Cry, baby, all the way to stardom

 by Denise Chong The New Paper (2001)

He's won an Oscar nomination for his role in Gladiator. Meet dark horse Joaquin Phoenix, the star of current movies The Yards and Quills. Denise Chong tells you what he's like

The actor looks frightening.

Babies may cry at a slight twitch of his face.

But when you see him shed tears in Quills and Gladiator, you'll feel a little surprised, then embarrassed.

You will want to turn away and give him some privacy -- because the emotions seem so real.

We're not talking about the breast-beating, melodramatic way some actors boo-hoo. Nor the way Crowe weeps manly, desperate tears in Gladiator. Joaquin Phoenix's rugged face transforms into the delicate eyes, nose and mouth of a guileless child, a dark statue of a weeping angel come to life. This is one guy who is in touch with his feelings -- and he does not give a damn who is there to witness it.

When Phoenix, 26, took a hellish roller-coaster ride in a theme park recently, he said he was scared to tears.

"I closed my eyes. I clutched the person next to me and just wept like a coward," he said on a talk show. "My friends called me a coward, and they pushed me and taunted me, like it's a funny thing. But I said, 'Guys, that's not cool'."

On another occasion, when a plane came in for a bumpy landing in Los Angeles, the actor flung himself, sobbing, on the knees of an 80-year-old fellow passenger.

Vogue magazine has reported how, some years ago, Phoenix was squealing and biting pillows, and scaring all the passengers on a plane, because his fear of flying overcame him.

The man does such a good job of frightening himself and others that he was once voted by Entertainment Weekly magazine as "the No. 1 bizarre talkshow guest". On an appearance on The Late Show with Letterman, the magazine said the actor "came off as hilariously dazed and confused, claiming he couldn't remember his birthday or, at one point, where he got his tattoo". On The Tonight Show With Jay Leno, he was so distracted that Leno had to ask him to "be here in person" next time.

Phoenix is having the last laugh though. When he discovered that the so-called spontaneous talkshow chats are achieved through pre-interviews, he concluded that saying the same thing on air would be "boring."

So, according to him, he made it "obvious that he didn't give a f---" while he appeared on The Late Show, as long as Letterman got the joke.

"We have an unspoken agreement...he plays it straight and I play crazy," he said.

Coming from a hippie family where "normal" meant not eating honey because it "exploited bees", Phoenix may still be a bit too peculiar for some to handle. He said to Empire magazine: "I didn't realise until much later, when journalists told me that I wasn't normal, that I didn't have a 'normal' upbringing. "I was like, 'Oh, really?' It was news to me." But the actor has all the intense concentration needed for his twisted roles.

He is famously committed to work once he starts. James Gray, who directed him in The Yards, said he is not the kind of actor "who wants to do the scene with the easiest possible interpretation, so he can take two and go to a baseball game."

Phoenix plays a flashy Latino mobster in the movie about violence in New York railway yards. In Quills, he is a priest who runs the asylum that the infamous Marquis de Sade dies in. The role in Quills required Phoenix to go from sweetness and innocence to disapproval, descending furiously into the blackest despair and depravity. Phoenix knew that it was the role for him.

He "ran in circles, screaming" when he got the part.

We should, too.

This was even while he was filming his Oscar-nominated character as the slimy Emperor Commodus in Gladiator.

What a frightening talent.