Reaching out to the stars in the Big Apple
By Jessica Myer
Managing Mosaic Editor
"I... had the time of my life... And I owe it all to you."
Joaquin Phoenix brushed a hand through his scruffy, freshly-dyed black hair and gyrated his hips. He squinted his crystal blue eyes and continued to serenade David Dobkin, the director of his new movie, "Clay Pigeons."
"Ohhhh, I...had the time of my l-iiiiii-fe, and I owe it all to you, ooooh."
David grinned and pushed Joaquin into the wall of the hallway. An instant later, two elevators dinged simultaneously, an upward arrow glowed above one, and the downward above the other.
"Bye guys, it's been fun," Joaquin said, and he disappeared into his elevator to go upstairs to eat. I waved and shuffled into the other. The interview of the cast of "Clay Pigeons" was over at 11:46 a.m.
We went back to our separate worlds.
Just three hours before I was hailing a cab from Penn Station, on my way to the most exciting interviews of my short-lived journalism career: Vince Vaughn; Janeane Garofalo; Joaquin Phoenix.
I was running late, but my driver got me to the Righa Royal in record time.
I was the first one there. A promoter with fluffy blond hair attested to the personalities of the celebrities I was about to meet.
"Joaquin is just the nicest guy. Yeah, we had a premiere last night and he was with his girlfriend, Liv - Tyler - she's such a sweet little girl," she tossed her head. "Yeah, they were hanging out with Kate... Moss - nice kids.
"And Janeane - she's real people. Yeah, you're gonna have fun today."
Ten minutes later she ushered us into a small room with a round table and seven chairs in the center. One chair was slightly larger than the rest and was adorned with a fancy flowered pattern. The other reporters and I avoided that chair.
We introduced ourselves to break the ice. "I'm from Columbia." "NYU." "UPenn." "Villanova." "Fordham." "Seventeen magazine."
We chatted until Vince Vaughn walked in. The actor from Chicago who starred as Trent in "Swingers" shuffled in. He played the attractive, vulnerable serial killer Lester Long in "Clay Pigeons."
He looked like he just rolled out of bed. His short hair was muffled and dark bags hung under his eyes. But he still looked good.
"Hi, guys ... Mmmmm," he mumbled, wrapping his long arms around his thin body. He sat slowly in the good chair. "Does anybody have a cigarette?"
The eyes of the reporter from Columbia lit up. "Oh, we can smoke in here? Cool." Suddenly Zippo lighters and Camel Lights appeared all around the table. He asked us about the previous night and shared a little about his.
"You should have come to this thing last night, the 'Clay Pigeons' party. It was Joaquin and me, and we get up there and it's like a punk rock version of 'Little Sister.' I know all the words to 'Little Sister,' but my man singin' with me doesn't know all the words."
THE REVIEW / File Photo
Joaquin Phoenix (left) and Vince Vaughn tried unsuccesfully to sing “Little Sister” together at a “Clay Pigeons” party. Vaughn tripped over an amp and hurt himself.
None of us can help but laugh as he takes quick drags in between his words
and smiles, mercilessly. But we exploded in giggles when he told the punch.
"There was an amp and I didn't see it, and I tripped. Somebody should've yelled 'timber' because I'm such a tall, lanky kid. I trip and I fall down on the thing and crack my head and I'm in so much pain."
He lifted up the leg of his pants to show his battle wound.
Seventeen started the firing of questions about why he chose to make the movie, "Clay Pigeons," which is about murders in a small western town, a frame job and the man behind the serial killing. The film is a black comedy, which appealed to Vince. But one of its biggest draws was the cast.
He lit up another cigarette.
The filming took place in Utah for six weeks, and he said he felt at home with the company.
"Because there wasn't a lot going on, it forced us to become more intimate with each other. And I like Garofalo very much and I maintained a friendship with her. And I like Joaquin very much and I maintained a friendship with him."
His hands were trying to keep up with his mouth. The combination was dizzying.
NYU chimed in. "You're playing a lot of psycho killers. How's that?"
When Vince decided to do "Clay Pigeons," playing Norman Bates in Gus Van Sant's remake of "Psycho" was not even in the realm of imagination. But now, with "Psycho" in post-production, it has become some kind of reality.
He goes on to talk a little about "Psycho," but when Columbia asked the third question about it, he switched the focus back to "Clay Pigeons" and his philosophy on acting.
