Joaquin Phoenix Uses His Fear

Nov 8/00 12:00p by Ron Dicker
Would Joaquin Phoenix take advice from a fellow actor on the set?"Frankly, I'm far too self-obsessed to," says the star of the subway-corruption drama "The Yards." "You have to be. Every actor is when you work. It's ideal. I'm not really ashamed of it."The words by themselves indicate a monster ego. But in person, Phoenix delivers them with self-effacing frankness.Phoenix occasionally drops his chin to the table during an interview at the recent Toronto International Film Festival. Even in his groggy state from spending all night on an airplane, Phoenix seems comfortable. He gives the impression that he will conquer any obstacle in his own neurotic way. That includes taking a new role."I'm petrified every time," Phoenix says. "Every time, I feel like it's my first movie. I've never felt I know what I'm going to do. The moment you do feel that way, you're probably going down."Phoenix already has proven he can cope in his 26 years, which has been packed with odd and tragic turns. His career took off in 1995, when he played a fawning loser who is mesmerized into murder by a television weathergirl (Nicole Kidman) in "To Die For." Then he reached a peak last summer as the evil emperor in "Gladiator."The exposure is apparently doing wonders for his popularity.Phoenix, not quite a leading man, drew screams from girls during a Toronto screening of "The Yards." On this morning, however, he confesses that one of the screamers was his cousin, and he encouraged her to stir up her friends. "I still consider myself a sex machine," he says.In all seriousness, however, the hare-lipped Phoenix finds that even playing the villain in a blockbuster pays."More opportunities, more interest out there," he says. "It's a business, and being in a successful film matters a great deal to the powers that be."Some actors get into the profession for the adventure. Phoenix got in because he already had done too much living not to express himself."Certainly, in my travels as a youth and young man, I think it's helped me a lot," he says. "I've met so many people in different cultures that I've used pieces in virtually every character of someone that I've come across."Phoenix was born in Puerto Rico, the second youngest of five children of free-spirited parents who were involved in the Children of God religious group. After the leader was implicated in a sex scandal, the family fled to Florida and settled into suburban life.Phoenix wanted an earthier name like his siblings River, Rain, Liberty and Summer, so while they worked in the yard one day, his father suggested Leaf. The five began performing song-and-dance numbers in the street and in talent shows, and a friend sent director Penny Marshall a local newspaper article about them, prompting Paramount to invite them to Hollywood for auditions.The family changed its last name from Bottom to Phoenix, hoping the mythical qualities of the bird rising from ashes would portent their rise. They drove to California, and the kids landed work almost immediately. After a string of television gigs, Leaf (Joaquin) made his movie debut four years later as a schoolboy astronaut in "Space Camp." In 1989, he played the tortured adolescent son of divorced mom Dianne Weist in Ron Howard's "Parenthood."The Phoenix story tracks like an amateur script gone haywire, but it continued in the same vein. James Gray, who directed and co-wrote "The Yards," says he picked both Phoenix and Mark Wahlberg to play friends-turned-rivals because of their pasts. In "The Yards," Wahlberg's honorable but dim Leo gets out of jail and finds work in the family's business of supplying subway parts in New York City. But that is not all that is underground. Leo's slick pal Willie Gutierrez, played by Phoenix, is learning the trade from Leo's shifty uncle (James Caan) and is a quick study in what it takes to win the city contracts. Phoenix's Willie has no qualms about taking Wahlberg's Leo down into the shadowy depths with him. "They have fascinating and very rich personal histories," Gray said of the actors, "and I think that means a lot to their emotional understanding, to their level of commitment."There was a time when Phoenix would not have considered taking any roles. While his brother River's career flourished in the early '90s with the art-house hit "My Own Private Idaho," Joaquin Phoenix, still going by the name Leaf, became disillusioned with the business and joined his father in Mexico. They wandered for a while, and Phoenix changed his name back to Joaquin before he rejoined the rest of his family in Los Angeles. On Oct. 31, 1993, at the Viper Room nightclub, he watched River die from a heroin and cocaine overdose. Joaquin's 911 call was broadcast on the news, thrusting him back into the industry consciousness. Phoenix kept rejecting scripts but took an interest in a Gus Van Sant project called "To Die For." Phoenix eventually agreed to do the movie and impressed observers with his quirky good looks and tenderness. He then appeared as an adoring neighbor to a houseful of beautiful women in 1997's "Inventing the Abbotts" and fell into a relationship with his co-star, Liv Tyler. Asked if he is involved with anyone now, Phoenix replies, "Yes ... no ... maybe." He continued to build his career as a wrongly accused drug smuggler in "Return to Paradise" (1998) and then as the bumbling victim of a sociopath in "Clay Pigeons" (1998). Phoenix is about to star in "Buffalo Soldiers," a dark comedy set on a military base during the fall of the Berlin Wall. As is his policy, he will not be trading pointers with the cast. But Phoenix will gladly dish out advice to family. Rain Phoenix recently asked her brother about a part she had landed. Joaquin Phoenix told her what he has been telling himself throughout his career and what Gray had suggested to him throughout the filming of "The Yards."Don't try too hard," Phoenix says. "You try to fill spaces up too much, and those spaces are actually really good, and they work for you."

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