The Face, July 1989
by ANDREW MACDONALD
Photography NANCY RICA SCHIFF/Katz Eyes
"WHEN I was very young, we were stranded in Venezuela without any money. We lived in a shack on a beach that had no toilet and was rat-infested - really horrible. But I was never frightened. When you're raised on the road you don't fear these things, you don't question them. We had faith, a lot of faith. My parents had been missionaries but they became disillusioned with the religious sect they were with. My sister Rainbow and I sang on street corners, in hotels and airports, any place where we could pick up some money for food. When we didn't have enough money, we prayed and ate coconuts we found on the beach."
In a plush hotel suite in Los Angeles, 19-year-old River Phoenix recalls the beginning of the strange odyssey that took him from an alternative lifestyle to the lap of confected Hollywood luxury. Sitting upright in a straight-backed chair, his flat, gold hair hanging limply in his eyes, not so much at odds with the elegance around him as apart from it, he talks in soft, soft tones.
"If I have some celebrity, I hope I can use it to make a difference. The true social reward is that I can speak my mind and share my thoughts about the environment and civilisation itself. There's so much shit happening with people who are exploiting their positions and creating a lot of negativity."
He says this quite earnestly, with sufficient humility to bring you up short; after all, more famous celebrities have mouthed off about the planet before and have done precious little about it. But there is no doubting River Phoenix's sincerity and it's this quality that has made him the pre-eminent prospect for Hollywood stardom.
The hippie trail leads many places, but rarely to Hollywood. How River Phoenix arrived there to become, at 19, one of Cinema's hottest acting prospects is an odyssey no scriptwriter would date invent.
"River doesn't have a false bone in his body," says the director Sidney Lumet of Phoenix's performance in Running On Empty, soon to be released over here. "He can't utter a false line. He stopped in the middle of one scene while we were shooting and said, 'This feels fake to me.' I listened again. He was right. I cut the scene. So long as River follows his instincts, takes stuff he believes in, there'll be no stopping him. I first saw him in Stand By Me and there was such an extraordinary purity about him.
Then he did Mosquito Coast and you felt the growth of his understated power.
"There were a couple of films he could have done without: Little Nikita and Jimmy Reardon - terrible scripts. But he didn't have the choice then that he has now. He still has a long way to go. He has to make the transition from kid actor to grown-up, but he has such intelligence and such a good heart, I don't have any doubt he'll do it."
The sheer variety of performance in Phoenix's list of film credits must make other actors weep. In his very first film, in 1985 - Joe Dante's Explorers - he played a science whizz-kid. In 1986, in Stand By Me, Rob Reiner's surprise rite-of-passage success, he played one of four boys who discover a dead body on an overnight camping trip. He assumes leadership and becomes a steadying influence. It was a meaty part and Phoenix winged it on instinct, leading director Peter Weir to cast him as Harrison Ford's son in Mosquito Coast. His role brought out a bravura performance of quiet intensity, with the boy forced to deal with a father out of sync with reality. He was by now someone to watch. In Hollywood terms he was hot. (Hot enough to be offered the role of the young Indy in the third Indiana Jones escapade. "I wanted to do something light, pure entertainment," says Phoenix. "I love the Indiana Jones films and being part of one was a lot of fun for me.")
His next two films, Little Nikita and A Night In The Life Of Jimmy Reardon, reflected neither his growing status nor best instincts. In Nikita he's supposed to be an average American boy who learns his parents are Russian spies. In Jimmy Reardon he's cast as a typical teenager burned out on drugs and sex. "I had some moral problems getting behind that film," says Phoenix.
"It's not that those characters don't exist but I'm not sure how valuable that kind of film is. Let's say I took those jobs out of an insecurity, out of a feeling that I might never work again."
But insecurity and rootlessness are a part of his heritage. River Phoenix was born in a log cabin in Madras, Oregon, on August 20, 1970. His parents, John and Arlyn Phoenix, were picking apples, having, like so many children of the Sixties, dropped out of the mainstream to find an alternative way of life. It was the height of the Vietnam War protest movement, of deliberate government disinformation, of the questioning of authority.
There were some hard times, admits Arlyn Phoenix, a small woman with cropped hair and a serene face. But she was never tempted to pack it in. "I could have at any point. Even with the five kids (after River there came Rainbow, Leaf, Liberty and Summer) I could have said, `I'm going to call my mother.' My family is not wealthy, but they could always have come up with $1000 for the air fare. It never came to that. There never seemed any alternative more interesting than the plan we were living. I can't imagine it any other way. I remembered the life I had lived in New York, as a secretary, shopping at Saks Fifth Avenue. I knew that my answers weren't there. There was never any question of going back or of what to do next. All will evolve."
Arlyn met John in Los Angeles and together they went off to find spiritual fulfilment, joining a commune in Oregon, where River was born. Later, after becoming part of a religious sect, the Children of God, they began preaching their gospel in faraway places. For River, it meant an itinerant existence. Physical uncertainty was balanced by familial love, and as the family moved around, it expanded. Rainbow was born in Texas, Leaf in Puerto Rico, Liberty in Venezuela and Summer in Florida. Their names, says Arlyn, "are to remind people of the beautiful things around".
