|RochesterGoesOut - Oct 98|
By Jack Garner
(Oct. 9, 1998) -- First impressions are hard to shake -- but with diverse film roles in Return to Paradise and the new Clay Pigeons, the 23-year-old actor Joaquin Phoenix can feel himself breaking free.
Most people first knew Joaquin as the younger brother of River Phoenix, and as part of an eccentric family of latter-day hippies, supposedly growing up in religious communes and traveling in the back of vans in South America, Florida and California.
Later, of course, he made the tragic 911 call after River collapsed from a drug overdose in 1993, in front of the Viper Room on L.A.'s Sunset Strip.
And then, on screen, Joaquin made his first really big impression as a VERY spooky kid who's seduced into committing murder for Nicole Kidman in "To Die For."
So your reactions to the younger Phoenix are either sadness, for what he's experienced in life, or fear, because of his ability to portray scary, weird guys on screen.
But Joaquin will be the first to tell you there's more to him than those early impressions.
True, he was born in Puerto Rico, where the family was part of the religious cult, the Children of God. But they became disillusioned with the group and had left it behind by the time Joaquin was barely three. His memories are of growing up in Florida and California, as his parents started their children on show business careers.
"I had a wonderful upbringing," Phoenix has said.
As a kid, he flirted briefly with using Leaf as his name (after all, his siblings were named River, Summer, Rain and Liberty). He eventually reverted to his birth name, after performing small child roles in SpaceCamp, Russkies and Parenthood, and some TV shows.
He first attracted serious notice as the frightening Jimmy, a demented high school kid recruited for murder by his teacher (Kidman) in To Die For.
"People say I was so scary in To Die For," Phoenix says. "But he was this lost kid, and completely manipulated by this woman. There are these dreams he has, and it's all such a lie. I have great empathy for kids who have dreams, and then people take advantage of them."
He also was darkly weird in Oliver Stone's U-Turn.
But the change came earlier this year with his extremely sympathetic turn in Return to Paradise. He was a young American, harshly imprisoned on a drug charge in Southeast Asia. And now, in Clay Pigeons, he plays a hard-luck loser who keeps bumping -- innocently -- into dead bodies.
"I've often said that the role I got in To Die For was the best and worst thing for me," Phoenix says. "I wondered if I ever would escape from it.
"But I was confident that if I waited for the right films, it would work out."
"Other people try to pigeon-hole you, but I can't be, because my desire is too great to do all sorts of characters in films. If I had nothing to do but `To Die For' scripts, over and over, I'd make it different every time, because I have to."
Phoenix says he was drawn to Clay Pigeons because of the passion and ideas of first-time director David Dobkin. Phoenix also liked the cast Dobkin had assembled, including Vince Vaughn.
"Vince impressed immediately. First, when we met, he was so disarming," Phoenix says. "We hit it off. I love his sense of humor and outlook on life.
"And I love actors who get involved in a character and really design something, and Vince really did that. It was inspiring."
Ironically, after making Clay Pigeons, Phoenix and Vaughn found themselves working together to make Return to Paradise.
After that, Phoenix went on on to two more projects -- Joel Schumacher's 8 mm, in which he plays a sex shop clerk who introduces a detective (Nicolas Cage) to the porn world; and James Gray's The Yards, in which he plays a railroad worker whose boss is James Caan.
"But now I'm going to take it easy, and wait for something else that inspires me."
We're talking in a hotel at Toronto, and I mention that I interviewed Joaquin's brother in the same town five years ago, when River was promoting My Own Private Idaho.
"Yeah, I was here with him then," Phoenix remembers, with a smile.
I ask the young actor if he feels he's influenced somehow in his career by the spirit of his late brother.
"I don't think it gets that specific about my decisions, but I feel a great connection with his spirit and his memory."
Then he smiles again, and adds, "Actually, I don't think the movies I do mean a thing to him, because I think he's somewhere now where all this is somewhat meaningless."