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Her, which opens in St. Louis on Friday, January 10, is set in a Los Angeles that feels about two eye blinks in the future. Most people wear an earpiece that connects to their next-generation smartphone, an all-in-one device with an upgraded Siri programmed with intuition, empathy, curiosity and the ability to learn and evolve. Theodore's operating system, Samantha, voiced by Scarlett Johansson, quickly becomes his best friend and, eventually, his girlfriend.

Theodore and Samantha live a full relationship arc that couldn't exist without Johansson's brisk and pitch-perfect voice performance. But technically, Her is still a one-person love story (or really, one-human) about a man who's also relearning to love himself. And the only face of their romance is Phoenix's.

"He represents both characters onscreen," Jonze explains. "His reaction is what helps give her credibility." When Samantha talks, Phoenix reacts, his keen green eyes absorbing her words while his expressive eyebrows furrow down in frustration or lift up in wonderment. In some single-take stretches, all he does is react, quietly going from cranky to enchanted to cracking up as she convinces him to stop sulking and get out of bed.

The week Jonze finished his final draft of Her, he showed Phoenix the script. He didn't know what to expect but was quickly charmed.

"That openness and that playfulness and realness and honestness, it's exactly who he is," Jonze says. "There's nothing pretentious about him. I realized, 'Oh, this is a guy who takes his work seriously but doesn't take himself seriously.' Within the first ten minutes, I knew he was the guy that I wanted to be in this movie."

He adds, "Everybody respected and was affected by what Joaquin was doing. When we'd cut, the set would stay quiet. That's really special."

As for Phoenix, he again feels like an actor who's confident about his options.

"I'm sure there were times when I went, 'Oh, fuck, it's going to be hard to do the movies that I want to do after this. Am I going to be battling this shit?' " Phoenix admits of his I'm Still Here experiment. He shrugs. "But you're always battling some shit that you fucking said, so it doesn't really make a difference." 

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