POV magazine - Aug 98
Wild Child
Joaquin Phoenix has led as unconventional a life as possible. Now he`s a raging success in Hollywood. Can talent really conquer all? By Edward Sussman

Joaquin Phoenix is standing on a New York City subway platform when a train pulls in and the middle doors of the car open before him. "No, not that one," he says. "I always ride at the end of the car." He dashes to an end door and gets on the train. Then he rejects the open seats. "I don`t like to sit," he says. Instead he plasters his back against a divider by the door. "I always stand. Right here." He says this adamantly. Then he grins, just a little. It`s hard to tell if he`s kidding. From his expression, he appears to be. But with this eccentric 23-year-old, it`s hard to tell. If Harvard Business School prepared case studies on how highly unconventional individuals managed to launch successful acting careers, Joaquin Phoenix would be the star of the curriculum. You may know Phoenix from his performance in To Die For as the moronic teenager duped by Nicole Kidman into murdering her husband. You may also have seen him in Oliver Stone`s U-Turn or Inventing the Abbotts opposite his real life girlfriend, Liv Tyler. Or you may know him as the
younger brother of River Phoenix, the gifted actor who died five years ago of a heroin-cocaine overdose. Over the next few months, you may get to know Phoenix, "Joaq" to his friends, more for his roles in Return to Paradise and Clay
Pigeons, both opposite Vince Vaughn, and in 8MM, opposite Nicolas Cage. But the Phoenix you get to know in the flesh is more complicated than any brief Hollywood bio could possibly suggest. His persona begs a question: In a highly competitive field, can talent alone overwhelm eccentricity? Dark sunglasses, dark clothing, a lit cigarette and sneakers is Phoenix`s standard uniform. The sunglasses and muted threads help deflect public stares; he hates being watched. The cigarettes help contain his manic energy. But even chain-smoking, Phoenix rocks and sways, bursting into song or tossing out a stream of expletives. The sneakers he wears on moral principle. A strict vegan, he doesn`t eat meat or dairyŻor wear leather. Raising chickens and cows is "a form of slavery," he says.
The thing about Phoenix is, it`s not easy to tell when he`s kidding around because so much of the real stuff he tells you is so offbeat. He just gave a substantial sum of money to a midwifery school. He was the centerpiece of a print ad campaign by Prada, the high-end fashion house, yet he refused to wear the company`s leather shoes and belts. (Prada took a picture of someone else`s legs with the shoes and put the picture next to Phoenix, who was shown in a suit.) He swears he can vividly remember the day of this third birthday, aboard a freight ship hauling Tonka toys from Venezuela to Florida. "The crew started pulling up nets with just thousands of fish and they`d be flopping on the deck," he says. "In order to kill them, they just threw them against the wall, which  was utterly shocking."
And then there`s the reason three-year-old Joaquin was on that ship with his brother and sisters: his free-spirited parents lived an itinerant life, for a time as members of the Children of God cult, traveling around South America,
Mexico and the United States. Phoenix and his family have lived in old ice-cream and UPS trucks. He, River and sisters Rain and Summer sometimes performed dance numbers on the streets of Los Angeles to raise money for the family.
How did Phoenix make the leap from this unique background and the idiosyncratic person it produced to an individual now widely regarded as a top gun among the next wave of leading Hollywood actors? The most obvious answer is that he plays to his strengths. His characters are more often than not quirky and sometimes driven to extremes. In Return to Paradise, for example, Phoenix plays an American imprisoned in a Third World jail for drug possession and facing a death sentence unless two American friends return and share the blame and lengthy
prison sentences. The director suggested Phoenix spend a week in an actual prison to prepare for the role. Phoenix was willing, but early takes were more than sufficient to prove he could already tap into the kind of desperateness and distress the role demanded. 
Phoenix also gives credit to Iris Burton, who, since Joaquin was six, has  handled his entire family, from River to his sisters Rain and Summer, who are also actors. These days, Phoenix could easily move to a high-powered Hollywood
agency if he wanted to, but he prefers to stay with Burton, who has known Phoenix so long that she watches out for him like family. Idiosyncratic but it works. On the day P.O.V. interviewed Phoenix, he rejected three locations before 
settling on a boulder in Central Park. He seemed relieved to be far from the downtown restaurant where the interview began, and away from crowds and staring eyes. 

