Touchy star's hands-off warning
WHATEVER you do, don't touch Joaquin Phoenix's head. The director of "The Yards," the downbeat drama about corruption in Queens starring Phoenix, Mark Wahlberg, James Caan and Charlize Theron, told PAGE SIX he almost learned that lesson the hard way. When James Gray positioned Wahlberg's head before one scene, "Joaquin said to me, ‘If you ever do that to me, I'll kill you ... Don't touch me,'" Gray recalled at a screening at the Tribeca Grand Hotel Monday. The evening's wildest moment came when Caan, who was eyeing several leggy lovelies, dropped a wine glass while posing with Wahlberg. "That was Jimmy Caan, not me!" Wahlberg cracked. Also at the screening were Phoenix, his ex-girlfriend Liv Tyler, Caan, "Rushmore" director Wes Anderson and Burt Young. Playwright Arthur Miller skipped the screening because he slipped and broke three ribs on Saturday. His publicist says, "He's fine and recovering perfectly."
In GLOBE Magazine, October 17, 2000 issue with Faith Hill on the cover its says: "Joaquin Phoenix has such bad stage fright that he can't do live TV interviews to promote any of his films. When his reps suggested hypnosis, he told them "No way.""
On the way with JOAQUIN
Behind the wheel of his beloved yellow Le Mans, Joaquin Phoenix bemoans his diet, laments the pressures of Hollywood, praises movies large and small, and remembers his brother.
By Michael Angeli
“Everyone’s so fucking scared, because when you fail you fucking fail in this business.” Joaquin Phoenix, dressed in Antonioni Blowup-style clothes, smacks his slim guy slacks at about thigh high as he says this, then lays a lazy grip on the steering wheel of the first car he’s ever owned. It’s a ’72 Le Mans, yellow as a canary with hepatitis. A piece of cheap carpet on the dash keeps the sun cracks away; the bench sears are made of cloth and have the worn nap of a homeless person’s dirty blanket. The interior of the car is balmy at the moment with the aroma of the green protein health shake Joaquin just consumed. He’s dieting like a supermodel for a role he’s about to take on, and his blood sugar level is all over the place. You can feel eagerness, procrastination and hunger waging war for his soul.
“I mean, when you fail, they murder you. It’s terrible. I hate to see it happen, even to people I don’t think are good. It messes you up more. You’re always thinking, ‘What’s the next move—the career, the money.’ And it’s all bullshit because it doesn’t have anything to do with why you’re doing what you do. It’s completely separate from why you want to be an actor. All that should be important is, Why does a particular roles affect you the way it does?”
Joaquin’s upcoming role in Ruben’s movie formerly known as Force Majeure is definitely affecting the way he’s telling me about the actor’s life. His notion that he should look emaciated to play an American detained in Malaysia after being accused of drug smuggling may have seemed like a good idea a while back, but Los Angeles on no calories is taking its toll.
“I mean, sure, you want you film to do good,” Joaquin says, taking a hard right. “But I have to be honest, I don’t give a shit what happens after the movie’s out. I just love making it. The only reason why I would like to be accepted? Because if your movies don’t do well, after a while you don’t get to make any more movies. Simple right? For me, anyway. But look at Tommy Lee Jones. He did The Fugitive, the lava movie, Men In Black. I didn’t see these pictures, I don’t know if it was great or fulfilling for him. But, BUT, I do know—or this is what I’ve heard and it might be untrue, but it’s probably right—that he owns a theater company in Texas. I would like to think that that’s very fulfilling for him. Bringing people, actors up—funding it. That’s fucking admirable. I love that.”
Suddenly Joaquin hikes up his shirt and slaps his belly. “How am I gonna lose this?” After boxing training, monster workouts, and carrying his lunch around in powder form in a margarine container, he’s gained three pounds. “I look down at the scale, and it’s like, ‘YOU LIAR!’
