PLAYGIRL August 1988


A bright new star comes of age

by Iain Blair

Hollywood's Bel Age hotel is exactly the sort of place you might expect to meet a movie star, even if the star in question is a precociously talented 18 year old rather than a 78-year-old legend. Its opulent suites, adorned with original, expensive artwork and invisibly serviced by an attentive staff that outnumbers the guests, reek of pampered luxury.
So it's quite a relief when River Phoenix, looking boyish and distinctly unglamorous in a black T-shirt and jeans, bounds into the room and onto the sofa. Slighter and even more handsome than he appears on screen, Phoenix, who most recently appeared opposite Sidney Poitier in the spy drama Little Nikita, seems out of place, but not uncomfortable, in his temporary high-class lodgings.

"This is the side of showbiz that I'm still trying to come to terms with," he confesses, with the look of a kid who's been let loose in a candy store, but who also realizes instinctively that too much of a good thing might be bad for him.

"All this kind of stuff-all the room service-is fine, but I'm not very good at playing this game," he points out simply. "I really don't know how to eat at one of these fancy restaurants, and I have the worst table manners."

Honest and refreshingly unspoiled by all the trappings of stardom despite his meteoric career, Hollywood's hottest teenage property may be slightly embarrassed by his sudden entrance into the lifestyle of the rich and famous-entirely understandable, when one learns of a childhood spent roaming the poorer streets of South America with his missionary parents.
But if the glitz of showbiz is less alluring to Phoenix than a night with pals at the local burger stand, the serious business of making movies is another matter altogether.

Mention the films that catapulted him to international stardom, Stand By Me and The Mosquito Coast, or Little Nikita, A Night in the Life of Jimmy Reardon and Running On Empty (the three pictures he'll be seen in this year), and this 18 year old is intense, focused, and strikingly candid about his own abilities.

