|Rise Like a Phoenix
Joaquin Phoenix steps out from behind
the shadow of his celebrated older brother to make his own mark
With Return to Paradise, Joaquin
Phoenix escapes his brother River's shadow. For his role as an American
facing death in a Malaysian prison in the just-released Return to
Paradise, Joaquin Phoenix showed up gaunt as a ghost on the set last
fall. Director Joseph Ruben -- hoping to shed a few pounds himself --
asked the actor for dieting advice. "Just
stop eating," Phoenix replied.
And when director James Gray asked Phoenix to emote explosively during a
take for next year's film The Yards, Phoenix, says Gray, "went to
the side of the room and banged his head into a piece of oak on the
wall, and he got a huge welt." Phoenix, it seems, will take his
lumps for a role -- but there are limits, as David Dobkin discovered
when directing Phoe- nix in a fishing scene for next month's film Clay
Pigeons. The actor, who like his late brother River is a strict vege-
tarian, told Dobkin, "I'll
do anything except put the fish on the hook."
Phoenix, 23, is himself a bit like the one that got away. A former child
actor, Joaquin took a break when he was about 15 to search his soul and
travel through Central America. "I
was young enough that I wanted to explore ... to grow,"
he says. He returned to the screen in 1991's Walking the Dog. Two years
later he was still looking for a script that moved him when River died
of a drug overdose. After the tragedy, Joaquin finally found a character
that interested him, resurfacing as Nicole Kidman's teen lover turned
murderer in the 1995 hit To Die For. He got good notices, and in 1997 he
got something else: He won Liv Tyler's heart in Inventing the Abbotts,
and in real life, too. "Liv's a little shy, and he just sweeps her
off her feet and takes care of her," says Liv's sister Mia. "I
could totally see them getting married."
Screen success aside, Phoenix defies
comparison with his reckless brother. At restaurants and parties,
Joaquin drinks rarely and has no interest in drugs. And his dark,
brooding good looks suggest "a kind of smoldering intelligence that
almost goes back to Steve McQueen," says Bonnie Palef, who directed
him in Walking the Dog. "When you watch him act, his pores are so
wide open," says Joel Schumacher, who directed Phoenix in the
upcoming 8mm. "He's just naked in front of you." Martha
Plimpton, who was River's girlfriend and has known Joaquin since he was
11, says, "He was always really physical and really
emotional." The family was close-knit, if loosely tethered.
Joaquin was born in Puerto Rico in 1974, the second son of John, 51, and
Arlyn, 53, missionaries for the Children of God religious group.
Joaquin, River and their sisters -- actress Rain, 25; Liberty, 22, a
full-time mother; and actress Summer, 20 -- traveled nomadically from
Venezuela to Oregon.
"I felt most at
home in our motor home," Phoenix
told Premiere last year. These days he prefers to cruise around Los
Angeles in his banana-yellow '72 Pontiac LeMans.
In 1983, Joaquin (who called himself
Leaf from 6 to about 16) landed his first TV part (with River) in the
series Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and by 1989 was portraying a
troubled teen in Parenthood. Joaquin's most searing real-life scene was
his 911 call on Halloween five years ago as his brother lay dying
outside an L.A. nightclub. "I've
come nearer acceptance -- I wouldn't say understanding, because it's
some- thing I'll never understand -- but just an acceptance of
River's death," he told
Movieline in March. Now Hollywood is learning to accept the younger
brother. Director Dobkin says he recently called Phoenix about a part as
a bullfighter. "Absolutely
not!" the actor replied. "The
only way I'll do it is if the bull wins and kills me in the end."