Meet Wok Bottom

Joaquin Phoenix has survived a strange name and his brother's death to become a serious star, discovers Jeff Dawson in the Sunday Times.

 

Being a weirdo is not all it's cracked up to be. You have to maintain that dull psychopathic stare, that cold, whispered speech, flaunt your menacing facial scar. Poor Joaquin Phoenix: will the world never understand?

The films only perpetuate the image - the mullet-haired teen of To Die For (cold, brooding, psychopathic); the mobster in The Yards (cold, brooding, psychopathic); most famously, Gladiator, where, as oily Emperor Commodus (cold, brooding and, indeed, psychopathic), he embellished his sinisterness by sleeping with his sister. As for U Turn, 8mm, Clay Pigeons - odd, weird, creepy. And when none other than Steven Tyler, wild man of Aerosmith (whose daughter, Liv, Phoenix dated for three years), repor-tedly cautions his darling girl about messing with such trouble, you know you've made an impression.

Phoenix, though, is happy to ride with the perceptions. In fact, with To Die For, his 1995 breakthrough, he confused an unwitting press altogether by doing all his interviews in character. He clearly has little time for the Hollywood game. "Actors are idiots. Actors are so stupid. So boring," he says. "I never really understood that obsession with them ... I just do it to amuse myself."

In his new film, Quills, a gothic romp about the Marquis de Sade, Phoenix plays a tormented priest whose repressed cravings lead him to have sex with a corpse. Mercifully, this is one role he leaves at the studio door. As it turns out, Phoenix is a genial chap, as amiable as you'll get in a Hollywood star these days, which, though he denies it, he most definitely is. Softly spoken, certainly, but in a warm, engaging way, he's willing actually to embark on conversation, unlike most of his peers, rather than just sit there, all surly, while a bunch of questions are flung at him.

His mobile phone rings. He fumbles to switch it right off. "Sorry ... really," he says, quite pained at the intrusion. And you get the impression he means it.

Okay, there's that annoying trait of the celebrity slacker - personal wealth countered by extreme poverty in the sartorial department (plain, shop-soiled reject shirt, grungy jeans); the chain-smoking (even before lunch, Phoenix sucks down Marlboro Lights as if it's his personal mission to make them go out of fashion); and then there's the quite glorious swearing, Phoenix using the F-word the way a lawyer uses commas. But at least he's polite, his demeanour today put down to the fact that, here at the Dorchester, refuge of choice for the successful young Yank, he's just got up. It's already gone 11am, but he only just flew in last night from a film set in Germany.

"Do you mind?" he asks, swishing the curtains to block the weak London sun unduly hastening his reveille.

Quills, the film he's in town to promote, is a strange, dark comedy. "I look at every poster and it says 'wickedly funny', but it really is," he enthuses. Not all critics agree. Part satire, part Carry On, the reviews have been polarised, though Phoenix scores highly in either camp. Purportedly the true story of the final days of the cheeky marquis, locked up in the Charenton asylum, it has Geoffrey Rush's Sade as a pantomime Priapus protesting against the corrective therapy of Dr Michael Caine. Phoenix plays the Abbé de Coulmier, the liberal custodian of the madhouse who is caught in the crossfire (and with stirring loins for buxom Kate Winslet). Not that the real-life Coulmier was anything like Phoenix. He was a 4ft dwarf and a hunchback. "With a bum leg, too," adds Phoenix.

What Quills means is that, added onto Gladiator, which was partly filmed in England, Phoenix spent most of 1999 living in London. "I have some really good friends from here, but I'm not crazy about it," he admits, "though oddly enough I'm enjoying it more this time. On Gladiator, I was terribly lonely. It was a foreign country, and I was working and just in this hotel, this ridiculous hotel. And it was all beige and awful."

But Gladiator will certainly, and deservedly, garner him an Oscar nod. Being "un-Hollywood", as all Hollywood actors are, Phoenix is rather dismissive of such talk, though you can bet his last ciggie he'll be blubbing on the inside should he win. "It wasn't really until we started doing press and the executives were walking around on air that I realised it was going to be successful," he admits. "Listen, I had no idea. This thing [the movie business], I know nothing. I don't belong here."

As a Phoenix, an unmaterialistic hippie kid down to his hemp socks, this last statement is sincere. And right on cue, there is a knock at the door - a room-service waiter bearing a plate of berries. Phoenix discreetly tips the man a crisp note. It looks like a twenty. The fruit-bringer glides out, rearwards and genuflecting. "Breakfast," grins the actor and proceeds to feast heartily on the flesh of logan, rasp and straw.

Phoenix, though, is no mere dilettantish veggie. This boy is a vegan, a hard-liner, an activist no less - ever since the day, as a four-year-old, when he witnessed some live fish (the family lunch) get walloped over the head, and brother River urged them to respect all living creatures from that day forth. "It just seemed that this was so barbaric and brutal," Joaquin whimpers through mashed pips. "You get very sensitive as a child, you know what I mean?" Not a lifestyle to be taken lightly. "No. Super-f***!" he counters, quite blithely. "It's easier now - you should have seen this in the 1980s. When I first started out, vegetarian restaurants were just raw, no-taste, bean-paste, sprout sandwiches." Now, he says, a vegan can dine in style. "But I eat really simply," he adds, "and I don't really care for gourmet vegetarian food, or gourmet any food."

