Details: April 2001
For a 26-year-old actor enjoying his first Oscar nomination, JOAQUIN PHOENIX
is terribly vexed. Maybe because the Gladiator star still doesn't
think he deserves praise. Actually, he doesn't even think he can act.
(Good thing everyone else does.)
by Degen Penner, Photographs by Steven Klein
He's the kind of guy that wouldn't hurt a... slug.
One brilliant morning outside the public gardens of St.-Luke-in-the-Fields, a
landmark church in Manhattan's West Village, the second most famous Phoenix
stands like a bodyguard over a strangely motionless slug.
"I think he got stepped on," he says, inspecting the slime-oozing
creature. The slug has seen better days. Still, like any proper vegan, Joaquin
Phoenix is prepared to defend lower life forms.
Suddenly, a pedestrian approaches on a collision course. "Watch out for the
little sluggy, man!" Phoenix shouts, narrowly averting a disaster. Then a
woman with a stroller comes barreling towards us. Phoenix looks aghast. "Be
"Noooooo!" Phoenix wails with the sort of convincing
death-scene despair you'd expect from an actor who's just earned his first Oscar
nomination. The slug has been crushed, but all is not lost. "I'm going to
perform an emergency removal," he explains, depositing the critter on a
nearby patch of grass.
"He's moving," Phoenix says hopefully. The slug twitches in
Pain is Joaquin Phoenix's unlikely response to his new-found Hollywood presence.
Today, dressed in his standard off-duty uniform of worn jeans and grungy white
T-shirt, the 26-year-old actor finds himself tormented by the increasing demands
of the pressure "to be gorgeous and fabulous." According to Joaquin --
pronounced, for the last time, "waa-KEEN" -- "that's bullshit."
Up close, there's reason to believe him. His body is slack and his skin has the
chalky cast of a heavy smoker. "I'm inherently a blubbering slob," he
concedes. "I'm like a shaved hamster."
Good thing the Academy doesn't discriminate against hairless rodents. Last
month, Phoenix got his first shot at the gold statuette for Gladiator, in
which he played Commodus, the bruised, bitter and slightly fey emperor with a
crush on his sister and the catchphrase of the year.
"People yell it to me in traffic," he says complacently: "'I'm
vexed, I'm terribly vexed.'"
As if that weren't enough, Phoenix's knack for picking top-shelf material finds
him sharing the Soderberghian honor of being a force in two Oscar-approved
movies -- Gladiator and the Marquis de Sade film Quills, which
together nailed a total of fifteen Academy nominations. Between stops in ancient
Rome and Napoleonic France, Phoenix managed to swing by Queens in The Yards,
a noir indie romp with Mark Wahlberg and Charlize Theron. It's been a very good
year. Beyond the Academy, he's taken home a Best Supporting Actor award from
three major film critics' groups. He is colleagues seem to have noticed this
"He's one of the strongest actors of my generation," says Quills
co-star Kate Winslet. "But if you said that to him, he'd virtually throw up
in your face. He cannot stand being paid complements."
Phoenix is fast making a name for himself as the most tortured young man in show
business; he's a bundle of nervous energy, a perpetual fidgeter and foot-tapper.
Witnesses have reportedly spotted him banging his head against walls before
particularly gut-wrenching scenes. Directors who prize his intensity also appear
"He emotionally kicks himself if he doesn't hit something the way he wants
to," says Gregor Jordan, who just finished directing Phoenix in Buffalo
Soldiers, a military drama due out later this year.
"Joaquin genuinely thinks he's a fraud," Winslet explains. "He
doesn't think he can act at all. We'd have a great day of shooting and
I'd go, 'God that was so fantastic.' He'd say, 'What are you talking
about? I'm a bitch. I'm a whore. I look like a horse.' Some days I'd just want
to slap him."
Phoenix admits the work doesn't come easy. "I get butterflies every
time," he says. "I'm vomiting days before we start shooting."
Who knew success could be so vexing?
The first time I met Joaquin Phoenix -- during the filming of The Yards
on a soundstage in blue-collar Queens -- he reached into my back pocket and
lifted my wallet.
He wanted identification that proved I was really a journalist. Asked about it
today, he doesn't recall the incident. "I think I was fucking with
you," he allows.
Phoenix has a deeply chiseled self-protective streak. "Joaquin didn't grow
up living this 'normalized existence,'" notes Quills director Philip
Kaufman. "He has a kind of furtive way when you meet him, a certain feral
quality. He doesn't like to reveal himself totally to people." Phoenix has
an urgent need to be a nice guy, adds his Yards co-star, Charlize Theron.
"Every morning, he was like, 'Hi everybody, Joaquin's here. You can all
smile now,'" she says. The cast wound up calling him the Flash. "He
was always Mr. Ready to Please Everybody," Theron says.
Hang around Phoenix long enough and you'll witness these ever-changing moods.
Toward the end of our meeting, I ask whether he's dating anyone. "I'm
single," he says. Then, after a long pause, he exhales sharply. "I
actually do have a girlfriend," he adds sarcastically. "It just took
... me ... a while to remember."
