|GQ magazine - june 00|
|A Phoenix Called
SCENE: THE ROMAN
COLOSEUM, A.D. 180.
SCENE: A MIDTOWN HOTEL
ROOM, A.D. 2000.
Frequently, he loses his train of thought; attempting to retrieve it, he'll say, "hello brain." When a female visitor makes for the bathroom, the actor lopes ahead, mumbling apologies. "I think it's set up for a boy in there," he says, before flushing the toilet and lowering its seat. It is in the job description of any actor that he be capable of transforming himself, although few have ever managed it as profoundly as Joaquin Phoenix, the emperor and the actor in the scenes above. On-screen, he imbues every character he plays with a turbulent, doomed quality, whether it's Nicole Kidman's stoner love slave in 1995's dark comedy To die for or the villainous emperor Commodus in the current and quite rousing spear-and- sandal epic Gladiator. In 1998's underrated Return to paradise, playing a hapless tourist moldering in a Malaysian jail cell on a drug offense, Phoenix is so nakedly consumed by the character, he's painful to watch. No wonder, then, that he is frequently likened to Montgomery Clift, who was handsomely haunted in virtually every role. "Whatever happens to Joaquin on film, I always feel sorry for him," says Gladiator director Ridley scott, whose vision of the emperor as a baddie with issues and pathos led him to cast Phoenix. "He's kind of a wounded individual." Or at least his distinctive face suggests as much-the hooded eyes that glitter as they shift about, the sneering nostrils that curl like tiny ram's horns, the congenital gash in the upper lip that skews the smile. Collectively, his features seem to burn through the celluloid.
Offscreen, however, Phoenix's affect is something else entirely-less ghost-of Monty than, say, out-of-work videostore clerk. "On airplanes they never think I belong in first class," Phoenix says, tugging at his tufts and perching strangely on a chair with one of his legs resting on the arm. (There is so much contorting and scratching and tugging, you'd think the hotel were infested with fleas.) His speech is grunge-Brando-mumbly and slightly nasal. "They always ask me to see my boarding pass. And people hate to sit next to me. They look at me, and then they look at there ticket and make some excuse about the window, the air" - which isn't surprissing to Phoenix's best friend annd To Die For costar, Casey Affleck. "I've been on planes with him, and I don't really want to look at him, either," Affleck says, "because he sits down and drinks sixteen shots of whatever he can find and pulls his shirt over his head and stays like that for the rest of the flight." No one recognizes him, Phoenix says, except for a few fans who think he might be Vincent Gallo. Cops stare at him - less from a familiarity with his work than because he looks like he must be guilty of something. And you can hardly blame them; sometimes his stormy presence overwhelms a perfectly mundane reality. One night in a restaurant, for example, when Phoenix looked up bashfully from his kindheartedly vegan dinner of grilled tofu and brown rice, he simply couldn't help that he was a dead ringer for Alex, the psychopath from A Clockwork Orange. My first experience of being misled by Phoenix's looks occured two years ago, when I was interviewing Liv Tyler, his then girlfriend, at his rented house in Los Angeles. Over the course of a couple of days, as she and I chatted, Phoenix slipped furtively in and out of the house, casting sidelong glances - eye contact was out of the question. At the time, I read him as fragile and spooky, perpetually dogged by the dead of his brother., River; his face invites that kind of projection. As it turned out, I had it all wrong. That Joaquin was a far cry from the loopy, easygoing virtuoso I'd spend some time with years later.
To say the least, Phoenix is a complicated package, which is what makes him such a powerful screen presence. Doug Wright, whose play Quills has been made into a movie starring Phoenix as a deeply conflicted priest, recalls a day on the set when he intercepted Phoenix coming out of his dressing room in costume. "He had a cigarette dangling out of his mouth and he had on these really intense aviator shades and his hair was all tousled , and he was like, 'Hey, dude,' " Wright says. "Then he walked onto the soundstage, and the zigarette gets stamped out and the glasses come off and someone runs a comb through his hair, and the guy is suddenly an early-nineteenth-century priest. It was the most transformative moment-it took my breath away. Joaquin is someone who could slide by you in the hallway, but aim a lens at him and he becomes thirty feet tall." Whereas a lot of Phoenix's peers are associated with "a kind of hip affectations," Wrigh says, "Joaquin is genuine, with access to absolutely volcanic emotional places in his soul." But the peculiar way he gets to those places can be both rewarding and harrowing, says James Gray, who directed him in The Yards, a bleak Mob Yarn costarring Mark Walhberg that is due out in september. Here Phoenix is astonishing as a Latino smoothy who loses everything. Nailing the performance was a challenge, however. "I had a great time with him, and he's a hell of an actor," Gray says. "Joaquin has unbelievably, tour de force natural skills. But the question is, how do you get it from him? It's a brutal procces." As Gray describes it, Phoenix likes directors to work him in a state-to practically perch like a tiny devil on his shoulder and hiss motivational tidbits in his ear, thereby driving him hard to the emotional core of the piece. It works like this: As Phoenix prepares to play a scene, he goes into an altered state, then jerks his fingers at the director, what means "start goading me." "So you'll say somethink like ' Hey, you thought you had it all figured out, but never going to fit it in,' says Gray. "Look at you-you've got that patina of loser. You just that close to being Travis Bickle or Rupert Pupkin.' You just talk to him that way, and all of a sudden he's like..." Gray screws up his face in anguish, as if he's about to pop, an indication that Phoenix has gone through the looking glass. "Then Joaquin says, 'Roll, roll, roll!' And you roll the film."
