Rolling Stone, October 1991


interview by LISA BERNHARD

I'M KINDA LIKE Gainesville's godfather," says River Phoenix as he gazes out the window of the Cafe Espresso. "Or dogfather, I should say - it's a backwards town." Though Phoenix is smiling, he does look every scruffy inch the part. Notwithstanding the oppressive heat here in central Florida's Malaria Belt, Phoenix has chosen today to display his flair for the layered look: Peeking out beneath blue patterned boxer shorts is a pair of army green thermal underwear. A mismatched olive green print shirt and black rubber Beatle boots complete this afternoon's ensemble. Outside the Cafe Espresso - despite its name a sleepy kind of place - Phoenix's unkempt blond hair blows in the wind as he shuffles through the streets of Gainesville like the town hound. Nobody stares - or seems to care that this is one of the actors who is restructuring Hollywood's cast system. They just turn their heads and smile, as if to say "Nice doggie."

What is this fair-haired star doing in a place like this? Although his appearances in Stand by Me, The Mosquito Coast and Running on Empty have earned him a place in Hollywood, he still prefers the reality check that is Gainesville. Nor is this likely to change with the release in September of Dogfight and in October of My Own Private Idaho - Gus Van Sant's first movie since Drugstore Cowboy (in Idaho, the twenty-one-year-old Phoenix plays a street hustler in search of his mother). "I've spent so much time in big cities that Gainesville is a relief," Phoenix says, laughing. In other words, no phonies with cellular phones here. Home to the University of Florida, Gainesville (pop.: 84,770) is also sanctuary to the rest of John and Arlyn "Heart" Phoenix's brood: Rain, 18, who sings in River's band, Aleka's Attic; Joaquin, 16, who was known as Leaf when he appeared in the movie Parenthood ("Joaquin's his real name," says River. "He's the only one who has a pseudo nature name. He changed it to Leaf when he was four, and he just changed it back"); and daughters Liberty, 15, and Summer, 13.

River and his girlfriend, Suzanne Solgot, a twenty-six-year-old massage therapist, met in 1988 and now rent a house together in the center of town. Mom, Dad and the rest of the kids live on a farm nearby. An environmentally concerned bunch, they grow their own food and wouldn't be caught dead with meat in their mouths or fur on their backs. Though he claims the save-the-planet stance is "not, like, my shtick," River is quick to crush critics. "I don't care if people want to call you little goody-goody nature boy," he says, sounding not at all like one. "They can shove it up their ass. The world's falling in on. them, and they're just gonna be blind ducklings."

Picture Mr. Green Jeans lost on an Outward Bound trip - that's the family homestead. The Phoenixes' twenty-acre spread is a kingdom of vegetables, thigh-high grass and Spanish moss, ruled by bugs. In the main house, hanging tapestries and Greenpeace posters give the bedrooms that coffeehouse/college-dorm look; bookshelves brim with titles like Confessions of an Eco-Warrior and A Guide to Gaia. In a workshop near the house is a makeshift recording studio. Once a missionary for a religious cult called the Children of God, papa John is now an organic farmer; Heart spends most of her time managing her son's movie career. Though the actor says his family supported him until he was eighteen, it's a bit unclear who is taking care of whom these days. "We just share," says River, who is said to earn something close to $1 million a picture. "It's complete equality. It's a complete, um, sharing thing.... All the kids play a huge part in the democracy we have. There's nothing dictated, there's nothing set up; it's free." Call the attitude in this posthippie household Let It Flow.

Though West Coast buddies like Idaho costar Keanu Reeves have visited his Florida digs, River Phoenix's decidedly un-Hollywood head trip is like tofu for the soul (or as his sister Rain says, "the people I have met here have really been a blessing to my psyche"). "It's really designed, I think, to strip you and blend you," Phoenix says of the L.A. scene. "It's like feeling like the invisible man. You just stand there, and you start disintegrating, and you can't see yourself, and you just feel like you're being absorbed into this big blob of glitter. I just can't hang."

That's not to say the kid's all passion and principles. Darting into a local smoke shop, Phoenix selects a pack Export "A" Canadian cigarettes before checking his pockets. "Oh, I didn't bring any money," he says, sheepishly turning to me. "Can I borrow some?" Securing the smokes, he takes long, self-conscious drags ("I'm trying to quit") and peppers a conversation about stardom by calling himself Rubber Penis. "When you see the name River Phoenix everywhere," he says, "you gotta, like, joke about it."

Other Phoenicians are less patient with the onslaught of attention. "Sometimes I feel more of the frustration than he does", says Rain, who is studying opera and Italian at the university. "I mean, like, people coming up to him and stuff, it almost makes me more crazed at times. Like, God! Why can't they leave him alone? He's just a person!" Still, Rain wouldn't mind "a miracle-type thing to drop out and just say, 'Hey, this little part is perfect for you.' "

But it's Riv who's on the rise, putting his boyhood roles behind him. Phoenix, however, denies it. "I don't have any career strategy," he says. "It can't be about money, and it can't be about 'Now that I'm grown up I've gotta play these guys.' Man, I'll play a twelve-year old - if there's pretty girls in the film."


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