When filming Napoleon, Joaquin Phoenix had to go to some pretty dark places in order to immerse himself in the character fully. The historical drama movie, which Ridley Scott directs, chronicles the real-life Napoleon’s ruthless military history and rise to power.
But underpinning this new movie is the toxic, all-consuming relationship Napoleon had with Joséphine de Beauharnais: his first wife, whom many historians consider to be his one true love. In Ridley Scott’s film, Vanessa Kirby stars opposite Phoenix as Joséphine.
But Napoleon isn’t a romance movie, with neither Phoenix nor Kirby shying away from the more volatile aspects of Napoleon and Joséphine’s relationship. In an interview with Empire, Kirby explained how she and Phoenix made a pact to “go to the dark places together” when portraying their characters, which led to some electrifying moments on set.
“We were using the real words from their divorce in the church,” Kirby explained. “When that happens, you can faithfully go through an archival re-enactment of it and read out the lines and then go home. But we always wanted to surprise each other.”
Full of praise for Phoenix, she continued, “It’s the greatest thing when you have a creative partner and you say, ‘Right, everything’s safe. I’m with you. And we’re gonna go to the dark places together.'”
Phoenix added that, in the name of art, Kirby gave him permission to go to some “dark places” on set. “She said, ‘Look, whatever you feel, you can do.’ I said, ‘Same thing with you,'” he recalled. “She said, ‘You can slap me, you can grab me, you can pull me, you can kiss me, whatever it is’,” As part of this agreement, Phoenix slapped Kirby while filming the tense divorce scenes.
Explaining the dynamic of the scenes, he continued, “So we had this agreement that we were going to surprise each other and try and create moments that weren’t there, because both of us wanted to avoid the cliché of the period drama. And by that I mean moments that are well-orchestrated and designed.”
But despite the lengths the pair went to in order to deliver an authentic performance, Phoneix admitted that Napoleon and Joséphine’s relationship remains an enigma to him.
“We never really got to the bottom of it,” he admitted. “I don’t know if you can call it love. I don’t know what it was. But we encouraged each other, demanded of each other, to challenge ourselves to shock each other in moments. And that’s what came out of that, that moment.”
The Napoleon release date is November 24, 2023 — so mark your calendars for what may well be Phoenix’s best movie yet. While you wait, try to make sense of Phoenix’s latest role in Ari Aster‘s divisive horror movie with our guide on the Beau is Afraid ending explained.
Or, see how we think Phoenix’s performance as the Joker compares to the likes of Heath Ledger and Jack Nicholson in our guide to all the Joker actors ranked. Phoenix returns as the Joker in the upcoming Joker 2, so be sure to check out our guide to the Joker 2 release date, too. And before you go, don’t forget to check out Ridley Scott’s next project with our guide to the Gladiator 2 release date.