But a director must choose his motivational stimulus carefully. Once, when Gray tried to make use of Phoenix's romance with Tyler, wondering out loud how Phoenix would react if she were to die at his hands, the spell broke, causing Phoenix to moan, "Aw, James, you had me in the zone, and you ruined it. You ruined it!" As Gray describes it, Phoenix will do anything to get in the mood. He remembers the time when a nurse on the set informed him that Joaquin was in the closet, banging his head against the thick oak door. "So, of course, I run downstairs to see what's going on. He finishes what he was doing, we roll, and he's great. That was Joaquin, doing his thing." Whatever works. "Joaquin is willing to put himself into the most troubling and personal and exposing of places, which is all you can ask from an actor. Frankly, it's very difficult for me to work with him-I'm not comfortable with torture," says Gray, who senses an "inner Beelzebub" in Phoenix. "But I will work with him in a second, because he`s that good." For his part, Phoenix can't see doing this job any other way."I never want to come home like,'Hey, good day at work!' " he says, hitching up his pants and puffing out his chest. " 'Got paid!' With me, I'm grumpy, i haven't slept enough, my stomach hurts, my whole body hurts, I'm tired of crying all day or being stabbed or whatever it is. But I think that's how you always want to feel about any kind of work. Don't you? Don't you always want to feel like you're giving as much as you can?"
Phoenix once said his decision to become an actor was based on the fact that "I suck at painting and writing." Be that as it may, he seems uncommonly suited to the extreme rigors of this line of work. His free-form upbringing was a factor: Phoenix's creative wild-child impulses were never crimped by arbitrary mores and social bounderies; He was born to exuberantly countercultural parents, who met in the late '60s when his father, John Bottom, picked up his mother, Arlyn Dunetz, hitchhiking. (Years later they changed their surname to Phoenix and Arlyn changed her first name to Heart.) They traveled widely and worked as missionaries in a sybaritic Christian cult known as the Children of God. They lived in a shack in Caracas, Venezuela. John also did yard work for a woman with a pool; Joaquin's earliest memory is being in the pool in his father's arms and watching iguanas dart around in the sun. John and Heart's brood eventually maxed out of five: River, who would have turned 30 this august; Rain, 27; Joaquin, 25; Liberty, 23; Summer, 22 - All actors except for Liberty, who is full-time mother of two. Ultimately, his parents grew disenchanted with the cult, which allegedly encouraged sex between members of all ages. Desperate and penniless, the Phoenixes stowed away on a commercial vessel bringing a shipment of Tonka toys to Florida. Joaquin turned 3 on the boat and well remembers the huge cake the crew made for him, once the family had been discovered. The crew also gave him presents, including a Tonka truck. "I'd never had a toy, so getting all these presents was really exciting. They were so generous, " Joaquin says. "They were also hauling up these flying fish in nets by the thousands. The fish were so animated, just flopping around on the deck. And then these same people who had been so kind were grabbing them, and to kill them they threw them against the wall of the ship." The whole family was horrified. "I was too young to analyze it; I just remember sitting there and bawling. The feeling of their pure aggression-it made me so nervous and scared." Soon after, the Phoenixes became committed vegans, which means no meat, no fish, no dairy-nothing in any way derived from an animal. Nor would they wear fur or leather accesoires, which still poses challenges to the wardrobe departments of various movies; don't expect to see Phoenix in regulation Mob leather in The Yards.