Leaving the tourist/prostitute/walk-of-fame flotsam of lowlands Hollywood, we take a road leading into the Hills. We’re headed toward Joaquin’s rented house, a place he cant’s seem to depart from even though he promised himself in earnest he’d leave for New York and begin “full contact” rehearsing more that two weeks ago. First there was Jane’s Addiction with Flea on bass playing at the Roxy. “Couldn’t miss that. Amazing, un-fucking-believable show that made me very happy,” he explains. Then his mother and her boyfriend came to visit for a week. “Staying at my place. Very nice. My mother could solve most of the world’s problems.” And then there’s the trumpet, which, after a dozen-year layoff, he’s taken up again. “Trumpet is beautiful, even just one note of it. Thing is, I bitched to my teacher about playing scales. I just wanted to learn songs. But this friend of mine said, ‘Hey, just get into the sound of it,’ and I was like, cured within a day.
But it was the purchase of the car, more than anything, that cause Joaquin to linger in L.A. "I stayed because i just wanted to drive it," Joaquin says. "And yeah, it's yellow, but you know how much a paint job costs? I don't care how many times I hear someone yell 'TAXI!'" Here he is then, groping for some music to kick the mood up into stratosphere, or at least beyond ground-chuck level. He smokes a cigarette--make that two, first a sissy, French-graphic-designer-by-way-of-Camus brown one, then Camel-issue white--and rejects one CD after another until we land on Miles Davis.
"You can take that 'I'm an artiste' stuff to the wrong extreme, too," says Joaquin, now on a roll again. "The guy who goes around saying 'Look at me, I do small art films, I'm Mister Indie Boy,' that's bullshit too. Because you want people to know what you are and you want them to see the damn movie. Whether you think a film will affect society or it's plain entertainment, it's all excellent, it's all noble. That's the great thing about film—there's so many genres and levels to what you can do. I mean, who doesn't want to get dressed up as a cowboy and ride horses? Fuck, yeah! Do you want to do a movie that makes people think and effects change? Hell, yeah! If a movie like Seven Years in Tibet awakens some people that were oblivious, then that's amazing. And if it takes Brad Pitt to make that movie, so be it. He's a good actor, and hopefully some good will come from it. But he can also go and make movie that is just plain fun for him and make money. That's good, too. You're not obligated to make a socially relevant film to have effect on people and you're not obligated not to, either. But what do I know? I'm only 23, for Chrissake. Oh, who knows about these things? People love people, so why shouldn't we?"
Left turn, deep sigh, then Albert king on the box, turning the lemon Le Mans into a blues cave. This car is Joaquin's throne, his life-groove, his vehicle, baby—he's loving it.
"Look, there's way too much analyzing about making films," he says, his voice picking up King's groove. "You get spoiled by good reviews and pretty soon you get in the mindset where you never want to do anything to jeopardize that response. That affects you decisions, so it becomes, 'Oh God, this is role is great, incredible, but I can't do this because it's another dumb character.' It should be, 'Yeah! I want to do this guy, invest myself in that character.'"
Fair enough. Let's imagine, then, Joaquin Phoenix playing the lead in Jerry Maguire instead of Tom Cruise. The amount of nudity would double and the number of the close-ups would be halved. That errant strand of hair adorably bifurcating Tom's forehead to signify crisis would be replaced by the shifting tectonic plate of a jaw that seems to be trying to give a wisdom tooth some working room. The big movie line comes out, "Uh, uh, um, um...show me the fucking money." There would be a real chemistry problem between the Joaquin-Jerry and the blond tyke with glasses. Like a good soldier Joaquin would tweak that precious pixie nose and outwardly buy into the "Kids Say The Darndest Things" routine, but inside he'd be doing a slow burn, thinking, "I've played punks like you, you little shit," which, of course, he did, as an 11-year-old mop top in Space Camp. "You had me at 'Hello,'" Renee Zellweger confessed to the irresistible Tom-Jerry; the Joaquin-Jerry would never have it so easy. There'd be retreats, recriminations, refusals—a frigging world war of betrayal before the Joaquin-Jerry would even be allowed in the same neighborhood as Renee Zellweger. "You always have to fuck thing's up!" Joaquin cried to his brother in last year's Inventing The Abbotts, sobbing. That's the ticket, that's how Joaquin-Jerry would finally get the girl. Or he'd get himself beat up, the way he did in U-Turn, and she'd take pity on him. Either way, we'd probably spend less time rooting for him than trying to figure out what gives with him.
