|OUT magazine - march 99|
|Joaquin in L.A.
He`s dark, brooding, and everywhere. We couldn`t have been happier when we heard Joaquin Phoenix has two new movies under his belt ... how could anyone get enough of the devilishly sexy actor? Stacey D`Erasmo hangs with Phoenix while he aawaits mega-stardom.
Two new movies. Too many packs of American Spirit. Way too many dog-eared Tennessee Williams stories. Joaquin Phoenix plots a Hollywood takeover. We surrender.
Boystown, a.k.a. West Hollywood. About a block away, Larry Flynt has recently opened the Hustler Hollywood boutique, a clean, chain-store-like place where you can buy vibrators, lingerie, and cafč lattes. A few blocks farther down Sunset, past the Chateau Marmont, are sad-eyed strip bars and triple-X video stores. But here in Joaquin Phoenix`s hotel room, a bit off the main drag, a warm breeze from the balcony blows the long, white curtains into the room. The blues play softly on a boom box sitting on a counter. The room is impressively large and gently tumbled: a motorcycle jacket and helmet tossed into a chair, a pair of black boots and one sock on the floor, CDs scattered nearby on the carpet (Sinatra, Queen, James Brown), sweaters and several packs of American Spirit additive-free cigarettes tangled together on one of the two sofas, a Yamaha keyboard in the middle of the coffee table, and the Yamaha`s cardboard box upended a few feet away.
"I can kind of play 'Imagine,' " says Phoenix, all in black, standing by the keyboard in his stockinged feet, turning various buttons on and off. He`s stocky and kinetic, with messy hair and a silver chain with little trinkets on it around his neck. His eyes are as you`ve seen them in movies like To Die For and Return to Paradise: green, long-lashed, powerfully affecting. I want to go out to a nearby park, for atmosphere. He wants to stay in. A famously strict vegan, he lights an American Spirit and settles onto the sofa next to a spill of books - Tennessee Williams: Collected Stories, Hubert Selby Jr.`s Requiem for a Dream, Rilke`s Cuino Elegies, The Mediations of Marcus Aurelius and The Art of War by Machiavelli.
"Is there an incline in the park?" Phoenix asks. "Because I`d be huffing." He unleashes a direct gaze. "But this is your day." We stay in.
Iīve been delivered to this hotel room by Madame Publicity. phoenix is in two new movies: Eight Milimeter (with Nicolas Cage) and soon The Yards (with Charlize Theron and Mark Wahlberg, due in August). in Eight Millimeter he plays Max California, a blue-haired, tattooed, lost kid working in a porn store who helps Cage`s private-investigator character find out what happened to a runaway girl apparently killed in a snuff film. In The Yards he plays another lost kid, a half-Latino commuterrail worker named Willie Gurierrez who becomes a pawn in a scam. Together, Phoenix and I are supposed to enact the ritual of faux intimacy known as the celebrity interview, a late-20th-century improvisatory performance piece in which a journalist pretends to get to know an actor in the space of two or three hours and the actor pretends to let her. It is many respects the type of arrangement, rife with covert exchanges of power, for which a West Hollywood hotel room is the perfect setting.
Phoenix begins by obligingly rattling on about where he`s living (nowhere specific, having moved out of New York a few months ago), the Ducati motorcycle he just bought himself for his 24th brithday, his friend Rory (who got the same motorcycle), the pleasures of New Mexico, how he "dropped the bike" up on Topanga Canyon the other day, how Rory swiped his Prada coat. "Look," he says, glancing around the room, "there`s a french fry, which is always a plus." But even as he checks out the fry, he`s checking out me, and I`m checking out him as I discreetly unzip my tape-recorder case. I`m laughing at his funny, rapid-fire monologue about the bike and the canyon and whatever as I carefully note the titles of his books. He`s pretending not to notice that I`ve turned the tape recorder on, frequently punctuating his conversation with the ambiguous phrase FuckyouI`msorryHere`sahundreddollars (the words thrown together fast, like a $ 100 bill being flung from a limousine window). I write it down and look at it as he talks, thinking of all the things it can mean.
