Joaquin Phoenix has never been shy about going to the dark side. But with critics saying the actor's new movie, Joker, glorifies angry loners—the kind who shoot up movie theaters—he talks to Joe Hagan for Vanity Fair about playing the role and coping with other dark stuff like tortured fish, his brother River's death, and his parents being in a weird cult. "From a very young age, I had an allergy to—what's the word?—to just frivolous, meaningless kids' stuff," says the 44-year-old. "From an extremely young age. And I don't know why." His parents had just defected from the Children of God cult when, on a cargo ship bound for America, young Joaquin saw fish caught by fishermen thrown violently against nails. He was stunned, his mother reduced to tears, and two months later they were all vegan. Joaquin still is, with a vengeance.
But his moral fervor ("enjoy your swastika," he tells a sushi-eating Hagan) is balanced by an appreciation of human complexity. "I was going through [the Joker script] and I realized, I said, 'Well, why would we make something, like, where you sympathize or empathize with this villain?' It's like, because that's what we have to do. It's so easy for us to—we want the simple answers, we want to vilify people." Whether his affinity for the dark side is inspired by River's drug-induced death, which Joaquin witnessed, is a more sensitive area; Joaquin calls it "one of the Rosebuds," referring to Charles Foster Kane's obsession with a childhood sled in Citizen Kane. Joaquin says his ability to play Johnny Cash in Walk the Line or Arthur Fleck in Joker is more an undefinable "cosmic angst" that might even be "prenatal." (Click for the full article.)