Joaquin Phoenix is a natural-born eccentric who is increasingly hard to track down, though over the years I've given it a go.
At one point he was giving acting away altogether, only he came back to star in Two Lovers for his good friend James Gray. He supposedly left the profession again to become a rapper and made a documentary with his best friend and brother-in-law Casey Affleck to prove it.
Though when I'm Still Here world- premiered in Venice two years ago something smelt fishy as Phoenix, the clean-shaven movie star, was skulking in the shadows. The documentary, of course, was actually a mockumentary.
Now after a two-year break Phoenix is back in three movies: Nightingale, his fourth movie with Gray; Her, his first movie for Spike Jonze; and The Master, his debut with Paul Thomas Anderson. For the latter Phoenix looks set to take out a slew of prizes in the upcoming awards season, as he did when he shared the best actor Silver Lion in Venice with his co-star Philip Seymour Hoffman last month.
Looking trimmed down for our exclusive Venice tete-a-tete, Phoenix is keen to set the record straight. Not only regarding I'm Still Here, but regarding his strange behaviour the previous day at The Master's press conference when he refused to answer questions, chain smoked and briefly left the podium for a toilet break.
"I f . . . ing hate it, you just don't feel human," he says passionately. "It feels stupid. What can I say? I can sit here and talk to you, I like that, but I don't want to walk into a room with a bunch of cameras and a crowd of people and feel that I want to be elevated on a stage with my name placed in the centre of the table and made into something. It makes me feel gross about myself and I am not going to raise my hand and ask permission to go to the bathroom. I realise it's always a struggle that I have because I don't want to appear ungrateful or angry. I am not mad at anybody, it just makes me feel stupid and uncomfortable."
Given Pheonix grew up, the middle child of five who were all encouraged to perform from an early age by their vegan, and at one point Children of God missionary parents, his upbringing was unconventional.
"Then again my mum also worked at NBC," muses Phoenix, who has already thrown out any notion that they were hippies and clearly hates labels of any form. "When I was growing up, we never watched Entertainment Tonight, we never saw Premiere magazine. We didn't have those things in our house. I don't want to be elevated to some kind of f . . . ing status."
Which brings us to I'm Still Here where Joaquin and Casey, the far less conventional brother of Ben, basically gave the finger to the notion of celebrity.
"I don't want that kind of attention because I will become an even worse actor than I am now," Phoenix says.
"You lose your humanity, you start f. . . ing believing the thing, because it's seductive and everybody is susceptible to it. I wish I was super strong and oblivious and it meant nothing. I wish I wasn't susceptible to the seduction of fame but of course I am, so I have to actively fight it."
As with a lot of things, he rails against the idea I'm Still Here was a hoax.
"I don't like the word hoax. You wouldn't say that I was trying to pull a hoax on The Master because I was trying to convince everybody I was somebody named Freddie Quell. You are just doing your job, you are trying to portray this thing. So when somebody says it's a hoax it's almost like the intention is that we are trying to fool you, just for our own kicks. And that's not what it was."
On the set of The Master Phoenix stayed in character, as Freddie Quell, an extremely troubled World War II veteran. Phoenix contorts his face, holds his head on the side and loses his temper constantly in fits of rage, taking it out at one point on a poor defenceless toilet bowl.
Anderson told the Venice press crowd he had long wanted to work with the highly gifted actor (who was Oscar-nominated for his role as Commodus in Gladiator and for his astounding portrayal of Johnny Cash in Walk The Line) and how this was the first time Phoenix had said yes.
While Anderson explained how he used scientology as a starting point in creating Seymour Hoffman's cult leader Lancaster Dodd, the idea of cults might have seemed familiar to Phoenix given his parents' involvement with the Children of God. Though the actor rallies against this assumption as well.
"Not at all. I have no memory of it. I was two years old. This was in the mid 70s and when that group really gained their notoriety was in the mid 80s. So imagine being in it when you're 25 and 23 years old. While I don't have any religious beliefs, my parents did,and they shared the same ideals as these people who were searching for something and I think that's f . . . ing admirable. But then I think it's also OK to go 'I don't any longer share the beliefs with these people' and it was very clear to my parents that they no longer wanted to be part of the group. I think they'd liked being part of a spiritual community. I still love the idea of community."
During our interview Phoenix mentions his girlfriend being with him in Venice and through much of his recent life. All he will say is that she is not an actress and he clearly likes it that way. Unlike Affleck who has two children with Phoenix's younger sister, Summer, Joaquin (who was originally named Leaf,) is not about to have kids.
"In my 20s I assumed that I would, but frankly I have no desire to have children," he says. "I think about perhaps getting into a place in which I might be able to have a good home that would be suitable for children to adopt but I don't know. It's not a definite plan."