Elle, february 1994
Remembering Riverby Reid Rosefelt
When REID ROSEFELT met River Phoenix, the fifteen-year-old actor was already touched by genius and fascinated by the dark side
It's five A.M. on Monday, November 1, when I hear the delivery man drop the Times outside my apartment door. Picking up the paper, I glance at the headlines: "Federico Fellini, Film Visionary, Is Dead at 73" - sad news, certainly, but not shocking after his months of illness. Underneath a picture of the departed maestro are the words, "Young Film Star Dies." After I read who is being referred to, I am startled to hear myself cry out.
I met River Phoenix in February of 1986 when he was a fifteen year old filming The Mosquito Coast on location in Belize, and I was on the set as the unit publicist. My first day there, I was sitting in the makeshift catering area when a handsome teenager introduced himself to me. "I'm Rio Phoenix," he said. I told him I'd thought his name was River. "Rio is Spanish for River," he said. "I haven't decided which name I want to go with yet." The name wasn't the only thing that was in flux. River's only previously released movie had been Explorers, in which he played a pudgy little nerd. In a matter of months, he seemed to have gone from Spanky McFarland to James Dean.
The Mosquito Coast's stars were Harrison Ford and Helen Mirren, but it quickly became apparent that River's acting skills were also formidable. One night, the cast and crew were watching dailies of a scene (which didn't make it into the movie) in which Ford's character, a deluded expatriate inventor, brings ice to a remote village. He's sure the natives have never seen it before and will react in amazement. But the village chief, popping the chilly cube from one hand to the next, utters "Ice!". Ford, realizing missionaries beat him to the punch, is furious.
It was a wonderful scene, with Ford shifting quickly from deluded pride to disgust. But it was River, playing his son, who took everyone's breath away. In a series of close-ups, he silently watched his father's triumph and humiliation - and the powerful emotions that played across his face were shattering. Everyone in the room knew, without question, what kind of talent he possessed. And an unspoken question hung in the air: where will he go with all of this promise?
If River had a feel for his movie character, it might have been because of the strong parallels between the story and his own life. Like the boy in The Mosquito Coast, River had also been taken to Latin America at a young age by his parents. John and Arlyn Phoenix were a hippie couple who traveled as missionaries for a sect called the Children of God. "We handed out Jesus pamphlets, mainly to young people, to get them off drugs, to get them uncorrupted - that was the main goal." River said. "My sister and I both sang. I played guitar. We were a cute duo - I was five and she was three. I would talk over the microphone and say 'God Loves You!' in Spanish. 'Hold my hand and I'll take you there.' And I really believed it… I grew up totally cut off from the main world. I was really a different kid. I've been around the movie business, so I can play it cool and all that, but when people are different they have that off thing about them. Their whole presence is just a little innocent, I think."
As part of my press-book interviews, I asked everyone about River. "River Phoenix was born to it, born to movies." said Mosquito director Peter Weir. Harrison Ford agreed. "What he has is some manner of natural talent," he said. "There are a lot of people who have that, but River is also very serious about his work - very workmanlike and professional, far beyond what you'd expect from a fifteen-year-old boy… I don't like to talk to other actors about acting. I think it's a real mistake. But River asks a lot of questions that require answers - none of which I can really supply, but they're interesting questions."
River was uncomfortable with the idea that he had been born with some kind of innate gift. He felt he had to work hard at what he achieved. Likewise, he was obsessed with trying to find a way to live with integrity, and terrified that all the praise over his acting was going to affect his identity. He told me that he had to get up every morning and fight to remain himself.
The Mosquito Coast shot six days out of seven. Sometimes, on the Sunday off, River and I would play music. He had brought his guitar and I had a portable electronic synthesizer. I wondered if there was something strange about my hanging out with someone so much younger than myself. But I found him much more stimulating company than most of the other people on the set. My conversations with them tended to be about problems we were facing with the film, or about show business. Conversations with River were free-ranging and often traveled on a cosmic plane. "I was a curious kid when I was younger." he once told me. "I wouldn't be satisfied unless I had experienced everything I had a question about. I always wondered what it would feel like if I cut myself with a razor blade. So I did it. When I was eleven, I realized this pain stuff isn't the way to go."
As I watched River do his work, I was impressed by his generosity with the other actors. He was never competitive. In dailies, I would often notice that Jadrian Steele, the actor who played River's younger brother, would try to place himself in a prominent position on-screen. River always seemed to hang back to the furthest recesses. But the more he stepped out of frame, the more your eyes were drawn to him.
There is a certain breed of actor who can show you everything they're thinking without uttering a word. They are like emotional gladiators, nakedly putting themselves on the line so the audience can achieve a catharsis. But they're more than thin-skinned - they almost have no outer coating at all. With their heightened sensitivity, they walk through the world like someone with a hearing disorder - everything is a clattering phantasmagoria to them because they feel too intensely to have a normal life.
They're drawn to Hollywood, one of the most brutal terrains imaginable, where the price, but never the value, of their souls is understood. It never surprises me when extraordinary people die young, just the opposite. I'm encouraged that now and then they sometimes find a mechanism to survive.
The text on this page © 1994 February, Elle Magazine.