Joaquin catches fire
By the Time I Get to
He`s been analyzed,
categorized, and demoralized by the press. But with four new films on
the way, Joaquin Phoenix is finally ready for his close-up.
James Patrick Herman reports
Something troubled this way comes. Or
so I think, as Joaquin Phoenix - looking more rock star than actor, with
his dyed-black bedhead, matching shades, and an untucked white shirt
flapping, capelike, behind him - strides toward my table. Gasping for
breath and apologetic, he offers me a clammy hand and this excuse: "I
feel awful, man."
I?" he eventually asks, not in
respect to his burgeoning career but to his immediate surroundings, an
outdoor Greenwich Village cafe. Following a toothsome yawn, he answers
his own question: "Still
on a 747 over the Atlantic."
He`s jetlagged and also exhausted from working nonstop. Until now,
"leisurely" would best describe the twenty-three-year-old
actor`s career, as he`s portrayed an array of Troubled Young Men roughly
at the rate of one per year: the dimwitted boy-toy Nicole Kidman
manipulates into a murderer in 1995`s To Die For; the schoolboy
heartsick for (real-life love) Liv Tyler in 1997`s Inventing the
Abbotts; and Claire Danes`s redneck boyfriend in U-Turn.
Suddenly, however, he`s riding the "hot next wave" hype (as
pertuated by the cover of Vanity Fair`s 1998 Hollywood issue).
Such predictions arebased on
Joaquin`s roles in four upcoming films, including this month`s Return
to Paradise, October`s Clay Pigeons (both with co-star/friend
Vince Vaughn), and, early next year, 8mm (playing Nicolas Cage`s
sidekick) and The Yards (co-starring Mark Wahlberg), Inevitably,
these projects will attract the media`s spotlight with an itensity that
Joaquin hasn`t experienced since his brother, River, overdosed outside
L.A.`s Viper Room on Halloween night, 1993. That`s when many fans first
heard of Joaquin: His desperate 911 call, oddly polite and ultimately
futile, was broadcast for all the world to hear.
Behind its glitzy veneer, the stress
fo the Hollywood machine drives many young actors to self-destructive
behavior. But Joaquin doesn`t even drink coffee or smoke cigarettes (at
least since he`s discovered "the patch"). He does however,
exhibit one type of self-destructive behavior - nail biting - which
leads us to my friendly neighborhood nail salon, a charmingly garish
haunt of transvestites. "You have beautiful eyes," flirts
Irina, Joaquin`s burly Siberian manicurist; his sweet bashful charm
earns him a palm reading for no extra charge. "Good heart. Good
cuticles. You`re strong, and if something happens" - she folds his
fingers into fists - "with these hands, you could kill
anybody." Joaquin gasps in disbelief, but Irina knows better:
"I see it," she whispers, "in your eyes."
Vince Vaughn, who shot back-to-back
films with Joaquin, is familiar with the Look. "He goes to extreme
emotional places," says Vaughn. "He can look like a scared,
vulnerable child. Also like the guy in the pool room you don`t want to
Over a late lunch at
Joaquin`s favorite New York restaurant, a quintessentially East Village
vegan hotspot, our waitress not only greets Joaquin by name but also
pronounces it right (Wa-KEEN). Most Americans can`t, which is why the
Phoenix Formerly Known as Leaf chose that name at age four ("My
brother and sisters all had these beautiful names, and I guess I felt a
little left out"). "People
think I had a tumultuous upbringing,"
he says. "That`s
so bizarre to me. I had an amazing life."
Born Puerto Rico, the third child of flower children (Arlyn and John),
he and his family eventually crossed the Hollywood border in a beat-up
station wagon with taped-together diapers in place of a back window -
uncoventional even by L.A. standards. "I
remember us being poor," Joaquin
reflects, "but I
never felt embarrassed, or like I was missing anything. I don`t remember
the hardship or trying to make it, just how my parents always managed to
Joaquin then focuses on emptying a
bowl of beans, seaweed, and other scary things I don`t want identified,
since, in what was intended as a show of trust, I ordered the same meal.
such an effect on one`s fame,"
he says. "My
problem is I`m always changing, and I want to be open to that evolution.
In interviews, certains ideas have to do with what I`m experiencing - I
just fell in love or stopped drinking - and I don`t want to get stuck
with something I said yesterday, you know?"
"After To Die
For, I was still so shell-shocked by what the press had done to my
family. I was never concerned with tarnishing River`s image - I don`t
think he`d give a shit. My concern was for my mother and my sisters and
my dad and their love for Riv. Basically, let us have our memories,
don`t distort them. To me, it`s a crime to sneak in and take a picture
of someone dead in their ..."
