In James Gray’s “The Immigrant,” a dismal tale of survival in 1920s New York, Joaquin Phoenix shifts through a gallery of identities, from savior to cad to pitiful loner. His performance — often improvised with co-star Marion Cotillard — is masterfully layered, though his character wasn’t initially written that way.
“The character, as written, was much more of a brute,” says writer/director Gray, who was inspired to pen “The Immigrant,” opening Friday, after learning that his Russian Jewish relatives came to Ellis Island in the ’20s.
In the film, Phoenix portrays Bruno Weiss, a charming deceiver who preys on defenseless women who are at risk of being rejected by immigration agents after arriving at Ellis Island. Bruno offers to save them but lures them into prostitution once he moves them to his apartment. The Polish Ewa Cybulska (Cotillard) is his latest victim.
But despite the circumstances, Cotillard had decided Ewa wasn’t going to be a pushover, and Phoenix had decided Bruno wasn’t going to back off.
“(Cotillard) had not only emotional strength, but a physical strength,” says Phoenix, sitting next to Gray in a sun-splashed meeting room at a Los Angeles hotel. “There were times where she was like, ‘Why would I go into this apartment with him?’” Phoenix recalls.
“No matter what I did, she just looked at me like ‘I see right through you.’ For a month it was just struggling trying to find a way to manipulate her and nothing worked,” the actor says.
“He improvised a lot of great stuff,” says Gray, 45, of Phoenix’s performance. “You need to give an actor like him the freedom to roam and find things that are beautiful and unexpected. He can give them to you. But there is no question that a whole host of moments of tremendous anguish are going to come into play because he’s involved.”
Phoenix gets agitated whenever Gray compliments his acting skills and work ethic. At one point during the interview, he gets up, lights a cigarette and starts pacing across the room. He then locates a dry erase board and writes “SHUT UP” with a red marker. This gets a rise out of Gray, who confirms the two are always like this.
Long-time collaborators, Phoenix and Gray have worked on four films together, including “The Yards,” “We Own the Night,” “Two Lovers” and “The Immigrant.” And Gray continues pursuing Phoenix to act in his films because, the director proclaims, “He’s the best actor we’ve got right now.”
But Gray says that when he and Phoenix first began working together, “I didn’t think he was the best. There would be stretches of brilliance, but he didn’t have all of the confidence that he has (now). I felt his work reached another level somewhere around the mid-2000s.”
It was around this time that Phoenix won the Golden Globe for his portrayal of Johnny Cash in 2005’s “Walk the Line.” He has been nominated for three Academy Awards for “Gladiator,” “Walk the Line” and “The Master” but has yet to win an Oscar.
After they’ve worked together for so many years, Phoenix’s methods are still a mystery to Gray. “You have more control over your instrument now, wouldn’t you say?” Gray asks the actor, who quickly replies, “Nope.”
“I’m going for less and less,” Phoenix adds. “I’m going for out of body. I don’t really want to be in control. The very best scenario for me is hearing ‘cut’ suddenly and going ‘The scene is over?’ I don’t really want to be aware of it, inside of it and controlling it.”