Sky Magazine July 1989

River Phoenix, NATURE BOY

by Dan Yakir

River Phoenix spent his childhood wandering around South American villages with his hippie parents and a huge tribe of brothers and sisters. Now as his 19th birthday approaches, he's already been nominated for an Oscar for his latest film, Running on Empty, out next month. And he's snatched the plum part of the young Indiana Jones in this summer's Indiana blockbuster. But Phoenix hasn't forgotten his idealistic past - he claims to want to buy a patch of Brazilian rainforest with his rapidly increasing earnings. Dan Yakir talks to Hollywood's greenest star.

On location in Tacoma, Washington, where he's filming I Love You To Death with William Hurt, Kevin Kline and, oddly, Tracey Ullman. River Phoenix, at 18, is the perfect, quiet professional. An Oscar nomination for Running On Empty, in which he, coincidentally, plays the son of 60's radicals, hasn't made him any more impressed by Hollywood. In fact, he lives on the opposite side of the continent in Florida.
The veteran of The Mosquito Coast, in which he played Harrison Ford's alternately confused and supportive son, and of the coming of age stories, Stand By Me and Jimmy Reardon.
Phoenix was born by natural childbirth in Oregon and named after the river of life in Herman Hesse's Siddartha. His parents were then missionaries for an organization called The Children of God and befitting the hippie legacy that inspired his upbringing (and that of his brother Leaf, and sisters Rainbow, Liberty and Summer), he is a vegetarian, a conservationist, an incurable romantic and something of an idealist.

You grew up under rather unique circumstances. Do you feel different, enclosed in your own little universe?
Chuckles. "That's something I'm afraid of. I don't want to separate myself from the rest of the world. If the world's not doing too good, I'm a part of it - I'll be happy to take the blame. I'm along for the ride. But yeah. I feel different in a lot of ways because my beliefs aren't very typical. In fact a lot of people I talk to disagree with me."

What do they disagree about?
"About the nuclear arms race, prejudice in South Africa. A lot of people I hang out with agree, but it's obviously not of universal appeal; otherwise things would change. But I don't think things can change overnight; a slow evolution has to take place. One of my beliefs is about harmlessness to animals. I don't believe in eating meat or using any animal by-products or contributing to suppressing animals - or people either".

"One thing I'd like to do when I have the money is to buy thousands of acres of Brazilian rainforest and make a national park, so no one can bulldoze it an put up a McDonald's. I guess people find security in a Big Mac, but that's our oxygen! In fact, McDonald's claim they don't use cattle reared on cleared rainforest land. And it's a chicken shit approach - the mass slaughtering of animals."

You sound like an idealist, but we're living in a materialistic world.
"Yeah, I try to stay away from that. I don't feel that I am attached to material things, though I have all the comforts that a lot of people don't have. I have the modern conveniences of a blender, a toilet, a shower. A lot of people have to do their thing in the gutter."

But you have much more than that at this point!
"At this point, yes I have an automobile, a nice guitar - actually, a few of them, but they are not really extravagant. But, you know, up to three years ago, we, this family, were worried about paying the rent. It was after Jimmy Reardon that we first had financial stability. That's when we bought a car that wasn't old or used. One of our biggest dreams is to own a ranch, to have a base camp, where the kids can grow up in a nice setting. But right now we don't really have enough money to buy the place we want.

"I'm not into the whole clothes thing: I live pretty simply. I feel there are different stages in one's life, and I might at one point decide to devote myself to a more spiritual road, giving up all material possessions ... . Just moving out to the jungle some place and living like an ape man for a while. That's something that fascinates me."

You've done that, haven't you?
"Not really, not out of choice. And it was more like a desperate situation. My parents did that, though. They dropped out in the late 60's and lived by faith throughout the 70's."

How difficult was that period for you? Did you feel resigned to being there with them or did you rebel?
"No, no, no, we were always really tight and together in the beginning, you're just born into that reality and you accept it. I'm very thankful for my early childhood and growing up in the situation that I did in South America living around people who were really humble with a lifestyle that called for a lot of faith, without money. You couldn't be an asshole in that situation. You had to work with the people to survive. I learned a lot being very young, and I hope I don't lose that. Obviously I've lost a lot of my innocence. I was very naive when I first came to the States, and when I first came to Hollywood. But I guess I could look back years from now and see myself as very naive. It's all relative."

