The Sunday Times Magazine
September 01, 2002
With starring roles in Gladiator Quills and To Die For, he has long
surpassed his late brother River's fame. So why does Joaquin Phoenix
joke that he's a pretentious and dim-witted actor?
Joaquin Phoenix hates to be pinned down. Everything about his body
language tells you that. He's spiralling, twisting, contorting, a
corkscrew in his chair, yet still managing to be languid and looking
laid-back; not showing any of the tension that he obviously feels
about a situation he hates - being interviewed. The scar helps, just
above the lip. It makes him look wounded but strong.
He's heartbreakingly sexy. A rumpled shirt, golden skin, and when he
does eye contact, the very core of him seems to pierce you.
On screen, he's usually wounded and mesmeric. Any meanness is
uniquely riddled with vulnerability. There's the mullet-headed teen
in To Die For who is seduced by Nicole Kidman into murdering her
husband; the weird, creepy, blue-rinsed porn-video seller in 8mm; the
tortured, sexually thwarted abbé in Quills; and, most luminously, his
Oscar-nominated role of the Emperor Commodus in Gladiator. Phoenix
managed to create something that was touching as well as oily, a
rejected son who turns maniacal in his struggle for love and respect.
On screen, he's hypnotic. He has no problem filling the screen with
his brooding charisma. Sometimes you meet an actor and they're much
slighter, not just in build, but in the energy they give off.The
reverse is true here.Be with him and you understand the camera's
infatuation. He does something almost magical. He makes you feel you
know him, that you are completely intimate, yet he doesn't actually
answer anything directly about himself. There is something about him
that's beyond a force of nature.
He is here in this New York hotel room to talk about the new M Night
Shyamalan movie, Signs, in which he stars with Mel Gibson. They are
brothers, incredibly sparky, believable ones at that. Shyamalan has
been hailed as Hollywood's hottest storyteller, the next Spielberg.
Like his other works, The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, Signs is about
both the psychic realm and family life. It suits Phoenix, who is also
otherworldly, yet deeply rooted to his family. They remain super-
close despite an unconventional, peripatetic, free-spirited
upbringing. It's what he knew as normal, and was not necessarily as
emotionally unstable as people seem to judge it to be. More of that
'You have two tape recorders. You came in real proud. Great. Like
one's not bad enough.' I explain it's in case one of them breaks.
Mechanical things have a way of not functioning if I get tense. He
tells me that I'm being narcissistic if I think I'm personally going
to affect how the tape is working.
The room is filled with the sweet smoke of Camel Lights. He reaches
for another. The lighter doesn't work. 'You're willing this not to
work. My lighter worked fine until you came in.' He tries it again,
and no, it really doesn't work. We're giggling now. He's forgotten to
His performance as Merrill, Gibson's younger brother, is what he
describes as one of his more 'for want of a better word, normal
roles. I hate it when people say that about characters because I then
say, 'But what is normal?' But you understand what I mean'. The
somewhat lost character is given a level of intensity by his
Signs is all about the family dynamic, with acute performances from
Rory Culkin and Abigail Breslin as Gibson's motherless children. And
there's the bigger-picture story line. When I came out of the
screening, the audience was silent, frightened; a kind of communal
jaw drop. It's scary because it's not so much about the supernatural,
but the super-real. It explores crop circles and what they could
really mean. It breaks down everything, then it restores faith, and
the whole time it's basically just this family on screen. They filmed
it in sequence, which helped them bond.
He finds it torturous to watch his own movies. 'The theatre's full,
so you're uncomfortable because your grill [mouth] is 40ft long and
you're going, 'Did they laugh, did they think it was good?' It's rare
if I enjoy it. Night knew that about me, but he insisted I go to the
test screening. I sat beside him and thought, 'Oh no. I'm going to
have such a miserable time.' But the movie started and the audience
were just drawn into it, so I was able to not think about myself. I
just watched it. You have a lot of confidence with him, in that his
last two films were really good, so it's not as much of a risk as it
might have been with other directors, but you never know. How many
times have you seen a movie with a great director and amazing actors
and a good script and the movie's horrible?'
Despite being Oscar-nominated, Joaquin takes nothing for
granted. 'The odds against succeeding are so great because there's so
many actors. You go to LA and all the clichés are true. Everybody's
an actor. I'm just one of them. So when I met with Night and he gave
me the script and said, 'I want you to do it and it will be okay,' I
really liked that.
I think I need that kind of confidence in a director, that they feel,
after seeing my work, they can get the right performance out of me.'
Before I saw the film, I couldn't conceive of the 27-year-old Phoenix
and 46-year-old Gibson as brothers. Did you bond? 'I did. We got on
very well. We share a similar sense of humour. We hit it off right
away, but I've had personal relationships with people that have been
really good, but on screen there's nothing. And vice versa. It's the
strangest thing. Then the screenplay captured a real family dynamic.