We both know what I`m here for - a little taste of his soul - but, Gigi-like, Phoenix lets me glimpse only tiny slivers of it through the fan he`s fluttering of Ducatis and frenc fries and Yamaha keyboards. When I ask what Eight Millimeter is about (at the time of the interview, i hadn`t seen it yet), he says he doesn`t know. When he mentions his father`s youth and I ask what that was like, he says he doesn`t know. (That we`ve been conversing at all is probably progress. A Few years ago, asked by a reporter how old he was when he made Ron Howardīs Parenthood, Phoenix replied, "I don`t know. I have difficulty with time." He was 15.) When he touches on his recent breakup with ex-girlfriend Liv Tyler and I ask if he`s been dating, he offers only, with a sly look, "I`m young. I`ve been fabulous." And when my tape recorder, exasperatingly, breaks, he says with some annoyance, "I`m not going to have this in my life. I need you to be professional," but then he playfully kicks my foot in a way that means kidding! - I think. I begin to remember how boys are. And I have no doubt that to the extent we`re playing a game, Phoenix is winning.
FuckyouI`msorryHere`sahundreddollars. As in, What the hell, let him win. Phoenix is smart and very funny and tells his stories enthusiastically. During the filming of Eight Millimeter, he says, he was surprised to find that director Joel Schumacher had obtained "the real thing" for some of the walks on pornography`s wild side. In one scene, he says, "we go into this hallway with people in leather and theyīre sexing each other up, and there`s this girl tied up in the air and I figure it`s special effects. But no. In between takes, they really are whipping the girl. So Nic goes " - he imitiates Cage`s marbly diction- "'Just grab a girl and kiss her!' " Which Phoenix thought was a great idea for his character until he kissed one of the girls (not the one in the air) and discovereed a whole new world in her mouth. "Whe wasnīt just pierced! She had bows and chain saws and weird fucking things in her tongue. The whole goddamn tongue was like some metallic monster. And she`s just an extra, so she doesn`t know about the movie kiss, so she really jammed it down my throat; and I`m on camera, trying to play it cool, but I`m in absolute shock and horror."
He stops himself. "I wouldn`t want her to feel bad. Is it mean?" "Itīs funny," I say. "Are you sure it`s not mean? It was just strange to me. I`ve only had the natural." Pause. Bemused look. "Always the natch." "So what did you do?" "I just went with it, man, and I feel pretty good about my decision," he says ironically, tapping the ash of his American Spirit.
Phoenix`s own sense of irony is something he withheld, to great poignant effect, from his portrayal of Jimmy, the poor, lost townie teenager in To Die For whom Nicole Kidman`s character screws in all senses of the word. "I wanted him to be as naive as possible," Phoenix sas, so he gave Jimmy a speech impediment and what he calls "Billy Ray Cyrus hair." Irony was also beautifully absent from Doug, the truehearted younger brother he played in Inventing the Abbotts, and from Phoenix`s role in the holiday commercial he made last year for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, wherein he gazes with sincere vegan dismay upon a pile of cold turkeys in the supermarket as Chopin`s "Funeral March" plays.
"I like to find the heart of characters that in other people`s hands would be the dupe," Phoenix says. "I can make them 3-D." It seems to be his calling. When he was about eight, he auditioned for a He-Man, Masters of the Universe, actions-figure commercial. "I was Skeletor," he recalls, He-Man`s craven archenemy. "Somewhere I knew how fake it was. So I`m sitting there actually analyzing the little script - you know, in the truest way, Why does Skeletor have pain? I wanted him to be happy." He laughs at his earnestness. "But I realized I couldnīt go in there and ask about Skeletor`s pain, so I just hammed the fuck out of it, got the part, and never did another commercial again."
FuckyouI`msorryHere`sahundreddollars. As in, I was only eight, but I got on my Ducati and rode out of there. As in, if Skeletor is just a toy, He-Man`s dupe, why brother? "If I`m not passionate about the film," Phoenix says now, "I canīt be present. I demand of myself to be 100 percent there." Gus Van Sant, who directed Phoenix in To Die For, describes him as being "completely obsessive" about his craft. "I don`t spend as much time making my movies as he does on his characters," Van Sant attests. During the production of To Die For, Van Sant`s friend Bruce LaBruce, the director and star of such sexually explicit gay films as Hustler White and Super 8 1/2, showed Phoenix and costar Casey Affleck some of his movies. Affleck, recalls Van Sant, was simply amazed by the raw sex, but Phoenix`s response was different. "He couldn`t believe that an actor could do that on film, " says Van Sant. "It was something he sort of admired because it was off the chart, that Bruce was able to go that distance as an actor."
Unlike some of his blonder adn ore career-wary contemporaries, Phoenix is willing to go off the chart. The roles he`s chosen have tended toward the residents of the dark side, the lost, the almost unsalvageable. His teenage character in Parenthood, one of his first major movies, was a divorce-wounded boy who barely spoke. And as recently as last year`s Return to Paradise he was still playing the lost boy, as a college grad facing a death sentence in Malaysia for minor drug possession. But within that lostness Phoenix conveys an unexpected intelligence that makes moviegoers turn toward his characters in sympathy rather than away in despair. "The reason that Return to Paradise works on some level, " says Joel Schumacher, "is because you care about getting this boy out."