Now imagine Tom Cruise having a go at Joaquin's role as the dim-bilb teenager who became Nicole Kidman's ghoul tool in Gus Van Sant's To Die For. The amount of nudity would be halved and the number of close-ups would double. But would the hero of Mission: Impossible allow himself to be led by his pee-pee to commit murder for a vapid self-serving, clueless townie? Would Cruise be able to descend to anywhere near the depth of leaden witlessness Joaquin managed?
"I'll never live down my character in To Die For," Joaquin groans as the streets begin to narrow up in the hills. He says this with ragged resignation stemming from the knowledge that Inventing the Abbotts, U-Turn and the new Clay Pigeons have all intervened to no avail. "See, the problem is, if early in your career you come out with a really well-defined character that kind of establishes you, you become known for that. For a while after To Die For, I didn't care, but eventually it bothered me and I started defending myself, citing my other work, not that I played Edward Teller or fucking Richard III, but even that's pathetic, having to defend yourself in that way. It's ridiculous and embarrassing and who gives a shit? Why should I have to defend myself like that? I did it, it was good, it's over. Fuck it."
Though Im not looking for it, Joaquin has reminded me more than once, as he's been talking, of his older brother River, whom I came to know and whose company I enjoyed. Joaquin described the atmosphere at the Jane's Addiction concert as "super-exciting," for example. Super-exciting was a River term; super anything to him was a way of trumping perfection, suggesting there could be too much of a good thing. And like River, Joaquin has a way of placing a "the" before his nouns—the acting, the marriage, the music—in a way that invests these things with an essence all their own that no one can ever separate them from.
"I'm not into the organized religion," Joaquin say. "I'm not into the crazy kids who shout shit and tell you to do things. It's too fucking weird. But at the same time, I've seen people who were complete fuckups who then found God. They go to church, they don't drink, they don't do the nasty drugs, and in some ways, that's great—I mean, you have to do whatever it takes in order to make it through. For me, I believe in a God of whatever my own thing is—God of the trumpet, perhaps. Whatever."
You could say both River and Joaquin were ladled from the same philosophical stew--something innocent, nutty and idealistic. River went overboard with his vegan lifestyle (while he smoked like a diesel). Joaquin changed his name to Leaf when he was four (and changed it back at River's urging). River used to do everything he could to destroy his pretty boy image--soiled shirts, bad poses, super-bad haircuts. "I don't give a shit if I look like a freak," Joaquin told me at a photo shoot. "Look at me, right now; this is part of what's so sad about this business. They build you up--they take me, see, they make me look pretty, they put the stuff in the hair, put the makeup on, snap the picture—then when they decide that I'm fucked up and on the downward spiral, they start using the picture someone's snapped where I've just gotten off a plane, flown all night through seven time zones and I'm in mid-blink. While they like you, they use the good picture. But when word gets out, right or wrong, that you, gasp, had drinks at a party, they dig up this picture and say, 'Oh, look, he's stoned at the airport, he's stoned all the time."
We've arrived at our destination now, Joaquin Squeezes the Le Mans into a spot meant for a smaler car, and, as we mount the crooked steps to the house, takes one fleeting, over-the-shoulder, love-struck glance at his ride.
