Signs Of Substance
At the press conference for Signs in New York, Joaquin Phoenix is not
quite the fun-loving guy I've interviewed before. When I asked him
why, he became disconcerted. "I think it's the bad food I ate last
night. But I will try and come up with some funny material." Funny
material is not what I'm looking for. Just substantial answers.
In Signs, he plays Mel Gibson's younger brother, a sympathetic role
for a change (after his impressive menacing role in Gladiator). Signs
opened to record-breaking numbers (US$60 million in the first
Q: What does that mean to you?
JP: It's good. It's a good thing, but I can't quite get my head
around it, to be honest.
Q: The film deals seriously with the phenomena of crop circles. What
do you think?
JP: I really have no idea.
Q: In it, you play a minor league baseball player who's quit the
game. Were you good at it?
JP: I never ever played the game.
Q: When you're not working, what do you like to do?
JP: To be honest, I think my life is boring and there is nothing to
The second of five talented youngsters, Joaquin was known primarily
as the brother of River Phoenix, not just because they share a last
name but because it was his voice that summoned the LAPD to a Los
Angeles nightclub the night River died. But then he appeared in
Nicole Kidman's To Die For, and critics were blown away by his
After that, he landed the lead in Inventing the Abbotts where he met
Liv Tyler. For them, it was love at first sight, and Liv called
him "the one and only love of her life." But as so often happens in
Hollywood, it ended.
Q: So much for brevity! What did it feel like having one of the
world's most desirable teenager fall in love with you?
JP: I'm always surprised when any female thinks I'm attractive.
Since the breakup, he's been practically celibate, attending the
Academy Awards (the night he was nominated for Gladiator) with his
mother. His love life may have been put on hold, but his career has
been in overdrive.
Q: Do you have a girlfriend?
JP: Yes I do.
Q: So how come we never see you with anyone?
JP: I don't go out of my way to get photographed, but I don't really
do anything differently. Sometimes you end up in the papers, and
sometimes you don't. I don't know why you haven't seen me. Sorry to
Q: What do you look for in a relationship?
JP: Don't we all say the same things, "a great sense of humour, be
really sensitive," and then they break up, and you ask yourself what
happened, and they say, "it wasn't working out." So I would like to
think of it as being something we are all kinda trying to figure out.
Q: Did growing up with 3 sisters teach you respect for women?
JP: It sure did. It made a real difference. When I meet young men who
don't have sisters, I appreciate that. I wasn't raised with the idea
that real men play football. I never played sports or anything. I
took ballet when I was a kid, and that probably influenced me in a
Q: Are you comfortable with your sexuality?
JP: I'm very comfortable with my sexuality. I think it's a wonderful
thing. I think it's fabulous. I don't have any issues about sexuality
or anything like that.
Q: The death of your brother must have had a profound effect on you.
What should Hollywood have learned from that tragedy?
JP: I don't know. I'm still...it's very difficult to talk about it
because when you lose something, someone, it's such a great loss, you
try and hold onto anything that you have, any memories that you have,
and what was so difficult and what scarred me for a long time was
when those memories were robbed from me. I wasn't allowed to
experience them in my own time. Other people took advantage of their
access to me, and suddenly my memories were distorted and changed. So
it's very difficult, it's hard for me to talk about it now. When you
lose someone, you need to go through a really long period to try and
understand what's happened and to feel that loss in your own way.
It's more difficult if it's a public death because it's going to take
you that much longer to try and understand what's happened. So I
don't think I can really share it with you.
Q: Does your mom (she was River's manager) have a lot of input in
JP: No more than any other members of my family or my friends.
Virtually with anything that I do, I ask everyone's opinion. I ask my
sisters and my agent and my friends.
Q: Would you like to settle down and have kids?
JP: I really love kids and the idea of having kids. My sister has two
beautiful kids and I love being an uncle to them. I just vacationed
with them at Disney World. I don't like heights and rollercoasters so
if you go with your five-year-old nephew, you can blame it on him if
you don't want to go on those rides.
Q: Are you spiritual?
JP: I certainly was raised with a sense of spirituality, but we
didn't follow rules in terms of belief, religion or anything. It was
left up to each of us to come to terms with our own understanding of
fundamental questions. I just grabbed the best aspects of all
Q: Is that why you're a vegetarian?
JP: It's not a religious thing. I won't be condemned to eternal
damnation if I eat meat. It's an emotional reaction from when I was a
kid watching animals being killed. It never occurred to us as
children that's where meat comes from.
Q: Where do you see your career going?
JP: I haven't thought about it much. Sometimes you see actors in
movies. There's the terrible big-budget movies, and you think they're
just trying to get rich, whatever. Ok, cool. Then you find out that
someone like Tommy Lee Jones has a theatre company in Texas that he
runs and finances, so you realise he does movies where he gets paid
so he can do this very artistic thing. And that's beautiful.
Sometimes you have to do the big movie so you can get the small movie
you want to do made. I don't think I would ever do anything just for
the money, but I might, just so that I can get my own film going.
Q: Two of your films which you made before Signs haven't been
released. Is there a reason?
JP: I don't really know. The marketing and release of films is not my
field of expertise.
Q: Have you seen the films?
JP: I've seen Buffalo Solders; I haven't seen It's All About Love.
What's amazing is that Signs was released less than a year after we
finished shooting it. A lot of movies take years. The Yards took two-
and-a-half years before it was released.
Q: How do you choose your roles?
JP: I look for something that's going to keep me involved with a
character for three months and that's going to inspire me to get up
every day at six in the morning.
Q: Was there a reason why you changed your name twice -- first to
Leaf and then back to Joaquin?
JP: I changed it because I had come to the States. No one could
pronounce Joaquin, and as a kid, you get embarrassed. My brother and
sisters and all gorgeous names, and I got 'Joaquin'. So I said this
is not good. Maybe I'm nuts, so I changed it -- and then some time
after -- I think I was about 14 or 15, I had gone to Mexico with my
father and traveled around, and it was just so much easier to go back
to my original name Joaquin, which everyone could pronounce there. If
I said I was Leaf and I tried to translate it, it was ridiculous
because the words "leaf", "garlic" and "eye" are very similar in
Spanish. It's just a difference of one letter, so I changed it back --
actually River was the one who insisted I change it back. He just
thought it was such a great name, and so I said, "OK, I would."
Q: What's your approach to acting? Do you do a lot of research?
JP: It varies. It sort of depends. Initially, it's a very natural
response to the script and the character. But it all keeps evolving,
and you're never sure; you feel that you have the character down but
when you get on the set, there are changes you want to make, so it's
kind of strange but no, I don't have one set approach to it. I think
it changes every time, depending on what the character is, what the
Q: You've worked with Mel Gibson and Russell Crowe - both
Australians. Did you notice any differences in acting style,
personality, or behaviour on the set?
JP: Not that I was aware of.
Q: Did Mel play any pranks on the set?
JP: There were a few, usually at my expense. Everyone knows Mel is a
prankster, but I thought he would kind of own up to it, but I found
out that real professional pranksters never do. So I went through
months of finding Vaseline on the door handle of my trailer and
things in my shoes. I could never pin it on him. I said, "Dude, did
you put the stuff on my trailer? Just tell me so I won't be mad," and
he would just have this stone face.