Flight Of The Phoenix

A major star thanks to Gladiator and Quills, two films that nailed a total of fifteen Oscar nominations, JOAQUIN PHOENIX now takes his first leading role in one of the coolest films of the year, Buffalo Soldiers. Words: Catherine Bromley/Bruno Lester for The List

Since his Oscar-nominated performance in Gladiator, the 27-year-old brother of River Phoenix has earned a reputation for being a genuine eccentric. Last year he did a few US talk shows where he rambled incoherently. Joaquin (pronounced Wack-een) Rafael, known as Joaq to his friends, has also been described as unpredictable, edgy and difficult to interview.

Understandably, he is neither fond of talking about his late brother, who died in front of him outside the Viper Club in Hollywood of a drug overdose in 1993 (Phoenix made an anguished emergency call that was broadcast by the news media), nor is he keen on discussing his hippie parents, John Bottom and Arlyn Dunetz, who joined the Children of God cult, then created a family of actors and chain-smoking vegans (Rain, 27, Liberty, 23, and Summer, 22).

But today Phoenix is eager and cheerful. We're here to talk about Buffalo Soldiers, the black comedy in which he plays a US soldier selling drugs among the troops stationed in Germany. Coming on like a modern day M*A*S*H and with a soundtrack by David Holmes (see panel), Buffalo Soldiers is destined to be one of the coolest films of the year Dressed in jeans, sneakers and a green sweater that brings out the green in his eyes, the Puerto Rican-born actor has a cigarette stuck behind his ear. Politely he refrains from smoking throughout the interview, although the nicotine withdrawal makes him a bit edgy and nervous.

The List: You have an image of being an unpredictable interviewee.

Joaquin Phoenix: I can function in any environment except press rooms. You have a really great session and then one that is miserable.

TL: Is it hard for you to talk about your work?

JP: Yes, because I've done other movies since Buffalo Soldiers, and it's strange to talk about work that's in the past, to talk about it as if you just walked off the set.

TL: Why did you seem so dazed and confused on the talk shows last year?

JP: I thought it would be funny to act that way, but it backfired. I guess I should just stick with movies.

TL: How would you describe the soldier you play in Buffalo Soldiers?

JP: He's just a total shit, but he's not out of malice. He's just selfish. I love that he has ruined and saved lives throughout the course of the story, all kind of unintentionally.

Based on a 1993 novel by Robert O'Connor, Buffalo Soldiers is a fictitious account of US troops stationed in the former West Germany in 1989. There, the soldiers experimented with drugs to kill the boredom, even shooting heroin while driving tanks on manoeuvres.

TL: Do you really think it was that bad?

JP: Worse. This is a toned down version of what was happening. Even when I was there, the wife of an officer was arrested for smuggling cocaine, and he was part of the anti-drug movement in this country. I heard so many stories of corruption.

TL: So not much has changed over the years.

JP: When I got to Germany, I talked to some of the soldiers. 'It's fucking boring here,' they said. The idea that you were so fucking bored was confirmed.

TL: You seem very close to the character in Buffalo Soldiers.

JP: Every movie I do, I meet resistance going into it, and by the time it comes out, everyone says, 'Well, you were the obvious choice' and that the character is very much like me, which is great. It means that it makes sense that I did the role. I'm happy on every movie, but I'm always reluctant to find parallels with myself and the character. Last thing I think of is how I'd react with these people.

TL: Do you do a lot of research for your roles?

JP: My middle name is research. You get to learn so many things making films; it's so great.

TL: Filming in Germany, I understand the cast and crew created its own American base there.

JP: Yeah. We did all the filming on an abandoned army base and that environment made it real for the actors. It was easy for research. We were twenty guys and Anna [Paquin, his co-star] staying in this little hotel in this little small town in Germany. There was that genuine sense of frustration and boredom. Our hotel became the barracks.

TL: Wasn't it during the Buffalo Soldiers shoot that you received news of your Oscar-nomination for Gladiator?

JP: Yes, and I didn't let myself enjoy it and have fun with it. I felt like Miss America; like I'd start weeping. An Oscar nomination - it's the thing!

TL: How would you describe yourself?

JP: I'm unbelievably insecure.

TL: Do you have any fears?

JP: I hate flying. I can't bear the powerlessness.

TL: You dated Liv Tyler for a time. Do you have a girlfriend now?

JP: I'm single [a long pause]. I actually do have a girlfriend. It just took me a while to remember.

TL: Where do you live?

JP: I have an apartment in Tribecca [in Manhattan, New York]. Summer lives next door and I see a lot of her [Joaquin's sister dates his best friend, actor Casey Affleck, Ben's little brother].

TL: Is it easy for you to go in front of the camera?

JP: No, I'm vomiting days before I start shooting a new movie.

TL: Do you consider yourself a star?

JP: I always considered myself a bright shining star. I'm joking! I did a joke! I've been pleasantly surprised. I've been really fortunate. I've worked really hard and tried to be careful about my decisions.

TL: What kind of films are you interested in doing?

JP: Generally big budget films aren't as interesting to me, because more often than not the characters aren't very complex. They stay the same all the way through the movie. Smaller films reflect better the experiences we have as human beings. But things are changing. New audiences are ready for flawed heroes.

TL: Clearly. You made quite an impression playing Commodus in Gladiator.

JP: I thought he was complex. You don't expect to find a character dealing with issues like parental neglect and paranoia in movies like that.

TL; Your characters all have some darkness to them.

JP: But Hollywood wants to label. It's easier to typecast because so much is at stake. So much money. Very few films have the insight to challenge you and everyone suffers from being labelled in one way.

TL: Playing an animated character in The Bears must have been one of your strangest roles?

JP: To be in a Disney film was the greatest. I play a native American transformed into a bear. Don't call me leading man. I'm a leading bear. I am content!

TL: What's next for you?

JP: I've done the sci-fi drama It's All About Love, directed by Thomas Vinterberg in Denmark. I play a Polish literature professor about to be divorced from Claire Danes. It's a love story and really complex.

TL: Then you're Mel Gibson's brother in M. Night Shyamalan's supernatural thriller, Signs.

JP: I fetch water for Mel Gibson. It's about farmers who discover mysterious crop circles in their field. That's all I can divulge.

TL: In other words; two big new films.

JP: No. After Gladiator everything is small.

And with that, the interview at an end, Phoenix finally lights up his smoke.