By Alessandra Venezia (April 2001 issue)
They say that one should never change his birth name; birth name holds the destiny of each human being. But it's not so for Joaquin Rafael Bottom's family: they changed their names as often as they changed home and country. Family man, John Bottom Abrham, first an immigrant fruits picker, a Christian missionary for Children of God and then Archibishop of Venezuela and Caribbean Isles, first changed his name for John Bottom then for John Phoenix. Phoenix: symbol of resurrection. His mother Arlyn Dunitz, missionary too, (then cast director in California) changed her name to Phoenix as well as their four children, whose birth names evoke clear waters and sky: River, Rain Joan of Arc, Liberty Butterfly, Summer Joy. Joaquin Rafael, at the age of six, renounced to his Hispanic name - he was born in Puerto Rico- to be called Leaf. Six years later in Mexico, he turned back his former name.
"My brother River insisted that I should turn back to my former name: he said that Joaquin was a very nice one, it suited me."
So Leaf turned back to Joaquin.
This name brought him luck. He is the actor of the moment in Hollywood: in the last twelve monthes, we saw him in three big productions: Gladiator, the Yards and Quills, and in three excellent roles that brought him a good number of important critical awards: National Board of Review, Golden Globe nomination, and Academy Award nomination in a supporting role for Gladiator.
"I've been acting for ten years to gain those results" he says smiling, "But everyone thinks I had a sudden success."
Grey T-shirt, Jeans, steal blue half shut eyes, an ironic smile that conceals his shyness and makes him even more charming; Joaquin talks in mangled words. Now he is 27 and became less moody with journalists, responds in like manners without telling too much about himself.
He prefers to reveal himself in his film performances that became gradually more and more complex and nuanced. If it was the ambiguous character of the cruel emperor Commodus in Gladiator, that revealed Joaquin Phoenix to the great pubblic (in the american box office, Gladiator made 190 million dollars) it was the balanced performance as the treacherous Willie Gutierrez in The Yards and the gentle Abbe overwhelmed by his passion for the lively Kate Winslet in Quills, that had widely shown the colorful palette of his physical expression. His talent was just evident in To Die For, a dark comedy directed by Gus Van Sant (some years before he had directed his brother River in My Private Indaho) he was Jimmy, the young boy seduced by Nicole Kidman, the murderer weather-girl. In 8mm, the dark thriller costarring with Nicolas Cage, Joaquin's character was the most charming of the whole film. The film director Joel Shumacher, was deeply impressed by this young actor:
"As you see him acting, it's like if every pore of his skin would open wide: he is naked in front of the cine-cameras."
James Grey who directed him in The Yards, a drama about the corrupted buisiness world of New York (starring Mark Whalberg, James Caan and Charlise Theron) is fascinated by his mesmeric facial appearance:
"He has an ambiguous face whith a tragic quality."
Maybe it's for a thin scar upon his upper lip, maybe for his light eyes strongly contrasting with his dark hair or maybe it's for his insolent and intense glance that helps him to shelter from peoples curiosity. He deserted the set for over two years after his brother River overdose dead, on Halloween day 1993, at Viper Room, Johnny Depp's club in Los Angeles, and he still avoids talking about it. Instead he talks with great affection about his odd family, his parents are divorced and two of his tree sisters are actresses:
"Ours is a very close and encouraging family, me and my sibiligs did everything together, supporting each other."
Exhausted by a no stop filming period, he left Quills London set and refuged at his mother's home in Florida where, for two weeks, all he did was sleeping and eating tofu sandwiches. But acting is his great passion:
"For me it's a mission" he says smiling.
And like every respectable missionary, idleness is a mortal sin. To avoid fossilizing in villain roles he accepted to act as Abbe De Coulmiere in Quills, a drama about the last days of Marquise de Sade in the mad house of Charenton. Studying his characters he hates every simplification, in Gladiator he turns a depraved emperor into a vurnerable being:
"I've never thought Commodus to be an innate cruel youth: events turned him into a tyrant; he was a spoiled child, grown with tutors. When, for the first time, he faced his father, he was overwhelmed by emotion... I'm not interested in flat white and black characters: the role of the villain without psychological depth, has been seen too often."
It's not easy to find different and interesting roles: for this reason Phoenix often prefered to refuse some. After the comedy Parentwood in 1989 he stopped acting and joined his father in his travels. Now he is one of the most sought after actors of his generation, but he often prefers low budget productions. After Buffalo Soldiers, a story about USA soldiers in East Germany before Berlin Wall fall, he is working in the new film by Thomas Vinterberg (the Danish director of Celebration), It's all About Love.
"This is a hard buisness with a great deal of competition, sometimes you feel that this is all your world. Wait a minute! ... I've a beautiful nephew, a wonderful family, I love traveling, I love playing music, there are a lot of important things in my life; but when I'm working everything else seems to pass in background."
He planes every role with absolute dedication:
"I am not afraid of either working hard nor suffering. A well-done work is never easy... A great film needs effort, this is the reason why, in some sense, I'm satisfyed when I suffer."
He keeps on talking freely.
"I'm not afraid at all, I would do everything to have a role that I like, there is no more exciting emotion than to deepen a character's soul."
Then he stops suddently, with his half shut-eyes:
"I'm boring you, isn't it?"