As the family grew larger, it grew closer. "We were all in this together," says Phoenix, rolling and unrolling a sheet of paper as he talks, stretching his legs in front of him, slumping slightly in his chair. He is polite and patient, but you get the feeling he'd rather be off with his friends, listening to music or what he calls "just messing around" than talking about himself. "And it's all very equal. We respect our parents and they respect us. Even when we were younger it was never, 'Well, I'm the parent and you're the kid.' You wouldn't be held back because of your age. Just the opposite. My father used to say, 'The youngest gets to yell the loudest because they're never listened to!' My father talks to Summer, who is the youngest, as he talks to my grandfather or anyone else. They always gave us a fair shot."
"We never treated them like children," Arlyn agrees, "but like extra added friends. And they have always held up their part of the deal. It was never like, 'We know better because we're the parents.' It was more like, 'This is the first time we've ever done this too. What do you think?' And the children were so wise. If we made a mistake, we made it together. But if you open yourself up a way presents itself. You find the right path."
Out of this hippie, Sixties philosophy a path did present itself, and it led straight to show business. All those people tossing coins at the children on the streets of Caracas pointed the way. River could by now handle a guitar and had discovered a natural talent. The family hopped a freighter to Florida, a stopover on the road to Hollywood. In Florida, they entered the children in every kind of amateur talent contest they could find. The cute kids with the strange names made the newspapers, and soon a studio talent scout invited them to drop in if they were ever in the Los Angeles neighbourhood. The family picked up stakes once again, put the children in the back of an old camper and drove across the country to California.
Hippiedom was over. Arlyn got a job as a secretary at a TV network while John rehearsed the kids and took them on auditions. This time, in the real world, their ages worked against them. Talent executives worry about kids, however cute, whose voices may change and looks may disappear. They tried another tack. John took River for commercials auditions, where his fresh-faced looks did get him work and where the pay was good. But River objected. After a few commercials, he told his parents that he wasn't comfortable hyping products he didn't believe in. Although they needed the money they respected his wishes.
From the commercials came a role in a TV series acting as well as playing the guitar. River loved acting, feeling his upbringing had helped prepare him for fitting into other characters. Film work soon followed. The work was steady and the income allowed the family to fulfil an old dream. They bought ten acres of Florida farmland and built a house for the whole family. Arlyn took over the management of her children's careers (by this time Leaf and Rainbow were also acting), and John retired to plant a huge organic garden for growing their own food.
"I live with my family in Florida," says Phoenix, "because for me now it offers a kind of stability I haven't had. We always moved around so much. It would be difficult if my parents were condescending or superior, but they're not. I suppose there will come a time when I feel a need to explore other things, but it won't be a rebellion. Just a natural curiosity."
It could be difficult for Phoenix to wean himself away from his family's idiosyncratic ways. While they have forsaken the hippie lifestyle, the Sixties morality by which they live and which River embraces is no Eighties yuppie manifesto. A hard-eyed quest for money and material goods is foreign to him. "My real big dream," he says, hunching forward in his chair and focusing intently, "is to buy a portion of land and bring all sorts of homeless kids and kids from foster homes or kids who have been in and out of mental institutions because of their weird ideas to live there. There would be a staff of volunteers who would want to live in this farm-type setting. They would grow their own food and the kids would have responsibility for pulling out weeds and watering or whatever.
"We would also have lots of dogs and cars and animals that were homeless. The kids would be assigned to an animal of their own and they would have this cycle of caring for something. The farm would have solar panels and be self-sufficient. It wouldn't be isolated because it would be a whole community in itself. There would be room for individual expression and creativity. It would be really wonderful."
He could have had a Porsche, but River Phoenix doesn't think that way. He has a seriousness that often is reflected in his film roles. Running On Empty is a case in point. It is the story of Arthur and Annie Pope, Sixties radicals whose anti-war protest involved bombing a napalm factory and accidentally blinding a guard on duty. They have been on the run from the FBI for 15 years, living an underground life and raising their two boys to be fast on their feet, never to look back, to confide in no one. It works well enough while the kids are still young, but Danny Pope, played by Phoenix, is 17 and a gifted musician just finishing high school. In a normal family he would automatically go on to study music, but Danny cannot even think of that: the forms and family history required would expose his parents to certain capture and a likely jail sentence. The story is told through Danny, who falls in love with the music teacher's daughter (played by Martha Plimpton, Phoenix's real-life girlfriend), and for the first time he feels compelled to tell the truth about himself and his family. The film is a wrenching look at a relationship that requires letting go, and explores the effect of political passions on a family.
"People think the Popes are like my family, but they aren't," says Phoenix. "My parents were never on the run. We moved because we couldn't pay the rent or something. My parents would sympathise with the Popes, but they are pacifists. My mother would never throw a bomb. It's just not in her nature. Also, my family is brutally honest with one another. We don't hide out feelings the way the Popes did. And I don't think letting go would ever hurt my family. It's the other way round really. We've never had this kind of stable family life before and I'm enjoying it. I like coming home and having members of my family around. And," he adds, with an unexpected twinkle in his eyes, "the food is awfully good."
The text on this page © The Face, July 1989