VEGETARIAN TIMES March 1988 Issue 127
River on the Rise
by Debra Blake Weisenthal
Film Star River Phoenix says being a vegetarian is the most important role he'll ever play.
In Japan they adore him. The teenagers call out to him when he comes to promote one of his films: "Rio! Rio!" they chant. It is their nickname for him. They think he's the next James Dean. And boy, does he have the looks for it. But smoldering looks and shirt-off-the-shoulder poses aren't what River Phoenix is all about, and he gets a little embarrassed when he comes off that way. The 17-year-old's dark clothes aren't meant to impress. His canvas and rubber high-top boots are unexceptional. Still, it's hard sometimes to resist just gazing at his blonde-streaked pretty head against the blue Florida sky, or wondering how he lucked into those dark eyebrows.
But he calls you back to what he's saying, to his simple intensity. "Vegetarianism is a link to perfection and peace," he's saying now, and his voice is soft but strong, very sincere. "But it's a small link. There are lots of other issues: apartheid , vivisection, political prisoners, the arms race. There's so much going on in this world today, so much ignorance among people. That's not to say I'm not standing amongst everybody. But the point is, what can we do now? That's the thing about vegetarianism; it's an individual's decision and it's something you have control over. How many things do we really have control over?"
River Phoenix is one of the lucky ones; he's an actor making a successful go of it in a tough business. Years ago, he was one of the brothers in the television series Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. Later, he got his big break as a spunky but thoughtful kid in Stand by Me, and then as the elder son in The Mosquito Coast with Harrison Ford. He's in demand now: Producers send him scripts, and this spring he's scheduled to show up in three new movies: Jimmy Reardon, Little Nikita with Sidney poitier, and Running on Empty. River Phoenix. He's a big name in Hollywood.
But the River sitting here on the lawn of his parents' rented house in Florida is only as large as life. He's not all seriousness and theory. His eyes are warm and welcoming; he laughs easily. Right away you know he's a regular guy. Still, he's eager to take advantage of what he calls the "rare opportunity" to discuss issues that really matter to him: veganism, health concerns most teens don't even know exist, fulfillment in relationships with family and friends, world peace, and change in South Africa.
Do you put much faith into what a 17- year-old says or is he just trying on some ideals for size? In short order, you decide to trust him. He's had a life unlike most people in the world - one of met challenges, enormous changes and great ideals-and that colors your reactions. He can keep you interested in what he's saying longer than most people twice his age. So somehow you know he's sincere. And you see that the "Rio! Rio!" business in Japan and the perfect eyebrows are small parts of a very large picture.
Most of what has been written about River Phoenix weaves his story into the story of his family. And try as you might to see him apart from them, you can't entirely. They're part of the big picture. His four younger siblings - one brother, Leaf, and three sisters, Rainbow, Liberty and Summer - also act; Summer and Leaf recently were cast in Russkies, and last summer Rainbow had a role in Maid to Order with fellow vegan Ally Sheedy. Their parents, Arlyn and John Phoenix, manage their kids' careers, having decided years ago to forgo outside work and commit themselves to the family venture. The entire family is vegan, and they all come across as gentle and kind people who work together like clockwork. River's history is the history of the Phoenixes, and he's grateful for and satisfied by being a part of that.
Arlyn Phoenix is also grateful for the family, and she's unflustered by their success. "You have to understand," she says, sipping her sorghum-sweetened herbal tea, "that this didn't just happen to us. We planned it." Success is part of the Phoenix family mission. It's why their name is Phoenix. They're on the rise.
Arlyn and John chose the name phoenix together, years ago, and they nursed their five babies on the twin ideals of love and peace. The couple became vegetarian soon after they met in the '60s, but dropped it after moving to Venezuela with a born-again-style Christian group. Several years-and several babies-later, in 1978, they broke from the organization. On their way back to the United States they rekindled their commitment to vegetarianism, taking the cue from their children.
River was seven then. He remembers how it began. "On the boat we saw men fishing," he said. "It was our [the kids'] first time seeing that. And it was the first time that I really saw that meat wasn't just a hamburger or hot dog or some disguised food on your plate, that it was an animal, it was flesh. It seemed very barbaric and kind of cruel, and me and my brother and sister were all crying and were traumatized. The reality just hit us so hard.
