Joaquin Phoenix Talks ‘The Sisters Brothers,’ Trauma, Empathy & Masculinity [Interview]

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In Jacques Audiard‘s “The Sisters Brothers,” a dark, picaresque comedic Western that slowly reveals itself to be something much more poignant, Joaquin Phoenix and John C. Reilly play Charlie and Eli Sisters, respectively. And while they are infamous assassins and stone cold killers—and the plot centers on a journey of chasing down a gold prospector in 1850s Oregon— in many ways, Audiard’s “The Sisters Brothers” is about their awakening to empathy, a concept they struggle to understand, even as it dawns on them. As men in the cruel, merciless American West of the 1800s, the brothers—who suffer a love/hate relationship with one another—live day by day, hunt down who they’re tasked to kill, drink and repeat this cycle of violence over and over again.

READ MORE: ‘The Sisters Brothers’: Jacques Audiard Crafts A Dark, Comedic, Surprisingly Moving Western [Review]

But as Reilly’s Eli, the more sensitive brother rouses to the idea of another life without so much bloodshed, and as they meet a pair of more civilized, optimistic men (Jake Gyllenhaal, Riz Ahmed) upon their travels, they begin to find the glimmer of humanity inside them (which also terrifies Charlie). This is, of course, the emotional texture of the film. “The Sisters Brothers” on its surface is a quixotic, dark Western with action, shoot-em-ups, and comedy, but it’s examination of man, America, and the way it can possibly change is extremely relevant as much as it’s presented extremely subtly.

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It’s an entertaining riot for sure, but it’s also a movie about trauma, surviving trauma and the bonds of brotherhood through it all. It’s affecting, moving layers and the complicated relationship between Eli and Charlie—not to mention the fantastic, layered and emotional acting between Joaquin Phoenix and John C. Reilly—that really elevate the film into something much more special. One of the best films of the year so far (at least in my mind).

READ MORE: First ‘The Sisters Brothers’ Clip Showcases Chemistry Between Joaquin Phoenix & John C. Reilly

It’s also the expressive texture that I found myself talking to Joaquin Phoenix most in a recent interview about the film; almost exclusively. Before I knew it, time was up. But for a guy sometimes presented as difficult, cranky, shy or wanting to be anywhere other than in a press situation, Phoenix was affable, thoughtful and easygoing (at least, for a second anyhow, until I brought up, “I’m Still Here“).

*A tiny-ish spoiler* that comes up at the beginning of the film that we need here for context. The audience learns that Charlie, Phoenix’s character, killed their father when they were children. It’s, in many ways, a tiny blip in the film, but to the actor, this informs everything.

This movie is funny and entertaining, but I’m really drawn to the very subtle undercurrent of emotion that slowly coils up around you and takes hold so affectingly in the last act. The brothers’ relationship is so complex. Is that what sort of drew you to the material?
Yeah, that one element was the really interesting dynamic because so much of it is—there’s a love between, but much of it is fueled by resentment and guilt. There’s this event: killing your father at such a young age and [my character] being the youngest. That changed the course of their lives.

There’s something really powerful about that. It’s strange. On one level, there’s this resentment that I had to do this event that traumatized [my character]— although Charlie wouldn’t have the language to understand that concept, right? But on the other hand, it’s the thing that has given Charlie power and power over his brother Eli in a way he doesn’t fully understand. But he doesn’t want to give that up either and the reason that he’s so cruel to Eli. Charlie always wants Eli to feel stupid and less than, and that allows him to stay in a position of power. And sadly, that’s mostly because Charlie doesn’t want him to leave.

Charlie needs their dynamic to stay exactly how it is and that there’s something really interesting about that for me as an actor And I think for Riley, his character has the guilt of being the older brother, but not the protector that should have killed the father himself. That’s thrown their relationship off balance. He’s always trying to make up for it. And I think that my character uses that against him. I thought their relationship was really complicated.

What I love about all that complexity, is that it’s all right there on the screen between them, but it’s never ever discussed in those terms. I suppose men in that era—or even now—would never discuss it anyhow, but you feel it. Like every little emotional bit of what you just described which is what I love about Jacques [Audiard] as a filmmaker. Was he a big draw too?

[Sheepish, with a kid-like look of guilt on his face] I’ll be honest I wasn’t really familiar with this stuff. I heard about the script, people were talking about it, and I just waited to see if it would come my way and it did. But I didn’t watch any of his movies. And If I haven’t seen the person’s movies [when I’m offered one of their projects] I prefer just to meet them and talk to them. And sometimes you do know the films, it all depends.