Yards director James Gray, who's become one of the actor's close friends,
finds Phoenix an obsessive-impulsive. "Joaquin's best moments are kind of
like lighting in a bottle," he says. "If you say the right thing to
him, he feeds off it. Say something he perceives as not helping him, and he
A few days later, Phoenix suggests we meet at a restaurant in his TriBeCa
neighborhood, a no-fuss Italian-Argentine joint just a couple blocks from his
apartment. It's a cozy life. His sister Summer lives next door. Summer dates his
best friend, actor Casey Affleck, who's always around, too. "I borrow
everything from paper towels to tofu," Phoenix says, sneaking in a
cigarette between his salad and tea.
If Phoenix seems to lack a shell of his own, his family provides one for him.
During the filming of Quills, his environmentalist mother, Arlyn -- who
also calls herself Heart -- and his sisters were constantly on the scene.
(Sisters Summer and Rain are also actors; Liberty has two children and runs a
pie business.) The transition from Gladiator's overfed tyrant to the
ascetic priest in Quills had taken a toll on him mentally and physically.
"I had to lose all that bloat in a couple weeks, which fucked me up,"
"He was rarely alone," says Winslet of family visits. "He lost
loads of weight, and everyone was worried about him."
The Phoenix clan is not your average American family. In the mid-seventies, John
and Arlyn were members of the flower-power sect called the Children of God --
who have been investigated for allegedly encouraging sex with minors (a charge
that the group denies and that has never been substantiated). They traipesed all
over the hemisphere with their five small children. In 1974, John Phoenix was
named the sect's archbishop of Venezuela. You know you're living in strange
climes when the name Joaquin feels too conventional. For a while, young
Joaquin decided to call himself Leaf.
By the time he was 5 years old, his parents had left the Children of God and
moved to Los Angeles, where his mother made the unlikely transition to NBC
secretary and then to casting director, providing her children -- the older
siblings had earlier begun playing guitar and singing at state fairs -- with a
chute to the entertainment world. "It was apparent from early on that Riv
and Rain had a gift," Phoenix says tenderly. That's the most he'll say
about his late brother, River. He lights another cigarette. Riv and Rain may
have had talent, but the Phoenix family did not immediately reap the rewards.
"Not to make this a sob story," Joaquin says, "but we weren't
very wealthy. Um, or rather, we were poor."
A few years later, Joaquin broke into television as a child actor. One of his
first roles: a 1984 episode of Murder, She Wrote. Then came such
forgettable films as SpaceCamp and Russkies. At 15, he took a
break from acting and worked on a farm in Mexico. "I was forced to pick up
Spanish," he recalls. "There were these wonderful chiquas, and
I was trying to tell them that I had deep, heartfelt emotions for them." In
1995, he returned to the screen in Gus Van Sant's To Die For, playing a
teenager so desperately hungry for love and attention, it was excruciating to
watch. "There's a lot of pain going on there," James Gray says,
"which is what makes him so interesting."
The plates are cleared, and Phoenix is done addressing his demons for the time
being. He's got to skip uptown for a meeting. A parting comment about the theme
of censorship in Quills raises the question of repression. It's clear he's
starting to feel comfortable because he begins to talk. And talk. And talk.
"It's about our own fear of ourselves," he says, "that's
what we're fearful of." Repression leads naturally into politics. "I
get pissed off about everything," he continues. "I get angry about how
the justice system works. I get pissed off about the way our society is set
up." Pretty soon, he's on a passionate 40-minute tear. "I'm really
getting rolling," he says. "Oh my God, it's gonna get so
intense." The more Phoenix gets worked up, the more his eyes start to
blaze. Suddenly, he looks like the combustible movie star we've grown to expect.
"We should always shake up the system," he says, "even if it's a
system that we think is working. I've always loved the rebel element."
The rebel element reminds him of a recent meeting in Los Angeles with one of his
idols, Johnny Cash. Phoenix got to know Cash through Gray, who has been hired to
film the Man in Black's recording sessions. It turned out that Cash was just as
big a fan of Phoenix's. "Johnny told me he saw Gladiator three
times," he says. "I couldn't believe it. He says, 'I really loved
that part where you said, 'Your son squealed like a girl when they nailed him to
the cross,'' Phoenix says in his best Johnny Cash drawl. "'And your wife
moaned like a whore when they ravaged her.' I couldn't believe Johnny Cash was
quoting my dialogue."
Slowing down to take a deep breath, Phoenix segues into a story about the time
he and Casey Affleck got tattoos together. "We videotaped it and I'm, like,
pathetic. I'm crying. I've got a bottle of wine and I'm going, 'I can't
do this. Just stop the pain.'" Pain brings Phoenix to another major
subject: fear. Particularly, fear of flying. "Flying is something I just
can't bear," he says. "I hate the powerlessness."
If only they didn't make movies in faraway places. This month, Phoenix will bite
down on his passport and fly to Denmark to start his next film, It's All
About Love, by Thomas Vinterberg, the director of the Danish art film The
Celebration. Hopefully he won't get as freaked out as he did on a recent
flight. "I was making everyone nervous," he recalls. "I was
shaking back and forth, speaking in tongues, and hitting my head against the
walls going, 'Oh my God,'" Phoenix says. "Then the captain came
out and held me down. he told me to 'fucking shut up and chill out.'"
But did it calm Phoenix down?
"Actually, it did," he admits.
Phoenix asks if I have a watch. He's really late. This time, he really, really
has to go. He signals for a bill.
The waitress asks if there's anything else he'd like.
"Just a side order of love," he says. "That would be great."