Seventeen - August 1993

My Own Private Interview

by Malissa Thompson

It's close to midnight and I'm sitting on a bale of hay in the middle of a cold, rain-soaked slab of land thirty miles north of Los Angeles where the film The Thing Called Love is being shot. Wind bites through my leather jacket as if it were chiffon. My boots are caked in mud and my frozen toes are about to fall off. For the last five hours I have been wearing a smile, slightly pinched, that I hope declares, "I'm harmless really... it's okay to talk to me." River Phoenix is slumped against a split wood fence fifteen feet away. He knows who I am. I've been here before... trying to get the interview he's been promising for nearly two months.
River's shoes are not muddy, by the way. And he looks pretty cozy in a thick, plaid pendleton shirt, baggy jeans, and a leather jacket. Stars of big movies like this get perks like toasty trailers and cappuccinos to thaw them out. Visitors - like me - do not.
Peter Bogdanovich has just guided River through a live singing stint. Tonight, River's job, as James Wright, a guitar-slinging cowboy, is to wrangle Miranda (Samantha Mathis) away from her main squeeze Kyle (Dermot Mulroney). This is a hip country / western musical about three on-the-verge country songwriters who have two-stepped it to Nashville to rustle up some fame and fortune, or at least a record deal.
At the moment, though, it's chow time, and River is sauntering my way. I think he recognizes me, but I can't be sure because of the mass of matted hair hanging in his face. I stand up and am nearly floored when the lanky twenty-three-year-old throws his arm around my shoulder and says, "Thanks for stopping by," Suddenly my zillions of questions evaporate like the guts of a busted balloon. Not that it matters. The moment River spies my tape recorder, the cool cowboy gets downright Arctic. "You don't expect me to do this now, do you?" he asks gruffly. "What do you think I do for a living, anyway?"
Well, let's take a look at your résumé. Since 1986, when you starred as the leader of a small-town brat pack in Stand by Me, until 1989, when you portrayed the earnest, PC piano student in Running on Empty, you've been refining America's idea of the boy next door. Then in 1991, your sweetness started to sizzle with your version of a ruthless romancer in Dogfight, followed by your riveting performance as a narcoleptic teen hustler in My Own Private Idaho. So, basically, Riv, you've gone from an earnest, tender kid to a tough, edgy, raw leading man. Your job description today? Remaining one of the hottest young actors on the face of the planet.
Does that about sum it up, River? I come to my senses as I watch the elusive one step into his trailer to munch on some trail mix or fried tofu, and I am, uh, left standing in the cold.
Three weeks later, I'm baaack (stubborn is my middle name). I'm inside the Paramount studio and I've been assured that River is ready to flow ( metaphorically speaking). Still, hours go by before I manage to bump into River at the food cart. Knowing he's a closest smoker, I have brought cigarettes as bribe material.
"I know this hasn't been easy for you," he says, piercing me with those deep baby blues.
"In the movie you're not a very nice guy," I say. "I was beginning to think it wasn't an act."
But apparently an act is all it is. "No one is that easy to be around when they are supposed to be terribly self-centered," he explains, shuffling to a remote corner of the stage.
"You seem much more driven than when we first met,' I say, reminding him of the night I saw his funk-punk alternative band, Aleka's Attic, at a club in New York.
"Oh, I was probably doused in suds," he explains. "We'd been on the road so long."
"Is it scary to make the switch to country music?" I ask."
"I'm totally into it because of its root form," he says. "But I"m not doing this film to get recognition for my music."
"But," I counter, "you did write the song Lone Star State of Mind for the movie, and you sing." (His singing, although underscored with anger, sounds amazingly urgent and sweet.)
"That song is an ode to solitude and the preservation of one's independence," he says.
Privacy is something River yearns for. But growing up in the spotlight, he has had a hard time hanging on to it. That and friendship.
"With fame like yours, it must be hard to find girls you can trust," I offer.
"Friendship is pretty sparse," River admits. "I'm not very available. I'm with people when I'm with them. When I'm not, I don't drop postcards. I don't call."
" Is your family as eccentric as they sound?"
"I've never read anything and thought, oh yeah, this is what it was like. They've been sensationalized."
"Is that true of you, too?"
"I try to lie as much as I can when I'm interviewed. It's reverse psychology. I figure if you lie, they'll print the truth." The vision of my editor throwing out this interview suddenly comes to mind. "Does that include me?" I ask nervously.
"I'm not lying to you right now," he says nicely. "I want this to be wholesome for you. I know this has been hard."
Yeah, hard, I think as I turn off my tape recorder. Knowing the interview is officially over, River visibly lightens up. Moments later he lives up to his on-the-set rep as a ladies' man when a friend of Samantha Mathis's arrives sporting a badly dyed hairdo. "I'm blonde now," she says shyly. River, pretending not to notice, croons, "You look beeyooutiful."
How easily he smiles when he's not the center of attention. "It seems to me," I say, "that you just want to be left alone to do your work and live in peace." The actor nods enthusiastically. "But River," I mumble under my breath as I pick up my bag, "what do you think I do for a living anyway?"

The text on this page © 1993 Seventeen Magazine.

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