It's a strange coincidence that in your new movie, Running On Empty, you play a kid who has a deep conflict of interest with his parents. In Little Nikita, too, there's an almost unbridgeable gap between your character and his parents.
"Yeah, a victim. That's something I want to get away from. But the two movies are really different. Running On Empty is about ex-radicals who blew up a napalm lab during the Vietnam War, and since then they've been running from the law, not for selfish reasons, but because of the kids - they wanted to raise us themselves, not to have us grow up in foster homes or in an institution. The thing is that we've had to live completely underground, moving often, using different names - always having to lie, in order to live a whole life, they have to lie for Danny, my character, and he has to lie to himself, suppressing his true feelings."

How did you manage to protect your individuality within your own family?
"We all look completely different from each other and we all have our distinct things. Leaf was the family clown, the comedian - very witty and smart. Rainbow was the older sister and trend setter. Mom had to work a lot, so she took her place. I played the guitar ... I went off to my room a lot and had a real goofy side to me, really corny - laughing about stupid things, making fart noises with my mouth. A lot of inside jokes. Liberty was always the most physical, like an acrobat - nimble, strong, slender, a really beautiful girl. And Summer was the youngest, the baby of the family, with big brown eyes and blonde hair. She looks WASPy. Liberty and Rainbow have more of an ethnic look - Israeli or Italian."

There's never been rivalry among you?
"No. We've been through a lot. We're a very emotional family, very expressive and out with our feelings. Lately, we've been trying to communicate without yelling all at once. It can be real havoc, but we're getting it down to a science, finally!"

How open is your family about sex?
"Very open. I've always had a fair start on topics like sex. We talk about a lot of the taboos that so many families don't bring up and if they do, the go, 'Honey, I hope you're using birth control' and the answer is, 'Mom!' That's as far as they take it."

How does it affect you when people consider you a sex symbol?
"To be honest, I really don't think about it. We moved out of Los Angeles to Central Florida and its really nice to get away from the publicity parties - not that I ever went; even in town, I was always an outsider. I didn't hang out with the movie star crowd. It's just so phoney and unreal and pretentious. I never fit in anyway...

"I guess I could play the role, but it doesn't appeal to me. When you ask what it does to my ego, I feel lucky that I don't think like that. I don't fantasize about them fantasizing about me. I don't even know that they do. The only thing that reminds me are the fan letters that I get and I get so many of them that I can't answer them; my aunt's started a fan service. Sometimes when I walk into a local store to get a bottle of orange juice and see myself on the cover of a teen magazine, I open it out of curiosity and cringe - what they write about me is so scary, so eerie and unreal. They just strip you of your originality. The sex symbol - that's what they're after and that's what they try to build around you."

Do you feel blessed, having more than your fair share of intelligence, look, and opportunities?
"Yeah, I do feel blessed, I have a really good, solid background. Even when we went through hard times, we were honest about it. Our parents have treated us as equals. Summer talks and has a say just as much as my father - not that he's a wimp; it's just very equal. It's a pioneering effort, where we all concentrate on a common goal. I remember being in Venezuela and my dad was saying that we needed a home, a ranch, some property, and once we had that, we could do a lot of good for the world - build homes for the homeless children and for people with drug and psychological problems. Then it extends into the animal thing too. I feel that my family is very aware of the world and we would like to contribute to it and not abuse a position that we're lucky enough to be in."

How do you express anger? It can be taxing to be in a positive state of mind all the time...
"I'm very spontaneous. We all harbour resentment and can try to contain it just out of courtesy for others. But at times things can trigger it, and then you're off. I'm kind of a neutral person in that I don't get offended easily. I'm not a jealous or manipulative type, but I can be defensive at times. I guess that's when I might get angry - when people poke at my insecurities or reveal something that I feel I don't want to talk about."

What insecurities might these be?
"Everyone has them, even if you're Paul Newman. When you're classified as a good-looking young man or young lady, you're under pressure to live up to that. That's something I don't care about really. I used to, when I was younger. I was looking at my hair and was very worried about how others viewed me and if I was good enough. I realize now that you can't mould an image or try to be something. Your work speaks for itself."

