Sunday Times - april 99
To die for

Despite being temporarily typecast as a low-life killer, the darkly handsome Joaquin Phoenix is coming into his own, writes MARIANNE GRAY

Nothing you read on Joaquin Phoenix correlates. He claims he's constantly altering, which is why he finds interviews so hard to do. You can flip through a dozen clippings on him yet still not feel you've moved any closer to the actor.

"I'm constantly changing, life is constantly changing," he sighs, throwing little light on himself. "Whatever I say, it'll always be different by the time you read it. I have difficulty with time, anyway."

A model of street-kid coolness, Joaquin (pronounced Wah-Keen) Phoenix, with his protean good looks and a scar above his lip that makes him look dangerous, has a raw naturalism that conveys a certain kind of truth, alienation and hope.

Best remembered as the scuzzy trailer-park killer in To Die For, he also appeared in Return to Paradise and he has a rush of new films heading to cinemas nearby. First is the comedy drama Clay Pigeons with Vince Vaughn, then next month it's 8MM with Nicolas Cage.

He is now at Shepperton studios in Britain shooting Gladiators for Ridley Scott, in which he plays the Emperor of Rome opposite Russell Crowe and Djimon (Amistad) Hounsou, and he has just wrapped an industrial sabotage thriller, The Yards, with Charlize Theron. Phew!

"However, it'll still be a while before I live down my character in To Die For," Phoenix groans. "Maybe being Emperor of Rome will help. The problem is, if in your early career you come out with a really well-defined character that kind of establishes you, you become known for that for ever. For a while I didn't care, but eventually it bothered me and I started citing my other work - not that I've played Richard III or Hamlet. But it's pathetic, having to defend yourself for something like that."

There's something pure about Phoenix. Beneath the nervous outer ruggedness there seems to be a lot of heart and soul. It's that vulnerability that he lets the camera see, and it makes him a character audiences root for.

He comes with a history that reads like a '60s rock-album sleeve. The second of five children of hippie parents, he was born on October 28 1974 in Venezuela. Childhood was a quirky and whimsical affair, growing up on the road in an out-there life in Oregon, Mexico, Central America and Florida, while his parents, then members of a cult, followed their beliefs, singing for their supper.

"I'm not into organised religion," Phoenix says. "But at the same time, I've seen people who were completely messed up who then found God and now go to church, don't drink, don't do nasty drugs. That's great. You have to do whatever it takes to make it through.

"For me, I believe in a God of whatever my own thing is." (In his case it could be god of the trumpet, his current favourite pastime, or god of the yellow '72 Le Mans car, his passion.)

At the age of four he changed his name from Joaquin Raphael to Leaf (his sisters' names are Rainbow, Liberty and Summer), and that year the family moved from Florida to Hollywood where eventually they were signed up with an agent and much of their ideology was to be splintered.

"My family had a shitty little apartment in North Hollywood," recalls the unfailingly polite Phoenix. "No kids were allowed so we had to hide in the cupboard when the landlady came around. We schlepped forever, moving every few months, being regularly evicted for late rent, for kids, whatever. Talk about idealistic."

Ideals were further shattered when, in 1993, his older brother, actor River Phoenix, died of an alleged drug overdose. It was Joaquin and Rainbow who carried his body to a waiting ambulance. Still devastated by the loss of his mentor and sibling, it's a subject that remains off-limits and the tragedy more or less plunged him into seclusion for a couple of years.

"I think there's a lot of stuff that you could be angry about but I try not to be angry about anything," Phoenix says. "I've come to a nearer acceptance. A public death is a really difficult thing to go through. The death of someone you really love is difficult enough all on its own. All that stuff about how River died is so untrue.

"The night he died we were together and he was just playing the guitar. He wanted to show me a new song, wanted to just go home and hang out, play the guitar. I was the one who wanted to go out and he just came because he was making sure I was taken care of."

