Words: Merle Ginsberg Photo: Cliff Watts

Audience have Joaquin Phoenix pegged as deeply weird and lacking in humour. They're half wrong.

"Maybe I'm the weird one," muses Joaquin Phoenix, sucking on a cigarette outside a TriBeCa café. "I don't know…."

The way he sees it, somebody's got to be weird. It's either him or us—the rest of the world—and the bulk of the evidence points to him. Among the traits that have earned Phoenix the label are a terror of flying so intense it often manifests as a sort of airborne Tourette's syndrome, causing him to scream out, "Just land the bird, motherf---er!" or some such thing. Not to mention the fact that he's been a vegan since age three—and a chain-smoker for years.

And then there's his profound fear of talk shows, despite being a posed and well-regarded actor in mostly popular vilms, the latest of which, M. Night Shyamalan's paranormal drama Signs, is out this month. (Two more are in the can: It's All About Love, a romantic parable by Danish director Thomas Vintenberg, and Buffalo Soldiers, a M.A.S.H-.like military black comedy that premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in 2001, just days before the terrorist attacks made it a nearly impossible sell.)

So what's wrong with talk shows? "I always think it's odd that someone goes out there in front of all these people and tells really stupid stories that no one cares about," Phoenix mutters. "I know I'm uncomfortable and really awkward out there. But the people who seem too comfortable—man, they are weird! I mean, what kind of person are you that you feel really comfortable with people watching and applauding you? I fear enjoying that. Is that weird?"

Sitting in front of Sosa Borella, not far from his apartment, the 28-year-old actor is dressed in jeans and a neat navy button-down shirt. Despite his sunglasses and a slightly diabolical new mustache, outdoor seating has its drawbacks for Phoenix, chief among them the occasional interruption from a passerby shouting, "Hey, the Emperor of Rome!" prompting an embarrassed wince.

"Don't you think it's odd that you're recording me and it's going in a magazine?" he continues. "I go into movies thinking, We're performing, but with interviews, we're pretending to be completely real. I just can't get my head around it. And the things we say in this hour could permanently shape our personas. I mean, tell me that's not a little odd! And because I think that's odd, people think I'm odd. And that's strange. Know what I'm saying?"

Well, sure. But what's truly odd in Phoenix's case is that he's still aware of that abs at all, given his long experience in the business. He started acting at age eight, appearing on TV's "The Fall Guy," back when he went by the name Leaf. And he had a very famous older brother (River Phoenix, who died of a drug overdose at age 23 in 1993), in addition to semi-famous siblings, sisters Summer and Rain. (Another, Liberty, has a pie-making business.)

Perhaps it's the sheer breadth of Phoenix's childhood experience that allows him to see his current situation for what it is. Born in Puerto Rico, he traveled to Mexico, Venezuela, Florida and Los Angeles with his wandering parents, who were Children of God missionaries. According to family lore, it was on a fishing trawler off the coast of Venezuela—the family was hitching a ride to Florida—that three-year-old Joaquin Raphael (who later changed his name to Leaf and now generally goes by Joaq) had a vision: that eating any animal product was cruel, especially if that animal was forced to experience anything like what these Venezuelan fish were experiencing.

"They were killing all these fish, heaps of them," he says, the memory bringing a hint of pain to his face. "I remember all of us crying, and I remember yelling at my mom. I convinced my siblings to become vegans and then we got through to our parents. They'd always eaten meat, but I don't think they realized the truth of how cruel that was. My mom had to learn how to cook vegan real quick."

After the family settled to Los Angeles, Phoenix's mother, Arlyn (then called Heart), found work as a secretary at NBC and eventually became a casting agent. Phoenix, who along with his siblings had gotten his first taste of performing by literally singing for his supper, quickly began landing roles in films like SapceCamp, Russkies and Parenthood.

In more recent years, he has gravitated to brooding, tormented character, in such films as To Die For, Gladiator, The Yards and Quills. But that dark intensity, friends say, is mostly an act. His younger sister, Summer, who lives next door to Phoenix with his best friend, Casey Affleck, says he's the funniest guy in the extended family. "Joaq was always the one making us laugh growing up," she says. "So it's shocking to us, his family, that his characters are always tortured and in turmoil. He's hilarious—the one person who can always laugh me out of my problems. My mom's always saying, 'Joaq, you're so funny, do a funny movie!' Someday he'll do comedies, and then everyone will see what a difference there is between the way he is and the way people think he is."

"It's a strange sense of humour," adds Affleck, who met Phoenix on the set of To Die For. "He has a very goofy side. You wouldn't expect it if you've seen his movies. Joaquin hasn't picked safe parts. They show the dark side, and you could think he's crazy, but the fact is he's just incredibly talented. He's one of the most exciting actors of our generations—and I would say that even if he wasn't my best friend and I didn't live with his sister.

By all reports, Phoenix is actually something of a regular guy—alternately partying with his pals and his girlfriend (whom he declines to name) at New York dive bars or staying home and reading. "I know I'm supposed to commit to one behavior or the other," he says, noting with a grin the journalistic penchant for pigeonholing, "but I'm confused."

While he frequents New York's vegan restaurants, Phoenix tries not to be doctrinaire. "Believe it or not, vegans are allowed to eat whatever they want," he says, laughing. It's not like if you break the rules you risk eternal damnation. I won't be kicked out of the 'vegan society.'"

He also had no ethical qualms about working with live animals on Gladiator. "But I'm sorry, Phoenix says, "I just think you're a f---king a—hole if you wear fur. It's ridiculous! There's no need for real fur—since there are compassionate alternatives. And furs are ugly in general, be they synthetic or be they real. Don't tell me it's about warmth, because people who wear furs wouldn't be caught dead in big down coats."

As for PETA (People of the Ethical Treatment of Animals), Phoenix recently lent his name to a Thanksgiving benefit for the organization, although he says he's not a member. "I don't eve know how you become one," he claims. "But PETA's done some really good work—and the animals can't even thank them. As for the fashion shows they've disrupted, Oh those poor, poor shows! At least now most people know what PETA is."

The conversation turns to a less contentious matter: his new movie, Signs, a big-budget summer popcorner with Mel Gibson in the lead. But Phoenix doesn't exactly warm to the topic: "I hate talking about my movies," he says good-naturedly. "Why does anyone think I know what they're about?"

He'd rather move on to his aforementioned fear of flying, which is mitigated someone if he's wearing his Toucan-decorated boxer shorts, a gift from a friend. "But now they're completely worn out," he says, "like, elastic waist and nothing but fringe on the sides, no rear end….I don't know if it would work for me to buy another pair. That's not the way karma works.

"Believe me, he adds, "I've passed up parts because I didn't want to fly."

"This is not a generic actor," Shyamalan notes. "Joaquin listens to a different drummer. But the more you listen to your individual voice, the more rare your talent. It's inspiring to watch him be an individual on and off the screen. He can't do something against his beliefs, whether it's acting or eating. But you can still joke with him; he's not on an island alone."

Indeed, Phoenix's various quirks don't prevent legions of women—or plenty of men too—from increasingly seeing him as something of a heartthrob, albeit one whose particular brand of masculinity has a very unusual and contemporary slant.

"Does that freak me out?" he wonders aloud. "No, not really—I'm just, not really aware of it. Believe me, it's hard to find a woman who will walk up to you and say, 'I find you really attractive.' It doesn't happen very often. But if you meet anyone who likes me, please say hi and thanks."

Phoenix takes a sip of tea. "And when you tell them about the new mustache," he adds, "that might put a damper on things."