Joaquin Phoenix – 20 years ago he gave two remarkable interviews

                         June 2002   By Philip Berk

At his press conference in New York for Signs, Joaquin Phoenix is not quite the jaunty, fun loving, young guy I’ve interviewed before.

When I ask him why, he becomes disconcerted.

“I think it’s the bad food I ate last might. But I will try and come up with some funny material.” 

Funny material is not what I’m looking for.

Just substantial answers.

Signs opened to record breaking numbers ($60 million the first weekend)

What does that mean to him?

“It’s good. It’s a good thing, but I can’t quite get my head around it, to be honest.”

The film deals seriously with the phenomenon of crop circles. What does he think?

“I really have no idea.”

In it he plays a minor league baseball player who’s quit the game. Was he good at it?

“I never ever played the game.”

Is he prepared to do a sequel?

“Whatever the director wants.”

When he’s not working, what does he like to do?

“To be honest, I think my life is just boring and there is nothing to tell about my down time.”

So much for brevity!

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 L.A.P. D. 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 performance.

After that he landed the lead in Inventing the Abbots 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.

I remember once asking him what it felt like having the world’s most desirable teenager fall in love with him?

“I’m always surprised when any  female thinks I’m attractive,” he answered.

Since the breakup, he’s been practically celibate attending the Academy Awards (the night he wasn’t nominated for Gladiator) with his mother.

His love life may have been on hold, but his career has been in overdrive.

Does he have a girlfriend? I ask him.

“Yes I do.”

So how come we never see him with anyone?

“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 disappoint you.”

Is he still close to Casey Affleck?

“He’s my sister’s boyfriend, so we’re very close.”

What does he look for in a relationship?

“Don’t we all say the same things,’ a great sense of humor,  be really sensitive,’ and then they break up, and you ask yourself what happened, and they say it wasn’t working out. So I’d like to think of it as being something we’re all kinda trying to figure out.”

Did growing up with three sisters teach him respect for women?

“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 sport or anything. I took ballet when I was a kid, and that probably influenced me in a positive way.”

Is he comfortable with his sexuality?

“I’m very comfortable with my sexuality. I think it’s wonderful. I think it’s a wonderful thing. I think it’s fabulous. I don’t have any issues about sexuality or anything like that.”

The death of his brother must have had a profound effect on him. What should Hollywood have learned from that tragedy?

“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.”

Growing up, he lived a nomadic life. Did it shape the way he is today?

“It’s true my family traveled a good deal, but when I was thirteen we settled down in the Southeast in a fairly small town. Did it shape the way I am? I don’t know.  I mean,  I’ve seen a lot of different kinds of people and witnessed different ways of living. You travel around in the States, from west to east  and you’re going to meet all sorts.”

And living in South America?

“I don’t really remember  too much.  I was very young,  and  I don’t know if it shaped me at all.”

Does his Mom (she was River’s manager) have a lot of input in his career?

“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, everybody.”

Would he like to settle down and have kids?

“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 DisneyWorld. 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.” 

Is he spiritual?

“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 religions.”

Is that why he’s a vegetarian?

“It’s not a religious thing. I won’t be condemned to eternal damnation if I eat meat. It’s a reaction from when I was a kid watching animals being killed. It never occurred to us as children that’s where meat comes from. It’s an emotional reaction more than anything.”

Where does he see his career going?

“I haven’t thought about it much.  Sometimes you see actors in movies.  They’re’s the terrible big budget movies, and you think they’re just trying to get  rich, whatever.  Okay, cool.  Then you can find out that someone like Tommy Lee Jones has a theatre company in Texas that he runs and finances,  so you realize 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 turn around and get my own film going.  But who knows? I really truly don’t know.”

Two of his films which he made before Signs haven’t been released. Is there a reason?

“I don’t really know. The marketing and release of films is not my field of expertise.”

Has he seen the films?

“I’ve seen Buffalo Soldiers; 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. “

How does he choose his roles?

“I look for something that’s going to keep me involved with a character for three months and that’s going to inspire me get up every day at six in the morning.”

Was there a reason why he changed his name twice?

“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 all had the 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 fourteen or fifteen, 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 that insisted that I change it back.  He just thought it was such a great name, and so I said okay, I would.”.

Everyone in his family has a musical talent. What instrument does he play?

“Oh, God.  I don’t sing. I don’t play any instruments really.”  

What’s his approach to acting? Does he do a lot of research?

“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 script is. “

Who’s ‘I Love You’ means the most to him?

“That’s a real hard one, but my nephew left me a message recently, and he said I love you, and it was just so touching, I can’t tell you.”

He’s worked with both Mel Gibson and Russell Crowe — two Australians — did he notice any differences in acting style, personality, or behavior on the set?

“Not that I’m aware of.”

Did Mel play any pranks on the set?

“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. ‘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.”  

For the record, Mark Ruffalo was the director’s first choice for the role but had to drop out because of illness. Joaquin doesn’t want to talk about that.

AND TWO YEARS LATER

When his agent recommended he go to the gym —  ‘Your body is part of your work,’ he was told  —  Joaquin Phoenix didn’t appreciate the suggestion.

Obviously he’s not taken by sculptured bodies (Sorry, Brad Pitt!)

At his press conference in New York for his new movie The Village he could use a personal trainer. 

He looks a little stocky, but maybe that’s for his role in Walk the Line in which he plays singer Johnny Cash.

