THE PHOENIX ENIGMA -- Talented co-star of 'Signs' is a hard character to figure
The Record, (Bergen County, NJ), 07-28-2002

Joaquin Phoenix is sitting in his hotel suite, refusing to make eye contact, and responding to every other question with the phrase, " I don't know how to answer that."

He's stumped by queries about acting, his off-screen interests, his belief in the paranormal, and the plots of his upcoming movies. He' s clearly excited about his latest feature - the supernatural thriller "Signs," co-starring Mel Gibson - but when he tries to discuss his preparation for the role, he can only crack self-deprecating jokes.

"No matter how many of these interviews I do I still have no idea of what's going on," he says, looking genuinely bewildered. "I've been doing this since I was 15, and it makes me as nervous as the first day I walked into one of these rooms. It's amazing."

But just when you think you have Phoenix pegged as an oddball, he does something unexpected. After he's left the room at the conclusion of an uncomfortable 20-minute session, he ambles back in and, without the tape recorder running, initiates a conversation.

All of a sudden, he's speaking in complete sentences. He's making eye contact. He's being totally charming. "I'm just not big on talking, " he says at one point, seemingly offering an explanation for his interview demeanor.

Journalists aren't the only ones baffled by Phoenix. The actor's " Gladiator" co-star, Russell Crowe, remembers that neither he nor Richard Harris could figure Phoenix out when they first met him.

"[Harris] and I got together and said, 'How are we going to make Joaquin Phoenix relax?' And his solution was, 'Let's get him drunk, and we' ll find out if we like him first before we bother working with him.' And it was maybe an old-fashioned concept, but it worked very well.

"I am very pleased to tell you that Joaquin Phoenix is a magnificent young man and a wonderful poet. That came out at about 3:30 in the morning."

Phoenix, 27, might have trouble with interviews, but onscreen he is a powerful presence whose against-type turn as the evil Emperor Commodus in "Gladiator" snagged him an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor.

In "Signs," Phoenix provides both the heart and the comic relief as Merrill Hess, a failed minor league baseball star who has just moved back to Pennsylvania to help care for his brother Graham (Gibson) after the death of Graham's wife in a car accident.

Gibson's character is a former minister who is struggling to raise his children (Rory Culkin, Abigail Breslin) in the aftermath of his loss. He's still grieving when he wakes up one morning to discover that an intricate pattern of circles and lines has been carved into his crops.

Director M. Night Shyamalan ("The Sixth Sense," "Unbreakable") initially cast Mark Ruffalo in the role of Gibson's brother, but the actor came down with a serious inner-ear infection that required immediate surgery.

Less than 10 days before shooting was scheduled to begin, Phoenix was offered the part. He arrived in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, the night before the Sept. 11 attacks.

The actor, who was, at the time, living a few blocks from the World Trade Center, refuses to discuss the event or its impact on the film, which began production Sept 13. "Next," he says when the subject comes up.

Phoenix will discuss working with Gibson, whom he'd long admired. "I met him on the set and immediately got on with him," he says. " He's the easiest guy in the world to work with."

Like many before him, he fell prey to one of Gibson's practical jokes.

During one sequence, Phoenix was watching TV in a little room under the stairs.

"On take 15, Mel comes crunching down the stairs, and he's supposed to knock on the door, enter, and we do our scene," Phoenix recalls. The knock never came. "All I see is the lights go out in my little room, and then I noticed that I'm locked in a room no bigger than a closet! I waited in there for, like, 15 minutes before Mel finally opened the door, and when he opened the door and leaned in, I did my line, just to show you how professional I am."

It wasn't all fun and games on the set of the movie. As the characters realize they are under attack from an alien army, they begin to imagine end-of-the-world scenarios.

"Signs" co-star Cherry Jones, who calls Phoenix "Mr. Dreamboat" because of his inherent sweetness, raves about the ways he communicated his fear of the unknown.

"I just love his face and eyes during the sequence when Mel tells him there are two kinds of people in the world -- the ones with faith and the ones without it," says Jones. "Joaquin's eyes are filled with so much longing. He just breaks your heart."

Some of Phoenix's best scenes are with Culkin and Breslin, who play his niece and nephew.

"I started acting at 8, and I always wanted to act with kids," he says.

"These kids would be playing thumb wars, and then it would be, 'OK, get on our marks!' and they'd just turn out these scenes. When I was 8, I'd spent hours trying to say one line. I couldn't believe these kids."

Born in Puerto Rico, Phoenix spent much of his childhood bouncing around the world, living in Oregon, Mexico, South America, and Florida. His best friends were his siblings - Rain, Liberty, Summer, and River Phoenix.

When River landed a role on the television series "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers," Joaquin went along for the ride and wound up getting a role, too.

"When your older siblings do gymnastics, you do gymnastics," Phoenix says. "When they listen to Squeeze, you want to listen to Squeeze. It seemed like fun to do. We'd be on sets so much anyway, just hanging out. It just seemed like something fun."

And fun it was.

"When I did 'Seven Brides for Seven Brothers,' I had this feeling in my body and my muscles," he recalls. "I remember being surprised at my reaction to seeing these actors fighting and to seeing my brother crying in the scene. It was very real for me. That was a shocking realization."

For the next several years, Phoenix popped up in assorted TV movies and features. Then, when he was 14, he delivered a breakthrough turn as a sad-eyed teenager in "Parenthood."

Afterward, he retired. "I liked doing 'Parenthood,' but I got pretty serious about wanting to do films that interested me, and that I thought were relevant to issues people my age were facing," he says. "And none of the scripts reflected that. They were all bad comic books. So I just stopped."

After dealing with the drug-related death of his brother River in 1993, Phoenix seemed to retreat further. But a script for Gus Van Sant's "To Die For" lured him back to acting.

His performance in the film, which co-starred Nicole Kidman, was widely hailed. Phoenix has worked steadily ever since, in such films as " Inventing the Abbots," "Clay Pigeons," and "Return to Paradise."

But it was his turn in "Gladiator" that cemented his reputation as a world-class actor. It says something about Phoenix that it took him more than four months to fully grasp the ramifications of his Oscar nomination.

"I didn't even really know when the nominations were going to be announced or anything," he says. "I don't pay attention to that kind of stuff."

Then, four months later, it hit him in the middle of the night. "I woke up and called my agent and I said, 'I was nominated for an Oscar! ' She was confused because she'd just been sleeping.

"She thought I'd done some movie that she wasn't aware of that I got nominated for recently. I said, 'No, I was nominated for "Gladiator! "-' She said, 'What the hell are you talking about? That was four months ago.' But it really didn't make an impression on me until then."

The Oscar ceremony left Phoenix feeling a mad rush of emotions. "It was nerve-wracking and exciting," he says. "I don't think I can really describe the energy in the room.

"I was honored to be there but, actually, I spent a lot of time trying to sneak out and have a cigarette. And every time I was attacked by security guards. Finally one of them said, 'Go back to your seat and just sit down!' And I did."