Vogue, May 1990
Tofu guys don't eat meatby Vicki Woods
River Phoenix is only nineteen. That's the most important thing about him He's been in the movies so long you'd think he'd be older by now; really knocking on, like... oh, I don't know. Twenty-two or something. But nope. Nineteen. Wholesome as a tofu omelet. And as good-looking as all get-out.
Another important thing is his funny name. River Jude Phoenix. All the baby Phoenixes have Spaceship-Earth, Save-the-Planet sixties names, which their parents (Arlyn and John) clearly gave a lot of thought to, and now that the kids have lived with their names for some years and worn them in a bit, they suit them right down to the ground. Rainbow Joan of Arc Phoenix, seventeen, is called Rain; Leaf Joaquin Phoenix, fifteen, is calling himself Joaquin these days; Liberty Mariposa Phoenix (mariposa is Spanish for "butterfly"), thirteen, is known as Libby; and Summer Joy Phoenix, twelve, sticks to Summer. These are great names for end-credits titling, aren't they? Better than... Meryl Streep.
When River isn't making movies, he's making music. He lives with his family in Gainesville, Florida. Ever been to Gainesville? Neither had I. North central Florida isn't exactly a tourist hub, being humid, flat, spotted with alligators, and at least a hundred miles from the ocean in any direction. But it's warm, and Arlyn Phoenix likes the heat. And Gainesville (population ninety thousand and rising) has thirty-five thousand college students living there. The University of Florida, one student told me, is about the cheapest public university in the entire United States, which is why it's busting at the seams with crop-headed, athletic-looking boys in white T-shirts and bermudas who play football by floodlight until the early hours of the morning. Arlyn Phoenix liked the idea of a university town when it came to settle finally, because she wanted plenty of cultural facilities for her brood of children: arts, music, drama.
River Phoenix isn't crop-headed of course. And he doesn't wear bermudas. He arrived at my hotel in his mother's car wearing a jade green Gap sweat-shirt, navy blue long johns, and tennis shoes. He's grown since we last saw him (in Running on Empty - what a tearjerker). He's now five eleven ("Barefoot!''), slim as a willow and hung with wisps of beard like Florida's Spanish moss. He wouldn't shave them off, even for Bruce Weber's pictures. He didn't have to fatten up for his new role in Lawrence Kasdan's I Love You to Death. He plays a pizza chef who has a fairly off-center weltanschauung and tries to help his boss's wife (Tracey Ullman) attempt to murder her husband (Kevin Kline) numerous times .He's a lean pizza chef, playing his age. (He put on fifteen extra pounds for Stand by Me because he was fourteen playing twelve and fatter looks younger.) After I Love You to Death comes Dogfight, directed by Nancy Savoca. I'm really looking forward to it. River plays a marine who has a bet with the other guys that he'll pick up a worse dog - an unhandsome woman - than any of them. This should be a real coming-of-age movie and the first that he'll have to carry on his own. Director Savoca says, "River has an emotional weight that other young actors just don't have."
We went for coffee in Gainesville. The teenage waitress was a little excited, but she kept her cool. "Do you have Venezuelan coffee?" No. "Do you have carrot juice?" No. "Well, I'll just have a double espresso then,'' he said, and promptly ticked away for hours about how hyper he felt from the caffeine. I told him he was a pinup even in the British teen mags and then immediately wished I hadn't. So did he. He laid his beautiful head on the table and groaned with real embarrassment. "A pinup. Oh, God. I wish you hadn't said that. A pinup!" He told me about the publicity stills that were taken of him "when I was younger." You do everything they tell you, he said "they teach you how to pose, you know, they say, 'you have to do it like this!' And you tilt your head, and they show you how to push your lips out and suck in your cheek... oh, oh [groans] and then all the outtakes that you never want to see again in your life go through the teen magazines forever. Oh. oh [more groans]." It was very funny, but he meant it. Gentlemanly modesty is River's strong suit.
