Shy Joaquin makes his mark in 'To Die For'

Don't look for Joaquin Phoenix on David Letterman's show.

"Nooooo," says Phoenix, shivering in horror. "I can't do TV. I'll start shaking and just fall apart. It's too surreal."

Phoenix, 22, the younger brother of the late River Phoenix, is leery of media attention. During an interview to promote Gus Van Sant's black comedy To Die For, he squirms, shrugs and slumps.

He's not trying to be difficult. He's just irrevocably shy; at times, he's seemingly typecast as Jimmy, the monosyllabic, stoned loser seduced by Nicole Kidman's overambitious, murderous weather gal.

Phoenix is familiar with fame's dark side. He was with his brother the night River died of a drug overdose. And he doesn't want to talk about it. River's drug problems? "What problems? There weren't any problems."

If he seems to be following in River's acting footsteps, it isn't the plan. Things just "sort of happen" to Phoenix.

As a teen, he got small roles on "crazy talking animal shows," Hill Street Blues and in the film Parenthood. But he never studied acting. "It just happens. I try not to think about it."

Kidman's Suzanne gives To Die For its edge. But pathetic Jimmy creates the poignancy. "Nicole's great," he says. "She's amazing, a very sweet woman and a kick-a-- actress."

Born in Puerto Rico, Phoenix lives with his folks (and girlfriend) in Florida.

He explains changing his name from Leaf back to his given Joaquin (pronounced Wok-Keen) a few years ago while in Mexico: "It was simpler than translating Leaf. I changed it to (Leaf) because when you're a kid you hate being different." (His siblings' names: River, Rainbow, Liberty and Summer.)

When not working he does "not much." Fave books or rock bands: "Nope." A role he covets: "I just don't think too much ahead of time. I just take things as they come."

Which, so far, seems to be working out just fine.

By Elizabeth Snead, USA TODAY