US September 1991 Number 162/163

The US Interview : River Phoenix

by David Rensin

The 21-year-old actor proves in two new films, 'My Own Private Idaho' and 'Dogfight,' that the jump from teen idol to adult star need not be fatal

UNLIKE SO MANY OF HIS Professional peers, River Phoenix has successfully negotiated the transition from child star to adult actor. In two new films, Nancy Savoca's Dogfight and Gus Van Sant's My Own Private Idaho, he leaves adolescence far behind.

In Dogfight, Phoenix, now 21, plays Corporal Eddie Birdlace, a marine about to ship out to Vietnam in 1963. The night before leaving, he and his buddies try to find the ugliest women they can and bring them to a private party. The object: he with the homeliest lady wins. When Phoenix's date [Lili Taylor] discovers the game, they spend the entire night getting to know one another, and he is forced to do some growing up.

According to Savoca, whose previous film, True Love, won the Grand Jury Prize at the 1989 U.S. Film Festival, Phoenix made a major leap as Birdlace in Dogfight. "Birdlace is not self-aware in any interesting way," Phoenix has said. "He is unconsciously a prisoner of his own anger; a big part of him is in denial". The character was so far removed from the gentle, concerned Phoenix that Savoca gives him big courage points for doing the movie.

But it is under the direction of Gus Van Sant (Drugstore Cowboy) that Phoenix really comes of age. His portrayal of Mike in My Own Private Idaho is his most challenging role to date. But then, playing a narcoleptic male prostitute, surviving from sex act to sex act on the streets of Seattle and Portland, would be a risk for any actor at any age. Mike is searching for his mother and his identity, first in Idaho, then in Rome. Keanu Reeves costars as Phoenix's best friend, Scott, another hustler, who has rejected his background of wealth and station -at least temporarily.

Both films reveal a natural evolution of the solid acting Phoenix has practiced in pictures like Stand By Me, The Mosquito Coast, lndiana Jones and the Last Crusade, I Love You to Death and Running On Empty, for which the young actor received an Oscar nomination.

Born in Madras, Oregon, River Phoenix entered the world to the sound of applause. He's the eldest of five children who chose their own names: Rainbow, Summer, Leaf and Liberty. His mother, Arlyn, and his father, John, were fruit pickers in the Northwest, but when Phoenix was 2, they took him to South America where they were doing missionary work for the Children of God. John Phoenix was the church's arch-bishop of Venezuela and the Caribbean Islands. But the family abandoned the cult in 1977 after becoming disillusioned with its leadership, and lived hand-to-mouth for a time in a rat-infested beach hut in Caracas with four small kids and no cash. Often, Phoenix (not the family's real last name, which he prefers not to reveal -they changed it after they'd left the church to symbolize their rebirth from the ashes) and his sister Rainbow sang religious songs for money and food in the street.

The family managed to return stateside in 1978, to Florida. After River and Rainbow began winning local talent contests, they got a letter from Paramount Pictures saying that if they were ever in Los Angeles, they could stop by for an audition. The family promptly moved west, but Paramount passed. Arlyn began temporary work at NBC. And the kids never gave up. Soon, River and Rainbow were doing audience warm ups for the TV show Real Kids. Then River's musical talent landed him a role for twenty-two episodes of the TV series Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. Phoenix also did commercials but quit when he realized he couldn't ethically support selling a product he didn't use - the family is strictly vegetarian and very concerned about the environment. River also wanted to work in a more fulfilling medium.

He got his wish. Film roles followed, but Phoenix wasn't really noticed by Hollywood until he appeared in Rob Reiner's Stand By Me in 1986. The rest, as they say, is his story.

The US interview with River Phoenix took place late one morning in Los Angeles, just after he had returned from Costa Rica, where he had viewed the total eclipse of the sun. On his nightstand, a copy of James Gleick's book Chaos. On his mind, the upcoming album from his friends the Red Hot Chili Peppers. "Every song counts," he said, breathlessly. "So much heart and soul and musicianship. No one expects it, but the Peppers are going to rock the world with this album".

Some may still think of Phoenix as a kid, but he has grown tall and lanky. He is also newly muscular with recently bleached hair ("So I could have roots," he jokes). More significant, he possesses a mind that is taut and brawnier than ever. A Florida resident (he left California two years ago); he wants to remain far outside the Hollywood nexus of bad influences and superficial values. As such, his thinking makes him very different than your garden-variety 21-year-old actor on the make.

Why were you, unlike most other child stars, able to handle the transition from child to adult roles?

Because I keep my distance from the outside-in view of who I am. I just don't listen to things that could bring me down or things that could boost me up. I've kept my ego and my happiness completely separate from my work. I don't depend on my work to make me feel good about myself. When people invest their ego and their self-image in their work, and one day someone doesn't look at it in the same way they do, or you grow up and your eyebrows get bushy and you don't get parts, you fall so heavily and you hurt so bad.

But you do get happiness from your work?