PLAYGIRL: Has there been a lot of pressure to live up to the rave reviews you received for Stand By Me?
PHOENIX: Yeah, it's hard, especially since Stand By Me took everyone by surprise. I was shocked at how well it did. I felt it was a quality piece of work, but I never dreamed it'd find such a wide audience. And when that happens you start worrying about what roles you should choose next.
PLAYGIRL: Were you disappointed with the reception to Mosquito Coast?
PHOENIX: Very. I loved the book and thought the film was very faithful to it. Harrison Ford did a great job, but most people expected another Indiana Jones-type hero. They didn't want to see an anti-hero. It was disappointing 'cause everyone worked so hard on that shoot, and I felt better about my work than I did about my performance in Stand By Me.
PLAYGIRL: There were stories of heavy drug and alcohol abuse on the set. PHOENIX: How do you know that? I suppose it's common knowledge -it was mentioned in Premiere magazine. It was like living in the drug capital of the Northern hemisphere. I know drugs were rampant everywhere in town, but as far as on the set was concerned, I don't know who was mixed up in that. I don't think it affected the creative elements, but the crew... if anything, it probably helped them move all the lights (laughs). It's nothing new in this business. There's a lot of temptation, and you learn from experience, "Hey, I don't want to get mixed up in this shit."
PLAYGIRL: Your real-life childhood seems to bear a striking resemblance to the one portrayed in Mosquito Coast.
PHOENIX: Yeah. I was born in Oregon, but my parents, who were missionaries, moved to South America, and I grew up there until I was seven. Actually, we lived all over the place, partly in Venezuela, and partly in Central America and Mexico. We kept moving!
PLAYGIRL: Was it a happy childhood?
PHOENIX: Happy? Well, it was very interesting, with a kind of day-to-day existence and reality that hasn't changed much. I've played guitar since I was five, and I was very involved in that with my sister. When we were younger, we used to sing religious songs on the streets wherever we happened to be at the time.
PLAYGIRL: Was that your start in showbiz?
PHOENIX: Yeah! It was really a novelty to sing in the streets, but we also had a whole act, with my brother leaf, and my sisters Rainbow and Summer Joy. We entered talent contests and were pretty popular in Latin America.
PLAYGIRL: Are all your family names symbolic?
PHOENIX: I guess so. My parents named me after the river of life in Herman Hesse's Siddhartha, and our surname was adopted when we left Latin America and returned to the States when I was about nine.
PLAYGIRL: What happened?
PHOENIX: They were part of an organization called "The Children of God," and they were also like children of the '60s. My father was a carpenter, and then he decided to drop out and become a missionary, and he moved us all down south. But then he became disillusioned with the guy running the organization, and we all moved back- to L.A., in fact.
PLAYGIRL: It must have been quite a culture shock.
PHOENIX: No kidding. When we arrived, we were very naive and sheltered in many ways, and then suddenly we were exposed to all this information. It was like a brainstorm. I mean, we had a TV for the first time. And naturally my parents worried that we'd all be corrupted.
PLAYGIRL: Are they still missionaries?
PHOENIX: No, but they still have a strong code of ethics that they're very loyal to, and it's one that we all share. They're very spiritual, but it's not organized religion like it was before. My father still reads the Bible a lot and applies it to everyday life. He's a very practical, logical man, and then there's this other side of him that's completely way out. He's an interesting character.
PLAYGIRL: Were you raised in a very religious atmosphere?
PHOENIX: Oh, yes. I knew the Bible very well. I memorized whole chapters in Spanish when I was five and six.
PLAYGIRL: Are you still very religious?
PHOENIX: Not in the same way. I think the Bible is an incredible history book, but I feel organized religion is bullshit. It's caused more wars and bloodshed than anything else. But I do feel secure in being able to draw from it. I think there'll be a stage in my life where I'll get into it more, and try moving off into the jungle like the guy in Mosquito Coast, to find myself and all that stuff (laughs). But right now, I'm eighteen, and I don't want to spend a lot of time thinking about it. I already live by a code of ethics, so I'm an all-right person. I'm not messed up.
PLAYGIRL: Do your parents worry about the effects of stardom on you and your brother and sisters who are also in the business?
PHOENIX: They manage us, thank God, so we're all still very close. But my father is worried that we could be ruined by this business. It's got a lot of pitfalls and temptations, and he doesn't want us to become materialistic and lose all the values we were brought up believing in. So yes, he's pleased we're doing well, but in a way, he's almost reached a point in his life where he could just drop out again like he did in the '60s, and move to a farm and get close to the earth.
PLAYGIRL: Does that appeal to you?
PHOENIX: Yes, to one part of me. But what I've been explaining to him is that there's also this other part of me that has to fulfill myself and push myself, and find out just what I'm really capable of.
PLAYGIRL: Has this caused tension?
PHOENIX: Not tension. It'd be tension if we both held it in. But we have a very open, honest relationship; we discuss everything till we come to an understanding. Basically, whatever happens with my career, I know I'll always have a bed at home and a place I can retreat to.
PLAYGIRL: Are you close to your brothers and sisters?
PHOENIX: We're a very tight-knit family and everyone's supportive. There's no rivalry, 'cause we're all so different, both in age and character.
PLAYGIRL: Do you hang out with other young actors?
PHOENIX: Not really. I'm in my family circle most of the time.
PLAYGIRL: What do you like doing when you're not working?
PHOENIX: I'm a real music lover. I just bought this guitar, and I play a lot and I like to write songs-they're kind of "progressive ethereal folk-rock" I guess (laughs hard). Then I have this other side that's very hyper and athletic, though I'm not really into organized sports. It's more just like jumping on the trampoline and playing tag with my brothers and sisters. That's been a lot of fun, getting to know my kids -I call 'em my kids.
PLAYGIRL: Do you feel like the older brother in the family?
PHOENIX: Yeah, but sometimes I feel like the younger kid too, 'cause they're all very mature. I can talk to Summer, who's ten, just the way I've been talking now.
PLAYGIRL: Do you have a girlfriend?
PHOENIX: (Laughs) I've always hated that term, but yes, I have someone I'm very close to, though we've got no plans to get married or anything like that. But we're soulmates.
PLAYGIRL: Do you ever feel that because of your unusual childhood you don't feel the normal teenage need to rebel against your parents?
PHOENIX: Definitely. They're far more out there than I am! It's more like I'm rebelling against the mainstream of "Yeah, let's party!" To me, that's a shallow reality, and I can't find happiness in it.
PLAYGIRL: You have three films out this year. What else is in the works?
PHOENIX: Nothing. I don't plan my career years ahead. Everything's very spontaneous, like the way I've grown up. That's how I'm comfortable, and how I like to live.

The text on this page © PLAYGIRL August 1988

Back to the Home Page