A big reason why movie buffs were curious about Napoleon – which is currently in theaters, and will be available to people with an AppleTV+ account in the coming weeks – is that it marked the first reunion between lead actor Joaquin Phoenix and director Ridley Scott since Gladiator. That 2000 release won Best Picture, Best Actor (for Russell Crowe), and notched Oscar nominations for Phoenix and Scott. But it has been so long since the film came out, it’s easy to forget that Phoenix was in his mid-20s at the time of filming. And while he had film and television experience heading into Gladiator, he hadn’t experienced filmmaking on that scale… and Ridley Scott noticed it.
Joaquin Phoenix plays Commodus in the film, son of a great leader who murders his father in order to assume his throne. Phoenix is back playing a famous military leader in Napoleon, and excelling at it based on our review. But when Phoenix returned to CinemaBlend’s official ReelBlend podcast, he started thinking back to his earlier collaboration with Sir Ridley Scott, and reliving a few horrors he experienced during the beginning of the shoot. As Phoenix told us:
I was so green. I obviously had been acting since I was a kid. But I'd never been a part of a major production. And when I arrived on set for Gladiator, honestly, I was so sick. I was shaking. I couldn't believe the size of the location, and just how many trucks there were. And I was terrified. Like really, truly terrified. I couldn't do the first scene. I was literally visibly shaking and I couldn't get through the dialogue. My voice was quivering. And (Scott) kept (rolling). It was just take after take after take. I can't remember how many takes we did. Just, I mean, for hours. And at the end… of the movie, he said, ‘Do you know that I didn't have any film in the camera until like the last five takes?’ He KNEW that it wouldn't be helpful to me to just say, ‘Let's rehearse it.’ He had to make me feel as if we were actually filming. And he was asking the crew to keep doing this shot over and over. But he knew it was the only way for me to get to this place of feeling comfortable. I just was so amazed by that.
Joaquin Phoenix may have been green on the set of Gladiator, but Sir Ridley Scott was anything but. Many of the director’s best films, including Blade Runner and Alien, were produced prior to Gladiator. So Scott had time and experience having worked with all types of actors to be able to understand what it was that Phoenix needed as Commodus. As Phoenix went on to explain to ReelBlend:
I really felt he did a thing that's really important that a director should do, especially with a young actor, is empower them. If you feel that they have an understanding of the character, and an emotional intelligence, then you empower them to find something, and help be a part of that creativity. And he did that for me. He really encouraged me to define that character. And so I've always remembered working with him fondly.
Which helps explain why they are back together for Napoleon, which is performing well at the box office, even though history buffs can’t stop taking shots at the movie’s historical accuracy. Phoenix discusses that in detail during our full interview on ReelBlend. Watch it now:
It will be interesting to see what Napoleon does in the ongoing awards race. The Academy has shown a penchant for appreciating both Ridley Scott and Joaquin Phoenix, who just won for playing The Joker. We will keep an eye on that competition, even as we shift focus to the upcoming 2024 movies that also are circling dates on the calendar.