Oh, I get great satisfaction. But basically I'm talking about people who are more image-oriented, people who are thrilled when they see their face on the cover of a magazine. I go into remission, shut myself out, and freak. I don't like being out there.

And yet you really get out there in 'My Own Private Idaho.' The main characters are street hustlers trying to survive by having sex for money with men. However, nowhere in the film is the word "gay" mentioned. Is this movie about some segment of the gay population, or was there a conscious intent to make a distinction here?

It's as much about gays as Five Easy Pieces is about oil-well diggers. It's just a job -that's how I get it. The opening scene in Five Easy Pieces is Nicholson working the oil rigs. I think that's how the street life is portrayed in this. I think it's really irrelevant. They could have been a bunch of plumbers.

One big difference between 'Five Easy Pieces' and 'My Own Private Idaho,' however, is that in the latter film much more time is spent focused on the job.

Actually, it focuses on this boy's quest for survival and finding home. Your eye could focus on that because it's more sensational than a plumber's job or a mechanic's job. The universal theme is what Idaho is really all about.

What's the "universal theme"?

In search of your home and of belonging. Getting back to roots.

Were there any emotional, personal or career concerns you confronted in order to play someone who sells himself for sex instead of someone who, say, fixes leaky sinks?

I confronted the same things I confront on any project: being selfless and completely getting into character, as far as research and understanding whatever is at hand. I just portray it as real as possible.

While prepping your part, did you think of your character as gay?

I have a real problem with separation. I don't see things as "this person is this" or "this person is that".

But people are this and they are that.

Yeah, I know -but I just have a problem with terminology and how it's interpreted, especially in interviews.

So you make yourself absolutely clear.

There are a lot of [street hustlers] who are "straight" who, to make money, do whatever they have to do. And then there are people who are part of the street gay life, who enjoy that, and that's their life. Mike, my character, is from the first group. He does it just for money. He's not part of that whole scene -which doesn't change anything, really. It's all the same scene, but that's how their psychology works. That's how they justify what they do.

How did you prepare for the role of a hustler?

I did a lot of observing in areas where this would go on. I stood off in the distance, watching very closely.

Did you talk to anybody?

Yeah, mostly with reformed street people -they had done it when they were like 14, and now they were my age.

What kind of questions did you ask?

When I interview someone, I don't want to talk about themselves. I find that doesn't give me anything. To talk about someone's "self" makes their guard go up, so we just talked about things that we liked, that we had in common. There's no need to get right up in someone's face and say, "What did you do on this day?"

Did you learn anything from playing Mike?

[ Pause] I learned a hell of a lot. I learned the importance of home. What he doesn't have, I feel very lucky to have. It made me rethink what I have going for me.

You've moved so many times in your life, is there anything you could never have because you always had to leave it behind?

Sure. High school. I didn't go like other kids. I guess that's a pretty big chunk.

Do you miss it?

No, because I did something else: I made movies. Other people are bitter about their options, but I feel very lucky. I was really happy to move around a lot. There were times, walking through suburbia, that I saw houses where I knew someone grew up, went off to college, and came back and visited their parents. And that's kind of a neat idea. And at times I thought that that's what I wanted, but I know now that I don't. Especially after doing Idaho. In fact, it seems kind of perverse to me.


To some degree you're an expenditure growing up. Your parents very often hold that up to you when they say, "You better go to college and do this". There are exceptions to that rule, but it is perverse to me, and that is what I'm glad I didn't have growing up.

Didn't you have to live your parents' life?


What about being carted down to South America when you were 2? What about the many values you share today?

Carted? They weren't living for themselves. It was just giving themselves to what they really believed in, which was God. They were doing missionary work. But by the time I was 8, I could do what I wanted. I was given complete freedom. And I used it. If I couldn't have done what I did and didn't have the support of my family, then I wouldn't be here today in this room.

Was there ever a phase of rebellion for you at home?

No. I think that my parents were ahead of their time in not letting us know if there was anything they didn't want us to do so we wouldn't rebel. It was reverse psychology. There were no taboos.

You've said that when you read some of your earlier interviews, you don't relate to yourself; as portrayed. Is there any particular thing that has haunted you -some misperception, some mistake -that you want to correct right now?

I will say that I really feel sorry for all the true hippies that had to deal with me in the press as their poster child. I'm certainly not a good example of what the pure American hippie is. I find it quite hilarious every time that I see something as lame as Sassy's article about "River Phoenix and His Little Hippie Band," or Life magazine's "One Big Hippie Family". All that sort of stuff to me is like, please, don't insult the hippie families of America by using us as their poster children. It's just ridiculous. It underrates true hippies.

Do you know many?

Oh, I see true hippies all the time. You can just drive across the country and see them. I don't even fit the appearance -and even that is just this big pseudofad. It's a way of life, not an appearance.

Have you become a more private person?

Yeah. There are certain things that once they hit air, it makes it stale for you. If you had a thought that was so nice and encased in your mind and you leaked it somehow and read it in the papers somewhere, it would no longer be your thought. It would belong to the page.

What does it take to be your friend?