Still, he’s is great form, jaunty, high spirited, and quite funny.

But don’t expect expansive answers.

In The Village he leads a cast of well respected actors (Sigourney Weaver, William Hurt) but pretty much carries the movie.

After he greets me with a warm bear hug — we go back a long time — I remark how little we see or hear of him.

He’s in a playful mood and pretends to not  know what I’m talking about.

His ex girl friend (Liv Tyler), I remind him, is not only married she’s expecting a baby.

“I just found that out myself,” he remarks.

So what’s new with him?

“Not much,” is his anticipated answer, but I persist.

We rarely see him in public; does he ever go out?

“Only when I’m contractually obligated to do so.”

Not even to support his fellow actors on the red carpet?

“Not totally, but I don’t really care for the red carpet experience.” 

“And why is that supportive of my fellow actors?” he wants to know. 

Don’t they ask you?

“I guess if a friend asks me I will go, but it’s not something I really want. I mean when you’re filming you’re working with hundreds of people every day under intense scrutiny and a great deal of pressure; so that’s why, when I’m not working, I prefer to be on my own.”

Where does he make his home?

“Wherever I am.”

He doesn’t have a home in Los Angeles?

“No.”

As preparation for The Village, the director had all the actors attend a boot camp, where they had no modern conveniences.

Did it remind him of his childhood?

“No.”

What did he get out of it?

“It was a nice opportunity to get into an isolated environment, to work with others actors, to develop our characters’ relationships.”

Did he learn anything?

“No.”

Would he like to go back to a simpler time?

“To be honest, my life is actually very simple. I keep it very simple except when I do these lovely junkets.” 

Which modern convenience was the most difficult to live without?

“Nothing I can think of.”

How about the cell phone?

“Don’t have a cell phone. Don’t watch TV.  Maybe my IPod. I like music, that’s one thing.” 

And cigarettes?

“Well there you go,” he answers as he lights up another American Spirit..

At least it’s a “healthy” cigarette.

The movie is about instilling fear in other people. Growing up was there anything he feared?

“My parents always taught us never to fear anything. We were encouraged to embrace the world not to fear it. Although I nearly drowned when I was young, so I have to admit dark water does freak me out.”

Appropriately he’s wearing black.

Could it be his homage to Johnny Cash!

Cash was in his late sixties when he died.

What time frame will the movie cover?

“It starts around 1940 when he’s a kid of ten. I start playing him from 1950 to 1968 up to the point where he married June Carter.”

The movie would be just another Joaquin Phoenix project except his costar, playing June Carter, is Reese Witherspoon, who commands a $15 million salary.

How was he able to get her involved?

“I guess we were lucky, and she’s fucking awesome.”

During the boot camp did he cook dinner for his colleagues?

“Unfortunately for them I did. I made a lovely broccoli pasta, which no one ate. I don’t think it was very good.”

His character in The Village is a man of few words. Is that how he was on the set?

“I have a lot of friends who think I’m loud and brash, and others would say I’m quiet and shy. I talked to Night (Shyamalan, the director) about it while we were making Signs. I’ve always wanted to play a mute. I told him I wanted the opportunity of playing a role with a range of emotions without the use of dialogue; so he wrote this great part for me.”

His character also shy about expressing his emotions.

Is that also true about him?

“I don’t think I’m shy about expressing my feelings.”

Does he have a girlfriend?

“I do, but that’s all I’ll say.”

What does love mean for him?

“I wouldn’t know.”

His next movie, Ladder 49, comes out in a few months. In it he plays a fireman.

What can he tell us about it?

“It was an amazing experience, probably the most research I’ve ever done for a film. I also did three weeks training at the (Firemen) Academy with a bunch of young kids who were preparing to go into the field. The movie is about a firefighter trapped in a building and his reminiscences of the last ten years of his life, from the time he joined the department. It was amazing to be allowed into their world. You hear about the brotherhood and the bond they have. I got to experience it first hand.”

Working with Shyamalan a second time, was it easier?

“By the end of a film, you get to a point where the director is able to give you a look, and you know just what he means. Having worked together previously, we had that shorthand. But at the same time there’s a comfort in being a bit mysterious.”

So there was no friction?

“Not really although when you’ve worked with a director before, you can sometimes bullshit him a little bit, but it wasn’t possible with Night. He’s very perceptive and knew right away when I was trying to get a scene done rather than experience the genuine emotion it called for.”

Marlon Brando had died a few days before the press conference. Joaquin reminds me of the Brando of The Wild One, I tell him.

Would he consider doing Stanley Kowalski in a theatre revival of Streetcar Named Desire, and if offered the role, would he play Brando in a movie bio?

Facetiously, he replies, (a) No, (b) Probably not.

What is his relationship to Brando?

Again facetiously he answers, “He’s my father.”

Was he an influence?

“He probably influenced everybody in some respect,  but I can’t say  there’s any one actor I’ve ever studied or had that kind of influence on my acting.”

Since he’s playing Johnny Cash, why not Marlon Brando?

“The only reason I’m doing the Johnny Cash bio is he approved the script.”

And his casting?

“I believe he did, but I’m not sure. I think he knew I was going to play him. I had met him a few months before, unrelated to the film. As it turns out he was a big fan of Gladiator.” 

Then jokingly he adds, “He must have known because he was quoted as saying, ‘I wish he was a little taller.”  

For the record, he’s still a vegan and enjoys cooking.

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