Joaquin (wah-keen); of the Phoenix lineage, noted for intense performances.

b.Oscar favourite,doesn't care. c.oddball; popular reputation, about to be overturned....

Words Colin Kennedy Portrait Richard Mclaren

Joaquin Phoenix is in full flight. It's the fat middle of an unseasonably warm December afternoon in the German Black Forest, and alone in his trailer, the fleet-footed Phoenix is giving it his Billy Elliot best. Caught, he grins bashfully. "Just rehearsing a few moves for my disco scene." Yeah, right. "No, really it's in the script." As it happens, the 26 year-old actor is telling the truth, this solo dance is just a rehearsal. Then again, Joaquin Phoenix didn't catch fire in 2000 by simply sticking to the script.... After ten films stretching back to 1986 and the painfully naive SpaceCamp, it's the 12 months just gone which will go down as Joaquin's breakthrough year. Phoenix notes a certain irony in this, given that for most of 2000 the actor was unemployed. "What's come out this year," he explains, seated and smoking, disco temporarily suspended, "Gladiator, Quills, The yards, I shot them all over a year and a half (in '98 and '99), and with Quills (the Marquis de Sade drama which arrives in the UK this month, in which Phoenix plays a priest), because we shot in order it became more and more intense as the shoot went on, and my character kind of disintegrates. So when I finished that film, I was exhausted."
After filming in Malta (Gladiator) and then England (Quills) with only reshoots for The Yards in between, it was time for Phoenix to head home. "Yeah, I went straight home to my mom's. I sat in bed for, like, six weeks and did absolutely nothing."
Lacking a permanent place of his own -- "I rent short term, or I stay with friends in New York." -- The only other home Phoenix has ever known is here, on the film set, which explains why a year on since Quills wrapped, he's visible ecstatic to be back in his element. Phoenix is in Europe to shoot Buffalo Soldiers, a Film Four production which casts him as Elwood, an army rebel stationed in Germany just before the fall of the Berlin Wall. he talks endlessly and enthusiastically about his current gig, which makes it odd time to speak to him about other matters. "Right now my main concern is Buffalo Soldiers," he states baldlyn "and that's just the way I work. For me, the process is the best part and then I'm through with it. Which is why I don't like doing interviews because I don't like to revisit the piece, just 'cause I'm purely selfish and I'm done with it."
Or so he says. The truth is, Phoenix is so ardent about acting that he cannot help himself. An innocent enquiry about retuning his style to act opposite.
Shakespeare veteran Geoffrey Rush (who plays the Marquis) in Quills precipitates five uninterrupted minutes of such kinetic energy that once or twice you'd swear the trailer starts rocking. Space dictates that we can't reprint it in full here, but highlights include his deliberate lack of objectivity about a character, riffing on bad romance novels, hyperreality, and a quality he and Quills director Philip Kaufman called "classic animated Disney", all which winds down with the almost unnecessary conclusion, "I knew going into Quills that it would be risky and that was part of the attraction and, I guess I've always kind of done that because....maybe it's real simple, maybe it's just boring to play it safe."
He's been charged with many things, but no-one could accuse Joaquin Phoenix of playing it safe. From the 14 year-old clutching a brown bag of porn in Parenthood, to the graphic necrophiliac fantasy Coulmier enjoys in Quills, Phoenix has always walked close to the edge. Even before his extraordinarily sympathetic turn as the cruel but lonely Commodus--"The boy who has everything who has nothing."--Burned into the public psyche, Phoenix had long been blazing a trail as a dark, complex talent in such exotic fare as To Die For (1994), U Turn (1997) and 8mm (1999).
And then there is that face. Put simply: he looks like the devil. But in a good way. Watching his fearsome brows bear down on eyes of the most fragile blue is like bearing witness to some elemental struggle between good and evil. And with that birth scar curling his upper lip into a delicious sneer, his almost constant grin is like a sharptoothed gargoyle made flesh. But before we confuse the actor with his CV, best remember looks can deceiving, characters are just that, and reputation--well, Phoenix's reputation turns out to have the shaliest foundation of all....
There's this story doing the rounds about Joaquin Phoenix and intensity. It started as an innocent observation James Gray, the director of The Yards, made about some physical preparation Phoenix used for one scene, and now, inevitable, it has become a whole other deal. "The press has just gone out of their way to insist that every day, in addition to brushing my teeth and taking a shower, I bang my head against the wall in preparation. Which is just odd, because one day on The Yards and another on Return To Paradise, I had some tense, emotional scenes, and you're standing around with people drinking coffee and saying, 'Did you see the game last night?' So you're thinking, 'How the fuck do I get into this (heavy) place, right?' So I do something extreme, but suddenly that defines me, and it's totally inaccurate, because that's one moment. And they cut out the rest.
So here, for once, is the rest....
Currently in costume, Phoenix is far too busy being a character to stay in character. "I don't go home and try to think like Elwood would think, y'know?" Instead he's great company. He speaks in such a breathless rush that sometimes his words tumble out jumbled together, or simply get lost in the crush. Here's Phoenix trying to pinpoint the special bond he shared with cast and crew on Gladiator: "I think audiences recognize that thing in the film....what the fuck is it called? You know, they often talk about it, the mysterious thing between men and women, see if they have...." Chemistry? "Chemistry." He is exultant. "Thank you. Chemistry. Exactly."