Our parents were very sensitive to our feelings. I mean, they were obviously immune to it themselves-meat eating is so much a part of society as a whole and how people eat-but they were very interested in our sensitivity to it, so they were open to us becoming vegetarian."
Vegetarianism came easily to the Phoenix family. Within the year, with encouragement from Arlyn's vegan sister, the family also stopped eating eggs and dairy products. "It was hard to give up dairy for a while for a lot of people in my family," River remembers. "My mom and dad were so used to eating cheese, and it was so convenient. But I said, 'Hey, if we're doing this thing, let's go all the way with it.' The other kids were into it, so my parents said, 'OK, let's do it.' And we did."
It's been 10 years since anyone in the Phoenix family has worn leather shoes, carried a leather handbag or brought honey into their home. They embrace every possible reason for veganism. They love animals and they believe dairyless eating is better for health. They believe the move away from a meat-centered culture will better support the world's ecology. Above all, they see veganism as one of the early steps people can take to be conscious of their relationships in the world: relationships with animals, people, and the planet itself. To the Phoenix family, veganism is an essential ingredient of a loving and peaceful world-an extension of the values that motivated John and Arlyn when the two first met.
How the family took their vision to Hollywood dates back 10 years ago, to their final days in Venezuela. The family had little money when they left the religious community and River, along with his sister Rainbow, often took to the streets, restaurants, and even airport waiting areas to sing to people, entertaining them while trying to earn a dollar. River had been playing guitar since before he was 5 years old, and his talent became increasingly apparent to Arlyn and John. Back in the States, the family headed straight for Los Angeles, where Arlyn took a job at a broadcasting company to get the family's collective foot in Hollywood's door.
"We weren't going for the glamour or the fame of it all," Arlyn says. "We were going to take the kids' talent-which was so obvious-to us-and turn it into something and help make change at the same time. That's why we went."
Weren't they afraid that the kids wouldn't share their vision, or perhaps lose sight of it as the endless glittery parties began to welcome them, threatening to turn them into Hollywood brats?
"No," says Arlyn. "I knew they wouldn't get into the Hollywood scene. We had our own business to attend to, and it wasn't Hollywood. It was making change in the world."
River's business is making change, too. He's clear on that score. "If I didn't think I could be a part of a movement that could influence," he says, "and be a part of helping and change, if I couldn't help that through what I'm doing, I wouldn't do this. But I'm seeing that through this position-in this career, and where I have these magazine interviews- I can be an example, and I think that's important. In all the interviews I do, I say something about my being vegan.
"I don't want to come off as if I'm a savior. I'm only a very small part of anything, but I think it's important to be involved. I'm interested in meditation and finding spiritual fulfillment. But for me to just go off and devote my life to monkhood in the jungle would be ultimately abandoning the world, and the consciousness would be on a selfish level. I think I can do a lot more good for this planet if I am out there."
River is still young. Does he share his mother's confidence that he'll be able to withstand the pressures that Hollywood places on young people-pressures that make them grow up quickly, losing their dreams and ideals in the process?
"Being out there," River says slowly, looking around at the giant oak trees on the lawn, "you can go astray, and everything can be destroyed. I'm aware of that, but I don't think I'll get into that. Maybe I'm lucky; I'm not really attracted to all of that now. I think I'll be strong enough, but I do see there's that chance.
"You can't really make any plans about things like this, though. You go with the flow but still against the grain, not for the ego of it but for the belief of it. The only thing I have to show is how I live. The vegan thing is one of the main things. I'm a peaceful person; I think that's manifested through how I live. I don't start trouble. But time will tell."
River has moved around a lot over the years. He was born in Oregon, went with the family to South America as a young child, and has lived in countless California towns. He's traveled-sometimes with only part of the family-to different countries to film on location. Just before last Thanksgiving the whole family moved to Florida, where they now reside. They wanted to leave the Hollywood scene and revive ideals about living in the country.
Florida winter afternoons are warm, and River spends hours in the garage, hunched over his new 12-string guitar. His hands are square and strong, and after so many years they're used to playing the chords that sound good to him. He has the guitar plugged into an amplifier, and the rock rhythms echo out in the yard. He's not in school (he was privately tutored for most of his life), and he says he's not interested in working until the summer. These days he's mostly hanging around, traveling a bit, hoping a bass guitarist will read the signs he placed around the University of Florida campus. "Needed," the signs read. "Bass guitarist with young blood who's into progressive rock and roll, jazz. For demo recordings." River is looking for a buddy to jam with.
