Sky Magazine September 1988
by Dan Yakir
Life's a serious business for River Phoenix. The son of 60s radicals, growing up through the sensitive boy hero roles in Stand By Me and The Mosquito Coast, he's now hoping to save the world. Dan Yakir reports.
"Becoming a character is a slow process," says River Phoenix. "I start off just by stripping myself from who I am, by neutralising myself, and then I fantasise about what the character would do and play a lot of mind games."
Although the 18-year-old star of such movies as Stand By Me and The Mosquito Coast is no stranger to genning up for new roles, there was nothing much to prepare him for the part he plays in Little Nikita - an all-American boy who wakes up one morning to discover that his parents are Russian spies. Directed by Richard Benjamin, the movie stars Sidney Poitier as an FBI agent who alerts Phoenix (as Jeff, i.e., Nikita) to his painful dilemma.
"The biggest difficulty, was selling myself the whole plot," says Phoenix. "Being the son of Russian spies is far-fetched for me, but that's because I'm me. It was hard to adjust to that. Another challenge was the transition the character has to make from being a kid with a really decent life, a kid who feels very secure and dreams of becoming an air force pilot, into someone who has the rug pulled right out from under him. I had to evolve from a real happy-go-lucky guy into someone who's torn between his loyalty to his family, his conscience and duty to his country."
Playing a young man who has to keep an eye on his parents -even informing the authorities about some of their activities - was a stretch for Phoenix, whose family is especially tight-knit. Ironically, in Sidney Lumet's upcoming Running on Empty, he plays the son of ex-1960s radicals who live in hiding from the police.
Phoenix's own parents, Arlyn and John, are 1960s-style free spirits, who spent time doing missionary work for an organisation called Children of God in South America before returning to Stateside. It sounds eerily similar to the plot of The Mosquito Coast, except that the Phoenix family unity was never disrupted, unlike that of the movie's clan. "When you're born into that kind of lifestyle, you just don't even question it," he says.
It also imbued him with ideals that he proudly upholds. "I'm against the nuclear arms race and apartheid in South Africa and cruelty to animals, which means that I'm a vegetarian. Diet is a good place to start making a change, because it's something I can do. I can't on my own change the regime in South Africa or teach the Palestinians to live with the Israelis, but I can start with me. I have strong opinions and people disagree with me, but there are those who agree too."
His more ambitious dreams include buying parts of the Amazon jungle in Brazil to preserve its wild life from the destruction brought about by thoughtless industrialisation, and building shelters for the homeless. And when he makes movies, he tries to keep the purity of the message intact.
For example, he's had second thoughts about the soon-to-be-released Jimmy Reardon, because he thinks the audience may interpret his character -a 1960s Don Juan -as promoting promiscuity. "Morally, I have problems with it. A lot of people entrust themselves to you and look up to you, and I'm speaking about a lot of teenage girls, who may see the movie. I'm the monogamous type and I believe romance is important in sex, and Jimmy Reardon doesn't always present it that way.
"Look, I could see a stage in my life where I'd be freer with sex - there's nothing wrong with that, but I do believe the circumstance is important in sex and how it's portrayed. Doing it just for the sensation and the immediate gratification is selfish. We all have these kind of urges and feelings inside us and we can't always suppress them. But I'm not against erotic films. 9 1/2 Weeks and The Unbearable Lightness of Being are great - they're a whole different ball game."
Originally, the character of Jimmy Reardon was conceived as a poet whose love for women matched his despair and poverty. "I don't want to look down at that film - it's not at all that I'm too good for it," Phoenix stresses. "I did it because I wanted to do something lighter than Stand By Me, which was very intense - a vehicle that could take me out of the boy thing. I figured it could help me grow up. It wasn't meant to be a teenage film."
While his father voted against the project "because of moral problems - not that he's uptight that way at all" - his mother was more "open to it," but it was the director's obvious enchantment with Phoenix that finally enticed him to take on the part. "When I entered the room, he [William Richert] said, 'That's it! You're Jimmy!' I was really flattered, says Phoenix."
One of the challenges of doing Jimmy Reardon were the love scenes, including a fairly explicit one with an older woman (played by Ann Magnuson). But River, like a real pro, was hardly fazed. "I didn't even think of it," he says. "If I can give myself credit in acting, it's that I can lose myself easily, forgetting about the camera. Subconsciously, you always know it's there, and sometimes your ego wants to act a certain way but you can't think, 'What will Tom think if he sees this movie? Will he think I'm cool in this scene if I do this?' In Jimmy Reardon I'm sure I did some posing here and there, but that was part of the character too; it called for that."
