Phoenix sees the Signs

By LOUIS B. HOBSON -- Calgary Sun

NEW YORK -- The circular tattoo on the inside of Joaquin Phoenix's arm is not meant to evoke a crop circle.

He did not get it in honour of his role in M. Night Shyamalan's new supernatural thriller Signs in which crop circles are the first indication of a global alien invasion.

Phoenix and Mel Gibson play brothers who discover a crop circle in their Pennsylvania corn field and then begin to experience strange nightly visitations.

"It's just a circle. I got it to represent nothing because I hate the idea of people having a symbol of wisdom or love in Gaelic on their bodies," says Phoenix.

His tattoo is one of the few things he's willing to expound on.

Most questions cause him to clam up and admit he's "never been good at these kind of interview sessions.

"I've been doing interviews since I was 15 and I still have no idea what to expect or how to answer most of the questions.

"It always makes me as nervous as the first time I walked into one of these interview sessions. Talking about myself is the most alien thing possible."

As is talking about aliens real or reel.

"I don't know if I believe in aliens. I guess I just don't let myself think about it.

"As far as the alien in our movie goes, it was mostly computer generated so, except for one or two major scenes, we were reacting to nothing."

Phoenix was a last-minute replacement for Mark Ruffalo, who took ill just weeks before filming began last September.

Shyamalan insists he had "considered both Mark and Joaquin when I was writing the screenplay.

"When it came time to talk with them, Joaquin was unavailable off in Europe filming so I met with Mark and offered him the role."

When Ruffalo took ill, Shyamalan flew to New York to talk to Phoenix.

"My rule-of-thumb would have been to decline, because in the past when I haven't had a lot of time between movies to prepare I feel my work has suffered," says Phoenix.

"I made an exception because Night's screenplay was so tight and well written."

Phoenix says he didn't think about becoming an actor, it happened naturally.

His older brother, River Phoenix who died in 1993, was the first of the five siblings to begin acting.

"My brother River was doing the TV series Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. We hung around on the set quite a bit. It seemed like such fun what he was doing.

"When your older siblings do gymnastics, you want to do gymnastics. When they listen to Squeeze, you listen to Squeeze, so I wanted to act.

"One day I got to be in a scene with River. We were supposed to cry because someone was fighting. River started crying right away and it made me cry. It felt so real. It was a shocking revelation."

For the first seven years of his career he acted under the name Leaf Phoenix.

"The fun went out of making movies for me after I did Parenthood (in 1989). I wanted to do serious movies but all I was getting offered were cardboard teen things."

Phoenix was lured out of his forced hiatus by Gus Van Sant to star opposite Nicole Kidman in To Die For. "That's the film that turned my career around."

Phoenix received a best supporting actor Oscar nomination for his role as the corrupt Roman emperor in Gladiator.

He says Oscar night was surreal and nerve wracking. "There is so much energy in that theatre. You can't even begin to describe it. All those people and all the excitement. It's one of the most unique experiences of my life. Most of the time I was trying to sneak out for a cigarette but kept getting attacked by security guards."