So are you comfortable with making a great deal of money as an actor?
It`s a great job and you work and it`s great. But I do put a lot of work into what I do and it consumes my thoughts for months, and recovering from that is even more terrible. With the work I do, if I feel like I want some materialistic item that`s going to make me happier, if I`m going to look forward to driving a convertible on the weekend, if it makes me feel fabulous, then I`ll do it. And I`m not going to think, Well, what about someone else? Because I feel better and I`ve been able to express desires that I have and I feel good, then I`m going to be in the right frame of mind to help someone else out. 
I think that you are allowed to spend the ridiculous amounts of money that you make on bullshit things that don`t really matter just because you want to as long as you balance that with giving back, which I think that I do. I think about my friend who`s evicted because he can`t pay his rent in his apartment and I just tossed out $500 for a MiniDisc player because I wanted a MiniDisc player so I could record my own music. It`s bizarre. I don`t know, it`s all relative. I don`t have the answers. I`m just still trying to figure it out.

Also, it`s early enough in your career that you`re not dealing with huge sums of money.
Well, in comparison to my friend who got evicted, yes, I`m filthy stinking rich, and he thinks If I only had that I`d be set for life. Well, I look at whatever actor and go, "You son of a bitch, if I got paid that for every fucking movie I ever made, are you kidding? I`d buy a whole city block and set up housing for, you know, whatever."  So, it`s all relative and I don`t, I don`t make that much money. Right now, really, I`m establishing a comfortable home for myself and my family and for my nephew and for whatever groups I can donate to to help them out, to keep them alive. I`ll do that as much as it is realistic. I think that you try the best that you can, but we`re all selfish, we all want something fabulous for ourselves and want to make it. I know people that are like, "I would never do one of those Japanese commercials for a million dollars, two million dollars." Screw you. Goddamn right I`ll do a commercial for two million dollars. Are you high? Fucking-A, I will. I`ll do it for two million dollars and then what am I going to do tomorrow? I`m going to do something good with that money. That`s how I see it. 

But you wouldn`t do a McDonald`s commercial.
No, you`re right, I wouldn`t do that.

How`d your film 8MM, with Nicolas Cage, come together?
I hadn`t seen my agent for a long time, so I went over to her place and we were talking about Return to Paradise, the fact that it was happening, and trying to figure out what to do following that, what would be the best move. She said, "I`d like you to do something bigger with a studio." I said, "You know, I just want to do a good film, whatever may come along." And we`re sitting talking and the phone rings and it`s [director] Joel Schumacher, who she knows. And she says, "I`m sitting here with Joaquin Phoenix." And he goes, "Well great, that`s why I`m calling. I have this script and I want him to read it and talk a little bit about it," and he wanted to meet me. So I went over and met him.

Are you close to your agent as far as her being a career guide?
Oh, I`ve been with her my whole career. I got with her when I was about six years old. My whole family has been with her. She was the only agent that took all of us. We went to a number of agents that said "OK, we`ll take Rain and Summer but we won`t take Liberty, River or Joaquin." We didn`t want to be split up. My parents wanted us all together and we went in and met her and she loved all of us and took us all. She`s just a really sweet, great woman who works on her own. Her office is a room behind her house. She believes in me and believes that I can do anything, so I don`t have to deal with package deals and agents going, "Well, Joaquin`s not really that type. We see him more as this, but we could get so-and-so." You know, at the big agencies I think they have these kind  of power meetings. I don`t know because I`ve never been there, but this is my assumption. They have these meetings where they say, "We have this script from this writer and I think that so-and-so is the type of part." I mean, I grew up with her. She`s part of the family, so it`s actually a great relationship and I`ve never been pressured into doing anything. She can be very strong-minded about certain projects: "I really think you should do this." But we always manage to agree on all of my choices, and I`m really happy with my career.

How many people work with you now?
My first thing was an agent. Then came a publicist. When To Die For came out, a lot of people wanted to do interviews, so they automatically went to this woman where my brother worked. So she just started calling me. Then about six months ago, I started thinking about getting an entertainment lawyer. They start dealing with the contracts and get really involved in the details.  Then I just got a business manager who had been doing our tax returns. He offered to do it and I wanted to free my mom from that responsibility, because she`s the one who`s been doing it. I don`t want her to have to deal with it, and there`s no way in hell I was going to do it, so this guy offered to do it for a really good price. All my credit-card statements go to him and I talk to him about investments and that sort of thing.

You`ve done three films pretty close together. Are you worried about working too much because it gets to be a drain?
Absolutely. If my only experience is being around a movie set, well, I`m going to become real repetitive and just be doing the same shit that you see. But I don`t think anybody should be condemned for their choices, because we`re all learning and we`re all stupid and you find kids that come out of the middle of nowhere and they have no idea and suddenly they`re thrust into the limelight and all this hype around them. There`s a lot of pressure put on these kids.

Would you ever do a big-budget action movie?
I would do one of those huge movies because I want to experience it. I think it`s probably a lot easier for me to do a scene in which I`m having an intimate conversation with someone on a quiet little set than it is to scream at a blue screen because I think a giant dragon`s penis is trying to swallow me. That, to me, is going to be a challenge.