Eventually, the family moved to Los Angeles and took a one-bedroom apartment in a building that didn't allow children. They had to sneak silently in and out, since the landlady lived above them. One day, when Joaquin was walking by, she was standing on the stairs. "She told me to 'come here,' " he remembers. "I thought she was going to kick us out." Instead, she gave him an Incredible Hulk doll. "We always had angels in our lives-people who became friends and are friends to this day." Even classmates at the public schools the children attended sporadically refrained from harassing the offbeat, cash-poor clan. "For some reason, our differences were always well accepted," says Summer. "People were like 'Blue corn chips? Wow!' They weren't cruel about it." But surely there were hard times, lonely moments? "We're going to complain about the kids that were mean to us in school?" Joaquin says. With a loose fist, he mimes jerking off, as if to say, this really does not rank as one of the world's great tragedies. "I do remember one birthday when River tried to explain to me that I shouldn't expect any presents," Phoenix says. "Meanwhile, my dad the genius had managed to whip up a bunch of presents, just building things. He could make a bike out of a twig." Whatever they lacked in material wealth the family more than made up for in a thickly insulating kind of love and companionship. "We always had each other," says Phoenix, as when a neighborhood kid stole his bike and River took it upon himself to punch the guy in an alley and get it back. "I just don't think I have that complex," says Phoenix, "that feeling like we never had anything. We made do, and it was fine. What's that song?" Fumbling for the words, he sleepily warbles: We ain't got a barrel of money/ Maybe we're ragged and funny: But we'll travel along/ Side by side.
The Phoenixes remain an unusually tight unit. At no point did any of the children turn into Alex Keaton and run screaming from their parents' values: While almost any other acceptance-craving kid would have changed his name from the weirdly exotic Joaquin to Bob or Jim, Joaquin actually called himself Leaf for a time, as if to become even more of a Phoenix. "We're each other's best friends," says Summer, who refers to her brother as "this big ball of GIVE!" "No matter where we go or who we meet, tofu salad is always home." Four years ago, when Liberty delivered her son Rio during a family-affair home birth, it was Joaquin who cut the cord. While the family struggled financially, heart harbored dreams of stardom for her children. Although the role of stage mother doesn't seem to square with hippie values, it made a kind of sense: Heart viewed their natural talents as a gift to the world. At 5 years old, River was playing guitar and singing in prisons and convalescent homes with his father. River and Rain also performed in talent shows and on street corners. At various alfresco venues in Southern California, the children attempted a kind of Von Trapp-cum-Osmond act, wearing gold tank tops purchased from K-mart and singing Beatles covers as well as some originals. And when Heart took a secretarial job at NBC, she gained a bit of entrée into the audition circuit. As it turned out, acting came naturally to her children, who'd been encouraged from birth to be prodigiously emotive and acutely sensitive (as a boy, Joaquin would never just pass a beggar; he'd sit down with him, stare deep into his face and talk). After a few television jobs, Joaquin appeared in his first movie, Spacecamp, at the age of 11-the same year as river's breakthrough role in Stand by me. Of course, the brooding and beautiful River became famous first, before flaming out catastrophically-dying of a drug overdose outside the L.A. club Viper Room in 1993. Joaquin was with him that night, and his distraught 911 call was played and replayed on tabloid television like a music video in heavy rotation.
Having his grief exploited so publicly was a grotesque intrusion, the pain of which didn't lift until Liv Tyler came along a few years later. "People move in and out of your life when both need it," Phoenix says. "When I met her, she certainly had this spunk, this kind of zest for life and excitement about the future. And at that point, I suppose, I was bitter about a lot of things: about my brother and the press and how ugly everything seemed. Liv helped change my perspective, and that was a great thing." Which isn't to say he'll ever get over his loss. One day on the set of The Yards, James Gray discovered Phoenix teary-eyed in his trayler. "I ask him if everything was all right," says Gray. "And he said, 'Oh, some journalist just asked me about my brother.' I said, 'You don't like to talk about that, do you?' And he goes, 'No. I. Don't.' That was the only time we ever mentioned it." It is tempting to fret about a gentle, soy-loving soul like Joaquin Phoenix in the unabashed meat market that is Hollywood. "I just pray for him," says Summer. "After you've been burned, you grow a harder shell, and I don't think Joaq is capable of growing a harder shell. He's not someone who can say, 'OK, I'm going to be a dick to you because you were a dick to me.' He just stays true to himself in every way he can." But aside from the locustlike press invasion in the wake of River's death, Phoenix has yet to be burned. "With Joaq, people kind of want to take care of him, because they see that he's still pure," says Affleck. "It's like when someone has an 8-month old child in their arms and everyone in the room kind of smiles and looks at it and wants to protect it and love it, because they're all thinking, Oh God, I hope the world doesn't get to him. I hope for Joaq, more than anyone else, that he doesn't become cynical and hardened by the nastiness of the business. And he probably won't, but it's a fight. It's hard for him, I can tell."
