MOVIE November/December 1992
His name may sound like a psychedelic rock band from the '60s, but as Jeff Hayward found out, River Phoenix has the qualities of an environmentally sound, not-toxic star of the '90s
HOLLYWOOD HAS very high expectations when it comes to the unassuming River Phoenix. This 21-year-old actor with the '60s flower-child name is being lauded and talked of in terms of the 'New Age Brand'-a '90s version of the hang-dog rebel appeal of the late James Dean without the intimidating physical presence.
Phoenix is not the first young hot shot to be groomed by the fickle Hollywood publicity machine to fill those vacant shoes. Many young actors, from Rob Lowe to Mickey Rourke, went through the same hype. But Phoenix does possess a unique screen presence, a combination of inner strength and a certain sweetness that always shines through.
What's appealing about River Phoenix is he appears genuine, whether he's playing a gay street hustler, an awkward young soldier or a nerdy computer buff. These characterisations have a lot to do with the fact that he chooses brave little films by interesting directors more often than bland, big studio, formula moneymakers. At a time in his career when he can pick and choose his roles, the actor likes to try characters he finds interesting, and he doesn't care what the public thinks.
There's an above average sense of social conscience about Phoenix. He doesn't eat meat, won't wear leather and was talking about the plight of the Amazonian rainforests long before it became fashionable. His raised consciousness stems from his unorthodox upbringing. His parents were once involved with a religious sect and, at five years of age. Phoenix was doing things like busking with his sister on street corners in Venezuela to earn money.
He learned a lot about having nothing and scratching to survive while traveling with his wandering parents and four brothers and sisters (named Liberty, Rain, Leaf and Summer). When the family made it to Hollywood, a self-assured River discovered he could act in commercials, which then opened the door to films.
There seems to be a slightly unsettling melancholy about the young actor. He has a face that appears younger than its years and he tends to slouch like a kid who hasn't quite found his equilibrium yet. But he's no basket-case, no self destructive brat packer. Feeling sorry for himself isn't on River Phoenix's agenda.
"One of the things that was introduced to me early on in life was you had to try to make stuff happen. But what I've learned is if you try and play God with your life it'll wreck your brain and nervous system. It'll mess up the course that's already there in your life. I just don't want to read about me being made into a head-case because of my work. What I don't want is self-pity."
For a young actor facing all the pressures of stardom, Phoenix has a surprisingly easy- going fix on the possible problems and pit-falls of life in the spotlight.
"If anything, I guess I used to take things too seriously. I've learned that even among the chaos and discomfort you need to have the freedom to stand back and laugh. You can't take it too seriously, yet it's a serious business."
The way he deals with all the demands of public adulation is to keep a very individualistic grip on his career. His breakthrough film was the mid-80s teen hit Stand By Me, but in typically Phoenix fashion, his two most recent films have been brave, independent projects. He played a young marine who discovers sensitivity and the pain of rejection in Dogfight and entered the desperate, seedy world of a male street prostitute in the controversial My Own Private Idaho.
They were both parts that more image-conscious actors would have been wary of tackling. But Phoenix didn't hold any fears about playing the drifter who sells his body to survive in Idaho.
"It still strikes me as strange that anyone could have any moral objection to someone else's sexuality. It's like telling someone else how to clean their house. Speaking for myself, I had no second thoughts about playing that part," he maintains.
The actor says he did a lot of research for the part among real street kids in Portland, Oregon. "On talking to these guys I found there is a big difference between being gay and being a hustler. Sex was just a hustler's job, a way to make a living rather than an expression of love or desire. These kids simply went some place else in their head when it was happening."
My Own Private Idaho earned both Phoenix and his co-star Keanu Reeves considerable critical aclaim, even though it was the kind of unconventional film which is every Hollywood agent's nightmare.
"I really don't have that fear about acting or a deep need to carve out a successful career," admits Phoenix. "The fact is I'm better off in my life now than I've ever been. Once you've been through hard times, and we were very poor growing up, it doesn't scare you again."
His latest film is a little more conventional. In Robert Redford's Sneakers, about hi-tech security experts who are sucked into a highly suspect operation, Phoenix plays a young computer hacker. The actor describes his character as "the epitome of nerdom, with Chevy Chase tripping. I get to make a fool of myself."
Phoenix can be fiercely private, when talking to him you have to be prepared for occasional off-beat answer to a question.
"I sometimes lie, especially about personal things, because what does it matter? I am a kind of minute commodity, my name is no longer my own," he says.
When he's not working on a film, Phoenix can usually be found on the family's rural hideaway in Florida, where he lives with his 26-year-old girlfriend Suzanne. Florida is the adopted home of the actor; after spending seven years in Los Angeles, he decided it was time to escape from life in the fast lane.
Playing kids from the wrong side of the tracks, such as in Stand by Me and My Own Private Idaho, doesn't fly in the face of his own upbringing, says Phoenix.
"One thing I've discovered, without wanting to sound really profound, is that everything is relative. Once you get into that street groove, the other side-the straight side - looks really scary. Too clean and comfortable, and you want to get away from that."
Often in River Phoenix's film career, now 10 movies old, he has touched on aspects of his own life. In Stand By Me he was a sensitive kid in tough circumstances. As the son to Harrison Ford in Mosquito Coast he was dragged into the wilderness by a father's quest for salvation. With such diverse and challenging roles in his resume, Phoenix was never going to be simply another fresh-faced Beverly Hills teen idol. Also, he experienced too much early in life not to mature quickly.
"I like to think I've grown up enough so that any anxiety attacks have matured beyond the 'meaning of life teenage trauma' stuff."
Phoenix won't accept every potential block-buster role that comes his way, even when big money is in the offing. Frantic efforts were made in Hollywood to lure him into starring opposite the volatile Sean Young in A Kiss Before Dying, but to no avail.
"I just didn't have the cool in me to do that role. They came back several times to get me to do it. They kept coming back, I kept saying 'no' and they kept going up with the money. The thing is I just didn't believe in the character.
"When you have the fear that you have to jump into roles or you'll lose, then it's a problem. You have to resist that shit."
He admits that he is drawn toward characters who probably don't look good from an ordinary perspective. He knew My Own Private Idaho was not going to be a hit at the suburban cinema, but he was simply fascinated in the part of the street kid on a doomed quest to find his long-gone mother.
"That movie, I just understood it so well. Sometimes you have to be careful though because you can get so close to something you can lose your sense of perspective." An outlet for his feelings that he has always indulged is rock music. Ever since he and his sister went busking and then appeared as a warm up act on a television show in the early 80s, Phoenix has played guitar and written songs. Now he has a band which has already opened for some big acts and last year toured nightclubs and university campuses. But acting is still his main focus, the music is just for fun.
"My music is a hobby because I'm not making any money out of it. But I put as much conviction into that as I do my acting."
The actor says he gets a lot of release in music. "I've found that music is in my wrists, in my fingers, in my soul. I seem to feel very strongly about myself as a composer, more so than as a musical performer. I'm not really into live stuff. I'm not a front man."
As someone more likely to be tucking into carrot cake or artichokes than the drugs that are prevalent in Hollywood social circles, it's not surprising that River Phoenix likes to keep his distance from Tinseltown. He hasn't eaten a hamburger since he was seven and he talks earnestly about listening to the bio-rhythms of his girlfriend's body.
"It would frighten the hell out of me to be a spaced-out creature walking around taking drugs. The thing is, why throw a curve ball on life? I think I might wait until I'm 70 and then do it all at once. Just stay ultra-healthy and then go -waaaaa!"
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