On October 28, he turns 21. It will be a bitter-sweet occasion; his birthday is three days before the second anniversary of the death of his brother, River, from a drug overdose. It's also the same month the movie comes out - Joaquin's first in six years. In To Die For he plays Jimmy, a scutty trailer-park teen who will do anything, including kill, for psycho-Barbie Nicole Kidman. ("Nicole was so smoking it just pushed me." he says about his co-star.) This is Phoenix's first interview for the film and the actor standing here is remarkably close to his onscreen ultra-grunge persona. It would be a relief to know that he is acting in To Die For, but he says little to throw light on the subject.
Like Jimmy, Phoenix seems shellshocked and inarticulate. Ask him how old he was when he did Ron Howard's Parenthood (when his first name was still Leaf) and he just sighs. "I don't know," he says. "I have difficulty with time." What does your name mean? "Nothing, really." It is difficult to imagine him functioning in the world, away from the Phoenix's family safe house here in southern Florida.
River is a forbidden topic, but it's also the 800 pound gorilla in the room. That Joaquin chose a Van Sant movie to mark his return makes it even tougher to skirt the issue, as River is so closely associated with his drug-addled role as a narcoleptic male hustler in Van Sant's My Own Private Idaho. In his faded blue t-shirt and jeans, Joaquin is unfailingly polite, but it's safe to assume he views this session the same way he regards flying: as an hour and a half in which he has to sit like an idiot and let it happen.
"When I first met him for this job, the media was an everything obsession for him," says Van Sant. "What it meant; What sort of boundaries there were. Obviously the press can get nasty - what happened with River is the nastiest thing I've ever seen."
"I love everybody. Don't worry about it," says the kid whose desperate call to save his brother was broadcast around the world. Does he love even the media? He drags a nail-chewed thumb across his lip. "I think there's a lot of stuff that you could be angry about, but, um, I try not to be, uh, angry about anything ... although I don't always do the best job." He shakes his head and smiles ruefully.
It's tough to imagine the out-there life Joaquin once led with his family with their whimsical hippy names, travelling from Puerto Rico to Venezuela, some of the siblings even singing in the streets for money. Entertaining people into following their beliefs was a Phoenix family tradition. But after River's death, it seems almost as if their ideology has been splintered. As actress Martha Plimpton, River's first love and Joaquin's Parenthood co-star, notes, "How do you reconcile your desire to bring love into the world when you see evil looking you in the face!"
The reaction, for now, is to stay inside the compound. Phoenix has no plans to attend the To Die For premiere, or even to do another movie (despite his assertion that acting is "a need. Throwing yourself into something feels good to me"). His canny portrayal of Jimmy and the critical attention it's attracting prove that he could have a career and fame of his own, but right now, the simple pleasures are all he wants.
His girlfriend, Acacia, a brunette with sea green eyes, wanders over and he nuzzles her neck with his face. "Uaar! Uaar!" she barks like a seal and they slap a gleeful high five. When she goes off to get a drink, he watches her walk across the lawn. "She's my best friend," he says quietly.
"Lately I haven't been trying to understand the world," he continues. "I just swim a lot, and read and try, um, to be happy. I look at everything as meant to be. And sometimes awful stuff happens, but it's all ... it's all part of it."
He's trying hard, but as he himself admits, there are no more "weird old magic things" to help him fly. "Maybe that's full of shit, he says. "It's just that it can drive me mad if I really let go."