Q&A with Joaquin Phoenix

The Signs star on kiddie actors, career plans and other scary stuff

by Veronica Mixon | July 30, 2002

When Joaquin Phoenix arrives at the Essex House in New York City to talk about his latest film, M. Night Shyamalan's Signs, he's dressed in black from head to toe and sporting an Ocean's Eleven cap.

The 27-year-old began acting as a child along with his late brother, River, and older sister, Rain. He graduated from small roles in movies like Space Camp to garnering critical acclaim for daring performances in Inventing the Abbotts and Return to Paradise. Last year, his portrayal of the tortured Roman emperor Commodus in Gladiator marked his first Oscar nomination, winning unprecedented approval from both critics and peers.

In Signs, Phoenix plays a minor-league pitcher and brother of grieving widower Mel Gibson, as their family holes up in a farmhouse to fight off an alien invasion in a story reminiscent of the sci-fi classic Night of the Living Dead. For Phoenix, the role is just the latest step in an increasingly impressive career.

For more on the freaky flick, be sure to catch E!'s Behind the Scenes on Signs, premiering Thursday, August 1, at 2:30 (also airing Aug. 3 at 11:30 a.m.). And to get up close and personal with Joaquin's costar, tune in for Mel Gibson Revealed, Thur., August 1, at 10 p.m. (also airing Aug. 3 at noon).

You started out as a child actor. What did you think of your young Signs costars, Rory Culkin and Abigail Breslin?
God, they were better than I ever was. I was very impressed with how professional they were. Their level of concentration was amazing. But then, it was also fun just hanging out playing basketball.

Given your childhood acting days, could you relate to them?
I certainly have been through it and understand what it's like to be surrounded by all these adults and not really clued in on everything that's going on. But they were so amazing and seemed to be enjoying themselves.

Kids have the ability to alter their emotions drastically. There is this scene when we're at the table and Abigail wants to play thumb war with me. Night is talking to her because the kids are supposed to be scared that something bad is going to happen to them. And she just starts the waterworks. Two takes is all we needed. Then she's up, walking around and everything is fine. I was really envious.

Envious that you're no longer the kid on the set?
I still think of myself as 18. I can't quite handle that I'm actually aging. I think a lot of actors are adult children.

Anything in common with your character, Merrill, a burned-out ballplayer?
He's the kind of guy who would have beaten me up in school for eating tofu. Then he probably would have made friends with me later on. [Whispers.] This movie was the first time I ever even picked up a bat.

Do you have a career plan?
[Pretends to reach into his pants pocket.] Yeah, let me show you. I actually have it right here.

Well, you've actually developed into this strong leading man, more than a character actor.
Thanks. I do have a plan, [but] you often find in this business that it means nothing, because you're contending with other people's plans as well. But I have had, within that, a vague strategy. So, I guess it's going okay. I have to make some adjustments.

M. Night Shyamalan talked about the responsibility of making films. Is that important to you?
It is important to me, but then I could also turn around and do a movie that has zero meaning just because it was fun and I wanted to do it.

In previous articles, your family has suggested you wanted to do films that changed the meaning of the world.
I just want to change you. [Laughs.] I want you to be the best person you can be.

What was it like to work with Mel Gibson?
He's a lot of fun but also quite serious about his work. I felt very secure. He has an energy that makes you feel safe and makes you think you'll get it right. Every movie I get, it's like the first movie I've done. I'm absolutely terrified, and I can't explain the anxiety.

When I did the first scene with Mel, I was speaking very fast out of nervousness. And there's Mel, and he's totally cool. He kind of said something I knew to be true: It will work itself out, because we're working with a director who knows what he's doing. We're never going to go away from a scene without getting it. Start trusting that, and let yourself go.

So, you still get nervous, even after all the movies you've made?
I have all of these fears and worst-case scenarios anytime I do a movie. I'm certain the worst possible thing is going to happen and that I'm going to suck so bad I'll get fired.

One way to avoid that is to be the boss. Any desire to direct?
I do, but I'm afraid I'd want to do something amazing and it would probably be 90 minutes of the worst. I wouldn't do it just for fear of failure.

Why are you so hard on yourself? Do you like anything you do?
I brush my teeth very well. Do I like anything that I do? I think like is the wrong word.

Are you ever satisfied with your work, or do you always tend to look for flaws?
There are always flaws. But I don't know what's wrong with being aware of those flaws, because you hopefully learn from them.

A lot of what you do involves dealing with the press. Do you ever tire of that?
It's a chore to talk about my personal life--it's nobody's business. It doesn't really work for me as an actor. The less someone knows about me, the better, because my intention is to play a variety of characters. We so often try to pin actors down and label them as entertainers. I like acting. That's what I do, that's what I enjoy. I finish it, and I'm really sad, and then they tell me I have to talk about the movie and myself. Well, wait a minute. Didn't I just spend three months making the movie?

But fans want to know everything about actors. That intense interest comes with the job.
I think it's fine to judge my work. But I think people often ask certain things that in any other social circumstances, they'd be reprimanded. It's pretty shocking some of things people have asked me--and they are complete strangers. If they didn't have a tape recorder, they would have never done it. I think it's plain rude! So, naturally, I feel uncomfortable going into a situation where I feel like people are going to take advantage of that.

Do you read a lot of articles about yourself?
I have, and I have not. Generally, I don't. I have gone through things if I didn't think they went very well or if I thought they misunderstood me--I check to see to what degree. But usually I don't, because I don't have any interest in myself.

What are you doing next?
Will it ensure that you'll say nice things? [Laughs.] I haven't decided. I find it really difficult to read any [other scripts] when I'm working. I had done three movies in a row when I did Signs, so I wanted to take some time off for myself to regroup. And to be frank, reading scripts sucks!