Turning over a new Leaf
10/09/2002 - 10:17:29

When he first started acting he called himself Leaf, and given that
his father's real name is John Bottom, one of Hollywood's rising
young stars probably had a lucky escape in the name department.

Instead of Leaf Bottom, he's better known by his real name of Joaquin
(pronounced waa-keen), and the family's adopted surname Phoenix. The
brother of the late River Phoenix and actresses Rain and Summer
Phoenix, the shy 27-year-old Gladiator star is something of an enigma
in the film world.

Neither a mainstream star, even though he has featured in some major
movies, nor an indie favourite, Joaquin Phoenix seems to slot in
between. That suits the intensely private and nervy actor just fine,
and is one of the reasons he co-stars with Mel Gibson in M Night
Shyamalan's supernatural drama Signs.

Sporting some of the most impressive dark eyebrows in Hollywood and a
circle tattoo on an inner arm, Phoenix doesn't think of himself as a
conventional star.

"I really don't know where I am in this business," he admits. "I
think I'm probably unconventional. Maybe I've just been really lucky."

Fate certainly has played a part because after the death of his
celebrated brother River in 1993 from a drugs overdose. Joaquin has
picked up the standard for the Phoenix family of actors. His
portrayal of the vexed emperor in Gladiator earned him a Best
Supporting Actor Oscar nomination.

That influenced Shyamalan's decision to bring him in as a last-minute
replacement for Mark Ruffalo in Signs, another major box-office hit.

Following The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, Shyamalan has gone for
another moody drama about faith, the supernatural, and in Signs the
phenomenon of crop circles and the possibility of an alien

Gibson plays an ex-minister and father who has lost his faith after
his wife's death, until mysterious crop circles appear in nearby
fields. Phoenix plays the good natured and simple brother.

So does Phoenix believe in aliens? "I honestly don't know, I guess I
don't let myself think about it," he says. "It does seem arrogant of
us to think we're the only intelligent life in this vast universe."

Like The Sixth Sense, there's a twist in the tail of Signs which
forces the characters to come to grips with their beliefs. This
appealed to Phoenix.

"The epiphany is there, it's just that it's more subtle and it's for
the character's relationships in this film. What the audience did at
the end of The Sixth Sense the characters in the film do here. It's
like `Oh my God, this is what it all means. There is purpose'."

An actor who is known for being careful about his projects, Phoenix
was lured in at the last-minute by the script. "Some people churn out
lots of movies all the time, and you forget what they were. Each film
I do means a lot to me so I try and choose very carefully.

"My rule-of-thumb would have been to decline because in the past when
I haven't had time between movies to prepare I feel my work has
suffered," he says. "I made an exception with Signs because the
script was so well written."

Following his older brother River into acting, Joaquin's breakthrough
role was in Ron Howard's Parenthood in 1989, but then his acting
career stalled. He went to South America and worked on a farm. It was
his much-publicised emergency phone call while his brother lay dying
outside The Viper Room in West Hollywood in 1993 that thrust him back
in the spotlight.

Then Gus Van Sant's clever satire To Die For relaunched his acting

"That film really turned my career around," he admits. "After
Parenthood the scripts didn't really interest me and I just stopped.
Then when I was about 18 I started to get the bug again."

Following the Oscar success of Gladiator, Phoenix is now considered a
box-office draw, but he finds all the personal attention hard to

"I've been doing interviews since I was 15 and I still don't know how
to handle most of the questions. It always makes me nervous."

Outside of making films, Phoenix says his life is fairly normal and
his family like to hang out together. His middle sister Liberty plays
in a country band and he still likes to play music. When Liberty gave
birth to a baby son last year Joaquin cut his sister's umbilical cord.

As for his private life, his girlfriend, whom he won't name, isn't an
actress. "I really don't like to talk about her, all I'll say is
she's not in the business."

For a time Phoenix went out with Liv Tyler, they co-starred in
Inventing The Abbotts together. But it's not easy dating someone in
the same industry, he admits. "On the one hand they understand the
weird gypsy life you lead but it's hard to be together if you're
travelling a lot and working on films."

Edgy, unconventional and slightly awkward, Phoenix is least happy
talking about himself or what he does.