Interview magazine - october 95

Introducing Joaquin Phoenix, who's got the world on his shoulders, and at his fingertips, too.

Joaquin (pronounced "Wa-keen") Phoenix is determined to choose his appearances carefully. You can't blame him. At twenty-one he has already experience too much invasion: He was at his brother River's side when he died in 1993 and then had to withstand the ensuing media frenzy. Now, he is faced with confronting his trepidations about the limelight and all that it brings. His desire to act and the intensity he reveals in Gus Van Sant's To Die For, which opens this month, guarantee that attention will be on him.

A trenchant black comedy, written by Buck Henry and inspired by Joyce Maynard's loose novelization of a 1991 case in which a New Hampshire teaching assistant seduced two youths into murdering her husband, To Die For is Van Sant's first feature for a Hollywood major - Columbia - and his third to showcase the dreamy talent of a Phoenix: River starred in My Own Private Idaho in 1991, and sister Rain acted in Even Cowgirls Get the blues in 1994. All three movies address the need for family, and there is something especially moving about he Phoenix clan being represented in each.

In To Die For, Phoenix plays Jimmy, a shy, near-moronic white-trash runt immediately smitten with the glamourous local TV-weathergirl, Suzanne (Nicole Kidman), when she visits his classroom to give at talk. A smalltown twinkie who wants a taste of the big time, Suzanne lures Jimmy and fellow no-hoper Russell (Casey Affleck) into her scheme to off her career-obstructing spouse (Matt Dillion). She takes the awed Jimmy to bed and keeps his overweight coed friend, Lydia (Alison Folland), around as her worshipper. When Jimmy's enthusiasm for the project wanes, Suzanne threatens to make Russell the beneficiary of her motel-room blow jobs instead. He needs no further persuasion. The scrawny Phoenix, whose comic timing is superb, and the willowy Kidman generate a lot of heat as the unlikely screen lovers of the year.

Phoenix traveled from his home in Florida to New York City to do this interview. Checked into a swank hotel by the studio, he soon checked out and headed for his girlfriend's parents' less intimidating apartment in Chinatown. We sat and chatted over mineral water in a shadowy corner of a SoHo restaurant. In person, he's disheveled, nervous, and unnarcissistic, someone who wants to be in movies but is only prepared to walk the public/private line by taking one gentle step at a time.

Graham Fuller: So, I'm talking to the Phoenix formerly known as Leaf, right?

Joaquin Phoenix: I guess so.

GF: Why did you change your name from Joaquin to Leaf, then back to Joaquin again?

JP: I've made up so many stores about it, I can't remember.

GF: I know you were born in Puerto Rico and that you were parly raised in the Caribbean and in Venezuela. Did you have a formal education?

JP: No, not really. I was home-tutored almost my whole life.

GF: How did you get into acting?

JP: My brother (River) was doing this TV series and they needed two kids for the show, so they got me and my little sister, Summer, to do it. After that I did some really weird guest spots with orangutans and stuff. [laughs]

GF: Do you think acting is a gift in your family?

JP: I don't know. . . .I don't know.

GF: You don't seem to have pushed yourself into Hollywood, yet everyone is giong to be aware of you after To Die For comes out.

JP: Acting is real important to me. I love it, and it's something I care about. But I'm not going to go to L.A. and bust my ass to do something because people want me to. I just read each script and go on the feeling. To die For was such a beautiful script that it swept me away, and I wanted to work with Gus (Van Sant). But I'm not desperate to do shit.

GF: Do you think most of what gets done is shit?

JP: Come on, man. Sure.

GF: Are you talking about big special-effects movies?

JP: The Star Wars movies are my favorite movies. Oh, those are great! that stuff was just so ballsy. It was, like, rugged special effects. Better than all this computer stuff now.

GF: Do you think computer effects look artificial?

JP: Yeah.

GF: It's interesting that you seem turned off by fakeness. [pause] It wouldn't be real if I didn't ask you about your brother River, who was an incredible actor and who is now an incredible absent force for many people. We covered his work a lot in this magazine. Do you want to talk about him or about his legacy to you at all? I respect your answer either way.

JP: No, I don't want to talk about it. I have nothing to say about it that I would want to be public.

GF: Reticence can be a virtue.

JP: It's hard for me to put my feelings into words.

GF: Well, it's a short interview, but it says a lot about you.