In Running On Empty, you play a kid who finds salvation in your own music. You write your own music. What do you write about?
"Different themes, from mother earth to personality conflicts. I call it progressive ethereal folk rock, it's my own little world. I now have a band and last year we played eastern colleges in the U.S. But I'm not thinking about albums. I'd just like to play live and develop personal involvement with the audience."

You've said that you attach yourself more to people and feelings than to places and things.
"Yeah, and memories too. My lifestyle is strange because I don't have a home. We've always moved around, so my only reference is the family, not a neighborhood or a school. My life is very spontaneous and floating."

You studied karate. Do you consider yourself a very physical person?
"No, I'm probably more of a mental person than physical. I've probably got more of a musician's build than a gymnast's. Recently, I joined a gym and I was doing really good, feeling muscles that I'd never felt before - my arms are really skinny - and then there was this flu virus going around town and I got it! That was it for the health kick."

Do you express physical affection freely?
"I'm very affectionate with friends, but at times I can be very reserved and very inward-looking, with a blank expression on my face. I could feel great in my mind, but people might think I'm depressed because I'm not showing emotion. I try not to be aggressive, but sometimes you just want to wrestle."

What kind of a relationship did you have with Harrison Ford on the Mosquito Coast?
"Harrison was down to earth. I've read that he's cold, but he's actually very warm, it's just that in his position you have so many phoney people trying to dig at you that you've got to have a shield up. He's a very, very nice man, wise and practical. His ideals are very practical, logical. I learnt a lot from him. The biggest thing about Harrison is that he makes acting look so easy, he's so casual and so... sturdy. He seems like he'd be a really good dad. We dealt with each other on a very honest level. I understood where he was coming from, and I think he understood where I was coming from."

And in Indiana Jones? Was he as supportive?
"Oh, yeah. He was great. He was there to help me when I needed it. I would just look at him and would not mimic it, but interpret it younger. Mimicking is a terrible mistake that, a lot of people do when they play someone younger; it doesn't interpret."

Was it fun for you doing the movie?
"It was thrilling! I did a lot of the stunts because I felt so much of the character and what he had to do was physical. It would have been lying to have someone else do the stunts."

What exactly do you do in the picture?
"It's all non-stop action: running and jumping, twisting and turning, tumbling, picking, finding, keeping, saving from bad guys - all that kind of stuff. He's on and under a circus train, doing stuff. It's a very small part - only 10 minutes in the beginning of the movie. But I really enjoyed it."

And I Love You To Death?
"It's about a pizzeria owner who runs around with women, until his wife - with the help of his cooks - tries to kill him. They try five times and he survives and they get together again. It's based on a true story. I play Devo, a cook who's just very mystical, into Eastern philosophy. I'm the middle man who helps arrange the extreme acts that happen in the movie."

Did you become friends with Kiefer Sutherland when you did Stand By Me?
"I worked with him probably for a total of four days and my impression of him was that he was a very centered guy, very into character, so I can't even say I know him. He was very smooth ... he was that guy!
"I remember being with the guys and feeling very destructive. I was taking dirt clods and bombarding his car and we just totally wrecked it. The other guys dared me to do it, so I did. They knew it was Kiefer's car: I didn't. When I found out, I was scared for my life." (Chuckles.)

What happened?
"I saw him at the restaurant, and he goes, 'Hey, River, come over here,' and I was choked up. But I just went over and said, 'Kiefer, I'm really sorry .' And he goes, 'No, no, I'm just saying how're you doing.' But I wanted to confess and he said, 'Don't worry about it, it's a rental car, they washed it off. I was nervous, because I didn't know if he was going to pull out the switchblade and slit my throat or what."

The whimsical side of River...
"There's a side of me that's selfish."

But wouldn't denying that side also be something of an injustice?
"Yeah, but still, in this business, man, you've got to be very careful that it doesn't get out of hand. I don't want to get so lost in thinking about me and talking about me that all the time in interviews. It's so nice to unwind and just look at other things and get out of yourself. It's hard to detach myself from myself without neglecting myself. You know what I mean? I don't want to get in to the habit of thinking about my career because when it comes down to it, it's not really that important. I could die tomorrow and the world would go on!"

The text on this page © Sky Magazine July 1989

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