September 14, 2002

Profile: Joaquin Phoenix

From the ashes

With a childhood dominated by eccentric parents, and an adolescence
marred by tragedy, Joaquin Phoenix is finally living up to his
revivalist name, says Ian Nathan

Long before he grasped the nettle of fame, Joaquin Phoenix's voice
reverberated from every news channel and radio station across
America. It started the morning after Hallowe'en, 1993, and in one
of the most hideous examples of the mass media's vampiric lust for
sensationalism, Phoenix's frantic 911 call as his brother, River,
expired from a "speedball" overdose (a cocktail of cocaine and
heroin) outside the Viper Room, Los Angeles, was relayed to a
ravenous public. It is a night that will never escape him, but at
last it no longer defines him.

"Tell it to somebody who cares, man!" Phoenix would heckle salacious
hacks during his recent promotional rounds for Signs, his
spiritually inclined new sci-fi thriller. He never talks about
River; not to friends, not to directors, and especially not to
journalists. The wound is still there, raw and open, and the barest,
even circumspect, mention would be greeted with a deafening silence
and intense glare from those wide green eyes. Quite often, it would
spell the end of an interview.

You can see his point. Over the past couple of years he has emerged
from the shadow of that dreadful night to become a star. Gladiator
(1999) was his breakthrough, playing the snivelling Emperor
Commodus, whose fey petulance was the perfect counterpart to Russell
Crowe's brute machismo.

He stoked the fire with the stark indie gangster thriller The Yards
(2000), and an outstanding turn as a Catholic priest struggling to
hold the Marquis de Sade in check in Quills (2000). His is a
striking screen presence but, like everything about the actor, one
alive with contradictions. Phoenix is not blessed with the pretty
leading-man looks of Ben Affleck, Brad Pitt or, indeed, River, but
neither is he a quirky character actor. He is something unique in
modern Hollywood: his own entity.

"I guess it probably has to do with how I was raised," he
suggests. "My father would sit down and introduce me to guys that
everyone else would run away from. He always saw humanity in each
person."

While he defends his now divorced parents with a passion, your
average therapist wouldn't be hard pushed to find a link between an
upbringing full of upheaval and tragedy and the volatile emotional
make-up of the 27-year-old. He was born into the environs of the
Children of God commune, and the family was dragged penniless around
South America, singing God's praises on street corners. Eventually
disillusioned (the sect was later embroiled in tales of free love
recruitment drives), they stowed away to Florida on a ship full of
Tonks toys, in search of a new life.

"You know," he sneers at insinuations of a troubled youth, "I didn't
realise until much later when journalists told me that I wasn't
normal that I didn't have a normal upbringing. I was like, `Oh,
really?' It was news to me."

It was his mother's employment as a secretary at NBC that introduced
showbusiness as the new family religion. She signed all her children
up to an agent and after a series of adverts and minor television
work, movies were to follow. Rechristening himself "Leaf" to align
himself with his siblings' nature themed monikers (Joaquin
pronounced "Waa-keen" is his real name), he made a credible child
actor in SpaceCamp (1986) and Parenthood (1989). Then he
mysteriously dropped out for five years, setting off around the
world with his father.

The comeback came in predictably powerful fashion in 1994, playing a
brooding teen who is drawn to murder by Nicole Kidman's avaricious
weathergirl in To Die For, a media satire that carried serious
connections with his brother's tragedy: "Perhaps subconsciously," he
allowed. And the divide betwixt role and player has remained a blur
of ruffled expression.

Tales of Phoenix's extreme behaviour on set are rife. On The Yards
he was found banging his head against his trailer wall to generate
the requisite fury, on Gladiator he would drive himself to despair,
bewailing his failure as an actor ("Don't you always want to give as
much as you can?"). It is impossible to place him: his non-
conformity is part of an act, but it takes non-conformity to put it
there.

The Yards director, James Gray, seems to have some grasp of it. This
is a supremely talented young man without a category; a troubled
child whose grace is born of his awkwardness. "Joaquin is just his
own kind of thing. He is his own mess. He is a happy and a beautiful
mess. But he is a mess, nonetheless."


CV: Joaquin Phoenix

Name Joaquin "Leaf" Phoenix
Born October 28, 1974, San Juan, Puerto Rico
Family His parents, John and Arlyn, were Bohemians, raising their
children on the road. He has three living siblings: Rain, Liberty
and Summer
Married No, but he dated Liv Tyler for three years
High point Best Supporting Actor nomination for Gladiator in 2001
Strange fact Joaquin is a dedicated vegan right down to the
clothing no leather, no fur which gives costume departments a
headache.

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