|Interview magazine - august 2000|
|ANOTHER PHOENIX TAKES
A BIG STEP INTO THE AMERICAN PSYCHE
BY INGRID SISCHY
INGRID SISCHY: The first time you came to the Interview offices, it was to be interviewed for the first serious piece on you as an adult. You had just made a splash in Gus Van Sant's film, To Die For , and it was soon after your brother, River, had died. What was really striking and understandable given the circumstances, was that you were incredibly gun-shy when you walked in here. You seemed extremely cautious of the media.
JOAQUIN PHOENIX: To a certain degree I was always a bit shy. But then after everything that had happened I was shell-shocked in a sense. I don't think I had really been aware of the fame that my brother had acquired, because he never carried himself as such. Our television at home had only one channel, and it was PBS. I never saw premieres, never watched Entertainment Tonight, any of that. So [his celebrity] was another world, and when that world was suddenly brought to our doorstep, I think it just rocked me. You just want to go through you own process of acceptance, or understanding ---if there is any---without any other influences. Through all that I hadn’t seen much that was positive. I mean there certainly was an outpouring of love from a lot of people, but more that anything, there was a lot of ugliness.
IS: I remember on time in particular when River and Keanu Reeves came to the Interview office. It was around the time that we were doing a cover story on them because of their performances in Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho . It was funny because they needed to make a whole bunch of phone calls, so we gave them an office, and they dialed away. One of the people in our accounting department came to me and said, “There are these two guys, a bit scruffy-looking, and they’ve taken over an office –do you know them?” I said, “Yes. They’re OK.” It was hilarious because they were about to become giant movie stars. Of course, that lack of pretense was part of their charm –they were still so connected to reality. I remember how your brother talked in depth about how close you all were as a family; it really struck me. Is it still true, and was it true?
JP: It was true, and it is true. I was
just at my friend Casey [Affleck’s] place and Jake Paltrow was over,
and I was hugging and saying goodbye to my sister, Summer; she was going
IS: Help me out: What’s the order of the siblings? I always forget.
JP: River, Rain, me, Liberty, and Summer.
IS: When I interviewed you and Liv [Tyler] a couple years ago for the April 1997 issue, I remember Summer had just been in a film, which sadly never came out---but you were so proud of her performance. Is everyone in the family still interested in movies?
JP: No. Not Liberty. She’s in a country band; that’s her thing. Rain acts. She did this new version of Othello a while ago. And Summer, she just did this film that was in Cannes; she’s amazing in this one too.
IS: Did you feel like you had a choice in becoming an actor, Joaquin?
JP: Oh, absolutely. But I think that you find in a very tight family, where the siblings are close emotionally and in age, that you just tend to follow in the footsteps of your older siblings. You just adopt what the others are doing even if it’s listening to music or skateboarding or whatever. We all used to sing and play music, and we were all very outgoing. My parents always encouraged us to express ourselves. And so it seemed like second nature to start acting.
IS: It’s not just your family that’s tight. It seems your whole support system is, too.
JP: I’ve been really fortunate in the films that have come out and the directors that have shown interest in me. And I have a really good support unit with my agent, Iris Burton, who I’m real close with and ho I’ve been with for the last twenty years.
IS: When did you meet her?
JP: I think I was about six years old. My mother was working NBC. She was the secretary for casting director Joel Thurm, who introduced us to Iris. She’s a very big agent; she handled every huge child actor you’ve ever heard of. Iris was the only agent that would all five of us kids. Our parents didn’t want to split us up into different agencies. Iris immediately found something interesting in each individual. She’s a wonderful woman, very maternal. And our options for work were limited because we wouldn’t do any commercials for Coca-Cola or McDonald’s or meat or mile or anything like that. The first thing my agent said to our parents was, “These kids are just starting our, and you’re already telling me that eighty percent of all the commercials our there, they’re not gonna do? You’re leaving yourself nothing here,” but she still took us.
IS: Your parents sound super-savvy. When people read about them in magazines, though, they’re often made to seem like total dropout hippies---I guess because you moved around a bit and had a typical educations. But from what you’re saying, they were very focused.
JP: I think they were of a generation that was searching, that was discontented. They were very driven for themselves in what they wanted to do. They hoped to have an impact on society and on how we viewed things.
IS: Clearly they did.
JP: Something that I’m always surprised by when I see it, and was shocked particularly when I was younger, was that with a lot of my friends’ parents, the affection, physical contact, and emotional support that I really got from my parents was not present in their lives. The impact that my parents had on me was never anything forced. I never felt that I was being talked down to. An environment of equality was created. I remember my parents talking to all five of us kids about where we’d like to move next. They’d say, “This is a decision that affects the whole family.” My parents were the ones who were working and who had to find a place for us to live, yet they were very concerned about how we would react to our moves.
IS: Did you move a lot?
