I'm terrified of flying

Joaquin Phoenix explains what a good boyfriend, uncle and brother he can be. Just don't ask him to get on a plane!

Since witnessing the death of his famous older brother, River, from a drugs overdose outside LA nightclub in 1993, Joaquin Phoenix has often been described as Hollywood's most tortured star. The signs of his unease under the spotlight are still evident today during our chat in a New York hotel. He fidgets constantly and he nerwously lights up cigarette

But Joaquin (pronounced Whakeen) should be used to a greater share of the limelight by now as his career goes into overdrive, boosted by that Oscar-nominated performance two years ago as the despotic emporer in Gladiator. Next on his 'blockbuster' film CV is Signs - a supernatural thriller about crop circels and aliens which opens in the UK this week. It's been top of the American box office for most of the summer and US critics have described it as 'mind blowing' and 'sensational'. Here, it's one of the most eagerly awaited films of the year. As well as gaining commercial and critical success, it gave Joaquin the chance to work closely for the first time with co-star Mel Gibson. Mel plays a priest/farmer and Joaquin is his brother who helps investigate the strange happenings on the farm.

'I guess the biggest surprise for me was just how open and available Mel is,' explains Joaquin, who could do with opening up a bit more himself. 'We talked a lot about movies in general, and about careers. He's smart and fun to be around.' Despite being put at his ease by Mel, the 27-year-old actor admits he's still a bag of nerves before starting any new film. 'I always feel like I'm about to do my first film ever. I get all these butterflies in my stomach and sometimes I feel like I'm going to throw up. It makes me very anxious.'

When the talk moves away from films and on to himself, Joaquin seems even more uncomfortable. 'Life's pretty boring outside work,' he explains, 'I just like to spend time with my girlfriend, hang out with my sisters, and do normal stuff like go to dinner, watch movies and go see bands.' his greatest pleasure comes from family life, particularly from being close to his three actress sisters Summer, Rain and Liberty. Rain can be seen in the film O, which opens here the same week as Signs. Even without River - who starred in films such as Stand By Me, Running On Empty and My Own Private Idaho - the Phoenix family have become a modern day acting dynasty. While they were obviously devastated by the loss of their eldest brother, it's perhaps brought them even closer. Above all, Joaquin loves playing around with Liberty's two young children, Rio everest and Indigo Orion. 'I've been playing a lot of ping pong with my nephew,' he smiles. ' Then I built him this elaborate race car track for his remotecontrolled truck.i worked on it for hours and was really proud of myself because I thought I'd done an amazing job. But then he came out and said, 'That's too hard to use!' So I had to start all over again. Being part of an acting family, he says, has help him develop into one of Hollywood's leading actors. 'We hang uot together and it's great for us to be so close. We have our own individual talents - Rain's a great singer-songwriter as well as an actress. It's lovely to be around Liberty's kids so much and gain fresh knowledge by looking at things from their perspective. It helps enormously with ideas.'

Although he once dated the actress Liv Tyler (Lord Of The Rings and Armageddon) he believes that having a relationship within the business has both its benefits and drawbacks. 'They understand the nature of what you have to lead,' he explains. 'But then they're equally busy so it's hard to be together if you're both travelling and working.' 'My current girlfriend's not in the business, which is nice. I'm sure, at some point, I'd like to be married and have some kids, but I don't think I'm quite ready yet.'

Much of Signs is concerned with dealing with fears - and Joaquin has plenty. ''I'm still very afraid of flying which is a big problem as I have to travel constantly,' he smiles. 'We're probably going to Europe & Japan to promote Signs, and in the past I've avoided doing such long trips, but this time I'm going to try. I really need to crack my fear.' He describes a major freak-out on a flight a few years back. 'I got so nervous, I started shaking and banging my head against the wall, making the other passengers extremely nervous. In the end, the captain had to come out, hold me down and tell me to shut up. it was pretty bad, but it did calm me down in the end.' Probably worse than his flying jitters, are his superstitions. 'They're about all sorts of things, especially with movies. It really freaks me out if someone on set says, ' Great, we really got it!' at the end of a shoot. For me that's tempting the movie gods far too much. There's a lot of other things too, but I'm far too superstitous to talk about them!' Joaquin wouldn't after all want to put a hex on any future acting success since he must be raking in the cash by now. And what does he spend it on....? 'I love organising big surprises for my girlfriend.' He can be a bit of a softie after all....

By Joanna Nathan Woman