Joaquin Phoenix Joins the Mob in The Yards

By LAURIE BROWN (Wednesday February, 7 2001)


TORONTO - Joaquin Phoenix once said, "I took to acting because I suck at writing and painting." Lucky us.

The 25-year-old actor was born in Puerto Rico, the third child of hippie parents who dragged their young family around South America as members of a Christian cult known as The Children of God.

Eventually, the family ended up in Los Angeles, then Florida, and the kids, including big-brother River Phoenix, took to acting.

While Joaquin's previous acting gigs had been satisfying artistically, they hadn't gained him much attention. That ended with his role as Jimmy, the teenage loser who murders Nicole Kidman's husband in Gus Van Sant's To Die For. He played the role so convincingly that people thought Van Sant had discovered him on the streets.

Phoenix followed with more scene-stealing turns, as an imprisoned druggie in Return to Paradise; as a dim-witted Romeo in U-Turn; and as a sleazy porn store clerk in 8mm.

In last year's Gladiator, he played the sadistic and paranoid young emperor Commodus.

On the Arts' Laurie Brown talks with Joaquin Phoenix and director James Gray about his latest movie, The Yards, a gritty, New York mob story of corruption and family ties. It opens in theatres this weekend.


Laurie Brown: You've been acting onscreen for a long time, you started very young. Did you find that you had brought with you some bad habits from when you were a kid onscreen? Did you have to unlearn some stuff?

Joaquin Phoenix: No, no, not at all. I think because I feel like, when I was young, it was pure instinct. I have had to, more recently, unlearn things. I think sometimes huge portions of scenes are cut out or removed or changed around and you go, "Well, wait a minute, if I knew you were taking out that scene, I would've played this like that. Now it looks terrible," "Why am I acting?" And so then you try and -- I've made the mistake of trying -- to fit everything into one moment, the whole range of emotions that the character feels in one scene, which is a huge mistake.

Brown: How did James push you or prod you? How would you describe what he gave to you in this film?

Phoenix: How he pushed me, prodded me? Well, we developed a I don't know what it was. We developed a technique, which at a certain point became shorthand, in which he would just say a couple key words, and I would know what he wanted.

Brown: You had two very interesting generations of actors there. With James Caan, Ellen Burstyn, Faye Dunaway on one end and Joaquin Phoenix, Charlize Theron, and Mark Wahlberg on the other. Is there a real different way in which these generations approach the work?

James Gray: That's a wonderful question. Yes, the answer is yes. The older actors tend to be very trained, very method, very much students of acting. And the younger generation tends to be emotionally and behaviourally just as bright, but not so formally trained.

And so with the older actors you find yourself using method buzzwords in order to direct them And the younger generation seems to respond to a greater immediacy, reference to people that they know, behavioural tricks that they know and other movies and other sources rather than a technique.

So what you find is the younger generation can do it, but it's a little bit like lightning in a bottle. Whereas the older generation has an almost immediate path to what it is you're trying to get them to do.

Brown: Do you notice a real different style the way actors of that generation work?

Phoenix: No, I didn't. Maybe some people do. Honestly, I think that actors are and need to be really self-centered, so I'm not really aware of other people's process, because I'm thinking about all the things I have to be doing. I've never really watched somebody prepare or watched their approach to a character.