With his role as Napoleon, under the direction of Ridley Scott, Joaquin Phoenix confirms his special place in Hollywood, from the Joker to Johnny Cash (in Walk the Line). But still doesn’t seem to take it all seriously. At 49, the star is one of the first to return to red carpets and interviews after the end of the historic strike which paralyzed Hollywood until the beginning of November. Greatly anguished, he is reluctant to open up, sitting in a black sweatshirt in the suite of a Parisian palace. At his side, Vanessa Kirby, who plays Joséphine.

On screen, Phoenix plays Napoleon in a film haunted by war and brutality, released even as conflicts rage two centuries later. No need to ask him to draw a parallel between the Napoleonic period and the contemporary world: “If I were in the middle of a conflict, the last thing I would want to hear is the opinion of an actor sitting at the table. Bristol,” he replied to AFP. “People are going through so much pain and grief right now. I don’t want to confuse a movie that I’m in that costs a ton of fucking money with what’s going on (in the world). I think it’s simply not necessary,” he adds.

Three years after the Oscar for Todd Haynes’ Joker, Joaquin Phoenix has finished filming the second part of the adventures of the green-haired sociopath, which comes out next year. With this Napoleon, this lover of dark, complex or unfathomable roles, among the most prominent directors, from Paul Thomas Anderson (The Master) to James Gray (Two Lovers, The Night Belongs to Us), could run for a second statuette.

It all started with Ridley Scott, a quarter of a century ago. The Briton gave him the role of Emperor Commodus in Gladiator, opposite Russell Crowe, which earned him an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor. “We made Gladiator 20 years ago… Since then, (Ridley Scott) has made, I don’t know, 21 films about space heroes and medieval heroes. Then he had a story about an irritable little bully and he called me. And I said thank you!”, says the actor. “I believe that (Napoleon) was cold and calculating like a great military strategist. What surprised me was his sense of humor and his immature side,” he continued during this meeting with the press. “What I liked was that even the academics were arguing among themselves. “So it’s very difficult to get a clear answer on a lot of things.” “Some things are ridiculous. Two weeks before filming, someone said: Did you know Napoleon was left-handed? It then takes a week to disprove that!”.

In preparing for the role, “I was looking for inspirations more than information, personal testimonies… How did he eat? What did he like to drink? Almost none of that is used in the film, but you just want to feel legitimate, even if it’s not,” the actor describes. In the end, Joaquin Phoenix felt like he was playing a “very socially awkward” character. “I consider him a romantic with the brain of a mathematician. (…) He is like a teenager in love, almost plagiarizing poetry” in his letters to Joséphine. “There would be something almost endearing if he wasn’t responsible for the deaths of millions of people.”