How Spike Jonze Made The Set Of Her Intimate For Joaquin Phoenix

Joaquin Phoenix has a reputation for being socially uncomfortable. The "Joker" star often has rocky starts with co-stars and is famously resistant to interviews and press, often breaking the fourth wall and asking the interviewers questions like, "how long does this go on for?" (via Golden Globes). This made him the perfect fit to play Theodore, the introverted and downtrodden protagonist of "Her."

"Her" is a sci-fi romantic drama directed by award-winning filmmaker Spike Jonze. After a difficult divorce, an isolated Theodore finds solace in conversing with a disembodied artificial intelligence entity named Samantha (Scarlett Johansson) that is designed to develop a unique personality. As her identity develops, so does the relationship between Samantha and Theodore, which grows from friendship into deep romance.

Theodore begins the film in "a self-imposed isolation," Phoenix told ScreenSlam, which leads him to feel "that he's not connected to the world in any way." Phoenix's alien approach to social interaction made him an obvious choice for this role, but it still required some work on the part of the crew to encourage him to access these very vulnerable emotions.

The crew was small

Phoenix was excited to work with Jonze on a film, explaining to ScreenSlam that he had "been a fan of Spike since his music videos, so the opportunity to work with him was obviously very exciting." He was also incredibly excited about the material, describing the script as being "full of these big ideas and this wonderful heart."

It is perhaps for this reason that Phoenix felt nervous about doing the script justice. Phoenix would often mumble through his lines during rehearsals for the film, Jonze told The Los Angeles Times, but this ultimately served to help the director "[dig] deeper into the scene." Phoenix is known for being heavily improvisational, having invented entire scenes of "The Master" on the spot. The actor's reluctance to certain lines would ultimately guide the project in more ways than one.

In order to provide an appropriate environment for Phoenix, Jonze decided to limit the size of the crew to less than six people in the scenes between Phoenix and the disembodied voice of Samantha. Phoenix described the set as being "really... intimate," which helped him to more realistically emulate the feeling of "sitting in your apartment talking to someone." The actor added that his performance depends heavily on "the energy in a room." That Jonze decided to limit on-set personnel so strictly speaks to how well he understands Phoenix as an actor.

Spike Jonze broke Joaquin Phoenix down

When asked how he was able to give such a vulnerable performance by a fan at NYFF, Phoenix accredited it to his direction from Jonze. He explained that he was initially "concerned about trying to feel natural with something that wasn't there," and that this caused him to overlook "the loneliness of the character." Within the first few weeks of working on the film, though, Phoenix claims that "Spike just crushed me, and I'm not sure exactly what happened or how."

The actor then clarified that he was joking around, but there's still a kernel of truth to his words. The director drew out feelings of isolation and wistfulness in Phoenix that feel very true to him as a person outside of the film. The very thing about Phoenix that presented an obstacle in filming is precisely what made him so perfect for the role. Jonze understood this and was willing to accommodate the actor in order to serve his performance. By keeping the crew small, Jonze allowed a reserved character in the vessel of a reserved actor to emerge from his shell and open himself up.