Empire, April 1992

Their Own Private Idaho

by Jenny Cooney

River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves, the golden boys of Tinseltown, now team up for My Own Private Idaho, a gritty account of life among the rent boys. Jenny Cooney meets Hollywood's latest odd couple...

GOD, THE PHYSICAL SENSATION of ejaculating can be orgasmic," muses River Phoenix, with an embarrassed little chuckle.
Mmmm. This fairly forthright remark is, thankfully, not a comment on the 21-year-old's private affairs, but rather a dissection of the particularly explicit opening scenes of My Own Private Idaho, the independent arthouse hit of last year in the US, finally released in the UK this month. Phoenix, playing homosexual prostitute Mike Waters, head arched back, eyes clamped shut, is, as the receding camera makes all too clear, experiencing just such a "sensation", courtesy of a kneeling male client.
With such, er, unusual goings-on suffusing Gus Van Sant's sleazy homage to the world of male hustlerdom, My Own Private Idaho does seem something of a bizarre vehicle for Phoenix and co-star Keanu Reeves, current holders of that annual title of Hollywood's Hunkiest HeartThrobs. So, did no one - an agent, a loved one, maybe even a fellow thespian - have a quiet word with the lads, advising them that the most astute career decision for a major young movie star may not be to play, well, a rent boy?
"I decide my projects not based on any big strategy or how Hollywood or the critics will see me," explains Phoenix, sporting, like Reeves, tattered jeans, a dishevelled jacket and three-day stubble, Reeves' being merrily decorated with food stains. "If you have a belief in the story, you'll just commit. You don't think, 'What will people think of this?' If you do, you're ruined."
This, it is immediately apparent, will be the way of things during our little chat, with Phoenix opting to answer the questions, ever the thoughtful and talkative counterpoint to Reeves' generally silent, occasional grunter. Suddenly, however, Keanu Reeves, up until this point seemingly fascinated by a tiny piece of dust on the table in front of him, glances up.
"God, no, they'd be fired," he mumbles, apropos of nothing. "No, I mean, when I read it, it was just... I was really... it was... it's an amazing part. It's a weird story, so I was just… so I was just very happy to be there."
Er, right. And how did Keanu Reeves end up being there? Born to a Hawaiian-Chinese father and an English mother on September 2,1964, young Keanu - Hawaiian, he insists, for Cool Breeze Over The Mountains - was brought up in The Lebanon, moving to the US in his teens and almost immediately getting very heavily into various mood-altering substances ("I dug it. I'm so glad I've hallucinated in my life."). A would-be racing driver, inventor, nuclear physicist, conductor, his reasons for taking up this acting lark are typically vague.
"Let's see," he ponders, pushing back his floppy black locks which meet in the general vicinity of his nose. "I became an actor when I was 16... and I don't know why."
Keanu Reeves, in fact, is a young man not unlike Ted, the teenage hero of Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure and Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey fame, a spaced-out dude who enjoys saying "man" a lot.
"I went through a phase of that self-consciousness a little bit," admits Reeves. "Cos I'm kind of goofy, right? I'd read interviews and go, 'Wow, I'm a pretty goofy dude.' So I got over it and now I'm just hopeless."

IF REEVES IS TED, THEN PHOENIX IS straight out of a hippy version of The Brady Bunch, though far from happy with his popular image as Hollywood's resident environmentally friendly vegetarian fur-hater, the space cadet brought up by transient hippy parents and once even going on a public fast to protest over the treatment of migrant farm workers in the US.
"When River was nine years old, he caught his first fish," confirms his publicist, in one of the many public utterances to have dogged Phoenix over the years. "It flopped about on a rock for a while, then it 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."
It is difficult, is it not, to avoid the planet-earth-calling-River attitude when confronted with California psychobabble such as this?
"I don't care if people call me a goody-goody nature boy," barks Phoenix. "They can just shove it up their ass. The world's falling in on them. They're just gonna be blind ducklings."
The ultimate anti-Hollywood star, Phoenix now lives with his girlfriend of three years, a 26-year-old massage therapist, in their rented house in Gainesville, Florida, a burgh with a population of just 84,770, and home to the rest of the Phoenix clan younger sisters Rain, Liberty and Summer, and little brother Joaquin (formerly Leaf), last seen in Parenthood. So what exactly do the Family With The Strange Names get up to in Gainesville?
"I have some beautiful friends and I like to play guitar and I like to walk in nature," says River. "Life is multi-layered and there's no way I could do my life justice in one pat answer."
And the same for My Own Private Idaho?
"For sensational reasons, people might say that it's about gay street life," he admits, "which is really great for the gay community because it's important to have something to identify with. But it doesn't necessarily represent the gay community. You don't hear about Five Easy Pieces as a film about a guy who works on the oil rigs and he's heterosexual."
"It might take a few of these films before there's, like, a natural stride with the whole issue and then maybe one day it won't even be an issue, which is what I'm hoping."
"People just aren't at ease with their own sexuality," he goes on. "They have to call it 'Sex Education' and can't have it just like a course that relates to everything, because what is sex? Sex is mating. Sex is how we're made, that's what it really is…"
"I think that's because of people that can capitalise on sex and make money off it, and then, you know, fathers feel guilty about watching porno. They can't be open with their kids and explain that there's all sorts of sex and it's really not that bad."
Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Keanu Reeves!
"There's also all sorts of love," says Keanu slowly, still staring at his little speck of dust.
Keanu! Hold on! Now we have your attention at last, care to comment on how Hollywood will react to your involvement in such a potentially controversial movie?
"What is Hollywood?" he demands sullenly. "Is that a conglomeration of points of view?"
Keanu Reeves lets out a loud guffaw.
"Can I talk to Hollywood on the phone please?…"

Jenny Cooney

The text on this page © 1992 April, Empire Magazine.

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