River's press so far has been a combination o large paragraphs about the state of the planet (which can read kind of irritating, from a fifteen-, sixteen-, seventeen-year-old) and a "Wow, freaky!" examination of his unconventional family. Let's take the family first. Arlyn and John Phoenix (him I didn't meet - he was in Mexico with Leaf Joaquin) had a pretty wacky life until they go to Gainesville (and compared with Married... with Children mainstream America it's still a tad wacky). They were sixties dropouts, they were on the road, they thought LSD was a truth serum, they found God, joined a sect, went to South America as missionaries (River was fluent in both Spanish and English from age three), had their babies by natural childbirth, believed in a Whole Earth... you know.
Arlyn and John seem to have followed the beat of the sixties drum harder than most, and instead of turning into eighties yuppies, they've hung on in there. They are now perfectly regular folks, with twenty acres of property, a few cars, a few bank accounts, a cook, a gardener, a business manager, and five handsome kids, most of whom are actors, but - they do vegetables instead of drugs now, they don't eat animal products, don't waste paper, wear leather, or overconsume any of the planet's resources. They have SAVE THE RAINFORST stickers on their cars, and their two big dogs, a Doberman-German shepherd mix and a full German shepherd, are both vegans. (They don't smell any sweeter than regular, carnivorous dogs, I might add.)
So River's handsome little head, from an early age, has been full of global concerns and the need to save water when you flush. This is fine, except when you're a Hollywood star at the same time and writers jet in to ask you what you think of God, Harrison Ford, Rob Reiner, Sidney Lumet, President Bush, and all those other grown-ups. And you've been brought up to think for yourself, hold your own in conversation, stick up your chin and talk. So they take it all down as if it were gospel and you end up sounding like a real dweeb. River groans again at the thought of his early interviews. "Oh, oh, I just find them misleading. I don't recognize myself... I sound kind of like... bright boy, teenage messiah, health fanatic... uh. Save the World... hippy-dippy background... the whole collage reads false. It's the terms that are wrong. I mean... Save the World."
As it happens, he did give me a long riff on God ("or Supreme Being or Life Force, call it what you will"), but you don't want to read it here. (I'm an atheist, I said. "Good move!", said River with tact and charm.) We talked about trees. He wanted to write something down on my notebook and I flicked over so he couldn't see what I'd been writing about him. "Tsk tsk!" he said. "You could've used that bottom half. You shouldn't waste paper." Why not? "Why not? Because trees are a diminishing resource, that's why not. The American Forest Council ran an add saying that we have 40 percent more trees in America now that we had eighty years ago. Sure! Yeah - in the form of toilet paper and used paper cups! I n fact, we cut down an area of the size of Connecticut every year. The Forest Service plant trees, sure, but for wood pulp. I think wood pulp should only be used for writing materials. People waste so much paper. In every hardware store, you get acres of paper for every receipt. Three copies of all this crap - surely our technology is more advanced than this! I mean, if they can make a plutonium generator that will orbit Jupiter and stay out there for forty-three years, surely they can make a receipt than will save paper."
River became pretty intense about orbiting Jupiter. "Drives me nuts! We have amazing superpower technology that will now never need to be devoted to... to arms, and instead of putting the money into building safe sewers and protecting the groundwater, they... they... can't even make a damn birth control device that will limit the world's population."
Now, hang on a minute. How many brothers and sisters have you, River? Four, is it? Five of you altogether? Uh, not much population limiting going on there. His eyes opened up, but he took it on the chin. "My family," he said carefully, "don't waste the world's resources. We eat what we grow, we don't exploit animals, we use up less than our share of electricity and power, we have solar heating, we aren't materialistic..." It was a spirited defense, and I thought he was sweet, and we changed the subject.
