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Joaquin Phoenix’s Unpredictable Fighting Improv is Literally a Danger to Everyone on Set

I was in the middle of writing my thoughts on the fighting style of Netflix’s The Witcher and then a friend of mine sent me an article from Syfy about Joaquin Phoenix and his improv fighting style on The Joker. So, I immediately switched gears and as a fight person myself I had to get this out first. Before I go into what my thoughts are on Phoenix’s fighting style in Joker, I want to break down his acting style. It’ll definitely help provide some background for why he does what he does.

Joker is a standalone origin story of the clown prince of crime himself. In my opinion, the film was good for what it was. What I wanted going in was an intense character study and that is exactly what I got. Performances were great, cinematography was crisp, soundtrack was fantastic. But knowing a little bit more about what happens behind the scenes kind of taints my enjoyment of the film, particularly how Joaquin Phoenix decided to approach the role.

Just Let It Happen

Joaquin Phoenix did a fantastic job diving into the role of Arthur. In fact, some of his performances were off-script. According to Todd Philips Phoenix tends to improv a lot of the scenes he was in while on set. Every take was something new that Phoenix brought to the scene. “What I like about Joaquin is his style on his predictability which fits into this character. And he was just never locked into one thing,” Philips says. “We’ve been editing this movie for so long because there’s I think 18 trillion versions of this movie just based on the way he would do things so differently every time.”   

Phoenix’s random moments of “letting it happen” also translates to scenes of him fighting. Now, improv moments when acting in a scene is great; improvisation during a fight is very dangerous. A fight scene cannot just be done on the spot. It must be carefully choreographed so that everyone involved is safe. This is where the article that my friend sent comes in. In the Syfy article, it details what the stunt coordinator had to deal with while working with Phoenix.

It’s Like A Dance

“It’s like a dance,” stunt coordinator George Aguilar says. “You have to adjust to what he does. So, we told the stunt double, ‘This is what we prepared, but you just don’t know, and you have to roll with it, basically.'” Aguilar explained how in one scene Phoenix will just go off script and stab the stunt double somewhere different every time. It’s supposed to look unrehearsed and violent. I argue that you can rehearse and make it look violent. Phoenix’s tendency to go off-script in a fight is ridiculous. It’s called stunt choreography for a reason. To keep actors safe.

It frustrates me as an actor combatant that someone with a big name like Joaquin Phoenix can just do what he feels and get praise for it. In a fight scene, if you want to stab someone somewhere else other than their jugular, ask the stunt coordinator. If you want to bash the guy’s head into the left wall instead of the right wall, ask the stunt coordinator. I think the biggest sin that Aguilar made was not putting Phoenix in his place when doing these scenes. Instead, Aguilar just tells all the other actors to stay on their toes. A stunt coordinator’s job is not to just make the scenes look cool, but they also have to keep everyone safe. Everyone. Not just the star.

In fact, for one fight scene that Phoenix improvised, the actors he was fighting weren’t stuntmen. Just regular actors as stated in the Syfy article. “These weren’t stunt people, these were actors,” Aguilar says. “They were just supposed to beat him up, and all of a sudden, he starts defending himself. He tried to kick the guy who punched him about four times.” If Phoenix was any other regular actor, he would be fired right then and there. I give the actors props trying to roll with the punches (no pun intended), but they shouldn’t have to. I don’t think I would have stuck with the gig if I had to deal with Phoenix.

Not all actors on Joker were willing to tolerate Phoenix’s improv style. Robert De Niro was quite aggravated with Phoenix during rehearsals. Phoenix told Vanity Fair, “For me, I always thought that acting should be like a documentary. That you should just feel whatever it is that you’re feeling, what you think the character is going through at that moment.” For De Niro however, he likes to prep for the role and just “let it happen.” It took a lot for Phoenix to do a table read with De Niro, but it caused quite a bit of tension between them.

Phoenix’s time on set may not be as overtly obnoxious as Jared Leto’s time with the Joker was on Suicide Squad, but it was more dangerous physically when it came to his fight scenes. It needs to be known that no matter how brilliant an actor is, this type of behavior cannot be condoned or encouraged. Risking the safety of actors is never worth the realism of a scene.