Q&A with Joaquin Phoenix

The Signs star on kiddie actors, career plans and other scary stuff

by Veronica Mixon | July 30, 2002

When Joaquin Phoenix arrives at the Essex House in New York City to talk about his latest film, M. Night Shyamalan's Signs, he's dressed in black from head to toe and sporting an Ocean's Eleven cap.

The 27-year-old began acting as a child along with his late brother, River, and older sister, Rain. He graduated from small roles in movies like Space Camp to garnering critical acclaim for daring performances in Inventing the Abbotts and Return to Paradise. Last year, his portrayal of the tortured Roman emperor Commodus in Gladiator marked his first Oscar nomination, winning unprecedented approval from both critics and peers.

In Signs, Phoenix plays a minor-league pitcher and brother of grieving widower Mel Gibson, as their family holes up in a farmhouse to fight off an alien invasion in a story reminiscent of the sci-fi classic Night of the Living Dead. For Phoenix, the role is just the latest step in an increasingly impressive career.

For more on the freaky flick, be sure to catch E!'s Behind the Scenes on Signs, premiering Thursday, August 1, at 2:30 (also airing Aug. 3 at 11:30 a.m.). And to get up close and personal with Joaquin's costar, tune in for Mel Gibson Revealed, Thur., August 1, at 10 p.m. (also airing Aug. 3 at noon).

You started out as a child actor. What did you think of your young Signs costars, Rory Culkin and Abigail Breslin?
God, they were better than I ever was. I was very impressed with how professional they were. Their level of concentration was amazing. But then, it was also fun just hanging out playing basketball.

Given your childhood acting days, could you relate to them?
I certainly have been through it and understand what it's like to be surrounded by all these adults and not really clued in on everything that's going on. But they were so amazing and seemed to be enjoying themselves.

Kids have the ability to alter their emotions drastically. There is this scene when we're at the table and Abigail wants to play thumb war with me. Night is talking to her because the kids are supposed to be scared that something bad is going to happen to them. And she just starts the waterworks. Two takes is all we needed. Then she's up, walking around and everything is fine. I was really envious.

Envious that you're no longer the kid on the set?
I still think of myself as 18. I can't quite handle that I'm actually aging. I think a lot of actors are adult children.