NEW YORK -- Joaquin Phoenix is jiggling his leg and
furiously chomping on a wad of gum.
"Oh, Christ ... oh, boy!" the young actor rolls his eyes in a room full of reporters, "to be asked all these questions is really very, very strange."
He's come to talk about his latest film, Inventing The Abbotts (opening Friday), in which he plays the younger brother in a tangled web of sibling rivalry and clashing classes.
But the oddly named 22-year-old (pronounced "Wa-Keen") knows what we're trying to do: swerve the conversation to his own brother, River (Stand By Me, Running On Empty), who died a tabloidesque drug death in '92.
This makes him nervous.
Upping his anxiety is co-star Liv Tyler, who, in the hallway moments before, briefed Phoenix on the evils of The Press. "I've been warned!" he smiles.
Co-starring Tyler, Billy Crudup and Jennifer Connelly, Abbotts has the pretty look of the pretty, shiny '50s, in which the film is set. Scratching that surface, it reveals the same desperate, sometimes immoral, struggles shared by every generation.
"Behavior back then seemed more proper," says Irish director Pat O'Connor (Circle Of Friends), "but it was no more innocent than any other time. We just hid things differently."
Attempting propriety, we start Phoenix off with a nice, easy question.
Asked what historical research he did for the film -- which opens with his character drawing Elvis sideburns on his face -- the actor takes a deep breath.
"Uh, oh. Here we go!" he moans. "Look, I failed history -- miserably," he explains. "I don't even know who the hell the president was back then! Let's just go on," he pleads, charmingly.
He started out as a kid actor named 'Leaf' in comedies like Spacecamp (1986) and Russkies (1987), making a memorable mark as a troubled son in 1989's Parenthood.
"(Acting) wasn't a conscious decision," he says. "I just sort of fell into it. It was instinctual."
He fell out of it, too, from age 14 to 19, "to just be a teenager," he says, and escape that awkward child-adult transition. "You look at kids who grow up on sitcoms, and it looks really weird."
Returning in '95 as Nicole Kidman's stoned, teen lover in To Die For, he took critics by surprise, then took another two years off. "I was waiting for something I was moved by."
In Abbotts, a film "with heart," he's the sensitive misfit to Crudup's suave, ladies' man.
Like his character, Phoenix spent his teens being the good boy except for "brief periods where I went to the pool hall," he admits, "but it didn't last long."
Gosh, we wonder. Did he himself have any sibling rivalry with any older, wilder brother?
He takes one of those breaths. (Here we go!)
"I don't want to make any comparisons with my own life," he says, carefully. "I'm never interested how similar or dissimilar it is."
But the actor's dissimilarity to his brother is apparent.
First, "We don't even look alike," says the darker, more angular of the two, relaxing into the conversation now. And describing himself as a non-drinker and non-club goer, Joaquin is indeed the 'squarer' brother.
"I feel like a kid when I go with my friends to a bar," he laughs. "They say: 'Would you like a coke?'" he imitates, paternal and patronizing.
But his real-life transition to adulthood was influenced, symbolically at least, by River, a year before the actor died.
At 16, Joaquin changed his name from 'Leaf,' which he was dubbed as a tot, back to his birthname. "It was River who urged me to change it," he explains. "He always thought it was such a great name."
Both inspired monikers were spawned from a hippie-helmed household (two sisters are named 'Summer' and 'Rain') that also encouraged a vagabond, easy-going existence. As a result, "I live all over the place," he says. "I don't really have a home. I move all around."
Lately, he follows the moves of girlfriend/co-star Liv Tyler. The two fell head over heels at their Abbotts screentest (Tyler plays his romantic interest), and hid their budding romance during last year's shoot.
"I fell in love with Joaquin the second I saw him," confesses 19-year-old Tyler, daughter of Aerosmith's Steve Tyler. Phoenix concurs: "I was immediately moved by her honesty."
Connection with actor Crudup (Sleepers) was more of a brotherly kind. "The day we met, he came down and started beating me up," laughs Phoenix.
The film's conclusion, in which the brothers sort out their relationship, is just as realistic.
"They don't exactly walk into the sunset holding hands," says the actor, "but they accept each other and understand they are different."
As he is from his Oscar-nominated brother, whose shadow he may ever be dodging.
"If someone wants to compare me or have expectations, that's fine," says the actor, whose next film is Oliver Stone's U-Turn with Sean Penn.
"But I don't. I love what I'm doing and I don't feel any pressure to live up to anything."
THE JOAQUIN PHOENIX FILE
HOW HE GOT THAT ELVIS LOOK IN INVENTING THE ABBOTTS: "We got that Brylcream thing happening."
WOULD HE MAKE A BIO OF BROTHER RIVER?: "No. Definitely not."
WHY YOU SHOULD SEE THIS FILM: "It's a simple, beautiful, touching story," says Phoenix, who's gaga in love right now.
FOR US CYNICS, ANOTHER REASON: "You get to see Billy's ass!" he smirks.