JP: Not really. By the time I was about five or six, we had settled in Los Angeles. When we got to Los Angeles we were dead broke, and the seven of us were in a one-bedroom apartment in the Valley. And as time went on, my mother worked at NBC, and my dad did landscaping. My dad was amazing at finding real estate and places to rent in the papers. He found this house that was next to all this government land. So it was like we had a hundred-acre backyard that we didn’t have to pay for. When I was about thirteen or fourteen we moved again. Again, it was a group decision. My parents said, “If you’re interested in continuing acting, it will be difficult to get jobs now that you’re not gonna be in Los Angeles.” River seemed well situated with his career by then. He’d done a couple of movies by that time. He’d done Stand By Me  and he was doing Running on Empty , and so he felt that no matter where he was, he was gonna be able to get the work. But for us other kids, it didn’t look so good.
IS: What did you say?
JP: We said, “Fine.”
IS: And where did you go?
JP: To Florida. And then the amazing thing was that about six months later, Universal Studios opened in Orlando. And they were shooting Parenthood there. So I auditioned and got that job.
IS: Where do you parents live now?
JP: My mom is in Florida, and my Dad lives in Central Americ
IS: When did they split up?
JP: About six years ago, something like that.
IS: It’s almost been that long since you did To Die For, You’re twenty-five now—it feels like there’s been such a journey in that time.
JP: I think there has been. When I did To Die for I was a bit naïve. It’s funny because I had been part of the industry in one form or another since I was eight years old. I think my first film was when I was ten. But I was still really an idealist when I did To Die For. I thought you could just do a movie that you thought what was really good, and then you could just act in it, and that would be it. I didn’t realize everything else that’s involved. Like the Entertainment Tonight interviews and the photo shoots. It’s only been in the last year or so I started to accept all that other stuff as part of the work.
IS: It’s not only part of the work. Sometimes if it’s not done, the work that you do doesn’t get a chance to be seen.
JP: You realize the importance of that when you’ve done films you think are valid and you want people to see them.
IS: Tell me, have you ever really loved a movie that you appeared in?
JP: The Yards [which comes out in October]. No offense to any of the other films, because I’d work again with every director I’ve ever worked with, and every actor. But The Yards. First of all it’s the first project in which I worked with a director who also co-wrote the script. And I was involved in the project early—about two years before we started.
IS: Did you know about the filmmaker James Gray before?
JP: I’m not sure if I’d seen Little Odessa  before I met him or if I was told to see it around that time. Actually, I first heard about The Yards because of Liv. She had all her scripts from CAA at the apartment, and one day I lifted the cover off of one of about a thousand scripts that she had and it said The Yards. And I turned to her and said, “The titles of your scripts are better than any I’ve been getting.” There was something mysterious and ambiguous about the title, The Yards. And that was it. Then a couple of weeks later, my agent called and said, “I have a script called The Yards.” I said, “Yeah, I know that title.” I read the script then and thought it was amazing. When James came to New York to meet me I just felt he was somebody whom I could genuinely trust, which needless to say is very important for an actor. And I also just liked my character’s trajectory.
IS: Willie. Before this character, you were often cast as nervous, twitchy, edgy, underground, lost types; in Gladiator, even, as Commodus you have to be slimy and scheming. But as Willie you’re something else altogether. Before The Yards, I’d never seen you cast as this very confident person—who eventually has his world exploded. It’s interesting that you related that part. I know you told me that you immediately loved the part of Willie Gutierrez, but at some point along the way, Gray wanted you to play the part of the hero, Leo Handler, which Mark Wahlberg eventually took on. But you seemed born to be Willie. He’s like a contemporary version of Willy Loman and Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. You get to show us what the other side of the American Dream is. There is Willie, making it with the boss’s daughter for the first time in his life he’s got a pack of money in his pocket, and soon the whole thing crumbles.
JP: The movie is about everything that is shoved down our youth’s throats. It’s about how we define success; how we define being successful in this society. It usually comes down to materialistic things—the money, the car, these kinds of status symbols. On one hand we have a society that encourages its youth to go out and pursue this dream, but on the other hand they don’t really have the support or the guidance to make that pursuit really worth it or to help them face the dangers. To me that’s the greatest tragedy or this story, you know—the sense of betrayal and the corruption that runs through this family and the people that they look to as mentors.
IS: Where did you shoot?
JP: We shot all around New York.
IS: It must have been nice to be home. Is it the only time you’ve made a movie here?
JP: Yeah. I love shooting here. Particularly for a film like this, which is supposed to be set in New York, with the real locations. Going into sub-sub-subways! We’d go down to the subway at eight o’clock in the morning, the whole crew, and all these people were down there waiting to go to work. Then we’d go though a door and go down at least two or more levels. It was summer, and it was hot as hell. But it was a very intense shoot; we felt we had something very powerful in our hands. Throughout the shooting James kept saying, “One hundred percent emotional commitment!” He drilled that into our heads over and over until it was in our bones—that what this character is feeling is the most important thing.
IS: How is the rest of your life affected when you’re that deep into a part?
JP: I think I was more noticeably affected in my personal life by The Yards and by this character than any other work that I’ve done. A character can invade your mental and emotional space completely. And you’re in the roles so you don’t really know it. But this was a part during which some of my friends just didn’t like hanging out with me anymore. And I found myself doing things that I had never really been interested in.
IS: It must’ve been odd going from The Yards to being Commodus in Gladiator, which you shot afterwards. They’re such opposites.
