Those same people also assured me that Joaquin is a "big sweetheart". Not a pretentious bone in his body. Charming, but that didn't quite convince me we were headed for a cosy chat : he's already famously media-shy, and this was to be one of the first interviews given by any of the Phoenix clan since the highly-publicised death of eldest son River in 1993.
"His discomfort with the media has to do with his estimation about what's interesting to the world," said Van Sant, a close friend of the Phoenix family. To Die For is Van Sant's third consecutive film to feature a Phoenix. In 1991, River gave his most textured performance in My Own Private Idaho as a narcoleptic hustler. In 1993, sister Rain made an impressive debut in the otherwise frightful Even Cowgirls Get The Blues. "Joaquin [pronounced "wah-keen"] is enough of a nature boy that he doesn't quite understand the whole deal with magazines," Van Sant continued. "He doesn't relate to the girls in lingerie in those ads, or to any ads really. He doesn't get why people must be told what's significant in the world, and who's important."
With To Die For's release, he's agreed to only a handful of interviews, and would rather go into hiding than face the flashbulbs at festivals where the film and his performance have been toasted. His monosyllabic propensities with interviewers have also minimised the space he's occupied next to the lingerie ads. But curiosity about his unorthodox family, his upbringing, and yes, his brother, will ensure his place in The Sun.
Despite having starred in three movies prior to To Die For (as Leaf Phoenix - he rechristened himself with his original name Joaquin three years ago), Phoenix's widest exposure has so far come from the broadcasting across every US TV and radio station of the anguished 911 emergency call he placed on the night of River's death in Los Angeles in October 1993. After the public transmission of his life's most painful moment, it's no wonder Phoenix is reticent to discuss anything of a personal nature with the press. He's stated that he's got nothing to say about River that he would care to discuss with any stranger. Even with friends the subject is sensitive.
"I think that getting together with me to work on the film was difficult at first because I automatically reminded him of River," says Van Sant. "He understandably doesn't like to be reminded of him. He'll still usually say "my brother" instead of "River", and rarely brings him up. He likes to hear stories about him, though, and listens when I talk about what he used to do and say. I never ask questions about him. It's just something you don't bring up."
We meet on a bright, sunny morning in New York. Phoenix is waiting for me at the top of the steps of the Angelika Film Center in lower Manhattan. Around him people are queuing to see the Larry Clark movie Kids.
We're a few blocks from his girlfriend Acacia's parents' Chinatown apartment where he'd been hanging out for a few weeks, away from his home in a small town outside Gainesville, Florida. For Phoenix, hanging out in New York City means spending late nights with Acacia and a few friends, talking and listening to music in the safety of the apartment. He's a shy guy, nervous around strangers, wary of attention. He not only dislikes his image on screen, but also avoids catching his own reflection and is conscious of every cursory glance from passers by. When he ventures out to practise skateboarding, he does so after midnight, and on a deserted street so no one can see his mistakes.
"Hey, how's it going?" He approaches, hand outstretched, peering over his sunglasses. He's wearing nondescript grey corduroys and a white T-shirt. His dark hair is slightly tousled. He looks around anxiously and asks where I want to "do this". He's obviously uneasy. When he's not asked a direct question, he speaks freely, enthusiastically. He waves his hand for emphasis and, if he's excited about a topic, he speaks in rambling short takes, talking even as he inhales. But when he feels his opinion being evaluated, weighed, his voice lowers and his sentences fragment, ending in a soft, hopeless "whatever", or "I don't know what I'm saying, man."
We decide to head towards Washington Square Park, and on our way up Mercer Street we duck into a health food store. Joaquin just wants some juice, but when he reaches into his pocket at the till, he pulls out a sealed fourpack of Ricola herb candies. He stares blankly at it. "Oh my God," he says. "I can't believe it. I put the Ricola in my pocket by mistake. I'm so embarrassed." Joaquin looks at the cashier. "I totally wasn't trying to steal anything, I'm so sorry." The cashier totally ignores him. "I can't believe that happened," he says outside, head angled down, abashed. "I must have been daydreaming." I make a joke about shoplifters being the ruin of small businesses. He doesn't laugh.
