoiding the rap that he’s the director who drove his flaky star to quit.
“He is an artist, and he does not care what people think of him,” Gray says of Phoenix. “I have never known anyone who cares less about what people think of him. It’s not arrogance ... He doesn’t watch his own films. Hasn’t watched one since 1998. He doesn’t want to risk repeating himself.”
Gray pauses and ponders.
“He’s worked with me three times, and he has no idea what the films look like, whether or not I know what I’m doing. I feel very lucky. Maybe if he watched them, he wouldn’t work with me ever again, ‘What’s THIS garbage? Forget HIM!’”
At least Gray, who specializes in sharply observed tales set in the various ethnic enclaves of New York (“Little Odessa,” “The Yards”), gave the actor a good role to exit with. The character Leonard is a suicidal young man living with his parents, drawn to an impulsive beauty (Gwyneth Paltrow) who only promises to make him worse, not quite drawn to a fellow Brighton Beach Jew (Vinessa Shaw) who only wants to “take care of” him. And the reason Leonard is so messed up? A break-up caused by genetics.
“I had had a genetic counselor test me for all these genetic disorders, something you go through when you have an amniocentesis (amniotic fluid test), which you have to do when you’re an Ashkenazi Jew,” Gray says. “I tested positive for a few genetic disorders, as a carrier for the genes. My wife tested negative and our kids turned out fine.
“But I said to the woman at the time, ‘What happens if both members of the couple test positive?’ She said ‘Sometimes it ends the relationship.’ I thought, ‘That’s an amazingly sad thing to happen to a love affair.’ By itself, it seemed like a corny hook for a story. But I was reading this Dostoevski story, “White Nights” and realized I could add that genetic counseling breakup idea to that love story about wanting to ‘save’ someone and I had a movie.”
Gray says he fervently hopes that Phoenix, who has displayed an “I can take it or leave it” attitude toward acting for years, isn’t retired. But the filmmaker is moving on. He has an existential mystery-adventure piece about a British explorer who disappeared in the Amazon in the 1920s. And he has a new “muse,” an actor dying to film that. That actor? Brad Pitt.
“There’s nobody wearing a (superhero) cape in it, so who knows if it’ll get financed in this economy?”