JP: For Gladiator we were on this island in Malta for three months, secluded from the rest of the world. And everything about that film was big. It’s actually nice to be in a situation in which you just bond because you’re all staying in a hotel. And you can’t go anywhere on the island without running into somebody. It keeps it very close.
IS: And then you went from Gladiator to Quills [which is scheduled for a November release]. Tell me about that one.
JP: Quills is based on the play of the
same name about the last days of the Marquis de Sade. I play Abbe de
Coulmier, who is the priest who ran the Charenton asylum [were de Sade
died]. The writer of the script, Doug Wright, is extraordinary. I’ve
never read anything like this script. Every bit of dialogue was so rich;
I was just drinking it in. I thought, “Oh my god, they’ll never let
me in. Kate Winslet and Geoffrey Rush are doing it. I’m not gonna
stand a chance. I’ll never be in this movie.” But about three months
into Gladiator, I got a call saying that Phil Kaufman, the director of
Quills, was going to be in London, and would I go in and read for him? I
said absofuckinglutely. And so I flew to London from Malta and met with
Phil and did a read for him and left. Then I didn’t hear anything,
which was fine because I was so wrapped up in Gladiator.
IS: Then after this incredible spate of work?
JP: I crawled into bed for two weeks.
JP: I went to visit my mom actually. I just got into bed, and my mom would make tofu sandwiches.
IS: Give us a preview of Quills.
JP: On one hand it’s kind of a debate about censorship, and it poses the question, Is an artist responsible for how an audience interprets his or her work? And then, What does one do with that interpretation? It’s also about a person or government body suppressing humanistic desires. It’s about certain people’s ideas of what is acceptable human behavior and what isn't and forcing that upon a society via laws and rules. And it’s about what happens to desires if they are repressed or suppressed long enough and aren’t allowed to be explored. Do they bubble and manifest into something uncontrollable?
IS: The other when I spoke to you, you said you hadn’t seen the how the film turned out. Do you often not view the movies you’re in?
JP: It’s rare that I make it though the entire film.
IS: Because you’re dissatisfied with what you’re doing or with the whole film?
JP: Mostly which what I’m doing. It’s very hard for me in the first viewing to look at the film in its entirety. I am obsessed when it comes to what I have done. Did I complete everything that I wanted to? I had certain ideas, and have I managed to get them across? The strange thing with The Yards, which I’ve seen twice now, is that I’ve sat though it each time. I get caught up in the story and then in the other characters. I’m not obsessing over whether I got something right or not. I think the weight of the story is just so powerful. ***
LETTER FROM THE EDITOR
You might say that Joaquin Phoenix, this month's cover subject, grew up in the pages of Interview. He has appeared in the magazine at almost all of the critical stages of his life and work. His most recent appearance, with this issue, is in connection with his latest movie, The Yards, in which he along with Mark Wahlberg gives a truly brilliant performance. The film is partly about a couple of friends who believe in the American dream, but who can't seem to rise out of the world they come from. Trying to obtain it ends up destroying them, because they get used as pawns in a network of corruption. Because it has such emotional depth, the film-a lot of which takes place in the subway yards of New York-is a welcome relief from the empty pyrotechnics that have been so rampant in this summer's movies.
Emotional depth is something I have come to associate with Joaquin Phoenix. I'll always remember his first visit to our office in 1995. He showed up all by himself and seemed like a person who had gone through a war and was still scared that there were hidden mines beneath his feet. His older brother, River, had died of an overdose roughly 21 months before, and the media had really gone to town on the whole family. Joaquin seemed frightened--it's the only way to put it--and said right away that he did not want to talk about his brother. But he still came to our office solo, without a handler. And almost five years later he is still his own man--once again he showed up for our cover shoot and interview completely alone; once again no publicists, no manager, no agent. Aside from the fact that today Phoenix is considered a major movie star, there is a big difference between the Joaquin Phoenix then and the one now; today he is someone who radiates the impression of being comfortable in his own skin--something he was clearly far from feeling before. And he can trust journalists, not just directors. You can witness his trust in the way he opens up in the interview, which begins on page 94.
But there is something you can't see in the piece, and it has to do with what happened right before we started our interview. I had asked Joaquin if he had ever seen the 1991 issue of Interview with his brother, River, and Keanu Reeves on our cover, when they had been in Gus Van Sant's film, My Own Private Idaho . He hadn't, and I said I'd show it to him when we were done. When we did finish I ended up having to answer some urgent phone calls. About a half hour later I ran into an assistant editor who said that Joaquin Phoenix was still here--and that he was waiting for something I'd promised to show him. We had talked for so long and about so many subjects that it had slipped my mind that I had said I'd show him that back issue. We hunted it down as quickly as we could. When I gave it to him though he didn't really look at it. It was as though it was too important to do in front of someone else. Instead he rolled it up--clearly to look at later in private. This little episode really struck me. Five years ago it was obvious that the subject of his brother was too painful to touch. And now it was equally obvious that the healing had begun, that he wanted to see things that reminded him of his brother. I was happy our magazine could be a source of connection between the two of them. That to me is what magazines are for--they can be bridges between people and worlds.