|8Days (magazine from Singapore)- Issue 501, May 13th|
Joaquin Phoenix emerges from the shadow of his late, famous brother to enter the blockbuster arena. By Paul Calder
If you were born in Puerto Rico to hippie missionaries, given the name Joaquin, and had an older brother called River and sisters Summer, Rain and Liberty, chances are your life wouldn’t follow a conventional path.
Indeed, Joaquin Phoenix’s life has been as offbeat as his name. The model-turned-actor grew up travelling through Latin America with his parents who preached the word of the Children Of God cult. As a six-year-old, he changed his name to Leaf, before changing it back as a teenager.
After his parents left the sect, the close-knit family settled in California where Joaquin’s mother helped her kids moved into showbiz.
While his brother River, emerges as Hollywood’s It Boy, taking bold parts in daring films, Joaquin made tentative steps towards an acting career, appearing in films like 1986’s Space Camp and Parenthood but when in 1993 River collapsed outside Johnny Depp’s Viper Room and died of a drug overdose, the younger sib, devastated by the loss, left showbiz and toured Mexico for several years. “ I worked at a beach, renting out motorcycles,” he recalls. “That came to a sudden halt when I got in an accident and broken my arm.”
Stepping out of his brother’s shadow, the 25-year-old made a name for himself with his breakout turn as a dim-witted, duped misfit in the 1995 indie hit To Die For.
Since then the strict vegan has taken on meaty roles in Inventing The Abbotts, Clay Pigeons, Return To Paradise and 8MM. With Gladiator, he enters the arena of big budget blockbusters in the starring role of the evil emperor Commodus.
Did you watch roman epics like Ben Hur or Spartacus to inspire you for your role?
Joaquin Phoenix: (covers his face with his hands) I’m so embarrassed because I’ve never watched any of them. A few weeks ago, I caught the last 20 minutes of Anthony and Cleopatra. I had developed an interest in the genre about a week before I got Gladiator. I intended to go out and buy them all on laserdisc and watch them, but I decided I’d rather have my own fresh approach.
Commodus has a fear of the dark. Do you have any fears or phobias?
Flying. I don’t even have to think about that one.
You look a lot chunkier in Gladiator than you do now. Did you put on weight for the role?
I become obsessed with the physicality of a character. I stopped going to the gym and put on a few pounds because I wanted to project the decadence and laziness that would come from being an emperor. I permed my hair twice because I wanted to look like this young, scraggly prince-in-waiting.
Your climatic duel with Russell Crowe is quite physical. Any war wounds to speak of?
Just a couple of scrapes. (Coyly) Nothing really worth talking about. There were a few scrapes but I love that. You want to get bruised and kicked around just to get your adrenaline going.
Were you intimidated by the size of the production, this being your first big budget film?
When I first drove up on to the set, I couldn’t believe what they’d done. It was so elaborate and detailed. But Ridley Scott [director] is so calm. It never seemed to get away from him. He has a way of making you feel like you’re part of an intimate drama, when really you’re on the set of this huge film.
Are you comfortable with fame?
It doesn’t really interest me. I don’t partake in the extracurricular activities that some actors do. I’ve had my fair share of going to parties and the premieres, but clearly the work is what’s lasting and that’s what keeps me inspired.
Why did you become an actor?
Initially it wasn’t a conscious effort. My brother River had been working on a TV series, and there was a guest spot for a young boy, which I ended up doing. After Parenthood, I stopped acting for five years, and didn’t mind the time away at all. But when I did To Die For, I realised how passionate I was about acting. It was an experience like no other. I love creating a character and discovering the nuances. It’s the greatest high in the world.