If he didn't have his acting career, River thinks he could be a musician. He's driven to it. "I love music," he says. "It's so much a part of me." The roster of his favorite musicians is long and eclectic; he's especially into early Squeeze and U2. But the rest of his list reads like the playlist of an early '70s FM station. "I like jazz, folk music, Bob Dylan. Older Bowie and old Roxy Music to fall asleep to. I like old Steely Dan music and some Pink Floyd. Old Led Zeppelin, too. The Beatles are my Bible; that goes without saying. And I like classical music."
Modern music disappoints River, and he doesn't like much of what's commercially produced. His tastes in books and movies also show that River has one foot in a different age. He sounds a little frustrated by that, and says things like "movies nowadays. ..books nowadays. .. music nowadays."
He doesn't see too many new movies, preferring witty, intelligent classic comedies, and he likes the great slapsticks. But his idealism comes through even here. "I haven't seen Cry Freedom [about Steven Biko, a martyred black South African], but it's top on my list for a real conscious movie. And I liked Brazil. I like intense movies. Did you ever see Brother Sun, Sister Moon? It's about St. Francis. I felt a rebirth after I saw that."
He doesn't find much time for reading, though he'd like to, but somehow he's picked up a lot of information on health and political issues. The novels he's read, or would like to read, are those that kids grew up on 15 and 20 years ago: Catcher in the Rye and Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger, Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha, Richard Bach's Illusions, Ray Bradbury's Martian Chronicles, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.
As for his own movies, he's hot enough to be selective about the scripts he accepts, and he's been pretty happy with the results. "I feel no need to invest in a movie unless I have an incredible passion for it," he says. "And one that will not only be good for me but one I can be proud of-one that's a benefit to society. I always hope the movie will, if nothing else, be a part of good art and influence people in a good way."
Up to now, there's been no compromising in River's work, and he's not planning on changing his record. Even as a child, no commercials he ever made endorsed white bread, and when he was in Seven Brides, the family made sure he wouldn't have to go fishing or wear a coonskin cap.
River still chooses carefully, hoping the ideals he lives by will be reflected in the characters he plays. He liked his character of Chris Chambers in Stand by Me, directed by Rob Reiner. "Chris came off as a victim of the mentality of his town, but he was a good person. He was a great friend, he was loyal and he wasn't an idiot-not just a big dumb l2-year-old. He was a real sweet guy, smart and intelligent. A good character."
The last movie he worked on was Sidney Lumet's Running on Empty. (Lumet directed Dustin Hoffman in the Academy Award-winner Tootsie.) River plays the son of parents whose antimilitary activities have kept them on the run for years. River likes the character but sees him as a victim, too.
"In dramas, kids usually are victims, either to their parents or to society:' River explains. "I want to get away from that. It would be wonderful to see someone already in a clear-minded reality take it from there and maybe go beyond that, show what can happen."
He can't say precisely what kinds of films he'd like to do or what kind of work will draw him next. Theater would be interesting, perhaps, and possibly directing at some point. Unlike many actors, he's not even thinking about who he'd like to work with. "I would like to work with Rob Reiner again," he says, "Maybe just a cameo role in one of his movies. But for the most part I don't think like that. I figure that time will tell, and if it's right, I'll meet the right people and work with them at some point."
Outwardly, River has few doubts about himself, as an individual and as a Phoenix family member. "I'm definitely an individual," he said. "I feel very secure as an individual. And I'm proud of my family and what we've done together. I'm a product of my family, just like everybody else. These are my roots.
"I just want to live my life. Acting is what I love to do, and it's worked out this way. I don't know if it's God's perfect plan or whatever, but for me, not only do I love it and get great satisfaction out of it, but also I can work my beliefs in. I'm free to believe in what I do, and I can share those beliefs with others. Not in a preaching way, not telling others, but just by what I do. I find that very fulfilling."
After lunch-tabouli, nori, blue corn chips, tofu omelet, tahini dressing-River and Rainbow, like older brother and sister in any family, take the family jeep to pick up the other kids from school. Back home, River runs into the yard to swing on the rope hung from one of the oaks. "Hey, look at this!" he yells. While Rainbow watches, River laughs, jumps high and grabs hold. A Phoenix on the rise.
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