Maybe it’s in the book, but as far as I remember, it’s unspoken why your character kills his dad?
Oh, really? Well, their father was beating the mother. I thought that that was in the movie, but maybe I can’t remember. It’s just the book perhaps.

Well, I guess it’s another one of the unspoken things. You can glean they were put through something horrible just by seeing who they are as people.
Yeah, then it’s just in the book, that’s what it’s about. 

John’s known for a lot of comedic roles, at least in more recent years, and you’re known for serious roles and then dynamic is flipped in this film.
Sure, but I don’t think I ever thought about it that way. Their energies… you just approached the character you go. This is a person that says life is always on the edge. Charlie has no use, no concept for the future. Like he has this bizarre fantasy of like lounging, right? Being surrounded by women, like this fantasy of wealth and riches, but he doesn’t really know how to plan things.

So, when Eli talks about the future and change, Charlie is like…”what are we going to do??” Charlie just can’t even understand that way of thinking, leaving the life they lead. It’s like, “what are you talking about??” He’s just a person that’s strictly in the moment.

And I have to say, John was so beautiful and sincere. I was so delighted with the work he was doing. He was such an anchor, so completely honest about the work. I can’t remember the last time I worked with an actor with that was that committed and honest, like in every moment. John would always ask “Why [about every decision]? Why doing that?” He never stopped questioning and asking Jacques and how committed he was, was really impressive.

The idea of change and men afraid of change. Your character Charlie is terrified of his brother leaving him in this movie though he absolutely never shows it which is, as part of you say, part of his manipulative power moves. They’re also obviously both emotionally ill-equipped to express any of this in any meaningful way. It’s like Charlie wouldn’t have a clue what to do with himself if he wasn’t in this life killing people, and not knowing who you are and forsaking your identity is scary for anyone, no matter what.
You forget the nightmares by creating new ones. The only way to avoid the past is just to keep piling new shit up, which is really bizarre. Like there’s no concept of therapy for Charlie or these guys. When Eli’s sensitivity and his awareness of the world starts bubbling up— something that’s always been there for him— when that starts progressing, it scares the fuck out of Charlie because he literally doesn’t understand it.

It’s a different language. It’s frightening and he feels Eli pulling away. I’ve thought about them almost like a lover. Here’s your best friend and when someone is going through a change; they’re evolving and growing and you can sense that and it fucking scares you. You would think you’re the type of person that would go, “I want you to be happy in whatever you want to do,” but sometimes we’re not like that.

So much of that feels like it’s about what it means to be a man, since that’s such a kind of theme in the film. We never talk about that stuff.
How we identify as being men now. People didn’t consider it then. It was a fucking labor, every day was a task, everybody struggled. “I’m just going to the fucking well to get water.” But it does examine these different facets of masculinity in a way the character’s mirror each in some ways. In some ways, Jake [Gyllenhaal’s] character, my character, they want to be who the other one is. There’s part of him that’s taking on this job [he plays a kind of detective assigned to bring a prospector to the Sisters Brothers] because he wants to be quote-unquote a man. My character wants to be a bit like him. I want to be educated and wealthy and so that there’s interesting dynamics between all the characters.

I was thinking of the total arc of your career, the path of it and “I’m Still Here”—
Do I have to talk about that movie?

Well, I guess I just still see it as a turning point. It’s a sort of mark in the sand and—
I said some shit years ago and as much as any movie, it affects me and changes me in a way. [“I’m Still Here” was] probably just the perfect time in my life, a perfect age. I think I was looking for something… because I had just come off “Walk The Line” and “Two Lovers” and I needed something different.

I didn’t want to just make another movie, I don’t know how to explain it, but I needed something that was going to challenge me in a way that I’d never faced before. I guess it was a, whatever you want to call it, a breakthrough or something, but an important time in my life and my career. There was something about not being cautious; being as dangerous as possible. Possibly because of the success of, “Walk The Line.” It made me nervous that I would be cautious in my choices. I think subconsciously the thing that was really to challenge me was going to be danger.

You mentioned “Two Lovers” a James Gray film. I love all your collaborations. Will we see more?
We fucking better. Fucking call him, man, he’s done two without me and I’m pissed [laughs]. No, listen, “Lost City Of Z,” I love that movie. I can’t wait to see [Gray’s upcoming, reportedly fall 2018 film] “Ad Astra.” I cannot wait. So yeah, I hope, we do. I hope we pull [another] one off.

“The Sisters Brothers” is now playing in limited—Austin, Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Houston, Los Angeles, New York City, Phoenix, San Francisco, Washington D.C.— release via Annapurna Pictures.

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