1pm, on a bench in crowded Washington Park, Joaquin sits rigidly, fiddling with his bottlecap, waiting to flub his lines. We chat idly for a bit, all the better to smooth the way into more meaty areas. I ask if I can record our conversation. "I thought you were already taping," he smiles, staring into my open knapsack. "I did this one interview and after we finished, the guy kept the recorder on when he put it in his bag, you know, real subtle. I told him, "Your tape's still going,' and he said, "Oh, sorry!' I was like, yeah, you're really sorry."
I don't want to scare him. I rack my brains for the least threatening question. How did you get involved in To Die For, I finally ask. "Aw, man, this is so bizarre! I can't do these interviews, they're just not natural. There's always something in me that's going, "This isn't right, I can't do this.' Why do people want to even talk to me? I mean, people ask me questions like, "What's it like to work with Gus?' Some of it's very personal. Anything I have to say I don't want to say, so I just go on, so dull, like, "Gus lets us do what we want, he's really cool.' But I feel like a jerk. So I call him up and tell him not to freak out if he reads what I said... Hey, check out those squirrels playing up on that tree."
I remind him about the first time I met him in May 1994 on the Toronto set of To Die For. He'd just completed a pivotal scene: Nicole Kidman and he sit in a parked car, late at night, and she manipulates him into agreeing to kill her husband (Matt Dillon). After the shoot, while other members of the cast and crew lounged in a trailer, laughing at an episode of Absolutely Fabulous, Phoenix took off on a solitary walk. "He thinks he didn't do a good job," someone told me at the time. "He gets down on himself." "That was a bad day for me - I hated that scene! " he says. "I mean, I hated me in that scene. It was such an important moment and I doubted I'd got across what I wanted to.
"Joaq ["Wahk'] was always worried he wasn't doing his best," says Van Sant. "He's a great actor, but he was always trashing himself. It was the opposite of River. River would know when he did a scene well. If someone suggested that maybe he should have tried another approach, he'd debate it and say, 'No, no, it was really good.' You'd never say that to Joaquin or it would send him into a tailspin of self-criticism.
In the end, both ended up doing good work, only one was confident, the other's not." When I do open Pandora's Box - well, it was more like lifting the lid a bit - by mentioning his brother, the sense of taboo that had surrounded the unspoken up to that point for me at least melted away; it prompted the longest reply of the day. Had he always felt negatively towards the press or was it mainly since the reaction to River's death?
"No, I've always felt weird about the press," he says calmly. "Obviously since my brother, it's been a lot harder to deal with. I was never that angry regarding the press, I just thought, how pointless. But more recently there's been anger involved. I'm trying to tell myself that not every reporter is bloodthirsty, that they're just doing their jobs. I'm learning. It's crazy, it's mad, but what can you do? The only reason I'm doing interviews now is to support the film. There's nothing I want anyone to know about me or how I feel about my brother. I don't like just saying nothing, but anything of real importance to me is not something I want to blast across some page. I don't want to tell people about my philosophy, or my cares, you know? My ideas can change literally from one day to the next so I don't like the idea of being stuck with something I said months before. Hell, I'm just used to talking openly with my family and friends - none of that stuff gets printed!"
Joaquin is hungry - by now it's 2:30 pm - so I take him to Dojos, remembering it as being vegetarian. I'm wrong, but Joaquin's cool about it "as long as it's not crowded". It is, but that's cool too. As long as we don't sit near anyone. We find a quiet corner near the kitchen. Our waitress walks by, and without looking at us says, "Don't sit there unless you want your head cracked by a plate of food." She's not having a good day. Of course, Joaquin instantly picks up on these vibes and, as we move to another table, worries that he's somehow pissed her off. When I make the mistake of saying that I'm not very hungry, he closes his menu and pushes his chair back. "Man, I can't eat if you won't have anything, that's it. I can't sit here if you won't eat." "I'll have a salad or something, don't worry. How long have you been a vegan?" He draws himself near again. "Hey, there's a story I can tell you, but I tell this to everyone. When I was a kid we were on a boat from Venezuela to Florida and my brother and sisters and I watched these fishermen haul in hundreds of fish. They were all squirming on the deck, dying, and the guys were smacking them against the walls to kill them. We were all so disgusted, because we'd been watching them jump around in the water, like minutes before. It was our first concrete experience seeing what happens to "food' before it gets on the table, and we just decided never again to eat anything that had once breathed." The waitress takes our order. He goes for a tofu salad. "Large or smallfruit salad?" she asks me. Joaquin flinches. "Small,"' I say quietly. " Aw, man," Joaquin groans. "Large," I relent.
