Ridley Scott gives unique insight into Joaquin Phoenix’s process

Joaquin Phoenix as Napoleon in Ridley Scott's Napoleon.
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Two weeks out from shooting and Phoenix had no idea how to play the title role of Napoleon, director Ridley Scott has revealed. 

With Apple set to release the historical epic Napoleon before the year’s end, it’s safe to say that we’re looking forward to Sir Ridley Scott’s press tour as much as we are the film. Last time Scott was out on the PR circuit we got some real humdingers, not least his blaming millennials for The Last Duel's failure to ignite at the box office. Then there was his colourful language which included telling one reporter, “Sir, f*** you, thank you very much, f*** you. Go f*** yourself.”

With Napoleon's release still months away, Scott has started dropping bombs early this time, revealing to Empire a unique (and quite private) insight into his creative process with Joaquin Phoenix, the film’s star. Reflecting on their collaboration, Scott said “He’ll come in, and you’re f—– two weeks’ out, and he’ll say, ‘I don’t know what to do.’ I’ll say, ‘What?!’ ‘I don’t know what to do.’ Oh God. I said, ‘Come in, sit down.’ We sat for ten days, all day, talking scene by scene. In a sense, we rehearsed. Absolutely detail by detail.”

In an industry full of fragile egos, the reveal that even Oscar-winning legends have moments of genuine uncertainty is pretty bold, although Scott does a grand job of contextualising it by adding that it’s Phoenix’s unconventional style as an actor that makes him so brilliant. “Joaquin is about as far from conventional as you can get,” he adds. “Not deliberately, but out of intuition. That’s what makes him tick. If something bothers him, he’ll let you know. He made Napoleon special by constantly questioning.”

It is Scott’s final comment that shows just how much disquietude Phoenix was filled with throughout the entire creative process, when he reveals, “With Joaquin, we can rewrite the goddamn film because he’s uncomfortable. And that kind of happened with Napoleon. We unpicked the film to help him focus on who Bonaparte was. I had to respect that, because what was being said was incredibly constructive. It made it all grow bigger and better.”

We’re guessing that the entire film wasn’t rewritten in those last two weeks, which means that Phoenix clearly felt a significant degree of discomfort throughout the entirety of the film’s construction, from page to production. Scott makes it very clear though that he respects this and in his eyes, it’s that anxiety that feeds into Phoenix being what Scott labels “the best player of damaged goods.” Whilst it’s all very, very respectful, we continue to adore the levels of revelation that Scott brings to a press tour. Long may it continue ahead of the film’s November release.

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