"I've come to a nearer acceptance—I wouldn't say understanding, because it's something I'll never understand—but just an acceptance of River's death," he says as we head into the house. "What was difficult in the beginning was that I felt robbed of my memories. See, a public death is a really difficult thing to go through. The death of someone you really love is difficult enough on it's own. Then, when your memories of what happened are distorted and put there for public consumption...you just feel so robbed. Anything that was mine, that I knew, people would angle for, try to ask me, they wanted to know things." His voice goes facile as he does and impression of the smarmy Eastern journalist with retractable jutting chin, teeth clenched FDR style, saying, "'From the inside, tell me a little bit from the inside.'
"Well," Joaquin continues, "I didn't want to. That was mine, that was all I had that wasn't ruined or distorted. I mean, for a while I could deal with it but when my mom would go to a store and see a picture of him in the National Enquirer, that killed me. To think of my sisters having to see that. That killed me. I couldn't believe, can't believe—I mean, we're screwed—that we live in such a cold, fucking callous society, everyone in the pursuit of whatever will convert into money, human compassion be damned."
the house in the Hollywood Hills was built in the '30s, has a dumbwaiter, and came furnished. Joaquin shares the place with his younger sister Summer. He wanders into his kitchen to us some water. Back at the dining room table, he sits down. Joaquin returns to the subject of his brother.
A toughness surfaces from within Joaquin for the first time as he speaks about his brother, something that suggests he might actually be able to take care of himself. "I've heard stuff about how the night River died he was out partying and all that—it's so untrue," he says. "That night we were together. He was just playing guitar. He wanted to show me a new song. And...I wanted to go out to see Flea play, because I'd never seen him play before. River wanted to go home, just hang out, play guitar. I was the one who wanted to go out and he was just making sure to take care of me. But some guy who claims he was best friends with River comes out—I don't know who the fuck he is, neither does anyone else—claiming all this bullshit. That's why I've been reluctant to share anything."
Joaquin stops to hug Summer, who's returned from a shopping trip. Now Joaquin's mother enters, kids with him and hugs him with affection, then checks him out at arm's length. This is a family that doesn't need holidays to get within reaching distance.
"Did I look up to River? Absolutely. Did I respect his work? Absolutely. Did his acting influence mine? Perhaps, subconsciously, but I never studied his work. Riv and I would talk about getting old, being in our 50s together, how it'd probably take that long for us to get to work together. We talked about ideas, screenplays, and we always wanted to codirect a movie. But we rarely talked about acting, to tell you the truth. Later. We'd get to do a film together, later, he said. I mean, it sounded peculiar, but I accepted that. I never asked, Why don't we do it now? It just made sense. There was just something gorgeous about us being old together. The most incredible thing about River was this—he made everyone that knew him feel like he or she had the most special relationship. He was capable of having these really close intense relationships with so many people, which was a rarity. most people have it in them to have a few. Anyway, look. You know how people always say, aft5er someone dies, 'His acting, or music, or whatever, will me missed?' There's more to it than that. River will be missed—period. I mean, now, more than ever I wish I could talk to him."
We are back cruising in the Le Mans, Joaquin burning lots of gas and really happy again, as if the whole life-death equation had been momentarily reversed and the emptiness part were already over.
"When there's nothing to do, I go kooky. But like now, it's awesome. Got some movies coming up that are challenging and I love the pressure of making movies. Hate rehearsing. Can't rehearse. But when you roll that fucking camera, there's something about it, it's magic. I'm gone and I can't be held accountable. I'm a maniac for work. [When I'm working] everything works. I can do the 'Hi, how are you? Great. If you're happy, I'm happy.'"
Joaquin lets me out in the parking lot of the Guitar Center. Waving good-bye, he tries unsuccessfully to get rubber as he pulls out into the impatient traffic. "I've accomplished what I've set out to accomplish," he's just said to me. "I do some crazy things sometimes, but I've been pretty good." I watch his yellow wheels disappear down the boulevard. It's a car culture we live in, and, for better or worse, you get to go your own way.