"Galaxie" (Asian Magazine) - issue 17th – 31st July 2000


BACK IN THE FOLD: A long break away from the glare of Hollywood appears to have done Joaquin Phoenix a world of good… he is now one of Tinseltown’s hottest rising stars.

By the time he reached 21, actor Joaquin Phoenix had traveled around much of the Western Hemisphere, changed his named (and later changed it back), abandoned a promising acting career (and later resumed it), and been rudely thrust into the spotlight in the media frenzy over the drug-induced death of his brother River.

At 21, he delivered a breakthrough performance in Gus Van Sant’s satirical To Die For as the dimwitted youth who commits murder for the love of an aspiring news anchor (Nicole Kidman). Almost overnight, Phoenix established himself as one of the hottest young stars in Hollywood, collecting critical kudos for his roles in such films as Inventing The Abbotts and Oliver Stone’s U-Turn, and captivating the tabloid press by romancing Liv Tyler.

Lots of showbiz families are eccentric, but it’s probably safe to say that the lives of gifted Phoenix siblings and their hippie parents, Arlyn Dunetz and John Bottom, have followed a more unique course than most. High school dropout John was working as a furniture refinisher in Los Angeles when he picked up a hitchhiking Arlyn, a dissatisfied secretary who’d left her job and husband in Manhattan. The pair eventually became missionaries for the Children Of God religious movement. Their third child and second son, Joaquin, was born after the family’s travels had taken them to U.S. trust territory of Puerto Rico. While in the Caribbean, Arlyn and John learned that the movement’s chief minister had begun attempting to attract rich disciples by sexual means and decided it was time to get out.

They arranged passage back to the States for the family on a freighter and settled in Florida. Not long after, four-year-old Joaquin told his parents he wanted to have a name more like those of his elder brother and sister, River and Rainbow.

His father, who was raking leaves at he times, suggested Leaf and the new name stuck. In 1979, the family fell on financial hard times, and mom and dad sensed a possible source of relief in the abilities of their multi-talented children, who’d begun singing and dancing on street corners and had progressed to the realm of talent contests. A friend mailed an article that featured the kids to Penny Marshall, and the family subsequently received a letter inviting them to drop in if they ever in Los Angeles.

Adopting the surname, Phoenix to symbolize its latest new direction, the close-knit clan drove to California. Soon after, the kids began to find work with astonishing rapidity, and the family prospered. Still going by Leaf, Joaquin got his first professional experience in 1982 in the TV series Seven Brides For Seven Brothers, which featured Richard Dean Anderson, and brother River among the regular cast. Four years later, at age 12, he made his feature-film debut in the adventure flick Spacecamp. He had a second starring role the very next year, in Russkies, a youth-oriented riff on the Cold War classic The Russian Are Coming, and invited strong reviews as rebellious teen in the ensemble cast of 1989’s Parenthood. Just when everything was coming up roses, however, the strong-willed rising star decided there were no good scripts for actors his age and took an extended sabbatical from acting.

His parents had begun to drift apart, and the home-schooled Joaquin decided to see Mexico with his father. It was during his travels there that he formally relinquished Leaf and readopted his birth name; as he later explained to one interviewer, “In Spanish, there’s ojo, ajo and hoja, words that mean eye, garlic and leaf in English. I’d translate, but I’d always mess it up, so people would think my name was garlic or eye.”

Upon returning to States, the disaffected young actor hung out with his brother and sisters, and was present at L.A.’s trendy bar Viper Room with River and Rainbow on October 31,1993, the night River fatally overdosed on cocaine and heroin.

Perversely, the tragic happenstance reintroduced the long-forgotten Phoenix to the public, as TV stations across the nation replayed his desperate 911 call, and jump-started Hollywood interest in his dormant acting career. Many in the media indelicately suggested that Joaquin rushed back to acting to exploit the reverential memory of the critically adored River, but the script To Die For actually sat unread for many months before friends finally convinced him to look it over.

Strongly compelled by raw, unsparing material, he jumped at the offered role, and the film proved to be a hit. Two years later, he delivered a touchingly authentic performance as the younger of two lovelorn brothers in the coming-of-age drama Inventing The Abbotts. The movie introduced Phoenix to Liv Tyler, with whom he tumbled into love. Later, he claimed she was the first woman he’d ever approached for a date.

