LOS ANGELES -- On a late October afternoon, the day before his 45th birthday, Joaquin Phoenix sits in a Los Angeles hotel suite and somewhat sheepishly lights an American Spirit cigarette. Back in August, he had managed to quit smoking for about three weeks, he explains, but then he started up again when he traveled to the Venice Film Festival in September for the world premiere of his new film "Joker." "It's awful," Phoenix says, shaking his head. "I've got to stop."
It's perhaps understandable that the actor has fallen back on a stress-relieving crutch like smoking given the head-spinning journey he's found himself on lately. A grim, gritty take on the origin of the comic-book world's most iconic villain, director Todd Phillips' "Joker" rode into theaters last month on a wave of headline-grabbing controversy and sharply divided reviews and became an instant smash.
The Warner Bros. film has taken in nearly $1 billion worldwide to date, setting a record for the highest-grossing R-rated movie of all time, and Phoenix's turn as the troubled would-be-comedian-turned-murderous-evildoer Arthur Fleck has put landed him at the heart of this year's lead actor Oscar race.
Plenty of films reap box office riches, but "Joker" has proved to be a bona fide cultural phenomenon. Fans have been making pilgrimages to a stairway in the Bronx to reenact the scene in which Fleck does a high-kicking dance down those steps. Endless think pieces about the movie have exploded across the internet, and viewers have pored over its every detail for clues about what it all means. Phoenix's Joker suit was, according to one survey, among this year's most popular Halloween costumes.
All the attention has been a lot for Phoenix to wrap his brain around. This is an actor who has always held fame at an ironic remove, to the point that he made a fake documentary, 2010's "I'm Still Here," chronicling his supposed crackup and decision to become a rapper. "I don't think I expected this movie to be successful," he says. "I don't know if I had any expectation. Honestly, Todd and I were just trying to make something that didn't end our careers."
Before "Joker" came along, Phoenix had turned down a number of offers to star in comic-book movies. This wasn't out of some aversion to the genre per se, he insists. ("I'm open to anything -- I will consider a live-action version of 'Road Runner.' ") He simply worried about being swallowed up by the sometimes soulless franchise machinery that often goes along with superhero fare.
"I remember, like eight years ago, I was told, 'Movies are changing. They're not making the movies that you want to make, so you've got to do one of these,'" Phoenix says. "It makes sense. It probably is a good strategy. But for me, I guess the fear was that you'd get locked into doing something repeatedly that you don't really care about, that doesn't motivate you or excite you."
But despite Phoenix's apparent resistance, Phillips was bent from the start on enticing the actor -- who has earned three Oscar nominations for his work in 2000's "Gladiator," 2005's "Walk the Line" and 2012's "The Master" -- to bring the Joker to life.
"There's a little wildness in Joaquin's eyes," Phillips says. "I jokingly say he seems like an agent of chaos. He likes blurring the line between what's real and what's not. Just based on what I'd seen of him in movies or on TV doing interviews, there was something about that chaotic nature that just felt right."
Though it took Phoenix four months to finally agree to sign on to the project, he was won over by Phillips' vision for a grounded character study more akin to Martin Scorsese films like "Taxi Driver" and "Raging Bull" than the typical comic-book movie with its CGI spectacle, capes and quips. "Most movies feel so rigid; every moment is designed," Phoenix says. "This felt like it was untethered and without a blueprint."