Details- April 2001 (Cover Story)

HE’S THE KINDA GUY who wouldn’t hurt…. A slug.

One brilliant morning outside the public gardens of St.-Luke-in-the-fields, a landmark church in Manhattan’s West Village, the second most famous Phoenix stands like a bodyguard over a strangely motionless slug.

“I think he got stepped on” he says, inspecting the slime-oozing creature. The slug has seen better days. Still, like any proper vegan, Joaquin Phoenix is prepared to defend lower life forms.

            Suddenly, a pedestrian approaches on a collision course. “Watch out for the little slug, man!” Phoenix shouts, narrowly averting a disaster. Then a woman with a stroller comes barreling toward us. Phoenix looks aghast. “Be Caref--!”

            “Noooooo!” Phoenix wails with a sort of death-scene despair you’d expect from an actor who’s just earned his first academy award nomination. The slug has been crushed, but not all is lost. “I’m going to do an emergency removal”, he explains, depositing the critter on a nearby patch of grass.

“He’s moving”, Phoenix says hopefully. The slug twitches in pain.

 PAIN IS JOAQUIN PHOENIX’S unlikely response to his new-found Hollywood presence. Today, dressed in his standard off duty uniform of worn jeans and grungy white t-shirt, the 26-year old actor finds himself tormented by the increasing demands of greatness. He calls himself, “unbelievably insecure.” He detests the pressure “to be gorgeous and fabulous.” According to Joaquin-pronounced, for the last time, “waa-KEEN”-“that’s bullshit.” Up close, there’s a reason to believe him. His body is slack and his skin is chalky cast of a heavy smoker. “I’m inherently a blubbering slob,” he concedes. “I’m like a shaved hamster.”

            Good thing the Academy doesn’t discriminate against hairless rodents. Last month, Phoenix got his first shot at the gold statuette for Gladiator, in which he played Commodus, he bruised, bitter and slightly fey emperor with a crush on his sister and the catchphrase of the year.

            “People yell at me in traffic,” he says complacently: “I’m vexed, I’m terribly vexed”

            As if that weren’t enough, Phoenix’s knack for picking up top-shelf material finds him sharing the Soderberghain honor for being a force in two Oscar-approved movie-Gladiator and the Marquis de Sade film Quills, which together nailed a total of 15 Oscar Nominations. Between stops in Ancient Rome, and the Napoleonic France, Phoenix managed to wing by Queens the yard, a noir indie romp with Mark Wahlberg and Charlize Theron.It’s been a good year. Beyond the Academy, he’s taken home a Best Supporting Actor award from three major film critics groups. His colleagues seem to have noticed this trifecta, too.

            “He’s one of the strongest actors of my generation,” says Quills co-star Kate Winslet. “But if you said that to him. He’d virtually throw up in your face. He cannot stand being paid compliments”

            Phoenix is fast making a name for himself as the most tortured young man in show business. He’s a bundle of nervous energy, a perpetual fidgeter and foot-tapper. Witnesses have reportedly spotted him banging his head against the walls before particularly gut-wrenching scenes. Directors who prize his intensity also appear slightly…. Concerned.

            “He’s emotionally kicks himself if he doesn’t hit something the way he wants to,” says Gregor Jordan, who just finished directing Phoenix in Buffalo Soldiers, a military drama due out later this year.

            “Joaquin genuinely thinks he’s a fraud,” explains Winslet “he doesn’t think he can act at all. We’d have a great day of shooting and I’d go ‘God, that was so fantastic’ and he’d say ‘what are you talking about? I’m a bitch, I’m a whore. I look like a horse’ some days I’d just want to slap him”

            Phoenix admits the work doesn’t come easy. “ I get butterflies everytime,”he says “im vomiting days before we start shooting”

Who knew success was so vexing?

           

THE FIRST TIME I MET JOAQUIN PHOENIX- during the filming of the yards on a soundstage in blue-collar Queens-he reached into my back pocket and lifted my wallet.

            He wanted identification that proved I was really a journalist. Asked about it today, he doesn’t recall the incident. “I think I was fucking with you,” he allows.

            Phoenix has deeply chiseled self-protective streak. “Joaquin didn’t grow up living this ‘normalized existence,’” notes Quills director. “He has a kind of furtive way when you meet him a certain feral quality. HE doesn’t like to reveal himself totally to people.” “Phoenix has an urgent need to be a nice guy” adds  yard co-star Charlize. “Every morning, h was like, ‘hi everybody, Joaquin’s here! You can all smile now’” she says, the cast wound up calling him flash. “He was always Mr. Ready to please everbody”Theron says.

            Hang around Phoenix long enough and you’ll witness these ever changing moods. Toward the end of our meeting, I ask him whether he’s dating anyone “I’m single” he says. Then, after a long pause, he exhales sharply, “ I actually do have a girlfriend,” he adds sarcastically. “ it just took….me… a while to remember”

            Yards director James gray, who became one of the actors close friend, finds phoenix an obsessive=impulsive. “Joaquin’s best moments are kind of like lightening in a bottle” he says, “if you say the right thin to him, he feeds off of it. Say something he perceives as not helping him, and he resents you”

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