Phoenix on the rise

For a man who played the would-be emperor of Rome, Joaquin Phoenix does low-key well. And despite his happy-go lucky personality and loving family background, he knows how to get inside damaged peoples lives. He's also a shoe-in for Honorary Australian of the Year.

26 year old Joaquin Phoenix has that chiselled movie guy face you associate with actors from the Golden Years of Hollywood like Robert Mitchum and Burt Lancaster. His intense brooding suits classic roles, which is why he was perfectly cast as the ruthless, podgy emperor's son to Russell Crowe's warrior in Gladiator. Phoenix has been well matched with many an Australian. He came to the fore with Nicole Kidman in Gus van Sant's To Die For, playing a dim-witted youth obsessed by Kidman's ambitious weather girl. In Quills his seemingly serene but actually tortured young priest tried to placate Geoffrey Rush's grandstanding Marquis de Sade.

He will soon be united with Australian director Gregor Jordan (Two Hands) for Buffalo Soldiers, about a criminal culture operating within the US military contingent stationed in West Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Is there something in this Australian connection, since both Crowe and Kidman shot to stardom alongside Phoenix on screen? "Oh yeah, I take full credit." The actor responds in his typically dead-pan manner. "Nicole was so good in To Die For. I don't think we ever really knew each other because we were so wrapped up in those characters. I had to beg her, one day, to speak to me with an Australian accent. It literally took me 20 minutes. I whined, I moaned and finally she did it and I couldn't believe it. She really had that regional American accent down. To work with someone who is so committed…always helps you as an actor to define a character."

A young man who gets along famously with women, Phoenix found consolation in the company of Kate Winslet on the set of Quills- it was his third film in a row after Gladiator and The Yards- and she took him under her motherly wing. Recalls Phoenix, with a smile: "I'm standing there with the crew at Ten o'clock at night saying 'I'm not coming back tomorrow'. I was so exhausted the last month of that film. I just didn't know if I could make it. Every day getting up and I knew I'd be going in and all day long have Geoffrey Rush naked in front of me, screaming at me."

"It was my project to get Joaquin through the film," Winslet explains, "because he was very tired and he was playing the hardest role of all of us. He wanted so much to respect who the Abbe was and his commitment to God. He wanted very much to get that right. I'd say, 'Would you like a cup of tea?' And he'd say, "No, I'd like a vodka.' Well, you can't have that! I'd tell him." Winslet now calls Phoenix "the greatest actor of her generation. I really strongly believe that, but he has no idea how good he is."

The evidence of his acting talent is borne out in our interview, because in reality Phoenix is as far from his brooding screen persona as you can get. He is happy-go lucky, a big kid on a roller-coaster ride. He can be quite outrageous and not too guarded for a celebrity, yet there is one taboo topic- his legendary elder brother, the late River Phoenix. Joaquin had been the one to make the emergency police call at the time of his brothers 1993 drug overdose at Los Angeles's Viper Room, and his words were flashed in the media around the globe. He had been close to his handsome, blond, Jimmy Dean-style sibling, even idolised him, and perhaps was intimidated by his talent. Joaquin had been the middle of the five-strong brood, who were all encouraged to perform from an earl age by their Vegan, Children of God missionary parents. At first it was more informal, playing music on the streets, but after the family left Puerto Rico and settled in Los Angeles, the children became the breadwinners, acting on television and in movies.

"When we were younger our parents encouraged us to express ourselves. It may have been my brother learning to play guitar at 5 years old or my sisters all singing, but I don't know what the hell I did. I was just a wreck. I couldn't really sing. I tried to sing. I could boogie woogie" he laughs. "It was a close family, we were all very happy playing, you just followed in the sibling's footsteps, no matter what it was. The younger ones followed."

Joaquin at one time changed his name to Leaf to be more in tune with his elder siblings River and Rainbow. He changed his name back by the time his adult career kicked in. He first appeared on television as a child and at 12 made his first feature film as a precocious youngster in SpaceCamp, he had a second starring role in the following year in Russkies and was set to become a young star after impressing in 1989's Parenthood. Yet by age 15, the headstrong lad was fed up by the bad scripts being offered. His parents were getting divorced, and he simply disappeared to live with his father in Mexico and to travel. He joked to one interviewer that he went on a trek to lose his virginity. He succeeded. His brother's death became a catalyst for him to return to acting, as he had come out into the spotlight and was encouraged to do so by friends. It seemed logical that he should work with van Sant, his brothers fried and director of My Own Private Idaho, and that To Die For should satirise sensationalist media reporting after he had been a victim of it.

Phoenix went on to rave reviews for Inventing the Abbots, where he began a 3 year romance with Liv Tyler, and he was impressively mean in Oliver Stone's U-Turn. But Gladiator, Quills and The Yards would gain him respect as an adult and turn him into a star. Still, he lacks confidence, but at least with The Yards, his favourite film ever, he managed to sit through one of his movies for the first time, and without cringing. "I loved the story and all the characters. I didn't find myself as self- critical as I usually am because I was so wrapped up in the whole story."

Directed by James Grey (Little Odessa) and co-starring Mark Wahlberg, James Caan and Faye Dunaway, The Yards is a crime drama focusing on two young men and tells of how one is forced to take the blame for the other. Phoenix was the first actor cast for the film and originally he was to take Wahlberg's fall-guy role but switched to play Willie Gutierrez, the savvy right hand to Caan who is a native of the tough Queens area of New York, where the film is set. "Fuck, I'm with these really tough guys, they're from Queens, and Mark, he's a real tough kid, and they're going to beat me up because they know I'm this fraud. I'm just this little wuss!" Phoenix complains.

Phoenix, you see, doesn't feel an actor has to be tough to play tough. In any case, for him these thugs are really troubled, wounded and bruised, and that is what he plays so well. "So many characters are reduced to cliches. People say I've played dark, evil neurotic people in To Die For and 8MM and I'm going 'what the fuck are you talking about?' They've kind of missed the point. The whole thing in 8MM was that you don't judge a book by its cover, the hair, the piercings. In my life I'm trying to find the finest qualities in people, no matter who they are and what they look like, and I certainly try to find that in my characters. I try to give some understanding to what leads to their destruction, as an individual, their history.

"I'm looking for characters that are complex, and what fascinated me about The Yards is that no one character was either good or bad. James captured the duality in our nature. I wanted to look at what leads to the disintegration of a person's character. I don't think Willie was a bastard, this might seem sentimental but you rarely see him with his parents. There's one reference to his parents, he comes from a broken home, he has parental issues. I thinks its something that's happening now with my generation, the urge to pursue the American Dream, to get the car and the house- this is what defines us, this is how we define success. So Willie is going in that direction, but with one flick of the switch, that optimism can disappear immediately. I don't condone the actions of hooligans but I must sympathise and I try to understand what leads to their actions. They don't have the moral support or guidance to make good life decisions."

Phoenix, who is still vegan, feels he has been very lucky in that regard. "There's not really much I'd change about my life, what my parents instilled in me, what they thought was important. But these characters don't seem to have the family and relationships and love that holds us together. That's how I was always raised. That was the big priority."