A Hero By Any Other Age

by Dan Yakir

Dusty and dishevelled, River Phoenix tells how, as Indiana Jones, he set forth on a lifetime of adventure.

River Phoenix has come a long way since his debut as a nerdy whiz kid in Explorers (which he discussed in STARLOG #97). With acclaimed performances in Stand By Me, The Mosquito Coast and Running on Empty, the 19-year-old actor seems clearly destined for an impressive career. But apart from critical kudos, Phoenix may well occupy a place in cultdom with his portrayal of the young Indiana Jones in Steven Spielberg's Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. It's a slambang, if brief, performance-one that requires the actor to confront snakes, emerge unscathed from a lion's cage, and survive a rhino attack, all in the tradition of his adult self as portrayed by Harrison Ford. If Spielberg changes his mind about doing another chapter of the saga in the future-this film is supposed to be Indy's swan song-Phoenix could emerge as the main contender for the part. In the meantime, the actor is breaking new grounds with Lawrence Kasdan's bizarre black comedy, I Love You to Death, with Kevin Kline, Tracy Ullman, William Hurt and Keanu Reeves.

STARLOG: How would you describe your role in The Last Crusade?
RIVER PHOENIX: It's all non-stop action: running and jumping, twisting and turning, fumbling, picking, finding, keeping, saving from bad guys-that kind of stuff. It's a small part-only 10 minutes in the movie's beginning-but I really enjoyed it.

STARLOG: What was the special challenge of doing this movie?
PHOENIX: 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.

STARLOG: How do you get into a role? Do you play yourself and lend your own characteristics to the part and then go with the script? Or do you actually try to transform yourself into someone else and feel his feelings?
PHOENIX: You can't just wake up the next morning and be the character, so it's a slow process. I start off by stripping myself of who I am, by thinking more neutral. You have to neutralize yourself before you can become another character. I become non-opinionated, refusing to think from River's perspective, and then, slowly, I add characteristics and start thinking the way the character would. I fantasize about being the character and I play mind games with myself until the transition takes place.

STARLOG: How did you go about playing young Indy?
PHOENIX: I would just look at Harrison: he would do stuff and I would not mimic it but interpret it younger. Mimicking is a terrible mistake that many people do when they play someone younger, or with an age difference. Mimicking doesn't interpret true, because you can't just edit it around.

STARLOG: What was it like working with Spielberg for the first time and with Harrison Ford for the second?
PHOENIX: It was great to see Harrison again and Steven is a pleasure, a great guy to work with.

STARLOG: Was Harrison Ford as friendly as he was on The Mosquito Coast?
PHOENIX: Oh, yeah, he was there to help me. He has been there playing Indiana Jones for so long.

STARLOG: What kind of a relationship did you have with him on Mosquito Coast?
PHOENIX: Harrison was down to earth. I had read that he was cold, but he was actually very warm; it's just that in his position, you have so many phony 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 learned a lot from him. The biggest thing about Harrison is that he makes acting look so easy; he's so casual and so sturdy. I had a great time (working with him). 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. I don't think I nagged him. I didn't ask him all the time how Indiana Jones was.

STARLOG: Do you feel you might step into Ford's shoes at some point?
PHOENIX: I don't think that anyone (but him) could ever do justice to the character of Indiana Jones. A production without Harrison would never be that good. I think it should remain the way he has done it.

STARLOG: You've won an Oscar nomination for Running on Empty.
PHOENIX: I think that in a way I'm being challenged, that there are great minds up there who would like to see what they can do with an Oscar nomination. I guess many people would change after a nomination in the way they see things. In my case, it's really irrelevant in terms of what I do. Still, it was an incredible experience which I will put in my memories, like everything else.

STARLOG: It seems that you keep challenging yourself. After Little Nikita and Running on Empty, you said you were going to stop playing victims for a while, and then you did Last Crusade and I Love You to Death.
PHOENIX: I Love You to Death is 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 but he survives and they get together again. It's kind of "how to try to kill your husband and save your marriage," but it's based on a true story. I play Devo, a cook who's very mystical, into Eastern philosophy. I'm the middleman who helps arrange the extreme acts that happen in the movie.

STARLOG: What's the purpose for all this plotting? Greed? Mischief?
PHOENIX: Just sheer, simple-minded, tunnel-visioned people who find it hard to make a distinction between reality and fantasy. It's emotional and even moral, even though it's so dark. They're all victims of ignorance, of an extreme-a different mentality altogether.

STARLOG: It's very different from what you've done before. What's the special challenge here?
PHOENIX: As we speak, Devo is bouncing off the walls wherever I go and it's very hard to let myself out and open my eyes.

STARLOG: Is this the most a character has taken control over you?
PHOENIX: No, it's not that sensational. It's more in the vein of doing exactly what the character should do: having a grey area between reality and fantasy. You don't really know where you're in and you act upon instinct or impulse and find that maybe what the characters in the movie did is more extreme than what they're punishing. You see, Devo is overly taken by the details in life, to the point where he can't see the overall picture.

STARLOG: By contrast, you seem very much aware of the world around you.
PHOENIX: I'm quite in love with the human race and this planet that we live on and I see life as fresh and beautiful, not because "I have the world in my hands," but because it's just my reality. I also get very frustrated with the pace of life and the way the world goes. I want so badly for people to communicate with each other. With all this technology, is this the best we can do? It's depressing. But there's also an optimistic side of me that 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.

STARLOG: What would that be for you?
PHOENIX: One thing I would like to do when I have the money is buy thousands of acres in the Brazilian rain forest and make a national park, so no one can bulldoze it (in order) to put a McDonald's there. I guess people find security in a Big Mac, but that's our oxygen! And the mass slaughtering of animals is a chickenshit approach. I can understand the farmer who raises his cow and then rips it's throat and eats it.

STARLOG: You offer a positive role model for young people, not only by virtue of the ideals you espouse, but, on a different level, by the very characters you play. This will probably be more so than before because of young Indiana Jones.
PHOENIX: Yes, but it angers me that in this society we're trained from a very young age, watching television, to swallow preconceived ideas of what is the ideal man or ideal woman. It's prejudice, really. Many people overcome it, but so many remain oppressed if they're not happy with their looks, if they don't look like Robert Redford,. It's a shame, because they shouldn't be. When I was younger, I was worried about how others viewed me and if I was good enough. I realize now that you can't mold an image or try to be something that you are not. As far as being an actor is concerned, your work really speaks for itself.>

The text on this page © STARLOG OCTOBER 1989 #147

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