Actor Joaquin Phoenix and Gus Van Sant talk about their new film, "Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot," a biopic about the late cartoonist John Callahan.
Three times Joaquin Phoenix auditioned for director Gus Van Sant. And three times he didn’t get a callback.
Not for “Good Will Hunting” in 1997. Not for “Elephant” in 2003. And not for “The Sea of Trees” in 2015.
“I desperately wanted to work with him again,” said Phoenix, who first worked with Van Sant in 1995’s “To Die For.”
He finally got the chance last year, playing the role of the late cartoonist John Callahan in the biopic “Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot,” which will go into wide release in July. It closed the Seattle International Film Festival last weekend, with Phoenix, Van Sant and singer Beth Ditto, who has a small part, in attendance.
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The film tells the story of Callahan, who was paralyzed after a friend crashed their car into a utility pole at 90 miles per hour during a night of barhopping. At 21, Callahan was a quadriplegic.
As a form of therapy, he started to draw cartoons, holding a pen with both hands. The illustrations were shaky and somewhat raw, but the themes were precise, clever and politically incorrect, pressing hard on issues that no one would dare touch: Disabilities, sex, religion. Flatulent nuns, for example. A blind graffiti artist who tagged walls in Braille. Nothing was sacred.
Portland-based Van Sant remembered seeing Callahan’s work in the early 1980s in a publication called the Clinton Street Quarterly.
“They knew John, so they published this cartoon that was a humorous look at alcoholism,” Van Sant remembered.
From there, people started to get the joke of Callahan’s dark humor. The Village Voice picked up his work. So did weeklies in San Francisco and Los Angeles. Penthouse. Then in 1993, he appeared on “60 Minutes.”
“Everybody was very excited that a Portland person was on ’60 Minutes,'” Van Sant said. “That’s about the time I met him.”
Van Sant hadn’t been thinking of making a film about Callahan until his friend, the late Robin Williams (they worked together on “Good Will Hunting,” for which Williams won an Academy Award) optioned Callahan’s book with plans to develop it into a film. That dream died when Williams killed himself in 2014. (Callahan died in 2010.)
Phoenix, 43, didn’t hesitate to fill the role. He knew Van Sant from “To Die For,” but his late brother, River, also made art with the director in 1991’s “My Own Private Idaho.”
There’s a thread there. A connection. Why does it work with them?
“That’s assuming that it does work,” Phoenix said with a soft laugh. “God, I don’t know. It’s just so strange. If it works, it has very little to do with me and everything to do with Gus. I don’t know many people that don’t connect with Gus. I don’t know any actor that doesn’t come away from the experience of working with Gus without feeling like they had given and gotten everything.”
Phoenix isn’t sure why he was drawn to the part in the first place — which isn’t unusual for him, he said.
“To be honest, I don’t really know why I want to do something. I guess probably there’s something to explore and that excites me. Sometimes you get scripts and characters that are … how do I explain this? … that feel formulated. That anyone could step into. And I don’t like that.
“I guess when I feel there is a mystery to figure out, then I’m interested,” he said. “What’s appealing might be cliché, but I guess the idea of transformation was appealing to me. That was something to explore.”
In preparing for the role, Phoenix “did what you normally do.” He read Callahan’s autobiography (from which the film gets its title) several times, met with his family and friends in Portland and pored over his work.
But what really helped “in terms of the physicality,” he said, was a video that Van Sant had from 2001, showing Callahan at home.
“How he lived and how he drew,” Phoenix said. “My assumption was everybody’s body reacted the same way (to paralysis) and it turned out it wasn’t the case.”
Phoenix also visited Rancho Los Amigos National Rehabilitation Center in Downey, California, where Callahan spent time, “and so I met a lot of people who had the same injury.”
The film was shot in just 25 days.
“We didn’t have a lot of money,” Van Sant said. “We didn’t want to squander it.”
Ditto was asked to read for her part, but had some doubts until she learned more about Reba, her character.
“I said, ‘Oh, a redneck? I could play a redneck,’ ” said Ditto, who was born in Arkansas. “I didn’t really have to act.”
Said Van Sant: “Beth came in and she was just sort of winging it, but in character, and she was being really inventive and funny. She was being the character without our help.”
The film finished, Ditto is off on a solo tour and Phoenix is preparing for the release of his new film “Mary Magdalene,” which stars his girlfriend, Rooney Mara; has signed to star in “Far Bright Star,” a Casey Affleck-directed film about an aging cavalryman in 1916; and is in pre-production for a comic-book movie now referred to as “Untitled Joker Origin Movie.”
Ultimately, the Callahan film is about the healing power of art, Phoenix said.
“That’s certainly part of it,” he said, then paused. “I think, and it seems cliché, it’s about finding your strength and your weakness. It’s kind of giving into that.”