|The Sun Herald Newspaper (from Australia) - April 30, 2000|
|He was overshadowed by his
late brother, River, but now Joaquin 'Leaf' Phoenix has risen from the
ashes to cut a gladiatorial swathe on the screen.
Paul Fischer reports.
He's dark and brooding, and quietly unpretentious- a young man genuinely unaware of his true ability as an actor. Through it all, in Ridley Scott's stunning Gladiator, he holds his own among the very best, and for this actor - just like his co-star Russell Crowe - it's the work and nothing else that counts.
Joaquin Phoenix's brooding quality on screen seems to transmute off camera. Dressed all In black, his thick hair slightly unkempt, cigarette dangling between his left fingers, there's a hesitation to his answers to even the most obvious of questions. He pauses continuously, emerging nervous and agitated. He's clearly unaware of the kind of charisma that generates from the screen. As the villainous Roman emperor he plays with a flawless English accent in Gladiator, Phoenix is an arresting and hypnotic presence. It appears, though, that he doesn't realize how good an actor he is. "First of all, I really think that the greatest fear for actors is reaching the point at which they go, 'God, I'm good at this', because I think the work will really suffer. "I always hope I can do Justice to the films and characters. I feel that I've been choosy in my roles as much as I can be, and I only work on films that I really want to make." Lately, these include Clay Pigeons, Inventing The Abbotts and U-Turn. Phoenix says: "I feel immense pressure from myself to do the best job that I can do, and I'm never really satisfied."
The actor was nervous about doing Gladiator, a $163 million spectacle in which he lights up the screen as the treacherous Roman emperor Commodus, so he sought advice from co-star Russell Crowe. "He said: 'Shut up mate, here's a valium.'" Phoenix laughs. "What really said was: "Take it easy, It'll be fine. Just breathe deeply - we're all in this together." "I'd never worked on a film of quite this size, and initially it was a little overwhelming. "When I first arrived at the camp, I saw the sets and just the size of the crew, all that played a part in my nervousness. But Ridley (Scott) has such a calm nature about him and he put me immediately at ease."
Staying true to his last name, the 26-year-old has made a career out of making a couple of films, disappearing, and then reappearing from the ashes to rise upwards towards greater glory. The actor, who began his career under the name of Leaf, lived for a long time in the shadow of older brother River. After River's tragic death at the age of 23, Leaf abandoned his career for two years, making a comeback in 1995 with his performance in To Die For, directed by Gus Van Sant (who also directed River in one of his last films, 1993's Even Cowgirls Get the Blues). Since then, the actor, who changed his name back to Joaquin in the early 1990s, has worked steadily in Hollywood, solidifying both his experience and reputation. Between Leaf and Joaquin, Phoenix simply stopped acting and traveled. "My Leaf phase was eight to 15 years old. so I was a child actor and there weren't many options in terms of films. Then I took some time off before embarking on the Joaquin phase." That was a five-year hiatus. He disappeared from the scene and traveled, mainly with his father, "through Mexico and Central America". "I really liked the people there. They were spontaneous, friendly and unpretentious." - The travel bug that bit him as a teenager hasn't really left, he says wistfully. "It could happen again." That period remains one of Phoenix's happiest. He says emphatically: "I simply knew that I didn't want to make films any more at that time. The scripts that I was, reading for ages 15 through 18, were just ridiculous. "There's not a nice way to say it. The titles of them would just conjure up laughter. "
The year after Parenthood, I couldn't find anything that was of interest to me, so if you keep on saying 'No' for a year, the offers stop and there's no work at all. That was fine with me. After five years off screen, Phoenix did indeed rise from the ashes with To Die For. "About a year before that, when I was 18. I just became interested in the work again. I guess I'd just grown as an individual and human, and felt that there were things I wanted to express." He went back on the audition trail, "for the sake of getting my chops back and getting back in the groove of auditioning". "Auditioning is a whole different style of acting. "So I'd go in and read for stuff like Lassie Comes Home - dog and whale movies." For a while. it seemed like the Leaf period was coming back to haunt him. "I thought: 'God, this is going nowhere.' Then I read To Die For."
These days, Phoenix is a nomad in the
true sense of the word, claiming that he has no fixed abode. "I'm
looking for somewhere, so if you know of something, let me know. I
was living New York, then Gladiator came up and I was in Europe for five
months, so I gave up that place, and now I'm just looking for
something." He add that he's now
"eager to find a
place I'd call home". And
he's referring to more than just a house. He lived with Liv Tyler 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 a home and all that. It just hasn't
happened yet," Phoenix says with
a hint of regret. He talks briefly about being a vegetarian, "which
I have been since age seven". He
says that vegetarian cuisine has improved over the years, but the
leather exclusions did complicate one of Phoenix's rare modeling gigs. "When
I did the Prada campaign," he
stylist wore the shoes. They did a separate shot of the shoes and
it wasn't me." Fortunately for
Phoenix, ex girlfriend Tyler was also vegetarian, "so
food was the least of our problems."
he laughs. Phoenix may be homeless but the work is coming in thick and
fast. He'll be soon seen with Kate Winslet in the sexual drama Quills,
which features the pair "in
the toughest and most unusual sex scene I've ever done".
The actor will also be seen in The Yards, opposite Charlize Theron. "At
the moment, acting is my passion. It's liberating and I love it.
Whether that will last remains to be seen."