The waitress brought us a small bill (on a small piece of paper). "Let's go to the smoke shop," said River. He has to smoke in Dogfight (and presumably to shave, too), so he's practicing. Gainesville's smoke shop is a wonderful place, tall and airy with aluminum ashtrays and racks of books. I asked River what he was reading at the moment and he said, "Nothing": he was busy with his music, he liked reading, though: he was always looking for good books; he liked big, universal themes; something that told him something large-scale about the human-condition. Did I have any recommendations? he asked with artful flattery, head to one side. He'd really appreciate my advice. Oh, mercy. I went totally blank. Er... War and Peace? The nice old guy in the smoke shop went off on a long search and came up with a dusty copy. River said it looked great. And big. We bought it.
Every time we crossed a street, some little person popped up to say, Hey, Riv! And River would cross over to slap him on the arm and say Hey! Back. None of the hailers were crop-headed, and they weren't wearing bermudas: River's friends aren't among the thirty-five thousand college kids of Gainesville: they're the cool dudes. Musicians, mainly. They're all terrifically polite, just like him. River's in a band, too: he loves it. He writes songs and plays guitar. It's called Aleka's Attic, and Island Records is very interested in it. One of his friends told me that he changes the band's name periodically "so that people will go along to see the whole band, not to see River Phoenix." River told me that he'd actually toyed with the idea of calling himself something else for musical purposes.
We hung out all day. We hung out at the vegetarian lunch place, where we ate falafel and tahini, and a blushing girl asked River for his autograph. We hung out at Gainesville's sound studio, where River picked up fifty copies of the tape of his new song and asked the engineer to play it for me on the studio equipment. It came soaring out, full of guitars and drums, but River said it wasn't loud enough. We hung out at a frat party in one of the millions of frat houses that run through the center of Gainesville. That was weird. Lots of cheerful kids of River's age and with River's dress sense were setting up amps and drum kits to play for the party, while the athletic denizens of the frat house sat around on their balconies combing their golden hair.
We didn't stay anywhere very long. We hung out at River's house while Arlyn got a meal together for her son, me, and a twenty-year-old girl from England who'd met the Phoenixes in Mexico. The meal was radically vegan, organic, animal-by-product-free, and delicious, in fact. Arlyn, a chunky, smiling woman with graying hair, explained to me about milk while she squished tofu, colored yellow with turmeric, into a skillet to make an eggless omelet. "Why should adult humans drink milk?" she said. "Human milk is for baby humans, cow's milk is for baby cows." It was unarguable.
River clearly adores Arlyn, who does a great job as mother Phoenix. Her children are all beautiful and they seem as happy as clams; also busy, musical, drug-free, and polite. River gave me another long riff on drugs: he works in cocaine country, after all, on film sets. He said he becomes completely paranoiac in Los Angeles. "People look at you if you have a cold: you feel you can't blow your nose." And he can see the hand-shaking and hand-passing that goes on at parties. "I just stay away from it," he said, "I don't even like talking about it. It depresses me. The biggest thing that really gets me are the girls... because of being used, the way men use women. It really upsets me - the wonderful extra-virgin-olive-oil young ladies, who are so wholesome and so together and their heads are on tight, and you see them a year later and they're" - River puts on a blank, empty face and round, blank eyes - "and all they've got left is just a recorded message in their heads." He was very earnest about this. Then he listened to his own earnestness, said, "Uh-oh, I'm going to segue out of this," put on another face, and drawled, "Nancy's said it all for me, anyway. Just say no." I thought the whole performance was really endearing.
The last place we hung out was with some very laid-back musicians. River bounced up the steps of a frame house in Gainesville's main street and said, "Hi, guys". The guys said hi and looked at me. River looked at me, too, and was socially wrong-footed for the first time in a long day. "This is... my aunt," he said. "From England." The guys said hi. As we left, River grabbed my arm and said, "Sorry about the aunt bit. I'll explain it to them later." He gave me a big kiss and drove me back to the hotel. I was charmed.
The text on this page © 1990 May, Vogue Magazine.