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Oscar winner and longtime vegan Joaquin Phoenix could soon be taking his animal activism to the big screen.
The actor has acquired film rights to Free the Animals, the 1992 book by PETA founder and president Ingrid Newkirk, about the militant group Animal Liberation Front. Phoenix also penned the foreword for the 30th anniversary paperback edition, out May 5.
The tome’s full title is Free the Animals: The Amazing, True Story of the Animal Liberation Front in North America. It follows “Valerie,” a young police officer whose world is turned upside down when she comes face to face with a group of monkeys removed from an animal testing laboratory. Along the way, she encounters people who are willing to risk freedom for the cause, and she joins them in living on the run from the law that she swore to uphold.
In a bid to inspire the next generation of activists, Phoenix writes, “Yes, Free the Animals is about the balaclava-wearing heroes who break windows and laws to save animals, but it’s also about everyone. It’s a call to us all to take action. Whether it’s wielding crowbars and bolt-cutters or picking up a pen or a protest sign, every one of us can and must fight injustice and push for animal liberation every chance we get.”
Phoenix’s foreword adds more context to a high-profile stop he made during his awards season run for his Oscar-winning turn in Joker. After picking up a Screen Actors Guild prize, Phoenix, still in his tuxedo, accompanied activists from LA Animal Save for a vigil outside a slaughterhouse in Vernon, California. “We offered a sip of water, comforting words and a gentle touch to the pigs on the transport trucks that stopped before passing through the gates,” he writes. “It’s heartbreaking to look into these individuals’ eyes and imagine what they must be feeling, to realize that we were likely offering them the only kindness they’d ever known, and that in a few moments, their lives would come to a violent end.”
Phoenix continues by addressing a question that he’s asked about why he attends such vigils and why he doesn’t buy animal products. The answer is simple, he writes. “I’ve seen the torture and killing that occurs when someone takes — steals — what rightly belongs to another living being. Strips what’s theirs right off their back or kills them so that parts of their body can be eaten or worn. I’ve seen what horror and fear animals in laboratories live in simply because they aren’t protected from human curiosity and there’s money in caging them to test things, like how they will react when frightened by a rubber snake or when their babies are torn away from them. Knowing all that, I have a moral obligation to act. And I know that’s how the heroes of this book, Free the Animals, felt, too.”
THR checked in with the author, Newkirk, for her response to Phoenix acquiring the feature film rights, and she said that she fielded “considerable interest” from two other stars. But she went with Phoenix in the hope that he not only directs the film but also stars in it. Newkirk has even zeroed in on the role he could play.
“I’m convinced he would win another Oscar for playing Josh, the Navy whistleblower who risked a court-martial to get help for a little dog about to die in a deep-sea diving experiment and who then went on to lead the West Coast Animal Liberation Front teams that freed many more animals who faced certain death,” she says. “Joaquin understands what animals go through and lives and breathes animal rights — it’s part of his very being. I also have his word that he would never allow the use of real animals, who often spend their lives in cages and are shipped to Hollywood sets to perform what to them are stressful, nonsensical, repetitious acts. Instead, he would use computer-generated imagery or domestic animals who live as companions — and of course, he would have access to PETA’s photo and video vaults, which contain footage from the raids described in the book.”
Phoenix, who last starred in Mike Mills’ C’mon C’mon, next toplines Ari Aster’s Disappointment Blvd. and Ridley Scott’s Napoleon.
A version of this story first appeared in the April 27 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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