Who's your best friend outside the family?

I guess my dog's in the family, so I don't really have any bests.

What makes you laugh now that you used to take seriously?

Life. I used to take mankind's ways really seriously; always asking why, why, why? Now I just laugh.

Let's talk about how some of mankind's ways effect things that are important to you. Your dedication to environmental causes is well known. Do you think things can be changed?

I think it's just arrogant for me or any human to suggest radical changes when that's just not the way things happen. You're just living in a utopia wannabe land, and I'm a realist about it. For instance, I think the whole issue thing- this issue, that issue, the other issue -is bogus. The environment, for instance, is headlined "The Environmental Issue". It's not an issue, The environment was here before we were. We are of the environment, and the environment is what will let all issues live if it lives. It's so key and it's so important. And to separate ourselves is ridiculous. To live in denial and say, "Oh, this can't be; this isn't right," that's also wrong because this is evolution. This is natural. This is happening. I've learned to accept that. And to be just as responsible as I can be without being just a neurotic ball of confusion.

Are you saying that the point of evolution may be our eventual self-destruction ?

Completely. We're caught up in a huge avalanche of some sort, part of the Ice Age. I've always I accepted it. I have no problem with that.

But we're thinking animals. Can't we, as they say, "think globally, act locally" and preserve ourselves? Might not we evolve to become more responsible?

It's a great line, yeah. We all do it as much as we can. At some point, there needs to be some sort of reversal on how we multiply and how we work with the earth. For instance, when someone senselessly likes a certain kind of tropical wood table in their room, how does it dramatically change a whole future for things that haven't been discovered yet? And that's where education comes in. If we were all educated on what really counts, then our heads would be in different places when we go to the furniture store.

We read a lot about your mom as sort of a central relationship for you in your family. But not your dad. Why not?

My dad would rather have his privacy. I could say the same basically about everyone in my family: They don't want much to do with the media that surrounds me.

But you've taken reporters to your home. And your mom has always been featured.

Well, my mom is a huge driving force in my work. She's very involved -she's my manager. But her private-life is separate.

Does she help you choose films ?

Yeah, she gives me her input. But I always make that final decision regarding work.

What are your criteria for choosing a role ?

I have to believe the writing, because that's where everything is based from. I like to be able to see beyond just the words. If the writing lets you do that, then you know that you're going somewhere.

Even if what's written doesn't get up on-screen? It's such a collaborative medium.

Yeah. My Own Private Idaho, for instance, was more of a treatment than it was a complete script. There was a lot of read-between-the-lines, so I just had to use my imagination and look deeper.

You've been called a sex symbol. Curious words. What do they mean to you?

I don't know. Anyhow, how could I be, when I'm sitting here with this thing (a knit cap) on my head, cross-eyed and confused?

Why do fans want to have sex with movie stars?

Is that true? I feel so detached from the screen that I never get enough sense of someone to want to have sex with them. There are a few of them who are charming, but, no, I'd have to know someone for a long time before I did that.

Ultimately this just says something sad about society.

Completely. Our leading man/leading lady ideas are just so messed up. That's why I define myself more as a character actor, not accepting the makeup that will make you look "right". I want to see more different, interesting, real people onscreen. I could have more of a [laughs] sexual motive toward the screen if there were some real people up there. And there are a few, but not enough. I want to see more De Niros. I want to see more Spike Lees. I want to see more women, especially, up there.

In your previous films there seemed to be a relationship between the stories and a part of your life.

It's just funny for me to hear that. In Japan it was the same thing. It was: "Oh, we hear that there are a lot of similarities with Mosquito Coast or Running On Empty. Well, gosh, everything you've done is just like your real life". And I think that a part of that is my fault. I have so much conviction for what I do. People assume that this must be what this guy's like.

My point is that there's hardly a common denominator between 'Idaho' and your life. On what did you draw to get the proper emotions underlying a boy's search for his mother, when you've never experienced that?

Most actors possess an intuitive side. Actually, the further away I am from the character, the less work I have to do. It takes so much more energy to detach yourself from your own life references that might cross wires with your character's. I think it's cheating for me to ever use my life references in conjunction with my characters. It's my reaction transferred to the character, which isn't good. What I have to do is erase those things and then find something else. I can't stand in front of a camera and let anything of myself come through or I'm betraying the character's complete trueness. There are some actors who just use themselves. They can wear their ego on their sleeve and it looks great. I can't do that.

What's the best acting advice you've ever gotten and who gave it to you?

From Lawrence Kasdan. He said that the best actors and actresses have at least half of themselves in the role. Half of the character that makes it work is the real person. I'm still the type to have only one-eighth of me in the role. A good example of what he means is Kevin Kline. Kevin is just a charming, brilliant actor. Versatile as can be. And yet he's Kevin Kline. There's something you can trust in that. You can look in his eyes and say, "Hey, there's Kevin". And yet you don't say that until the end of the movie because you're totally absorbed in the character. The point is to not lose yourself completely. I'm working on giving more.

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