But let's not get carried away. Phoenix is no clueless will-o'-the-wisp. Vegan he may be, but his overgrown innocence doesn't preclude a social life that is breathlessly happening. Yes, he conscientiously brings a juicer on the road with him so that he may pulverize all manner of healthy produce at his whim, but he also smokes and drinks like eurotrash. And he has a taste for long nights in tragically hip clubs-never as the pathetic posse member but, rather, as the swaggering ringleader. "I've been to Moomba with him, and everyone knows who he is,' says James Gray. "He sits on the couch"-here Gray imitates Phoenix smoking cigarettes, waving at waiters and gesturing expansively toward friends like a player-"then he gets up and hugs somebody you've never seen before wearing some long overcoat that makes him look like he's in the Red Hot Chili Peppers, but he's not." As for women, Phoenix is modest to the point of self-parody. To hear him tell it, after his amicable breakup with Tyler, he was out in the bars, trying to meet chicks in desperately uncool fashion (Phoenix illustrates with a corny wink before squeezing off a few rounds on a finger gun). But by Affleck's account, "women fall at his feet just about everywhere he goes. He pays so little attention, I don't know if he recognizes it or not. He just kind of blazes a trail and leaves all these blushing women in his wake." Then there are the ostensible rags that Phoenix dresses in, giving him a look of an undermedicated vagrant. In truth, some of his clothes bear the names of chic-est designers, worn in Phoenix's singularly crummy way. "He dresses really well in that style that's Prada poor," saysGray. "Expensive versions of what poor people look like." Indeed, Phoenix and Affleck's recent pleasure trip to Italy, during which they both got drunk and tattooed, came about when a designer invited Phoenix to his fashion show, offering to fly over one of his friends as an incentive. So comfortable is Phoenix with the world of high fashion that he modeled for a Prada ad campaign a few years ago. There he was, staring out from glossy pages like a tormented mannequin. For sush a serious, raw talent and principled naturalist, the modeling job seemed a strange choice (although he did refuse to wear the company's leather shoes; for whatever good it did, they were shot separately on the feet of the stylist). Phoenix's reasons for going along with the shoot reveal a surprising degree of calculation, if not straight-up guile. "it was a career move," he says with a shrug. "As an actor you, want to show different sides, and I've very much gotten stuck being Jimmy in To Die For, because I wear secondhand clothing, or I did. And so the idea was, Wow, it would be great to have photos out there with this slicked-down image and all that shit, and that's really why I did it. And they were very nice, and I think it probably accomplished what I wanted it to accomplish. But I didn't know what the fuck I was thinking, to tell you the truth." Well, he did actually. As he said. "I think there's a certain amount of compromising that you must do to achieve what you want. I have more of a voice and more of an opportunity to express concerns about inportant subject being in the position I am in than if i weren't," says Phoenix, this curious blend of personage and gnarly dude. "That's the balance you have to deal with. Now I can take money that I earn and donate it to groups that are doing amazing work, and do the commercials I did for PETA, which I wouldn't have the opportunity to do otherwise."
Late in the afternoon on a chilly saturday in New York, Phoenix heads to the famed kiddie consumption palace FAO Schwartz to buy a present for his nephew Rio. He is wearing brown sunglasses and a dark knit hat pulled down past his eyebrows. No scarf or gloves, though, warmth and comfort being a bit bourgeois. He has a cigarette lodged in his lips. His black coat looks about a size too small; he holds it closed with his fist. A luckless man dressed as a toy soldier is standing outside FAO Schwartz, holding the door open for patrons. Joaquin asks him how he's doing. "A little cold,' says the soldier. "I heard you, man," says Phoenix, who scuttles past like a panhandler into a soup kitchen. Once inside, Phoenix is blown back by the candy-colored assault: the waves of cloying canned music; the teetering pyramids of stuffed doggies, horsies and dolls in cellophane-covered boxes; the scratchy wheeze of motorized display toys buzzing around aimlessly; the din of pampered children and their deep-pocketed parents clogging the escalator. A column of darkness amid the gaiety, Phoenix hunches up and moves swiftly through the store, his narrowing eyes frequently cutting toward the exit. For someone who possessed nary a Spaldeen for the first few years of life, this commercial pig-out is borderline heinous. Phoenix finds a couple of modest gifts, including a kazoo in shape of a biplane, and pays for them fast. But before leaving, he notices a small electronic cow trudging blindly from the safety of its display space toward the heavily traveled aisle. Heroically, Phoenix snatches the cow from harm's way and sets it down gently, facing in the opposite direction. Phoenix dives for the sidewalk and lights up a sigarette, his face awash in relief. "I've gotta go get some miso soup," he says.
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