by Vicki Woods Vogue (November, 2000)
In two new films this fall, Vicki Woods discovers, Joaquin Phoenix proves that he can be more than just the emperor of Rome.
The rather tragically dressed vagrant-type person scuffing along the SoHo sidewalk across from where I'm sitting is so clearly a young Hollywood actor of the unremittingly hip kind that I don't worry at all when he disappears around the corner. I'm 20 minutes early. He's always on time. Ten minutes later, he's back, clutching two fresh packs of Marlboro Lights, which ought to be enough. "Uh, I kept you waiting--I'm sorry." Joaquin Phoenix (for it is he) has miraculous eyes, which he fixes intently on me, thunderous black brows, dark curly hair, and a fabulous smile, skewed by the congenital scar. A package worth waiting for, frankly.
He doesn't look anything like an emperor of Rome. He doesn't look anything like the two extraordinary characters he's playing this fall: a sexy, flashy, Latino mobster (in James Gray's The Yards) and a tortured, celibate nineteenth-century French priest (in Philip Kaufman's Quills).
He orders lemonade after lemonade from the waitresses who pop in and out like a fiddlers elbow (every six or seven minutes) to offer him something, anything, something else? anything else? until I fear for his bladder. (Not that I blame them. If I were working the afternoon shift in a neighborhood cafe near Canal Street, and Joaquin Phoenix was trapped at an outside table by a journalist, I'd be popping out for an eyeball every ten minutes myself, you bet. I'm not the only one who wondered, post-Gladiator, why Meg Ryan reportedly fell for the wrong Roman.) But, Phoenix, who is 26, is innocently unaware that his own wolfishly handsome face, sexy voice, intense physical presence, and galactic Hollywood reputation are prompting all this menu activity. He finally buckles and orders a giant salad he doesn't want to eat at three in the afternoon. Why? "Aw, I feel bad if we just sit here and order lemonade."
A homeless guy suddenly lurches past, proffering packs of AA batteries that look deeply suspect. "Four for a dollar!" Everyone in sight immediately swivels their eyes upward to the New York City skyline, waiting for him to pass by. But Phoenix hauls out a bill before you can say "knife," slaps the guy's hand, takes the batteries, praises the batteries ("Hey! Plen-T-Fill! Wow! The finest! The Cadillac of batteries, right?"), and not until the guy is out of earshot does he look at them bemusedly and wonder if they'll work. Oooh. How sweet is that? As sweet as the Floridian honey his family won't eat (because it "exploits bees," and bees were not put on this Earth for greedy humans to exploit).
I'd been dying to meet him. Joaquin is the one Phoenix I have never met before. I interviewed his elder brother, River, ten years ago for this magazine. The golden boy, the Hollywood meteor, aged nineteen (nineteen! With a bunch of movies behind him, and five yet to be made), drove me busily around Gainesville in north central Florida in his mom's beat-up old car, wearing long johns and a heinous old sweatshirt. Vagrant chic is obviously a Phoenix-family trait. As is sweetness. Politely and cheerfully, faced with a Vogue writer stuck in a hotel for two days in the rain, River showed me his Gainesville life: the gray frame house (where his vagabond family looked oddly perched, as though in transit to somewhere) and the (vegan) German shepherds and the alligators at the bottom of the yard. We went to the drugstore where his fan mail piled up; to the University of Florida frat house where his band, Aleka's Attic, played a gig; to the bookshop ("Tell me what to read--I need to read good books"). He talked all the time, about directors, about Saving the Planet; he scolded me for "wasting paper" in my notebook ("You could've used the other half of that page, and you should write on both sides of the paper"). We picked up Rainbow from school and Liberty and Summer from baby-sitting. Joaquin (he was called Leaf then) wasn't at home: River said he was traveling with his father. His mother, Heart (she was called Arlyn then, but I called her Mrs. Phoenix because I loved the name), cooked us a surprisingly tasty omelet made out of God knows what kind of nondairy food substitute. Is that milk? I said, watching her squish white stuff into the skillet, and she said, "No! Human milk is for baby humans. Cows' milk is for baby cows." So what's for baby Phoenixes? "Soy." I'd barely heard of soy back then. They laughed at my baffled face, and River gave his mother a big hug. That's when he told me that eating honey exploits bees. I said bees didn't know what exploitation was. "But we do," said River.
