The actor who almost wasn't

by Steve Goldman, Evening Standard

'I can't imagine anyone saying this is their favourite thing to do,'
says Joaquin Phoenix, shifting in his seat, drawing on a cigarette
and, most notably, watching his every word. Sporting a loose fitting
shirt and khakis, he does his best impression of a man looking
relaxed on the opening night of a $70 million movie in the middle of
an unrelenting New York heatwave.

Joaquin Phoenix: a reluctant step towards superstar

It's not a bad show, all things considered. And in a way, it's not
all that different from the performances he puts up on screen - at
once open and guarded, vulnerable yet menacing. A dark Tobey Maguire,
if you will. 'The part I love most about this job is the acting
itself,' he says, searching about for an ashtray in his hotel
suite. 'Obvious, I know. But there are those brief moments when you
actually tap into something. And for about 30 seconds, you almost
feel invincible.'

Phoenix is not a new face in Hollywood. But it did take 18 years in
front of the cameras to finally make a name for himself. The film
that did it was Gladiator, for which the 27-year-old actor, starring
opposite Russell Crowe as the power-mad Emperor Commodus, received
his first Oscar nomination. 'Everyone asks about the impact of
Gladiator on my career, but the truth is, I don't really know,' he
shrugs. 'The quantity and the quality of the scripts changed for the
better, but it hasn't changed my life.'

Indeed, Phoenix wasn't even the first choice for M. Night Shyamalan's
latest thriller, Signs. 'On every movie I've ever made, there were 20
other people who were meant to play the part,' he readily admits. But
following the strong performance of Signs in the US - earning $60
million on its opening weekend and en route to becoming one of the
year's biggest hits - his stature within the industry is likely to

As Merrill Hess, Phoenix again plays second fiddle, this time
opposite Mel Gibson. A trusting younger brother and failed former
athlete whose quiet life is shattered by the appearance of crop
circles in the family's Pennsylvania cornfields. Like The Sixth Sense
and Unbreakable, it's a familiar Shyamalan milieu in which audiences
are left on the edges of their seats until the film's final frames.
But so, too, is there a welcome dose of humour to underscore the
absurdity, thanks largely to the presence of Phoenix - in one scene,
he goes so far as to join the Hess family children (Rory Culkin and
Abigail Breslin) in donning aluminum foil hats to prevent suspected
alien invaders from reading their minds.

Not surprisingly, Phoenix admits he almost didn't take the job at
all. 'They came to me about two days before we had to start which
seemed like a recipe for disaster. I didn't think I could pull it
off,' he says. 'The thing is, you don't really want to bomb in a huge
movie M. Night Shyamalan is directing. But when we met, Night gave me
the script and said, "Just come down to Philadelphia and shoot it
with me." His utter confidence is what won me over in the end. And
without that I wouldn't have jumped.'

Phoenix's own story is well known if decidedly surreal. Born in
Puerto Rico, the middle child in a brood of five, he moved with his
hippie family across Central and South America, eventually settling
in California after his parents' doomed flirtation with a religious
sect. Following in the footsteps of his older brother, River, Joaquin
(who changed his name to Leaf for a spell to match his siblings -
Rain, Liberty and Summer) turned to acting. He made his television
debut at the age of eight, his film debut four years later in the
comedy, Space Camp (1986), and his first big screen hit with
Parenthood in 1989.

Nevertheless, he was already having doubts about his career. 'I was
at that age where you start thinking, what am I doing with my life,'
says Phoenix, who simply abandoned acting altogether. Following his
brother River's death from a drug overdose outside the Viper Room in
1993 - it was Joaquin who put in the now infamous call to emergency
services - it seemed unlikely that Joaquin would ever return to
acting. 'When I stepped away from acting I knew I was missing
something,' he says, cautiously. 'Eventually I came to New York and
started auditioning for jobs again. But I didn't want to do any of
them,' he says with a nervous burst of laughter. 'I'm such an idiot.'

Phoenix returned to the screen for Gus Van Sant in To Die For with
Nicole Kidman in 1995. It remains, arguably, his best work. And like
Signs, it turns out, one that almost didn't happen either. 'When I
first heard about it, I thought, what a terrible idea - a teacher
seduces this kid and he kills her husband? That's awful. About a
month later my agent calls back and says, "Read the script!" And I
was like, "Joaq - what are you doing? You've ruined it." I drove up
to New York, went in for an audition with Gus, and that was it.'

Phoenix has been steadily building his career since, his name
infiltrating the tabloids with a two-year romance with Inventing The
Abbots co-star Liv Tyler, and, more importantly, winning industry
attention with assured performances in Oliver Stone's U Turn, Return
To Paradise, Gladiator, and most recently, Quills. 'He just shows up
and lets it rip,' says Mel Gibson of Phoenix's work in Signs. 'what
he does, it's natural and instinctive - far less mannered than
anything I do.' Shyamalan puts it more succinctly. 'If he wanted to,
he could be the biggest actor in the world.'

Not that you would know it from Phoenix himself. He has two more
films due for release in the coming months, the dark comedy, Buffalo
Soldiers, and It's All About Love with Claire Danes. But he's quick
to point out that he is, in fact, currently out of work. 'People
say, "You've got everything going for you! You can do anything you
want!"But I get nervous. I'm confident that I'll work, but I hope
it's something that will mean something to me,' he says. 'Sometimes I
feel like I'm behind and running out of time as it is. There's still
a lot more for me to do.'