LOS ANGELES – The bathroom in Joaquin Phoenix’s hotel room is thick with cigarette smoke. So what if at 40 he has one vice left?
“Interviews always make me nervous,” says the actor, who looks casual in jeans, a white T-shirt and blue flannel shirt.
Even the smokes can’t calm his nerves when it comes to what truly makes him jittery. Don’t even mention the idea of seeing a Joaquin Phoenix movie to Joaquin Phoenix. “I think ‘Ladder 49’  was the last time I saw a movie of mine,” he says with a nervous sigh.
“Then ‘The Master’  came up and [director] Paul Thomas Anderson said, ‘You’re going to watch this movie. Man up!’ ” Phoenix recalls. “It was the first time I felt like I could give myself constructive criticism. I sat there thinking, ‘Oh yeah, you were pushing too hard there or trying too much to sell that line.’
“It was totally helpful in some ways. I guess with each movie you have to face it again.”
He’s facing it again with “Inherent Vice,” opening Friday. Set in the drug-fueled world of Los Angeles in the 1970s and based on a novel by Thomas Pynchon, it’s about a burned-out private eye named Larry “Doc” Sportello trying to find a missing girlfriend along with a crazy group of characters including an LAPD cop nicknamed Bigfoot (Josh Brolin).
Related: Richard Roeper reviews “Inherent Vice”
Phoenix did the film to reunite with director Anderson, who guided him to an Oscar nomination for “The Master.” “The perfect analogy is that when I learned to drive, my dad took me driving. I sat on his lap and he said, ‘Drive,’ ” Phoenix says.
“I really thought I was steering and in control of the car, but my dad’s fingers were on the wheel and his foot was on the pedal,” he says. “That’s the same thing with Paul. He gives you the feeling that you’re in control, but ultimately he’s the one behind it.
“Just knowing that and trusting it makes me feel so safe in his hands. It allowed me to try things.”
One of the things he tried almost got out of control. Says Brolin: “There is one scene where I pushed him through a wall that wasn’t there. He fell down the stairs and I was freaking out hoping he didn’t get hurt.”
Phoenix has his own version of events.
“I don’t think I fell through a wall. It was actually aluminum siding,” he says laughing. “It was a barrier, and he pushed me through part of it. I did drop down into this basement and when I landed, I wasn’t upset.
“I just said, ‘Wow, one week into shooting and it could have been broken bones.’ ”
Reuniting with his “Walk the Line” co-star Reese Witherspoon, who has a small role in “Vice,” was a joy for Phoenix — sort of. “She came to the set, and I don’t know what it is about her. She is just so calm,” he said. “When she came, I’d been shooting for three weeks and I was still nervous. It was her first day and they were taking the sweat off my face between takes and she was just so cool.
“It was wonderful, but f—ing frustrating.”
The “Gladiator” and “Her” actor refuses to overanalyze his roles these days.
“When I was younger, I’d say, ‘Well, my character would never do that,’ ” he says. “I try not to do that now, because it breeds rigidity. And I know that if you live long enough, people do all kinds of things that you think they wouldn’t do.”
Coming up later this year for Phoenix is a Woody Allen film, where he co-stars with Emma Stone. Beyond that, he has one request. “I really want to work with David Lynch,” he says.
What about big box-office fare?
“I’ve considered a few superhero things,” he said. “I’ve yet to find something that would make sense.
“Obviously, the bigger budget, the more investment and the more you want to appeal to a wider audience. I think it also limits the story you can tell. I don’t want to work that way. I want to work where you’re true to the characters and the story and you’re not considering the budget.”
Will he still be acting in five years? Ten years? Next year?
“What else would I do?” he says, laughing.
Big Picture News Inc.