The facts have been repeated so often (from old teen magazine exposes on River to more recent, blame-the-mother-type articles), they have a ring of legend about them: Joaquin's parents, Arlyn and John, were once missionaries for the religious cult Children Of God, travelling with young River and Rain through Mexico, South America, and the Caribbean islands. Joaquin himself was born in Puerto Rico. When his parents learned about cult leader David Berg's self-serving style of accounting and penchant for convincing female recruits that the way to salvation begins with a good, healthy shag, they packed the family up,"hopped a cargo ship from Caracas to Miami" and optimistically changed their family name to Phoenix. They were determined to start a new life, one centred around the talents of their children.
River and Rain, charming and proficient musicians even then, strumming string guitars as big as themselves, attracted press attention for their street performances. After an invite from a Paramount casting agent and a vision that their children would captivate the world, Arlyn and John packed their family up again and headed west to California. River went from busking to commercials to regular spots on TV programmes before landing big-screen roles in Stand By Me and The Mosquito Coast. Child actor Joaquin followed him into the movies.
We're ready to leave the restaurant, but Joaquin is still concerned about our taciturn waitress. "I want to give her a hug. Should I?" he asks. He believes in the power of hugs, but whose tension he wants to relieve is unclear. He pays the bill and waits for her to pass by. "I'll just tell her I want to give her a hug, right? Is that too weird?" But when she rushes by, oblivious, with plates of brown rice in her hands, Joaquin stands frozen, arms poised for action by his side. He lets her disappear. "Nah, it wouldn't have been right," he says, turning to leave. From the sidewalk, he calls out a friendly "Thanks! Goodbye!" - his final attempt to cheer her up. She doesn't even hear him.
It's 4pm and we're heading off to Tower Records. "Guess how I spent last night?" I ask. "Watching a double feature SpaceCamp and Russkies." At the mention of his film debuts, he does the deer-in-the-headlights thing. He freezes, then lets his jaw drop open. The mouthful of spring water he's just taken spills on to the front of his T-shirt. "Oh my God! Poor you! I hoped no one remembered those!" But he's soon off on an excited recounting of the hours he'd spent dangling from chicken wires in a harness and spacesuit for the special effects sequences in SpaceCamp. "I was just a kid then, and a chubby fucker too. I was more interested in the food at the Craft Service than the actual film-making. I gained, like, 40 pounds on that set. The producers were getting nervous."
On screen, Joaquin demonstrates a talent often said to be his brother's strong point: communicating unvoiced hurt. In To Die For he makes the audience feel his craving to be loved by the woman who ends up betraying him. In Ron Howard's hit Parenthood (1989), he plays a withdrawn teen who carries around a paper bag full of porn videos, but he makes yearning for his absent father his defining trait. Even in the less-than-memorable Space Camp (1986) and Russkies (1987), his characters stand out as he makes their longings tangible. In the former, he develops an emotional attachment to an R2D2 style robot, and in the latter he's last seen hugging the Soviet soldier he'd befriended.
Union Square is where we wrap things up. It's nearly 6pm and he has to meet his mom and sister, who are also in town. I have a question for him. How is it that Joaquin is so uncomfortable with being looked at but wants to make acting his career? If there's so much torture involved, is he on some masochistic trip?
"I don't know, man, you tell me! It's weird, isn't it? I mean, I get nervous in restaurants! I'm still figuring it out. Once the cameras are rolling, I'm right there, I'm comfortable, I just let go. In between takes, yeah, I'll get self-conscious. It's the process of film-making that I enjoy, not the stuff that comes later. But if you work as much as I want to, your face is bound to get out." We finally wander over to 2nd Avenue where he has to hop a downtown bus. A fire engine speeds by. " Aren't firemen beautiful?" he asks wistfully. "Every time I see a fire-truck or ambulance drive by I blow them a kiss. I think what they're doing is so beautiful."
We're waiting by the bus stop. "That wasn't so bad, was it?" I ask. ""Nah, it was cool. I'm learning." He gives me a hug, and he's gone, back to the comfort of his family .