In 1998, Phoenix’s career resurgence continued with starring role opposite Vince Vanghn and Anne Heche in Return To Paradise. Though the movie drew mixed reviews, Phoenix’s performance as a do-gooder unjustly interned in a Malaysian prison was widely praised, and he re-teamed with Vanghn for noir film Clay Pigeons. Word that Phoenix and Tyler were on the outs surfaced shortly after Clay Pigeons winged into theatres. Released in early 1999 was the disappointing Joel Schumacher thriller 8MM, which teamed him and Nicolas Cage.

Phoenix’s most current role is opposite Russell Crowe in Ridley Scott’s Gladiator. And coming down the pike is the crime drama The Yards, which will feature Phoenix alongside fellow young hotties Mark Whalberg and Charlize Theron.

GALAXIE: Gladiator was a big change for you. What took you to this role?

JP: All of it. It was on of those films…really, there’s no reason not to do this film. It was an exceptional cast, and the opportunity to work with Ridley, but certainly the script… the first time I read through a script, I look at the character and see if there’s anything there. So I read the script and it seemed that certainly there was the opportunity to create something interesting and unique with this character and to avoid the cliched villain. There were certainly indications in the script: the scene between Richard Harris’s character – he plays my father, Marcus Aurelius – and I, that certainly was powerful and emotional. I was interested in what would lead a character to such acts of tyranny as Commodus. A lot of historians would just concentrate on his malevolent nature. But in some that I read, like Gibbon and the Rise and Fall Of The Roman Empire, he describes Commodus’s nature as ‘not being born with a tiger’s thirst for human blood” and there were a number of events that led to his tyranny. I thought that was fascinating. You have such little time to try and establish that, but throughout the course of the film, we would endlessly pore over the script and the scenes and tweak it and just look for those moments, things that can be said without words, in order to express his fear and insecurity and paranoia.

In all of his breakdown scenes, he turns like a rattlesnake, even though you believe he’s really sorry.

I think that he was, but he is a split personality. Schizophrenic.

Richard Harris says that you are a brilliant lunatic.

You are kidding. He’s great. We sat there, and I think it was like after the second night of filming, and Russell (Crowe) invited us in after work the next day. We sat around and just talked about the film, and Richard just entertained us with brilliant stories from his past. It was unbelievable. We were in there for hours, we were just there until the middle of the night. It’s rare that you get that opportunity, especially with the amount of work that Russell had on this film. When he wasn’t working, he was so gracious and giving with his time – throwing parties for cast and crew, and he’d just rent sailboats and kind of take us out. It was really key, where on a film like this, the size of the film and just logistics could really get away from your. I think it’s really important early on to develop strong relationships that can hold you together during the trying times, which there will be.

What do you think is the biggest misconception people have of you?

I don’t know, there are so many. I don’t know… the minute I walk out the door, I’ll think of 20… Suddenly under pressure, I can’t think of anything. I knew from the beginning, when I first did press for To Die For, I was a bit shell-shocked and I wasn’t quite prepared for it. I think they kind of misinterpreted that as being evasive and maybe cold, and also likened to the character. I felt like I never really got any credit, not that it was mine to take alone, because I certainly had a lot of help with Gus (Van Sant) and the cast, but I felt like I had done so much work in developing that character and I felt it was kind of negated.

Like people said, ‘Oh, he’s playing himself.’

Yeah. Which is funny, because I would talk about that with Casey Affleck on the set, I’d say, ”You know, I think that we’re developing such rich and realistic characters and I wonder if anyone will know the difference?” The sad thing is that people look just for the obvious things, it seems like they don’t really see beneath the surface. I know that I had donned a suit and cut my hair real short and said, ‘Hey, how ya’ doin’?’ they would have seen the differences between the character and myself.

What are you doing now?

I just finished a film called Quills about the Marquis De Sade. I play Abbe de Coulmier, who was the priest and the administrator of Charenton Asylum.

Is it different playing a historical role?

It’s not really a different approach. You can research and there’s information that’s based on the real character; but still, with a period like this there’s so much artistic licence because I don’t think historians can even agree on a lot of events that happened. Certainly with Commodus, there’s a lot of different stories about his death and that sort of thing.

Why do you think the gladiator movies are back? What’s the appeal?

I’m not really sure. I just know that it’s the ideal time for it. I think now, with the technology we have available, we really create a fair representation of that period, like at no other time. I think Ridley did a brilliant job of combining not only existing physical structures but they limited the amount of CGI that they used. It was used so sparingly and so brilliantly just to create that world and to immerse audience in that world.

Article taken from Galaxie Issue: 17th – 31st July.