But was there really no fear at all in his heart when he had to jump into bed on camera? No, says he. "I was thinking from Jimmy's perspective, and it was quite exciting and very entertaining [laughs.] I mean, watching rushes was another thing altogether - or seeing the movie, forget it! I feel self-conscious, like it's not me."
Off screen, River's name has been linked with Martha Plimpton's, who he met on The Mosquito Coast, and who plays his girlfriend in Running on Empty. Are they an item? "Yeah, I guess you could say that," he responds. "But I've always had trouble with definitions of what boyfriend and girlfriend are meant to be. It's not like that - things are very spontaneous and open between us. We've kept in touch and we're good friends. She's a really good person and a wonderful actress in my opinion."
The actor isn't being coy, just playing things his way. "I've always had a fair start on a lot of those topics, like sex," he says. "Everyone goes through their own dilemmas in their mind growing up." The turning point for Phoenix happened during the filming of Stand By Me. "It was a very strange time. Having all these hormones kicking about and not wanting just a one night stand and also the anxiety and the fear about the first time," he says. "And the peer pressure! We were talking about it all the time. I got through that, thank God!"
When he was shooting Jimmy Reardon, his parents weren't around - only his grandfather. "Which wasn't enough to keep me seeing things in perspective," adds Phoenix. He actually delved into his womanising character so much that he realised he was taking home with him some of his character's traits. "It was weird," he says. By contrast, on Little Nikita he didn't undergo such transformations. "I didn't really like the way the Russians were portrayed --it was a bit stereotypical. At the end, when Richard Bradford (as a KGB agent) says, 'You know, Russians don't shoot their children , ' I felt it was a bit too easy, an attempt to compensate for his previous ruthlessness. But it's hard to be objective about it. I think it's a solid film."
The actor cites his collaboration with Sidney Poitier among the high points of the experience. Did the veteran actor try to become a father figure to him? "He didn't even try to," says Phoenix. "It's just the way it was. I was so open to his advice and suggestions. He's a wonderful person and a really bright man, who gave me tips about life too, not just acting. He's very open-minded and still a curious man, who's not afraid of learning. So many people make everything concrete," he says. "Especially when they get older."
Phoenix himself faces no such danger. Although currently living in Florida, he's led a nomadic life and has therefore never been in a position to allow routine to set in. He says his loyalty is to "people and feelings and memories rather than to places.
"Some people find security in routine, but I could never live that way. That's why I could never be on a television series; that would call for routine, for getting up in the morning at a certain time, going to work, going through the same thing, playing the same character."
But the actor does feel that in both Little Nikita and Running on Empty he plays a victim. "I've got to stop doing that," he says. "I've been lucky, I haven't been typecast. I went from Surviving (a TV movie about teen suicide) to playing a nerdy, neurotic computer whizz-kid in Explorers, to Stand By Me, where I played a kind of tragic hero, who is cool in his own way - and then to The Mosquito Coast."
His luck extends far beyond the way he's been treated by casting directors. "I feel blessed," says Phoenix. "I have a solid good background. I grew up without strife in the family, in an honest environment that had no manipulation, and with the ability to express myself. In our family, parents and children are equal. It's a pioneering effort and we concentrate on a common goal. We want to contribute something to the world, not to take or abuse the position we're lucky to be in.
"It really upsets me that we're trained from an early age to aspire to be the ideal man or the ideal woman. It's prejudice, really. Many people learn to accept themselves, but others are miserable if they don't look like Robert Redford. And they shouldn't be. It's oppressive. A lot of it has to do with show business. For example, I would like to see more blacks in leading men's roles, to project a more realistic picture of who we are as a people. "
Phoenix feels as strongly about growing anti-gay sentiments. "It's a touchy topic with a lot of people," he says. "But how can you tell someone to stop if that's where their happiness is or if that's how they feel? If that's who they are? There are many gay relationships that I would much rather support as wholesome than some of these people who are just abusing women. I'd say that anything in the name of love is okay. I'm not saying me myself - I feel quite confident with a female - but it's something I want to stand up for .
"I'm quite in love with the human race and this planet that we live on, and I see life as very fresh and beautiful. People say to me, 'Oh you have the world in your hands' or 'You're young and you have all these opportunities.' But that's not why I feel the way I do. It's just my reality. I've felt that way before too. Still, I get very frustrated with the pace of life - I want so badly for people just to understand each other and communicate better! With all this technology, that's the best we can do? Pride so often gets in the way, in politics and everywhere else. It's depressing."
"But," he concludes, "there's the optimistic side of me too, which believes that we live in an incredible time and that if we all come together on the important issues and stand up for our rights, as Bob Marley said, we could really accomplish a lot. I guess I'm a perfectionist. In my mind, I have all these Utopias and fantasies, but I believe they can work. I really do."
The text on this page © Sky Magazine September 1988