And then, doing the shots in sequence helped. My mind's going blank,'
he says, somewhat startled. 'It's you. Get out of my head.'
He does this, drifts off, not because he is obviously trying to avoid
a line of questioning, not because he's inarticulate; he's sometimes
just overwhelmed by his own fidgeting. He's ripping up the cigarette
packet into tiny pieces. His energy is uncontainable. Perhaps that's
why he so readily and cleverly transforms himself into characters.
For Return to Paradise, he lost so much weight he was wizened. And
for Gladiator he wanted a decadent, imperial pot belly. 'I can't
stand it when actors talk about their preparation, though.
Like, 'Yeah, I'll put on 20lb, let my teeth go, get a tattoo.' I'm so
reluctant to go into my process for fear of sounding pretentious. I
already have that going for me.' Pretentiousness? 'Yeah. I'm already
rockin' the pretension thing.' What do you think is the most
pretentious thing you do? 'My interviews. I'm just a pretentious, dim-
On the publicity tour for To Die For, he actually did interviews in
teenage mullet-head character. 'That was actually [the director] Gus
Van Sant's fault. I said, 'I don't want to do these interviews,' and
he said, 'Just do it in character,' and I thought, 'Oh, that's not a
bad idea.' It was a bad idea. It was a total disaster.'
Perhaps the most pretentious thing you do in interviews is recall
things from when you were three. How can you really remember
them? 'Clearly and vividly. It's weird. I can remember even before
three, and I remember just turning three because I was on a boat
coming from Venezuela and it was my birthday. I remember the flying
fish, the jumbo iguana. I remember watching them and standing on the
He wasn't born in Venezuela. He was born in Puerto Rico. His parents
met in California in the late 1960s. His mother, Arlyn Sharon Dunetz,
had a boring marriage and a boring job in New York City. She left
with a friend and a backpack to pursue some California dreaming. Once
on the trail, they were picked up by John Bottom in a battered
Volkswagen bus. Arlene and he talked all night, felt the soul
connection and fell in love.
John Bottom had been a carpenter and a landscaper, but neither of
them felt comfortable in the material world, and agreed that the
journey is the destination. Along the way, after River and their
daughter Rain were born, they became interested in the religious
leader David Berg's teachings. He sent the family to South America as
kind of missionaries for Children of God, which was famous for its
celebration of sexuality, but the free-love idea began to concern
them when they realised their guru was going mad and becoming
materialistic. Berg seemed to twist biblical metaphors and ended up
rich and exploitative, and trying to attract new disciples through
The family stowed away on a freighter ship to Florida, where they
landed with only the clothes they stood up in. Joaquin Phoenix
doesn't have a memory of this as a hardship. The only thing he
remembers vividly are the flying fish being slapped to death by the
fishermen. He recalls the crew, who had been so kind to them, pulling
in nets and flopping the fish down hard in order to kill them. He
thought it was barbaric.The whole family was screaming. 'And we said
to our parents, 'How come you never told us this?'' That was the
start of the family's vegan cuisine.
Soon after, Joaquin, in a fit of pretension, decided to be called
Leaf. 'That was a lame moment, you're right. I was obviously blessed
with the gift of pretension. I was probably around five and I went
outside and saw my dad was raking leaves. He was always raking
leaves. I'm told that's why I decided on the name, but I have
difficulty in believing that. It was more to do with the fact that no
one could pronounce my name. My little nephew [Rio], who's four,
feels that it's a big deal to pronounce things right, and I know that
as a kid I was bothered that people couldn't pronounce my name. I'd
have to say it a few times and that was an annoyance. 'No, it's
not 'walkin' or 'walking'.''
Why change it back? 'Well, when I was 15 I went to Mexico, so I had
the opposite problem because Leaf would not work in Spanish. Leaf in
Spanish is oja and then ajo is garlic and ojo is eye. So I would
always get them confused and introduce myself either as garlic or
eye, and then I would be known as el estupido.
'By the time I was doing To Die For, I had switched to Joaquin and I
remember Gus saying, 'So you're going for the big shift. Now you're
Joaquin.' But I hadn't seen it that way. To be honest, I think I just
really like my name.'
I wonder if he felt left out, having a Spanish name while all his
siblings were called after forces of nature, or seasons. His parents
changed their name to Phoenix when they felt they were reborn. Also,
River Bottom wouldn't have looked good.
From the outside looking in, it certainly seems that these parents
were strange people. So, I ask, what kind of effect did it have on
you, with such an unconventional childhood, all these different
places with the hippie parents?
'First of all,' he says, his eyes zoning into mine, 'what's a hippie?
I never thought of my parents as hippies. I suppose in comparison to
George and Barbara Bush they might have been. I think they were
alternative.' Sometimes if you've got unconventional parents, the
children rebel and become mini George Bushes. 'Yes, but I think my
parents were really well balanced and none of the kids rebelled in
that way.' Didn't they take a lot of psychedelic drugs? 'No. No.