He told us he prefers to know his character so well that he can improvise his actions in any scene.
"This is improv - today. You know, life is."
I managed to choke out my first question - how far was he from where he thought he'd be as a child?
Just as I finished, a beautiful blond woman with wire-rimmed glasses came in with a fresh pack of cigarettes. He glanced at her with his sweet, flirty eyes and said, "You are an an-gel." My heart melted.
But he didn't forget about me. He spoke respectfully about his grandfather, who struggled to survive, and his father, who was also a self-made-man.
"I owe it to myself and to what they've been through to try to do something. My dad loves me very much, he's my best friend. But his dad told him in his whole life that he loved him once. So my dad wasn't like 'Hey, buddy, som'in wrong?'"
Vince was the youngest kid at the race track "since [he] was a little bay-bee," and when he was five or six he played blackjack for pennies.
A lady who had been hovering to my left for five minutes says, "Ah, one last question." Villanova got it.
He asked Vince what he studied for the part of Lester Long. He replied, "My whole life."
He expanded on his response for a minute and started to get up. "Thanks guys, for letting me wake up."
The room breathed as we all grinned and let out a sigh in awe of the flamboyant, charismatic presence that had just left the room.
Before we had a chance to unwind, Janeane Garofalo bounded in wearing glasses, a blue T-shirt and a seemingly out-of-character pair of blue and black platform sneakers worthy of the Spice Girls.
But she couldn't be more different.
"Oh, this is a smoking room," she said as she sat down in the big chair. "Cool." She dug a pack of Marlboro Lights out of her bag.
"I've been in Canada for the last two and a half months smoking De Moriers. They're just yucky. Canadian cigarettes are no good as far as I'm concerned."
Villanova started right in about her part in the ensemble cast of "The Ben Stiller Show," which was canceled after one season.
"FOX hated us. They thought we were so not funny."
She talked about her utter disgust with the network for their inability to see the genius and creativity of their shows.
"They accidentally stumbled into 'The Simpsons,' I'm sure not for the right reasons. And 'Ally McBeal.' When they have a good show, it's not on purpose, they get lucky."
Seventeen then asked the question I wanted to ask: "How did you get involved in this movie, because the part seems like it could only be you?"
Janeane was grateful. "Oh, thank you. I wanted to work with David Dobkin and Vince and Joaquin. I also felt that I wanted to be part of it because I didn't like what was going on with the ladies in the movie, so I felt like, 'somebody's got to say something.'
"I couldn't believe the cavalier attitude toward women dying. I can't have another movie company going out into the public consciousness without somebody saying something."
NYU asked her how much she personally added to the role to make it strong.
Janeane's response was as honest and humble as I expected.
"Well, actually, I just did it and I'm not saying that's so great that I did it and I really bring a lot to the table, because as an actor I've got a lot of shortcomings.
"But I just think that - and maybe this is going to sound arrogant - but I think I get lucky with a lot of reviewers who just assume I'm a strong woman and smart. I think it's because I have a deep voice and I'm kind of manly."
She said that with the most beautiful, womanly smile on her face that I couldn't help but love her. But she continued to downplay her talent.
"People go 'she's smart - she's got dark hair.' I think that if you're not glamorous people give you this kind of credit."
UPenn tossed out her first question, asking if the transition from stand-up to acting was difficult.
Janeane said she didn't begin acting until she was 27. It was Ben Stiller who encouraged her to act.
Finally, enter Fordham. He brought up something about Janeane I didn't know: She is a huge independent music fan. Her list of favorites is long and diverse.
"Old 97s, Ween, Mucka Feruson, Cake Like, everything. I go see bands all the time. That is my favorite social activity."
She lit another Marlboro, and let it hang in her mouth while she spoke about the unique relationship between director and cast.
UPenn asked another question about stand-up. "In your future, which is going to take a higher priority, stand-up or film?" Her answer made me love her even more.
"Probably film. If you had asked me a while ago I would've said stand-up, but I've changed my mind about that. I've actually started giving a shit about acting. Unfortunately, I've got many movies out there pre-giving-a-shit. I actually turned this corner like 'Oh I pray that this is good.'"
I asked her if she had trouble watching her own movies and "Ulchhh!" was her response.
"All I do is see my chins and my bad skin. I don't take care of myself. You can never say I've let myself go, because I was never there."
