VOGUE hommes - spring summer 99
Joaquin Phoenix - the real deal
He held his own opposite Nicole Kidman in "To Die For," and has copped some of 1999`s most sought-after leading roles.

This year, Joaquin Phoenix is changing gears and setting out on a course of his own. Younger Brother of, partner of, boyfriend of ... all that`s in the past now. At twenty four, Phoenix is as handsome and charismatic as any rock star and has never been afraid to play the anti-hero, quietly working at establishing himself as one of the top actors in Hollywood`s new guard all the while, landing major roles without making a spectacle of himself in the process. He`ll be in four films over the coming months, the first of which, 8 Millimeter, directed by Joel Schumacher and starring Nicolas Cage as the hero, is scheduled to open in France on March 10. In Return to Paradise and Clay Pigeons, due out some time later in Europe, he`s paired with one of his best buddies, Vince Vaughn. And in James Gray`s much-awaited second film, The Yards, he shares the limelight with James Caan and Faye Dunaway. Nowadays though, these roles seem like ancient history to him, and his head`s is an altogether different place. He`s wholly focused on Gladiators, the movie he`s shooting in London with Djimon Hounsou and Russell Crowe, directed by Ridley Scott and produced by Universal Pictures and Dreamworks. He stars in the film as the Emperor of Rome - a symbolic part perhaps, but one with top billing, just  the kind of springboard role he needs to put him over the rop. Author and scriptwriter Edward Bunker, who`s also been an actor in his time, caught up with Phoenix and shared an early morning cup of coffee with him. Their conversation ran the gamut from Phoenix`s career to his private life, and provides some fascinating, highly personal insights into what drives this intriguing, seductive loner.

Joaquin Phoenix has the bohemian charm of his older brother River Phoenix, who died too young on the sidewalk outside of the Viper Room, a Sunset Boulevard nightclub frequented by Hollywood`s fast young crowd. His cause of death was most probably a reaction to a bad mix of drugs. Never, ever mix heroin with alcohol, Valium or any "downer." That`s advice from yours truly. Joaquin was at the scene that night in 1993. He made the desperate call for help that resounded over the paramedics` airwaves while his brother lay convulsing on the pavement. he says he doesn`t use drugs and, in fact, doesn`t look like someone who does. He has been a vegan since before he was five. He is also a spokesman for PETA, People For The Ethical Treatment of Animals, in deference to which I don`t wear my leather jacket.

Before preparing for this interview, I was under the false impression that he was another product of Hollywood`s rampant nepotism. The easiest way to become a movie star is to have a parent who was one, or who had a big name in the business off-screen. If you doubt me, look at the names you seen on marquees, and only a small percentage use the family name. His parents, now divorced, would have been called "hippies" in the sixties, but historically they would be vagabonds or nomads, traveling throughout Latin America and the United States. 

Born in Puerto Rico, young Joaquin, whose real first name is Leaf, arrived in California with his family in a battered station wagon with masking tape on cracked windows. Two of his three sisters, Summer and Rain, are also actors and musicians. They began as street performers on the streets of Westwood and Venice. It seems that it was good preparation. For a young actor, he is not afraid of taking chances with a role. Although his formal education is limited, his speech shows someone with brains. He talks a little fast when excited: "Yes, Joel Schumacher, directed 8 Millimeter. Nick Cage is in it. Dark thriller. taboo subject. Real good story. Nick Cage is a private investigator looking for an eight-millimeter film that might be a real snuff film. Pathos and pace. It`s down and dirty. It works."

What about The Yards?
Are you sure it`s being released in France soon?

I`m not sure, but I`d love to know what you think of it.
That`s more complicated. James Gray directs. I hear they`re crazy about him in France. He directed an excellent movie, Little Odessa. This one, The yards, is about a dysfunctional family in Queens, New York. Fantastic cast: James Caan, Faye Dunaway, Ellen Burstyn, Mark Roberts. It`s about trying to fit into society - the strategies they use - and each individual`s personal definition of success. The obstacles you have to overcome, and the price you have to pay. At one level it`s about getting out there and making money. But at what cost? What is the value of loyalty to friends? My character works for Jimmy Caan and my job is to burn up or destroy equipment belonging to the people who bid against us for contracts. I go from being a small-time hood to what I consider a legitimate business person, and i think I`m "the man." Driving a big Lincoln. I want the jewelry, the nice house, the wife. I think that will make me happy and that I`ll fit in. But when all is said and done, I`m just a pawn. I haven`t seen a finished cut, but it`s one the greatest experiences I`ve had working on a movie. 

You didn`t make any movies for six years, from 1989 until To Die For.
Right. After Parenthood, I just felt that I was more advanced, mentally and in every other way, than the scripts they were sending me. Comedies that were silly, not funny. i wanted to work. I love to work. But I don`t want to do garbage. So I took off with my father. We went through Mexico and Central America. I like the people there. They`re spontaneous, friendly, unpretentious. Anyway, I came back and started auditioning again about a year before To Die For, just to get my chops working.

Is there an actor you pattern yourself after?
No. But I really love Peter Sellers and his choices: Lolita, Being There, Dr. Strangelove. He was a genius. I work on impulse. I mainly go by the script. I have to be passionate about it. It`s a very difficult process to make films. Complicated. It`s not as pure as i would like it to be. If I ever got in a movie I didn`t want to be in, I don`t know if I could take it.

In my opinion, when an actor gets to a certain point, it`s the choices of what you do that decide your career. Bad choices will kill you. In my opinion Dustin Hoffman has made the smartest choices over a whole career.
Yes, but it`s still a gamble. You can have the best director, the best d.p., the best everything and ... (he finishes with a shrug.) When everything comes together, you have magic. But you never know until it`s done. I`m looking for that magic. I hope I`ll always keep looking for it.

What`s next?
I`m going to England tomorrow ... for three months or so ... then to Africa on the same movie. Ridley Scott. About Rome (Gladiators, with Djimon Hounsou and Russell Crowe). It`s hard for me in England because I`m a vegetarian. 

Have you been to France?
No, not yet. I`m looking forward to it. Maybe for the Cannes Film Festival ... (he lights a cigarette.)

I read that you were trying to quit.
Yes, I was trying. I`ll try again sometime. I know it`s bad.

How about your private life?
Liv Tyler and I lived together for three years, but that`s over now. I seem to wander around without a real residence, but the truth is that I want a steady relationship and home and all that. It just hasn`t happened yet.

Would you like to direct?
In a way, yes. Every actor would, I guess. But not right now. I don`t have that need, or that hunger.

The tape ends and Joaquin, who is in a hurry to get to a photo shoot, bids me goodbye. As I watch him catch the elevator, I think that he is more stable and focused than I anticipated. In fact he seems like the quintessential nice kid, and if he continues to practice what he preaches, there`s no doubt in my mind that he`s sure to be a major star and should burn in the firmament for the first decades of the 21st century.

by Edward Bunker

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