He's now in a tailspin. 'And do you know what else is shocking? I
would never ask you a personal question like that.' What might have
been nervous and vulnerable is now articulate and angry.
Instead of me saying, 'I'm interviewing you, I get to ask all the
questions,' I say sorry. 'You're not, really. That's absolutely not
true. I don't know where that even came from.' Instead of
saying, 'Well, I read that your mother had praised LSD,' I say
nothing and let him continue.
I wasn't sorry that I'd asked him, but I was sorry that I'd upset
him. His family are everything to him. He has an apartment with his
sister Summer, also an actress. He cut the umbilical cord when his
sister Liberty gave birth to Rio, and apart from a two-year
relationship with the actress Liv Tyler in 1997, his family have
always been the significant others in his life. He recalls one
audition that he went on as a teenager with Summer. They both got
call-backs, but ultimately she got the part.
'I remember my mom coming to talk to me. You know when parents
approach a certain way? It was a bit like, 'Oh, I didn't get the
job,' but I remember genuinely feeling I was so happy that Summer
had. I never noticed any rivalry among us.'
Summer is now being touted as an up-and-coming, rising Phoenix. She's
often referred to as 'sister of Joaquin'. Once, he got that 'brother
of River' thing. It's probably some time since one would describe
Joaquin as 'brother of River', because he's now superseded his older
brother's fame. He says he has no problem being referred to
as 'younger brother of'. It's the 'in parentheses' stuff he objects
to. I promise him I won't describe him with any parentheses, but part
of his story is of course that his equally talented and vulnerable
brother took a lethal drug cocktail and collapsed and died outside
the Viper Room on Sunset Boulevard, and Joaquin's then-teenage voice
was tackily transmitted on every news bulletin making the desperate
For Joaquin, it's something that he can probably never get over. Does
it bother you to talk about it? 'I don't want to talk about it,' he
says, with a resolution that is dauntingly final and tangibly pained.
One can't imagine what it felt like for such a close-knit family to
lose part of its life force.
After Florida, they came to Hollywood. After a stint of singing
Beatles songs one Christmas for nickels and dimes, his mother hit
upon the idea that her brood could go into show business. She
transformed from earth mother to shrewd business-woman, running the
family business, Phoenix in Flight Productions. What had once been
laid-back was now turbo-charged ambition. But if you're living it, it
didn't seem extreme.
He's torn up more paper. We still don't have a light for the
cigarette, and he softens. 'I think it's all about your personal
experience. When you grow up, your life is normal. It's what's normal
to you. So I never felt like I was missing out on anything. The press
has blown the travelling out of proportion.' And romanticised
it? 'Yes. From when I was five till I was 13, we were in LA. We lived
in the Valley and although we didn't have much money, my dad always
seemed to find us a really cheap house to rent that would be next to
acres of government land, so you essentially had a back yard that was
hundreds of acres. It was more stable than you think. I travel lots
more now.' And, he says, he's not really a fan of it. In London to
film Gladiator, 'I locked myself in a hotel room for six weeks. I
walked as far as two blocks from my hotel to get cigarettes and I can
really say that I hate that street that the hotel was on. I did it on
purpose, that sense of isolation. I realise that now'.
Even though he hates the idea of isolating himself, he's as shy and
bashful as he is charismatic, which perhaps explains why there's only
been one long-term girlfriend. For as much as he's reaching out, he's
pushing away. Perhaps it's not easy to bond with other people when
You were all the time Team Phoenix, I suggest.'Team Phoenix? Really?
I said that? There was certainly a sense of closeness and unity. We
were seven people that went everywhere together and did everything
together. And yes, my siblings are my best friends. I don't know
about Team Phoenix, but the chance is I did say that. 'In interviews
I could say virtually anything. Some of it's true, but I don't care.
I like some of the lies that are out there. Some of them are horrible
and damaging, but I probably feel more comfort in people believing
lies than knowing the truth.
I know my truth and that's all that really matters to me. Why worry
what others think?'By now, we're having a serious-need-of-a-cigarette
moment and he definitely doesn't care what I think as he prowls the
room, opening drawers, banging them shut, looking for hotel matches.
He flicks at his lighter - a Statue of Liberty lighter - and bangs it
down on the table.
'You killed it. Do you have any matches in your bag?' He seems really
desperate, so I give him my bag to search through, thinking the
person who really has the need will find it, but he stops fidgeting
entirely. 'I can't look in that.' Why is it that men don't like to
look into women's handbags, even when offered? 'Probably because the
few times you do it when you're younger you get reprimanded, so you
learn. We don't go there. Anyway, it wasn't a real offer.' Oh yes, it
was. He can go through my bag any time he wants.