Seventeen asked Janeane if she had any interest in screen writing, which she
doesn't. She wishes more people felt that way.
I asked, "Do people leave scripts in your mailbox?"
"YES! It drives me nuts - because they're not good." She looked me in the eyes and smiled just as the grim reaper came and stole Janeane away from us.
"And we're off. Bye Bye."
We had a few minutes to stretch before Joaquin joined our smoking lounge, and Fordham admitted to his nerves. "I've never done this yet, and they were so great."
We joined him in acknowledging our own nakedness just as our final celebrity appeared in the doorway.
Joaquin, wearing a black sport jacket, black pants and white sneakers, hovered for a minute before he sat down.
He looked up and said "Do I have something in my teeth?" When he smiled a green something-or-other was covering all his upper level teeth. "I'm nervous," he said, maybe facetiously, perhaps sincerely.
Before we started, a woman came in to take his order for lunch. "Ask Sue to tell them to design some kind of vegetarian, no cheese experience. Thank you very much."
He pulled out a slightly smooshed pack of American Spirit Lights and tapped the filter against the table.
"I'm doing an anti-turkey campaign."
Columbia sank his ship. "That's Fiona Apple territory. She did that last year for [People For the Ethical Treatment of Animals]."
"She did that? You're kidding me. I'm going to do that for PETA also, but people know who Fiona Apple is, and no one knows me."
Columbia builds him back up. "After this, hopefully they will."
Villanova brought up the concert experience with "Little Sister" to break the ice. Joaquin was amused at "Vinnie's" candor.
"None of you went there last night?"
I answered for the group. "We're just the college crew."
"That's good because I've been terrified that I would meet someone who was there."
I brought up the first movie I ever saw him in - "Space Camp."
"We shot for six months, which is a really long time. All in all it takes about 45 minutes to an hour to put on the space suits. And you don't come down for a really long time and you don't go to the bathroom. Every person on the set had a nervous breakdown."
Seventeen asked him how he prepared for his roles and we all poised our pens simultaneously.
"Whoa!" he said, holding up his hands in surrender.
"I lost some weight for this, I wanted Clay to be fragile. I wanted him to be the opposite of Vince's character."
Villanova quoted something he found on the Internet. "I heard that Gus Van Sant said that you are very hard on yourself when it comes to acting? Are you aware of that?"
- "It's torture."
Joaquin chooses his movies with a very careful eye and said he feels strongly about doing them justice.
Next I asked the wrong question. Several of his characters were very similar in their cores; very naive, and very unsure of their world. I asked if he thought he was type-casted or if he preferred that role. He answered with an emphatic "No!
"The thing I think a lot of people don't realize is that I don't run Hollywood. When a project comes along that is a good project with good people involved, naturally I jump on board." I slumped in my small chair a little.
But I didn't give up.
I asked about an especially emotional scene in "Return to Paradise," and he responded.
"It was grueling. You have to be emotionally and physically all out. My feet were just ripped open, I had nerve damage in my hands from the hand cuffs. It was insanity, awww, it was intense."
When he was finished he turned to Columbia and asked, "Is nothing I say of interest to you?"
Columbia wasn't fazed, but I was glad it wasn't me.
He asked Joaquin if he minded his apparent anonymity. The actor was clear that it was the audience's unfamiliarity with him that makes his characters unpredictable and unique.
"I'd rather the audience not know me so well. That's going to be hard for Brad Pitt or Leonardo DiCaprio. Audiences become attracted to these characters and we want them back. Who wants to get stuck with that pressure?"
He accidentally kicked UPenn and grinned boyishly. "I'm playing footsy with you," he sang.
When the actor thief came in for the last time, we all sighed - with relief? With sadness?
Someone asked how he and Vince Vaughn became friends.
"Vince and I clicked right away. I picked him up at the airport and we laughed the whole way, and I hope I never see him again, much less work with him."
And he stood up, thanked us and disappeared. We gathered our things, collected our thoughts and followed him out.
He was standing with David Dobkin by the vast array of fine foods, from shish-kabobs to finger sandwiches. We thanked both of them again and shook their hands.
UPenn, Villanova, Columbia and I walked out to the hallway with them to catch an elevator. And both opened.
And as I was standing in the elevator descending 26 floors to the lobby all I could think was, those guys are on their way up