At times like this, when he's worked up a head of steam, he seems almost embarrassed by his own passion, and yet once or twice, if you catch him in a vulnerable spot, his head bows and his voice loxers to a mumble; But well as on, Joaquin Phoenix does hurt so well, it hurts right back. So although you believe him when he says, "It's not difficult or troubling for me talking about my family," you don't ask him about that Hallowe'en night seven years ago when he watched his older brother, himself a famous actor, die from a drug overdose on the pavement outside an LA nightclub, because you have it on good authority that this is the one subject which Phoenix will not, cannot, talk about. In fact, when he admits that he'll never quite understand why people should be so curious about his personal life--"I guess I don't really have an interest in that in other people"--you scratch the whole topic of River out of your notebook because you feel ashamed for ever having thought about it.
Besides, he's too much fun. He can do all that biography shit, tell you about why he changed his name so it was more like his outlandishly-monickered siblings, River, Rain, Summer and Liberty, and then changed it back, but freely admits that--these days--he finds the whole subject "boring". "I did it, y'know what I mean? I did all the jokes I could think of and I'm out," laughing hard. "So now I just say, 'Yes,I was born Joaquin, I changed it it to Leaf and now I've changed it back to Joaquin.'"
And it's not just the name. There's a million wacky Joaquin stories doing the rounds, you probably know most of them already. His dad was called Bottom before he was reborn as Phoenix. The family did enjoy a counter-culture upbringing--the word 'hippy' makes Joaquin bristle, "Like, what is a hippy?"--drifting through The Americas. To make ends meet the kids did sing on the street corners--"I don't think I ever was a really good singer," giggles the middle child. "I had four other good singers around me and I just mimed."--before River's passion for acting led all five kids to an agent called Iris Burton. There are plenty more, but ask him about any of this, and you better watch your step. Typical example: You were born in Puerto Rico, do you ever feel Latin American? "I don't know, do they feel different?"
(Dont feel bad, though. Asked recently about the years he took off acting to go travelling with his father, Phoenix deadpanned that his motivation was 'to get laid." Unfortunately, the journalist took him at his word. Several times Phoenix laments, "People do not get my sense of humor.")
Besides, the salient point in this: apart from the odd detail--"You eat sprouted bread with tofu for lunch and everyone else had Mc Donald's"--the younger Phoenix "Absolutely felt normal" while the adult version admits to being "Fucking thrilled with my lifestyle, y'know?"
"Y'know," he says again, blowing smoke, "I didn't realize 'til 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."
There's this other story doing the rounds, that Joaquin Phoenix is the most bizarre talk show guest on the circuit. Like, full-on loon.
He doesn't deny this. Indeed, after Phoenix discovered to his horror that the 'spontaneous' late night banter is actually achieved through a series of pre-intervieuws conducted by underlings, he concluded that saying the same thing again would be "Boring." So, for his regular off-the-wall appearances on The late Show With David Letterman, Phoenix makes it "obvious that he doesn't give a fuck" assured that the one person who does get his humor is Letterman himself. "We have an unspoken agreement that I'm going to fuck off; he plays it straight and I play crazy."
All this is vintage Phoenix, as goofy as it is artless. After all, being suprised that chat shows are scripted PR events is like discovering that Blind Date contestants don't think up those answers on the spot. But then, innocence is a big part of the Phoenix charm. Press him about the Oscar buzz currently surrounding his performance as Commodus and he confesses to being literally unable to comment. "Until recently I was really naive about the industry, I probably still am, but y'know, I never really read magazines, I never was up on it. So I never really knew kind of how it (the Oscars) works, and I would prefer to stay that way. I'm just glad that I'm in Europe working, because that's all that matters."
The Oscar "Obsession" is all part of the same package deal, all the shit which comes with being an actor, all the shit which makes Phoenix laugh. It's not like he can't take it--"There is nothing really to handle"--it's just that he can't take it seriously. "I'm trying to think of something else," he says, endlessly amused by his ability to baffle journalists. "Oh, the best thing I did was an intervieuws recently where they asked about this, y'know, the awards stuff, and so I started talking about different colors of characters and just went off on this tangent which is soooo full of shit, but I thought, 'Aren't we being so full of shit, just talking about this stuff?"
He gives a resigned shrug. "Why is it odd that I want to take the piss out of this and have fun and act like an idiot on Letterman? It's so odd that people file into this really cold room and watch these other people say there stupid stories, and I'm fucking weird because I don't follow the rules? Like, I don't go by the book?"
To repeat: You don't catch fire by simply sticking to the script.

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