Details: April 2001

"Crouching Tiger"

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 carefu---!"
"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.

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 trifecta, too.
"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 slightly... concerned.
"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 resents you."


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," Phoenix says.
"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."