Dexian Wang
by Dexian Wang

With any discussion about method actors, Joaquin Phoenix is never far behind. A nondescript man who seems to transform into whatever the role demands, Phoenix is always capable of delivering raw Best Actor-worthy performances. That god-given ability seems only to be topped only by the somehow crazier stories that emanate from the set. With the release of Joker, it's an excellent time to take a look at some of the craziest stories of Joaquin Phoenix going full-method on set.


Gladiator (2000) - Gained weight, had a sword on set and in his hotel room

Gladiator Joaquin Phoenix Joker

An already infamously troubled production, it isn't exactly surprising to learn that Joaquin Phoenix had trouble playing Emperor Commodus. Co-star Richard Harris, who played Marcus Aurelius, kept trying to loosen Phoenix up with alcohol. Director Ridley Scott ran numerous takes without film in the camera in an effort to get Phoenix to relax. Phoenix carried a sword on set at all times and kept a spare one in his hotel room, all in the name of getting into character.

It didn't quite work. On an especially troubled long night shoot, Phoenix decided he "wasn't feeling it" and refused to act. That prompted Ridley Scott to kick his chair away, charging at Phoenix from the other side of the set, screaming: "You'd better get on with your f**ing job!"

As with most things, things clicked and fell into place with time. Describing how he found the formula to The Guardian, Phoenix said "So one morning I was studying the script, and lightning struck. I thought, "F* ya! I geddit!" I went out and cut my hair and added some weight. To start with, I was toned. But I made him flabbier, to show how this scrawny prince had kinda ripened into an emperor. I discovered the child in him. He was only 19 when he became emperor. You know, the guy's father ran the Roman Empire, which is like the biggest multinational ever, and Commodus just hates the f**ing suit and tie they make him wear!'"



Ladder 49 (2004) - Um, became an actual fireman

Ladder 49 Joaquin Phoenix Joker

What would you do if you had to play a fireman? Probably visit some of them, interview them, and try to get inside their mind the best you can. That, obviously, isn't enough for Joaquin Phoenix, and he went above and beyond.

He enrolled in the Baltimore Fire Academy and actually graduated. This wasn't just a one-week long stint to see what it felt like. He then did actual shifts with Crew 10, putting out real fires. Explaining why he did this to People magazine, he said, "I wanted to have the experience of seeing what the kids were like in the academy because my character was seen as a rookie." He has a tattoo of the unit's mascot, Busy Bee, to remember his time with them.


Walk the Line (2005) - Went through a rock and roll boot camp, relentless research, went to rehab, full method on set

walk the line Joaquin Phoenix Joker

Watching Phoenix's turn as legendary country star Johnny Cash, it's easy to forget that he is only a mere 5'8" to Cash's 6'1". Or that Phoenix has more of a sinewy singing voice instead of Cash's famous baritone snarl.

To become the Man in Black, Phoenix spent months at a rock and roll boot camp, consuming all of Cash's biographies and playing the guitar. During filming, he stayed in character even off-set, and would only respond to J.R. (Cash's original name). He checked into rehab, just like Cash had done. For the Folsom Prison scene, he instructed crew members to treat extras like inmates, refusing them food and water to create an uncomfortable tension.

It worked, as Phoenix picked up the Academy Award for Best Actor that year.


I'm Still Here (2010) - Acted like a crazy person for 18 months

This is a controversial movie for more reasons than one, but that's a story for another day. Basically, an inside joke with his brother-in-law Casey Affleck, this "mockumentary" was meant to study the nature of celebrity trainwrecks. The conceit: What if Phoenix retired from acting, became a terrible rapper, and it was all filmed?

Phoenix put on weight and kept a dishevelled appearance. He started a fight with an audience member when he was rapping. He talked wild mess about other celebrities in the press.


It all culminated in an instant classic interview on David Letterman's talk show where Phoenix seemed largely unresponsive and disinterested. It prompted Letterman to quip, "What can you tell us about your days with the Unabomber?", with the host audibly giggling to himself on a few occasions. Letterman eventually ends the interview with, "Joaquin, I'm sorry you couldn't be here tonight."


The Master (2012) - Wired jaw shut, full method on set, destroyed a toilet

The Master Joaquin Phoenix Joker

In The Master, Phoenix plays Freddy Quell, a traumatised World War II veteran, for director Paul Thomas Anderson. Phoenix stayed in character on set (standard for Phoenix by now), and hurt himself on set a few times.

To start with, Phoenix went to the dentist to wire his jaw shut with brackets and rubber bands so he could achieve Quell's menacing sneer and clenched jaw. In a particularly memorable scene, Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman's characters get thrown into jail cells opposite each other. Quell goes into an unbridled rage fit. For this scene, he studied footage of captive animals, hoping to channel that animalistic energy into the scene. It worked perhaps too well, as the scene ended with Joaquin stomping a hole into an unlucky toilet.


You Were Never Really Here (2017) - Grew a dad bod

Joaquin Phoenix Joker You were never really here

As Joe, an-ex military vet trying to save a kidnapped girl, Phoenix had an idea for a particular look. To show Joe's struggle with a mid-life crisis, Phoenix continued to work out as most ex-military personnel would, but he spots a visible paunch throughout the movie. Though this is tame by Phoenix's own standards, it's notable that the film was made only in 29 days. As usual, it paid off, as he earned Best Actor at the Cannes Film Festival.


Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far By Foot (2018) - Research and method acting

Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far By Foot Joaquin Phoenix Joker

Joaquin Phoenix sunk his teeth into the memoir of John Callahan, a disabled cartoonist, for this role. But obviously, that wasn't enough for Phoenix. He searched and poured over footage of the man to get a better grasp of the man, his physical capabilities, the way he spoke and the type of humour he had. He checked himself into Rancho Los Amigos, the same rehab hospital Callahan stayed in after his accident. During his stay there, he spoke to patients and caregivers to understand the feeling of suddenly becoming a quadriplegic. This was so he could replicate it when he had to shoot the moment of Callahan's accident.


Mary Magdalene (2018) - Starving (in Sicily)

Mary Magdalene Joaquin Phoenix Joker

Growing a long mane and beard, reading up on everything he could find... that's routine stuff for Phoenix at this point. Just like other method acting greats like Bale and Day-Lewis, Phoenix has a starvation movie under his belt. Playing Jesus Christ, Phoenix adopted a 300-calorie-a-day diet to achieve an emaciated look for J.C. The process was made way harder by the location they were filming in: Sicily. That's... a lot of pasta, pizza and wine to turn down, Joaquin!