The Strait Times Interactive - june 2000
Movies are painful: Phoenix

Young Punk

Joaquin Phoenix is the classic tortured artist -- he suffers pain for his craft, avoids reporters and dreads interviews


ONCE, he was aflutter. Now, the artist formerly known as Leaf is sagging from too much gravitas at the ripe old age of 25. Making a cautious entrance into a roomful of journalists at the Century Plaza Hotel in Los Angeles, Joaquin (pronounced wah-keen) Phoenix looks pained.

The younger brother of the ill-fated River takes a seat and considers his tormentors with an arthritic smile. "Hey," he rasps, tapping his sunglasses on the table as if sending out an SOS signal in morse code.

With his tight shoulders, troubled, grey eyes and tortured manner of speaking, Phoenix is just about perfect for a Woody Allen movie. Everything about the actor, who plays the degenerate Emperor Commodus in Ridley Scott's Roman epic Gladiator, screams TroubledYouth.

Consider how he describes his calling in life: "Every movieis painful for me. Putting on a new skin, developing another voice -- it's wrenching."

In a separate interview, Gladiator's hero Russell Crowe impersonated Phoenix. It was a spot-on spoof -- curled lips, arrogant nose, shifty eyes and damp, sweating palms. Obviously uncomfortable giving interviews, Phoenix is a complete failure when it comes to selling the movie he is in. He does not even have a good word about cinema as a form of entertainment.

"I never really go to the movies," begins Liv Tyler's ex-boyfriend. "I hate being affected by crowds. Maybe I'm too sensitive. But I want to experience the movie on my own."

One has to forgive Phoenix for being sensitive. Born Joaquin to hippie parents, he grew up within a fanatical Children Of God mission. His elder brother was called River and his elder sister, Rainbow. Feeling shortchanged at age four, Phoenix asked his parents for a rechristening. And so, Leaf was born. On the night of Oct 31, 1993, he was hanging out with his siblings at a Los Angeles bar, The Viper Room, when his brother overdosed on cocaine and heroin.

Bizarrely, the hype from River's death launched Phoenix's acting career. He played Nicole Kidman's dimwit sexual prey in 1995's To Die For. The 1997 movie, Inventing The Abbotts, saw the actor, who re-adopted his birth name Joaquin in 1990 after his parents drifted apart, putting in a grave but tender performance. The movie made his reputation for being top when it comes to teenage angst.

When asked what filming a brutal, violent movie like Gladiator was like for a frail soul like him, he says: "You want to get nicked, bruised and kicked around to get the adrenalin up and pumping.'" Phoenix does not look like he can take much punishment. But he sure knows how to dish it out.

Ask him a crap question like "What do you think will happen to spirituality in the 21st century" and you will get a churlish answer: "I have no idea. Next question, please."

He does not suffer fools gladly. Yet, he says things like "fame does not interest me" without a trace of irony. Perhaps fame really does nothing for him. Just look at the way he dresses. Black hooded sweatsuit and faded T-shirt combined with his lanky brown hair give him a star-incognito disguise.

His performance in Gladiator, however, is vintage Joaquin Phoenix. Emperor Commodus is a super brat, poisoning uncooperative senators, molesting his sister and threatening children.

Phoenix fits the role perfectly. But in case you mistake him for the Roman villain, he takes great care to refer to Commodus as "he". "He is a bit like ancient Rome's Al Capone. He is a mad megalomaniac," Phoenix describes.

While his work for big directors like Scott and Oliver Stone (U-Turn) is leading him to greater things, his career continues to be overshadowed by the more talented and more angsty late River. He is never interviewed without being asked about his late sibling. "That's one question which I do not consider fair. So, next question," he says testily.

Commercially, Phoenix's arrogant mien and Boy, Interrupted persona have not quite taken off. He is not exactly A list. You ask for him only if DiCaprio and Affleck pass. So, it is just as well that fame does not interest him.

"Is it over?" Phoenix asks when the traditional 15 minutes are finally up. He leaps out of his seat and is out of the room even before anyone can answer.