Militancy, though, is often required. Phoenix once shot a Prada ad from the waist up because he refused to wear a leather belt. I can't help noticing that round the toe of Phoenix's black trainers skirts a band of suede. "No, no, no, no, this thing is synthetic, all synthetic," he insists. That they are made by global profiteers Nike would only take us off on a tangent.

As is reasonably well known, the 26-year-old Phoenix is the child of free-spirited Americans (John Bottom and Arlyn Dunetz) who upped and offed round the Caribbean to work as Christian missionaries in the late 1960s. Quite an exotic and unusual upbringing. "I want to know what's normal, though. Who defines normalcy? It really pisses me off," grumbles

Phoenix, though appearing in print a lot angrier than he actually sounds. "What the f***'s normal? Working nine to five? What's so fantastic about normalcy? It's bullshit." I had, I point out, judiciously used the word "unusual". "No, no, no, you're right," he apologises. "I wasn't saying that you did." He pauses for a second. "I guess it was unconventional ... but people think I spent my whole life in a van."

By the time he got into acting, his destitute family had returned to the States (stowing away on a freighter from Venezuela) and found gainful employment, but Joaquin Raphael, second son and third child, was born on the hoof (in Puerto Rico), as were most of this home-schooled brood - River, Rain, Liberty, Summer and Leaf.

Actually, let's correct that, for Joaquin and Leaf are one and the same. Born Joaquin, but craving a hippie handle like his siblings, Joaquin redubbed himself as a toddler, a move inspired by seeing his dad rake the garden ("I actually have a memory of this, but my mom says she's not sure," he adds). It was only at 16 that Phoenix started reverting to his given name, pronounced "Wakeen", uttered with an optional Castilian hack. Not entirely user-friendly, he admits. His mates just call him "Wok". In Britain, he points out, it comes out more a scouseish "Wack". Given that Phoenix was a fictitious moniker adopted by the family to symbolise their new-found purpose, the Artist Formerly Known As Leaf might otherwise, one supposes, have gone by the less fortunate Wack Bottom (which, presumably, means his older brother should have been River Bottom). But that's another story.

The path into acting was serendipitous. Ending up in California, Ma Phoenix got a job in the casting department at NBC television. The Phoenix children were thus opportunely placed when the odd TV gig came up. And when elder brother River got singled out, the communal spirit prevailed. It was either all the kids or none who got signed up to "do acting".

Joaquin never thought it would go anywhere. At 12, his first film, a child-friendly comedy called Spacecamp, was notable only because he got to meet his hero, Michael Jackson, shooting a pop video next door. "Michael Jackson was just awesome," he gushes, "and he was a vegetarian, so I brought him this vegetarian cookbook." Wack meets Wacko. "Oh yeah," he registers, "ha ha ha ha," though more out of courtesy than anything else.

The innocence of youth was not to last. Phoenix's life, of course, has been blighted by tragedy. It's impossible not to mention River, of whom he speaks frequently: the oh-so-promising actor who, in 1993, died in rather squalid circumstances outside an LA nightclub. For Joaquin - there at his brother's side - and, indeed, for every interviewer, it is the awkward subject waiting to be raised.

River, he'll tell you, was the biggest influence on his life. Indeed, that awful episode was responsible for his own metamorphosis, putting some distance between himself and the callow Leaf, whose frantic emergency call was broadcast shamelessly to the whole world, the same teen who watched an American tabloid publish ghoulish snaps of his brother laid out in his coffin. "It's hard when you're a kid," he says. "For my mom, I thought, 'Just how completely and utterly disrespectful is that?' It's the most painful thing in the world. It's an awful thing to feel that your whole world is kind of being raided and raided. I just thought, 'My God, how f***ing callous are we?'"

Despite it all, he's remarkably indulgent of the media ("If you get robbed by a punk kid, do you think all punks are thieves?" he says), for which he deserves enormous credit. There is something on his mind, though, a more immediate concern. Tomorrow, Phoenix must head back to Germany to continue shooting Buffalo Soldiers, a satire on the US Army. He'll be okay for food - there's a falafel shop nearby. But it's the accursed combat boots he has to wear that have left him, as Commodus would say, "terribly vexed".

Sometimes, he concedes, he is unable - for the sake of his art - to avoid cladding himself in animal hide. But in the bigger scheme of things, he explains, his heightened profile

will aid his function as a spokesman for Peta (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals). All for the cause. And, with that, Phoenix offers a grin and a friendly double-hander. Warm but still on the right side of manly.

He's a good egg, is Phoenix. I really hope he does win that Oscar. And that, when he stands there, in the spotlight's glare, he shocks them all by saying something truly profound. Or "super-f***"...