"She wasn't always such a good cook," says Joaquin when I tell him about the omelet. "At first, it was horrible." But the baby Phoenixes had decided that they wouldn't eat the product of anything that had ever breathed, and they stuck to it. Joaquin grew up thinking that his family was normal. Now he knows it was "abnormally normal," and he has finally stopped being surprised about other folks' families. "I ask people, 'Do you have siblings?' and they say, "Oh, I've a brother in Minneapolis, but we don't talk much.'" His family talks all the time. Casey Affleck finally managed to get Joaquin on-line, and suddenly he's an E-mail bore, writing his dad every ten minutes to tell him "how many minutes I brushed my teeth." His conversation is peppered with Phoenix names, albeit horribly shortened. "Sum," he says. "Lib." They call him Joaq, pronounced "Wahk." Quills was shot in England, and he gets homesick, so first Rain came out, then his mom "to take over," then Liberty with her two little boys, Indigo ("Ind") and Rio, then Summer. Rio was only three. "He's so adorable. He thought my house was England--you know, 'We're going to England to see Uncle Joaq'--and I'd take him to the park, and he'd say, 'Can we go back to England now?'"
Close-up, his scuzzy clothing turns out to have perfectly acceptable labels (Prada, Armani)--though maybe you wouldn't want to borrow any of it--and around his neck is a cheap Saint Christopher medal, the kind of thing that surfers wear. The stylist put it around his neck for the photo shoot in Los Angeles. She told him Saint Christopher was the patron saint of travelers. He's terrified of flying (he was still hyperventilating after the flight into LAX; the landing was particularly hairy, and Phoenix flung himself, sobbing, over the knees of his neighbor, an 80-year-old minister). "I really wanted to keep it, but I was too shy to ask her," he says. She gave it to him anyway, and he has added it to the bunch of good-luck charms and talismans--dog tags from his sister, a pair of boxer shorts with toucans on them--without which he won't step on a plane. He has missed flights when he couldn't find his boxers. (I'm quite pleased to hear he even wears boxers, with or without toucans.) He says the constant trips to locations in Europe mean he's gotten better about flying. Some years ago, the flight staff had to fetch the pilot, because Phoenix was squealing and hollering and biting the pillows and freaking out all the passengers. "He said, 'Son, you have got to take it easy!'"
I prod him into talking fashion, and he makes a gallant stab at it but fails: "Uh, to be honest, I, you know, have this, uh, one pair of jeans and, uh, a bunch of white, V-neck T-shirts. Which I pretty much wear every single day. Particularly in, uh, the summertime. I have my boxers, my special boxers you already know about. I wear ... tennis shoes." Into the silence, he says helpfully, "Is this good for you?" and I fall about laughing. On the set of Gladiator, he tells me, he wore slippers from his hotel for the entire five-month shoot. What? Those cheap, one-size, toweling things? "Yeah." From the pocket of the bathrobe? "Yeah. By the end of the shoot they barely were covering my feet. And Ridley [Scott, the director] just thought it was such utter decadence to be walking around in hotel slippers." But he says he spent five months trussed up in imperial purple, in robes, in armored breastplates, in heavy boots, under lights, with people from Wardrobe endlessly fussing. "When you're not on-set, you don't even want to tie your shoes."
And that's the key to Phoenix: the work. When he's at work, he is ferociously committed, physically and emotionally, to the role, to the script, to his fellow actors, and to the director. Directors love him, though he's clearly very work obsessed. "He's a very intense kind of a guy," says Ridley Scott. (I can hear him smiling down the phone.)" He likes to talk about his part--a lot. But whatever they need, you know?"
James Gray, the director of The Yards, who also audibly smiles when he talks about Phoenix, says he's not the kind of actor "that wants to do the scene with the easiest possible interpretation so he can take two and go to a baseball game." He likes to be "abused," says Gray, meaning he likes to be forced into a difficult position: That's what excites him about acting. "He likes to be beaten up as an actor." Laughing, he adds, "I mean, in a great way."
As the vicious and conflicted young Emperor Commodus in Gladiator, Phoenix played an absolute blinder (as they say in England): His tortured body language and blazing eyes forced the audience into grudging sympathy as well as fear and loathing. When I saw the movie, I thought his eyes were blue, but they're green and glowing, like the dots on a luminous watch. Did he have blue lenses? No, no, he says; they darkened under his eyes to make the color pop.
