Lynne Ramsay’s new film You Were Never Really Here is about a hammer-wielding, battle-scarred war veteran who rescues girls from a sex-trafficking ring, but you’ll know it’s different from a traditional action thriller as soon as star Joaquin Phoenix takes off his shirt. In an era where most leading men have awfully similar buff bodies, the 42-year-old Phoenix stands apart: His character is covered in scars, his pecs are hardly Hollywood-chiseled, and while the actor hit the gym every day to build strong arms for the role, he’s still got a notable gut hanging over his waistband. If there’s any six-pack in sight, it’s likely getting cold in the fridge.
Phoenix is no stranger to rocking a dad bod onscreen, but this is something different — a rough-hewn physique that uses shirtless scenes to tell the story instead of simply serving as a glory moment for an actor’s vanity. Somewhat slimmer and clad in a dress shirt and tie, Phoenix explained to me today at the Cannes Film Festival (where You Were Never Really Here just premiered) how he conceived the character. “I thought he should be as big as possible, but I also didn’t want the standard Hollywood body for getting big,” Phoenix said. “He’s somebody who’s mid-life and has kind of fallen off in some ways.”
Ramsay put it more bluntly. “Joaquin was working out a lot, but he wanted to keep his belly,” she said, comparing Phoenix to the star of her last movie, We Have to Talk About Kevin. “It was a bit like working with Tilda Swinton, because she was always like, ‘Can you show my back fat more?’ [They want] it to be real.” Ramsay laughed. “He won’t talk about that, but I will!”
It’s one of the many surprising things about You Were Never Really Here, a thriller that’s been given a surreal spin by Ramsay and a full-bodied turn from Phoenix. Adapted from a novella by Jonathan Ames, the narrative recalls any number of late-in-life Liam Neeson movies: Phoenix plays Joe, a troubled brawler who uses his FBI training to search for a state senator’s kidnapped daughter, who’s been forced into sex slavery. That synopsis might entice a multiplex audience, but Cannes audiences flipped for the film mostly because Ramsay tries her damnedest to swerve around clichés, portraying Joe as a suicidal wreck rather than an aspirational avenger.
“We were talking about how to get the bullshitty things out of it,” Ramsay told reporters today. “In the novella, the guy wears gloves and he’s got a machine and it’s a bit James Bond.” Instead, Ramsay wanted to bring the character down to earth. “What is it like to really be one of those guys, rather than the fantasy?” she asked. “The shape of those guys, the look of those guys … [we wanted] to approach it in a more original kind of way.”
Time was not on their side. Ramsay had initially planned to tinker with the script for a year until Phoenix became available to shoot the film this summer, but after another commitment fell through last year, he asked if Ramsay could quickly finish the script and fit You Were Never Really Here into his suddenly open window.
“It was made in a kind of fever pitch, kind of punk rock in a way,” says Ramsay, who sliced 20 pages from her story and decided to enliven the material on the fly while shooting. Anything that felt too traditional would be cut or tweaked, leading to all sorts of surreal digressions. A moment where Phoenix interrogates a dying hitman for more information, for example, could end with Ramsay asking Phoenix to hold the man’s hand, duetting with him on a tender ballad, or both.
“Initially, it was something more familiar,” Phoenix admitted. “As this film progressed, it changed dramatically. Certainly, the last third is very different than what was scripted.”
In part, that’s due to Phoenix’s reluctance to play any pistol-whipping action scene straight. “I’d come down the stairs with the gun,” he recalled, “and I was like, ‘Lynne, this is stupid. It’s like NCIS or something.’” But a story like this one demands a conventional third act where Joe bashes skulls in, confronts the big villain, and finally escapes with the girl … right?
Phoenix and Ramsay spent weeks hashing out the film’s last 20 minutes, which were finally filmed near the end of the breakneck shoot. Neither was satisfied with the results. “It felt like all was lost,” said Phoenix. “We had shot something and I did a scene … oh God, it’s so hard to think about.” He shook his head. “It’s so embarrassing, it was just incredibly bad.”
Ramsay went home that night and had what Phoenix called a “eureka moment,” returning to set the next day with a radical reconfiguration of the last act that turns the entire genre on its head. “That was exciting to me and so much fun, because it felt like we’d painted ourselves into a corner we couldn’t get out of,” Phoenix said. “She works so well under pressure, it’s amazing. I actually started to prefer when she thought her back was against the wall, and we kept that feeling going a lot because she’s just fucking brilliant in those moments.”
Don’t get it twisted, though: Despite the dark material, Phoenix was able to leave it all behind at the end of the day. “There’s no waking up with nightmares and shit like that,” he said. The three-time Oscar nominee knows that after films like I’m Still Here and The Master, he may have a reputation as a fully immersed method actor, but he insists he’d much rather keep things light.
“It’s a thing that happens, right?” Phoenix said. “It’s a fun thing to talk about in the press because it sounds like it’s cool: ‘Ah, I really committed!’ And that may be true at times, but then you get stuck with the story.” To Phoenix, that commitment is just a willingness to attempt anything, no matter how unconventional.
“I’m always just trying to not be embarrassed in front of the camera,” he said. “When you become self-conscious, that’s when you start second-guessing.” In other words, no matter how much Hollywood muscle you may be forced to put on, it’s always best to lead with your gut.