Phoenix himself, however, is emphatically not lost. He traces his talent to his "fantastic, really loving family"; he speaks movingly of lost kids that have nothing, who "don`t even know they`ve given up," but is careful to make the distinction between empathy and autobiography. "Me and Casey had these conversations during To Die For," he recalls. "Casey said, 'People are going to think Gus found us on the street somewhere.' " In fact, his mother was there during the making ot the darkhearted movie, watching rushes with him at the end of the day. Nicole Kidman remembers being impressed by their unabashed affection. "He wasnīt at all embarrassed to sit there with his head on his mother`s shoulder," she says.
And yet. There is the matter of his brother, River, once heralded as the next James Dean, who overdosed in 1993 at the age of 23. There is the matter of his peripatetic upbringing by hippie parents who poeticlally named their children River, Rain, Joaquin, Liberty, and Summer and forswore meat but who also seemed to have forsworn formal education for their children (River only completed the fifth grade; Joaquin says he was "pretty much homeschooled" his whole life). For many years, the family belonged to the Children of God sect, which supported itself in part by having its members beg. And there is the matter of lovely young actors generally, whose fortunes rise and fall with the public`s desire: Matt Dillon, Rob Lowe, Keanu Reeves, Timothy Bottoms, anyone? All the young dudes go up the canyon road on their new Ducatis (Ewan McGregor recently appeared in Vanity Fair on his). A lot of them drop the bike. One of the masses of 14-year-old girls who made Leonardo DiCaprio king of the world recently commented to Premiere magzaine that she`s now "really sick of his face."
It`s hard to imagine getting sick of Phoenix`s face, which is more Skeletor than He-Man, both marred and articulated by that scar on his upper lip (a scar he says he was born with). He may be beautiful, but he isn`t pretty. Because he`s a natural character actor, says Schumacher, he`ll work all his life. Phoenix seems to agree when he says that the typical hero is usually "one-note - it doesnīt interest me." (His idea of a hero is the Peter Sellers character in Being There, "because he`s not trying to be a hero, but he makes people`s lives better.") On the subject of his upbringing, he accentuates the positive: the family`s wide travels, his exposure to different cultures. Asked about his brother, he answers politely, but with frequent reminders that our time together is drawing to a close.
He says he was "never really aware" of River`s growing reputation as an actor. "We lived ina small town. We didn`t have a TV. I didn`t know Premiere magazine existed. And he didn`t carry himself like that - like a movie star." "Do you every worry for yourself?" I ask, meaning off-duty dangers. "We`re all susceptible, but I have strong support. Itīs when you`re done making a film - that`s the tough period. After Return to Paradise, I was a wreck. (Actors) concentrate so hard on acting they don`t develop other skills." I glance at the Cuino Elegies, Tennessee Williams` Collected Stories, the Yamaha keyboard. "Iīve experienced that. I`ve certainly been the guy that hits the bars." "Still, it seems like Hollywood has a particular way of chewing people up and spitting them out." "I don`t know," he says quietly. "I donīt know who`s responsible." Fuck you. I`m sorry. Here`s a hundred dollars.
But it`s a sunny day in L.A. "A good day for motorcycle riding," Phoenix says, staring restlessly out the window. He tells me that in his family he was the "rebel," the one who made baby-sitters cry, the one who "wanted the windows down in the car when everyone else was cold." I believe him and feel a little silly for taking it all so seriously; the sorrow of Hollywood, the lost children Phoenix plays so well, I must have gotten carried away. When Phoenix leaves this room, he`s off to Europe to play the emperor of Rome in Ridley Scott`s upcoming Gladiator. There really is no reason to get sentimental and protective about the future emperor of Rome, whom I imagine, somehow, ina Prada coat.
Well what can I say? I guess I always play
the girl. FuckyouI`msorryHere`sahundreddollars. I`m not sure which
of those phrases to be from the kind of guy who, at the end of an
interview, tells you that he never likes anything that`s written about him
but who then, additve-free cigarette in one hand, insists that you hug
him. There is so much distance and ambigity in these hotel-toom setups
between strangers; it`s hard to know what`s real. In the last few minutes,
seeking authenticity, I ask what he`s wearing on the silver chain around
his neck. "This is
the I Ching coin," he says, "and
this ring is from some broad."
Ironic usage of broad. "I
foudn it in the dirt next to a hammock in Central America. Actually, the
ring might be from Liv. I just put it on so I wouldnīt lose it."