Commodus came across like a mix of Adolf Hitler and an angry twelve-year-old, I tell him. Pleased, he says he read The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich during the shoot. "Ridley said the entry into Rome should resemble the Nuremberg Rally." He adores Scott. (He adores all his directors; he's never met one he wouldn't want to work with again.) "Ridley supported me all the way," he says. "I would not be in that movie if Ridley didn't fight for me," and it was a famously hard fight. There was little in Phoenix's body of work to date--Nicole Kidman's Neanderthal love slave in To Die For; the hapless tree-hugger facing death in a Malaysian prison in Return to Paradise; the blue-haired porn-store clerk in 8MM--to persuade the studio that it had more than $180 million worth of Roman emperor in Joaquin. But Scott fought for the troubled intensity that Phoenix brings to his roles. "People were saying, 'But could he be royalty?'" Scott tells me, "and I said, 'Course he could. He's an actor!' And they said, 'He's never played posh before.' And I said, 'But you're offering him a fresh page!'" Scott, having backed his hunch to astonishing effect, adds, "And he's changed gear now, hasn't he? It's opened up entirely different horizons for him."
In fact, Phoenix had already made his gear-change. The Yards, a beautifully shot movie about villainy and violence in the New York train yards, was filmed last year, before Gladiator. James Gray, who made Little Odessa, had liked Phoenix's "dim-wittedness" in To Die For and thought he'd be good in the lead role of an unhappy ex-con who is serially betrayed by his flashy Latino cousin. Phoenix read the script some time ago and wanted to play the cousin. He dyed his hair blue-black and slicked it back; he went through his closet to find the kind of clothes the cousin would wear. "Certain aspects of the character seem to come to you immediately," he says in the fast, nasal, New York voice he speaks with in the film. "I finished the script and just knew," Phoenix says. "And I walked in, and James was on the phone with one of the producers, and he just looked up and stopped and said, 'Oh, God, Willie Gutierrez just came in.'"
Phoenix is amazing in the part: buff and pumped up and strutting around like Travolta in Saturday Night Fever. Mark Wahlberg ended up with the ex-con role, but I imagine he'll be a mite peeved when he sees himself outshone.
Phoenix also fought for Quills, which opens at the end of this month and is based on a stage play about the relationship of the Marquis de Sade (Geoffrey Rush) with his jailers. (It's a rather naughty movie: sex, madness, murder, necrophilia. I adored it, but I'm not sure how dead female thighs will play in Peoria.) Phoenix is a conflicted priest who struggles to save de Sade's soul, while being highly tempted both by de Sade's brilliant wickedness and by Kate Winslet's heaving bosoms. (Winslet plays a prison maid who smuggles out de Sade's work.) "I never read a screenplay like it," Phoenix says. "So poetic, so rich, and every piece of dialogue loaded with double entendres. I called my agent and said, "Get me a fucking meeting with this director! I have to do this movie!'" Filming Gladiator in Malta, he flew (sweating) back to test and didn't hear anything for a couple of weeks.
"My mom actually called me and got me while I was on-set and told me that I got Quills. And I ran out of my trailer, ran in circles screaming, ran into Ridley's trailer--he was in a very serious meeting with all the executives from DreamWorks. I sopped him, I grabbed him, I hugged him. I was just so excited, I couldn't believe it. You know--Geoffrey Rush, Kate Winslet, Michael Caine! They're not going to cast me!"
Phoenix is jiggling around like a hyperactive kid as he tells the tale. Talk about intense. I feel a grown-up pang of sympathy for Scott in his very serious DreamWorks meeting: He's obviously got buckets of patience. ("Whatever they need, you know?")
Still, Phoenix is towering talent, and his directors need no sympathy from me. His handsome, sculpted face lights from any angle, his miraculous eyes shade every last nuance from the script, and his hunched, slacker's body becomes 30 feet tall in front of a lens. He barely has a life outside his work, but I like 26-year-olds to be dedicated workaholics, frankly.
Phoenix is funny, too. When I ask him (I always wonder about this) how male actors cope with all the girlie hair-and-makeup messing about, he passes a hand across his face and says grandly, "But--this is my canvas." When I ask him about current love interests (I don't think there are any--his longest relationship was three years, with Liv Tyler), he says, "My only significant other at the moment is me--which is what happens when you cross self-obsession with multiple personality disorder." A tad rehearsed, but not bad.