(wah-keen) n.a.actor; of the Phoenix lineage, noted for intense performances.
favourite,doesn't care. c.oddball; popular reputation, about to be
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
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
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
"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,
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.