People Online 98 - Clay Pigeons Special
Vince Vaughn, Joaquin Phoenix and Janeane Garofalo talk about their new black comedy 

The black comedy Clay Pigeons wants to shoot  holes in your timeworn movie assumptions. The hero, played with intense befuddlement by Joaquin Phoenix, is likable enough but not the swiftest tumbleweed on the prairie. The usually wise-cracking Janeane Garofalo gives a straight portrayal as a no-nonsense FBI agent (except when she puffs on some confiscated weed). Perhaps the only traditional element is the Stetson-hatted lady killer, played by Vince Vaughn. 

Unpredicatablity is just what director David Dobkin was after. "I wanted everyone to be different than what they appear to be -- the FBI agent who smokes pot, the small town sheriff who seems slow but is the one who figures [the murders] out in the end," Dobkin says. Indeed, the first-time director works hard at tweaking movie tropes (at least pre-Scorsese ones) -- undercutting dazzling sunshine with murders, murders with seemingly wholesome country-and-western and Pat Boone tunes -- making the film a tough sell to distributors. 

"It's not really a thriller, it's not really a murder mystery, it's not classic noir and it's not really a comedy, though it is humorous," says Dobkin. So what i Clay Pigeons, then? Suffice it to say that in a tiny, panoramic town in Montana, dead bodies keep appearing to the well-intentioned Clay (Phoenix). Not long after, a smooth-talking neo-cowboy (Vaughn) aggressively befriends him, not long after that the Feds (led by Garofalo) aggressively investigatehim. And that's just the beginning ... 

Joaquin Phoenix

Joaquin Phoenix is is no stranger to playing the small-town dupe -- the role that changed his identity from simply  being the brother of the late River Phoenix to being an actor in his own right was in To Die For. In that, Nicole Kidman convinced Phoenix's unworldly teen to off her husband. In Clay Pigeons Phoenix isn't lacking a moral compass, though, just the smarts to keep away the appearance of trouble. 

No one seems to question Phoenix's savvy in his career, though. Like his three sisters and River, Phoenix has acted since childhood. After living in South America and Florida with his missionary parents, he appeared in TV series and movies of the week from the age of 8. But instead of going the child-star wash-up route, Phoenix put himself on Hollywood's map. Besides 1995's To Die For, he did Return to Paradise and Inventing the Abbotts. He also boosted his personal life with the latter; Phoenix and costar Liv Tyler met on the set and have been a high-profile couple ever since. Though the 23-year-old actor often looks scrappy on the big screen, his off-beat sense of humor and rough-hewn good looks landed him in a Prada campaign not so long ago. Phoenix recently spoke with Laura Smith Kay of PEOPLE Online. 

Much has been made of the fact that you and Vince Vaughn did Clay Pigeons and Return to Paradise back to back and that you became friends. How did that happen? 

It was coincidental. I know that Vince likes to think that he got us together again [in Return to Paradise], that he said, "Joaquin -- he's a talent, you want him in this movie." But the director didn't even know that we had finished shooting Clay Pigeons....So it was organic, which was  really nice. 

You recently finished shooting 8MM, a Joel Schumacher movie. What's the difference between making a big movie like that and something small like Clay Pigeons? 

The amount of time -- we shot Clay Pigeons in six weeks with six-day weeks, so it was really brutal. It was a much longer shoot for 8MM. Here's the thing: In 8MMyou get the trailer, it's grand. In Clay Pigeons, they say, "If you don't mind, share with Vince, because your trailer's been  repossessed." Literally. 

What's 8MM about? 

Nic Cage is a private detective hired when someone finds a snuff film in her husband's safe; she wants to know if it's real and if so who's the girl an who are the men who killed her. So he comes to Los Angles, where I work in a sex shop, and I become his guide to all these underground places. My character is really  sad -- a character in a tragic situation is sad, but  one who doesn't know it is worse. We get in way  over our heads. I think it's great that he's paying me money, and I'm happy for that and to be out of the sex shop; I really think I'm a big man. But I'm ridiculous -- I have vinyl pants and pierced eyebrows and blue hair. He's such a sad little punk, he wants to be a rocker, to be Jim Morrison but he's got zero talent, he's never going to make it, so he has to laugh about it, to make jokes. He thinks that they're like a great team -- Starsky and Hutch or Jon and Poncherello. 

Is it hard to shake really intense roles, like your prisoner in Return to Paradise? 

Yeah, it certainly was. The first two weeks were a real state of confusion, and you're just trying to get through it because time will take care of it. But luckily I went into 8MM soon afterward, which was great, to roll that into another character. 

Is it difficult, after an intense  shoot, to part ways with your costars? 

It's strange. On [the upcoming drama] The Yards, we all -- particularly Charlize [Theron] and me -- had really powerful scenes with each other, where you just know somebody's soul, completely exposed. And suddenly, everyone's packing up, "Yeah, we'll see each other," but it's never going to be the same. I don't know how much you know them and how much you know their characters. It's tough sometimes. I stay in touch. I talk to every director I've worked with, and a lot of the actors also. 

You've done your share of dark  movies -- any interest in doing a big broad comedy? 

Absolutely. But the thing is, when are we going to find a Dr. Strangelove again? That's what I love, it really explores the characters. Some of the broader comedies are just kind of dumb. There's nothing wrong with laughing, but I'm really picky about dialogue. 

What excites you about being an actor? 

[Stage whisper] Everything. It's really hard to explain. When you work with people you admire -- really fantastic directors and writers and actors, it's just such a wonderful feeling wrapping for the  day and walking out and talking and saying, 'Wow we're really bringing this thing to life,' and just being collaborative and creative and working hard. It's really a glorious feeling. I'm absolutely addicted. 

How do you develop a character? 

It depends on the character, but usually when I pick up a script the lines start coming out. I start talking a certain way, I start testing things, and then I start seeing them. The minute I read To Die For, I knew that I wanted the character to have that Billy Ray Cyrus sort of hair. So I had them put in some extensions and pierce the ear. I thought this was a really ridiculous hair style, and I still do. But it's funny, in Canada, I'm walking to the set laughing about it, and I look up and like 60 percent of the crew has this haircut -- the hockey cut. 

Given your busy shooting schedule, is it hard to keep in touch with your far-flung family and actress girlfriend [Liv Tyler]? 

It's not hard. [wryly] We have little gadgets that we can leave things on and say things. I'm always in touch. My younger sister was living with me when I was making The Yards. I'm going to get back soon and see my other sister. I'm seeing my girlfriend a lot now, she got done with work in London a couple of months ago so she's around, which is nice. So you always manage, and you just spend a lot of money on phone calls. 

You've managed to keep out of the tabloids -- is that due to a conscious effort? 

No, I think I'm just not that famous -- no one cares. You certainly can put yourself out there in certain places, certain functions where you're asking for it. People are not really interested in me, which is grand. I don't know what it is, but we love that. [claps]