Joaquin`s voice trails off as his newly manicured fingers durl into
fists. "It`s a
crime, " he says again, "and
if I ever found out who did that, I`d probably end up in prison. Because
I`d beat the living shit out of them."
Which, I remind him, is perhaps what Irina meant. "What?"
he asks, caught off guard. "Oh.
In U-Turn, Joaquin
fulfilled many a paparazzo`s fantasy by decking Sean Penn, but
off-camera, he`s never dis1played any Troubled Young Actor behavior,
unlike Penn, or brother River. As an archetype, the T.Y.A. harks back at
least as far as James Dean, the prototypical celebrity bad boy. Now more
than ever, Hollywood`s leading men are behaving like reckless rock
stars: trashing hotel rooms, getting arrested, OD`ing. In some ways, it
must be troubling to grow up in a showbiz family (just ask Daniel
Baldwin or Alexis Arquette or Charlie Sheen ...). What`s expecially
troubling for Joaquin is how people accuse him of exploiting River`s
death in his work, as if he replays it in his head whenever he`s filming
an emotional scene. "People
always insinuate: Does my acting have something to do with my brother`s
death?" Joaquin says. "I
don`t think I could do it if I thought that. I wouldn´t do it."
I insinuate that Joaquin gave a convincing performance while River was
alive, playing a Troubled Young Man in Parenthood. "I
know! That`s the thing," he
says. "For some
reason, I can feel other people`s pain. Or joy. And I take it. And I use
it. I hope," he says, pausing to
consider his actions, "that`s
It`s okay as far as 8mm
director Joel Schumacher is concerned. "Joaquin understands the
danger of this business," he says. "I`ve worked with several
young actors I have worried about, and I`m not worried aobut him at all.
I knew River, who was also talented, just very different, and I´ve
often wondered if having an older brother gave Joaquin perspective -
it`s just a guess."
"He`s got Elvis dust," says
Vince Vaughn, "magic and charisma that you can`t intellectualize or
deconstruct. You just turn on the camera and watch hin run. That`s what
makes it so beautiful."
If his acting style is
"really internal," as Joaquin describes it while walking,
unrecognized, through Central Park, his craft is, conversely external.
He builds a character from a bad hair day down, and once he`s settled
on, say, an indigo dye job and pierced eyebrow (8mm), he focuses
on details such as body type. "As
I`m reading a script, I start to see the character. I always seem to do
something to my hair," he says. "A
lot of stuff I do for a part, people don`t even notice, but I notice,
and it makes the character whole for me."
In Return to Paradise, he`s a "long-haired, Greenpeace,
vegan type," starving in a savage Malaysian prison. To portray Mark
Wahlberg`s Latino best friend in The Yards, he`s hired a trainer
six days a week in hopes of achieving the ex-Calvin Klein underwear
model`s physique. "I
want to be really thick,"
Joaquin says. "This
character has a certain confidence. He feels every muscle in his
"It`s an understatement to say,
`He gets into a part,``because Joaquin always goes full throttle,"
reports his older sister; Rain, a musician/actress. "It`s wild to
see how he changes. One day he looks really `college,` two weeks later
he has blue hair."
"He´s also my cool gauge,"
Raion says, "so if he thinks something`s cool, then I feel good
about it." This explains why Rain and Summer (but not Liberty, the
youngest Phoenix, who at twenty-one is raising an infant son) are
following in Joaquin`s footsteps. "It`s
one of the meanest businesses in the world,"
laments their brother, the voice of experience. He now stands in the
spot previously held by River, that of the sibling who casts a shadow,
whether it`s protective or oppressive or a little of both. "I`m
trying to be there for them," he
says. "I look
back on movies I didn`t get and how it crushed me. I learned when I was
young not to expect too much."
Joaquin`s concern extends to the
I see Leonardo DiCaprio, I want to hug the kid. I hope he`s good and
strong and happy, because it`s so unfair: He`s a great actor, he`s in
this blockbuster - and now the media just want to bget whatever dirt
they can on him. Yeah, I`d love to be in the position to make the films
that I want to make," he admits.
get virtually any movie made right now. But what`s the compromise? Will
audiences accept you as different characters? That kind of fame - I
coudn`t have it in my life. I love that we can sit on the lawn in
Central Park and I`m just one of the millions. I don`t want to lose
that. I`m trying to figure out the perfect strategy. And it`s tough. I
just want to be right in the middle."