"We used to talk about ideas, screenplays and how we wanted to possibly co-direct a movie. For River, as it is for me, acting and movies were a need. I can't explain it."

Phoenix's first brush with acting came when he was eight, as the mop-headed kid in SpaceCamp, and then Russkies. His first decent role was in 1989 as Dianne Wiest's troubled son in Parenthood and there were also a number of TV jobs, most notably Hill Street Blues and
Murder, She Wrote in which he and his sister Summer played siblings.

Then came Gus Van Sant's To Die For, as psycho-barbie Nicole Kidman's confused victim of desire who'll do anything for her, including kill.

"I got offered a lot of stoned, stupid, vulnerable kid characters after To Die For," Phoenix says. "It always happens after a film comes out - and does well. I must have received about 30 teen-psycho scripts after that film. I didn't take any. I like to hang loose, stay grounded. Acting is my solace so I have to be challenged by the role and like it. I need something fresh with each job.

"I particularly love making films like Inventing the Abbotts. Set in the late '50s, it was all about the move from what went before and the '50s phenomenon - the new world, modern life. Interesting social observation stuff.

"Of course, for me it had an extra dimension as my screen character, Doug Holt, falls in love with Pamela, one of the Abbott girls, played by Liv Tyler, and we did, too, off-screen in real life. Art imitating life, etcetera." (They also worked together on Oliver Stone's U-Turn, with Liv in a cameo role in the bus-station scene.)

"I love the pressure of making movies," Phoenix says. "I hate rehearsing. I can't rehearse. But when you roll that camera, there's something about it, it's magic. I'm gone and can't be held accountable. I'm a maniac for work. When I'm working, everything works. When I've got nothing to do I go a bit kooky.

"I just stay home and swim and read scripts and play backgammon. Or play the trumpet or guitar, or listen to CDs and the rest. I'm not a social guy. I'm quiet by nature. I love to go visit my sisters, hit the road a bit. I'd rather play with my sister Liberty's kid Rio ('River' in
Spanish) than go to clubs or shows."

Phoenix lives in a house in the Hollywood Hills that was built in the '30s and is a great base for mountain biking. He shares the place with sister Summer, and his mother is often there, holidaying away from the family home in Florida.

"I enjoy the travelling when I make movies on location. Clay Pigeons was shot on location in the great American northwest, in northern Utah standing in for Montana. It's huge country up there, a whole character in the movie."

In Clay Pigeons, a film Phoenix describes as a 'daylight noir', he plays Clay Bidwell, a garage attendant in a small sleepy Montana town. His best friend confronts him about having had an affair with his wife-to-be (Georgina Cates) and, with a horrified Clay looking on, successfully kills himself and frames Clay for the `murder'. It's dark with black-and-blacker humour from then onwards.

"Clay is under siege from many, if not all, the other characters in the film," says Phoenix. "There was so much happening to this character. I really had to be focused and prepared and tried to keep Clay's character subtle and small, decidedly unpronounced."

Janeane Garofalo plays the laser-sharp FBI agent who turns her unwanted attention on Clay and Vince Vaughn plays his cowboy chum Lester Long. "Vince and I also worked together on Return to Paradise, about three guys holidaying in Penang but only one, my character, getting done for dope and ending up on death row in a Malaysian prison. Vince and I play well off each other. We don't stifle the other's way of acting."

Clay Bidwell is leagues away from the role Phoenix plays in his next release, Joel (Batman) Schumacher's 8MM. The film is about a surveillance specialist (Cage) who, via a reel of 8mm film, unravels a hideous sexual underworld. Phoenix is Max, a blue-haired, razor-sharp 'adult bookstore' attendant who aspires to be a musician.

"Although Max is someone to have fun with, the film was dealing with man's darkest impulses. But working with Nic (Cage) was a riot. Man, that guy can crack jokes!

"Next, I want to do a really big, stupid comedy, where all I do is laugh. I sort of feel that somewhere inside there is a line of comedy waiting to be tapped."