JUICE magazine - december 98

Joaquin Phoenix does it his way

Joaquin Phoenix does not like to sit down when riding the subway. Rather than getting comfy on the crowded seats, Phoenix prefers to stand near the door, close to the exit, and that’s only in the end carriages of the subway train. “I don’t like to sit,” he says. “I always stand. Right here.” It seems that appearing uncomfortable and free to bolt at any minute is more than just one of this young actor’s onscreen traits.

Phoenix is, as practically everyone knows, the younger brother of River, the talented cult actor who died on the footpath outside Johnny Depp’s Viper Room nightclub while his younger brother and sister stood by and watched helplessly. For an actor who chose to shy away from fame for several years after making an early start in films such as Parenthood, finally making his comeback years later with Gus Van Sant’s black comedy To Die For, Phoenix knows all about being tabloid fodder. Before he had a chance to make his return to the big screen, television shows such as Hard Copy aired his heart-breaking 911 phone call across the nation. Needless to say he has no interest in promoting himself, saying that he prefers “his work to speak. What does it matter, who I am?”

What Phoenix is, however, is incredibly gifted. But he’s not about to give anything away. “I don’t know, it’s all relative,” he replies when asked about his occupation. “I don’t have the answers. I’m just still trying to figure it out.” After To Die For, in which Phoenix played a high school murderer obsessed with TV anchor-woman wannabe Nicole Kidman, came Inventing the Abbotts. It was during the filming if this coming of age story that Phoenix hooked up with his co-star high-profile girlfriend, Liv Tyler (they’ve since broken up). You may also have caught him as a jealous boyfriend to Claire Danes in Oliver Stone’s U-Turn.

Phoenix (who briefly changed his name to Leaf as a child), is about to hit our screens in three new movies. First up is Return to Paradise, then Clay Pigeons (both opposite Vince Vaughn), and the soon to be seen 8MM, opposite Nicolas Cage. Already critics in the US are calling Phoenix’s performance in …Paradise nothing short of inspired.

Phoenix plays an American imprisoned in a third world jail for drug possession, facing a death sentence unless two of his friends return to share the blame –and the lengthy prison sentences. It’s a complicated role and one that the 24-year-old actor pulls off admirably. The actor says he got in touch with his character during shooting by simply closing his eyes and reaching out to the walls of his cell –for hours. “The crew probably thought I was a little mad,” he says.

A strict vegan like his brother, Phoenix knows that his name carries connotations. He was the star of an ad campaign by hip fashion house Prada –but refused to don the leather belt and shoes. But Phoenix isn’t about to be held up for anyone’s approval or as an example of righteousness in the way his brother often was.

“I know people that are like, ‘I would never do one of those Japanese commercials for a million dollars, two million dollars,’” Phoenix says. “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.”

And don’t be surprised if he pops up in the sequel to Godzilla, or Independence Day, either.

“I would do one of those huge movies because I want to experience it,” he says. “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.