By Carlo Bizio (June, 2001)
Joaquin Leaf Phoenix: from Gladiator to The Yards (coming soon) a restless rising success. Portrait of an actor and his odd family, still tried by River's death.
First he was called Leaf, then he got bored by Phoenix's animism and turned back to his birth name Joaquin-he was born in Puerto Rico on October the 28th 1974. He was still called Leaf in one of his former roles in a major production: Ron Howard's comedy "Parenthood" in 1989 (aged 15), now he is called Joaquin and become a major star with "Gladiator" (starring as the evil Commodus), "Quills" (the idealist Abbe who tried to save De Sade's soul) and the criminal drama "The Yards".
His first role as an adult was in Gus Van Sant's "To Die For", a neo-noir dotted by sex, costarring Nicole Kidman, actually this film launched him in the star system, then took a part in the comedy "Inventing the Abbotts" costarring Liv Tyler (she has been his girlfriend), "Return to Paradise", "U-Turn" and "8mm".
In the dark drama "The Yards" he acts as the younger "brother" of Mark Whalberg, a young car thief who gets out of prison and is willing to be straight but he is draged into crime again by his family (the father- godfather is James Caan). Phoenix proves to have a particular skill in the role of the smart Willie, the trusted assistant of the corrupted businessman.
"James Gray wanted me as Leo, now Mark Whalberg's role - says Phoenix - but I thought: this time I want to act a seductive strong character, not an insecure one just went out of prison; I've already done it before. Miramax, the film producer, could not believe that I would be able to perform Willy's character, which is the sexy and charismatic one; actually neither did I, it happens to me each time I have to perform a new role; also when I had to act in Gladiator. But I always try hard to overcome my fears and my inhibition. I always think to be a crap, but in the end something good comes out of it. Maybe my lacking in self-confidence is my best arm."
"It has been better that it was me who come out of prison, because I had experienced that - says Mark Whahlberg, who has been charged of aggression and jailed for 45 days when he was 16 - Joaquin is a great actor, but he is not aware of his qualities. He is able to act every role despite he is an eternal insecure. His face is enigmatic and pure: I always love him on screen."
Joaquin Phoenix spent his childhood in Latin America, because of his Parents followership of The Children of God. All five children- the eldest brother was the mourned River, died of overdose in Joaquin arms in a fall night in the 1993- sang in the streets religious songs to collect passers by offerings. In 1977 Phoenix family come back to US, they settled first in Florida, then in Los Angeles where River and the elder sister Rain began to act gaining several young talents awards. Leaf began to act too first on TV (spots, serials, variety, musicals) and then in films.
"Since we were children, we have always been encouraged to express ourselves through art and performance"- says Joaquin.
His sisters Rain, aged 28, and Summer aged 22 are still acting (Liberty plays in a musical group). Rain starred in Van Sant's film "Even Cowgirls get the blues" costarring Uma Thurman, from a Tom Robbins' novel. Between Van Sant and Phoenix brothers there always been good agreement: River acted for the Portland director in "My private Indaho" costarring Keanu Reeves. They say that River was dragged into drugs during his preparation for this film, which caused his overdose death, in Hollywood, in the Viper's Room club, in front of Joaquin dreaded eyes who tryed unsucessfully to reanimate him. Joaquin gives to his beloved brother the credit to have led he and his sibilings into acting, music and artistical expression. He had a garage-band with River and Rain: he keeps on playng music. They are still a very close clan despite his parents divorce.
The deep link beetween Joaquin and his sisters. When feelings are a "blood" matter.
By Carlo Bizio
Liberty, the middle aged of Phoenix sisters (the younger is Summer aged 22) is the only one who does't act, instead she plays country music. Rain recently had a part in "O," a contemporary version of Otello, set in a high school, up to now is not out in the theatres. As the "black sheep" of the family (this is his definition of himself) he is shy and uneasy, Joaquin was able, it's a common opinion, to fulfill the potential of his dead brother, becoming one of the best actors of his generation. Joaquin, modest, ironically insecure, is not loquacious, self-examination is not his best, he says, and his acting is instinctive; but, he is living his "moment" whith satisfaction indeed. Last year his sister Liberty gave birth to a baby called, of course, Rio (his father is from Costa Rica): a natural childbirth in her home bathtub, her family assisted her. Joaquin cut his sister's umbilical cord, "extreme demontration of creative shareing" he says.