Girlfriend, April 1992


interview by Jeff Hayward

Why is River Phoenix the most popular male star with Girlfriend readers? Could it be because he's an environmentally aware, animal loving, sensitive, blond hunk?
That could have something to do with it. With two new films on the horizon - My Own Private Idaho and Dogfight - River is back in the spotlight, which gives us a very good excuse to feature and exclusive interview with him plus a free giant poster. Enjoy!

"River Phoenix's determined awareness makes him the intelligent woman's hope for what the new generation of men will be like in the 21st Century - a combination of strength and sensitivity."
This is a quote from a beguiled female journalist who interviewed River early on in his career. It's a pretty heavy load to impose on any guy, even if he is a handsome young screen star who's already received an Oscar nomination (for Running On Empty) and who's totally untainted by the temptations of Hollywood.

Then again, this enigmatic 21-year-old is going to have to get used to other people's expectations. The rise of River Phoenix is being treated with genuine excitement by the American film industry.

The curious thing about River, besides his 60s flower child name, is that so many things about him are a paradox. Just take his background. Cult missionary parents who took him and his sister Rain through the backstreets of South America in their early years in pursuit of a religious dream, then chucked it in and headed for the bright lights of Hollywood to allow the kids to break into showbusiness. Very early sexual encounters, then a determined period of teenage celibacy. 10 film roles by the time he reached the age of 20. Add to that the fact that he hasn't eaten meat in a long time, won't wear leather, but smokes and drinks, and you're faced with a totally fascinating young guy.
His publicist likes to tell the story of the actor's conversion to vegetarianism.
"When River was nine years old he caught his first fish. It flopped about for awhile then died. Right then and there River had this vision that he had killed a fellow living thing. He cried for three days and vowed never to eat meat or fish again."
Despite a pretty turbulent childhood, River is far from unstable and he's not likely to let the attention and adulation he receives sway him from any path he chooses to follow. "One of the things that was introduced to me early on in life was to try to make stuff happen," he says, "but nothing ever worked that way for me. What I learned on my own was that to try and play God with your life will wreck your brain and your nervous system. It'll mess up your natural direction in the course that's already there. I just don't want to read about me being made into a basket-case because of my work."
If his somewhat unusual upbringing gave him anything, it was an intense sense of personal independence. Even as a young child he found himself doing things that most would never dream of - for instance he and his sister used to sing in the streets of Venezuela in the late 70s during the family's missionary stage. That was before Mr and Mrs Phoenix and their five children (River, Liberty, Rain, Leaf, and Summer) quit the cult and headed for Hollywood. The family knew all about struggling to make ends meet, being destitute. That's probably why River carries a strong individual streak into his film work. He's prepared to take risks with roles and doesn't mind the offbeat or sleazy. He isn't much into self promotion either. He'd sooner be playing guitar and singing with his band Aleka's Attic than working the well-worn actors' publicity circuit to promote his profile.
At the moment River is sitting on a low sofa in a softly coloured, airy Los Angeles hotel suite. If you didn't know who he was, you wouldn't think celebrity. He has the restlessly upbeat manner of a hyperactive optimist. Faced with things that upset him, you are liable to get a decidedly original response. Like the story of the Japanese businessman who wants to take his Van Gogh painting to the grave with him: "I think that should be kissed silly until he gives it up. That's the best way to do it. Love conquers all, even the assholes who don't want it." And on leaving his teens behind, he exclaims: "What a relief! One day you just wake up and feel your age."
When he's not working on film sets, he can usually be found on his family's rural hideaway in Florida, where he spends a lot of time with his 26-year-old girlfriend Suzanne Solgot. She describes the actor as "really sweet and gentle", but then again I've also read a quote from her in which she said, "When he's mad, he can get pretty crazy."
From the time he was 10 till 17 his family struggled to get by in LA. River was groomed for the usual television commercial roles as a way to get into acting, but advertising went against everything he believes in. He says, "I was terrible for commercials, I couldn't smile on cue". With his sister, Rain he used to sing a warm-up act for the television show Real Kids and by the time he was 12 he had a regular part in the series Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. His first hit film was Stand By Me in 1986.

What makes River stand out from so many of his contemporaries on screen is his courage to choose roles which aren't guaranteed commercial success. His two latest films are evidence of this. In Dogfight he plays a young marine (with a very cute haircut) who gets involved with a cruel game where a bunch of soldiers invite unattractive girls to a party and bet on who can bring the ugliest date. River brings a dowdily dressed Lili Taylor (the funny one in Mystic Pizza) and learns that beauty comes from within when he falls for her charms. In My Own Private Idaho, he stars opposite Keanu Reeves as a lonely street hustler who prostitutes his body to gay men. Both roles were shunned by a lot of more image-conscious actors.
But portraying a sad, gay street kid didn't worry the actor, and it has won him a lot of critical acclaim in America. In preparation for the startling role, he spent time hanging out with real street hustlers in Portland, Oregan. "In talking to these guys I discovered there's a big difference between being gay and being a hustler," he explains. "Sex is a hustler's job, a way to make a living, rather than an expression of desire. Some of them love it, others love it but are in denial about it, and others hate it. A lot of hustler's are very prejudiced against gays - they call them fags with disgust. But these kids go to a new town, they're broke and they've done it before, so they do it again. They simply go somewhere else in their heads while it's happening."

As you might expect playing a homosexual prostitute has fuelled rumours that River himself is gay. He denies this and adds, "It strikes me strange that anyone could have any moral objection to someone else's sexuality. It's like telling someone how to clean their house. Speaking for myself, I had no second thoughts about playing the part."
The role is being talked of quite seriously as Oscar material. And it's no wonder both River and his real-life friend Keanu had to deal with some pretty heavy scenes. The two actors openly kiss and stimulate lovemaking in the movie. "Keanu and I made a kind of blood pact on Idaho," recalls River. "I can't imagine who else I could have done it with."

He admits that the roles he's drawn towards probably don't translate well with the majority of film-goers. But often in his work he has touched on aspects of his real life. In Stand By Me he played a sensitive kid from the wrong side of the tracks. As the elder son to Harrison Ford in The Mosquito Coast he's dragged into the wilderness by his father's quest for salvation. He's far too sensitive to be just another smooth-faced teen idol, which ironically has led him to be one of the most popular actors among young girls. At Girlfriend we get more letters about River than any other male celebrity.
He has been very selective about his career. Frantic efforts were made to get him to star opposite Sean Young in A Kiss Before Dying - the role eventually went to Matt Dillon. "I just don't have the cool in me to do that role," states River. "They came back eight times to try and get me to do it. They kept coming back, I kept saying no and they went up, up, up with the money. I just didn't believe in the character."
Music however, is a very public passion. Ever since he and his sister's were a warm-up act for a television show he has played guitar and written music. His band has already opened for some big acts, and the last year toured clubs and colleges. But he doesn't see it taking over from the big screen. "Music is in my wrists, in my fingers, in my soul. I feel very strongly about myself as a composer, more so than as a musical performer. I'm not really into live stuff, I'm not a front man. Music is a public hobby to me."

Being more into carrot cake and animal rights than he is to the drugs so prevalent in Hollywood circles, it's not surprising that River likes to keep his distance from the place. He hasn't eaten a hamburger since he was seven and he talks about listening to the biorhythms of his girlfriend's stomach. "It would frighten the hell out of me to be walking round, taking drugs." he exclaims. "I mean why throw a curve on life. I think I might wait till I'm 70 and then do it all at once. Just stay ultra-healthy till I'm 70 and then just go - waaaaaaooooo."


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