DETOUR July/August 1993
by James Grant
River Phoenix is a rare and uncharacteristic Hollywood bird. In a town where many young stars obsess about image, long term objectives, and political correctness, here is a young actor who willingly sounds off on virtually any topic he can sink his silken hair into.
President Clinton. Gays in the military. Global problems generated by the burgeoning power of multinational corporations. Indeed, it is immediately evident that River Phoenix is not some hunk waiting for his next photo opportunity.
I first interviewed River when he was 16 years old, in his family's home in Rancho Santa Fe, outside of San Diego. He had just been critically acclaimed for his bravura performance in Stand By Me. Here was a smart, but refreshingly unprecocious kid, completely unaware that he was on the verge of a huge film career. He had grown up in a close-knit family that was more into tofu than climbing the corporate ladder. At one point, River even conducted part of our meeting upside down from a gym bar, fielding questions as the blood rushed to his head, turning his face bright-red.
Times have changed. The River Phoenix of today is smart, still unaffected, and decidedly right side up. At the not-so-advanced age of 23, his distinctive performances in such eclectic roles as a narcoleptic hustler in My Own Private Idaho, and a computer genius in Sneakers, have prompted the inevitable, if unlikely, comparisons to Montgomery Clift and James Dean.
This late, sticky, smog-filled morning, River sits at a cabana near the pool at L.A.'s art-deco-designed St. James Club. Dressed in a green T-shirt and loose burgundy shorts, he tightly squeezes an herbal tea bag between his fingers, watching the water inside his cup turn dark purple.
He takes one look at the notes and past interviews sitting on the table and asks flat out: "Is that propoganda you've been reading?" When informed that his publicist provided me with the stories as background research, Phoenix looks off into the distance and intones: "She's my publicist. She's not my guru.
Phoenix has just completed filming The Thing Called Love for Paramount Pictures. Playing an aspiring songwriter in Nashville comes naturally for the actor, who has written and performed his own very different brand of music for as long as he can remember. He currently plays with the band Aleka's Attic.
"I've seen a rough cut of the film - which could have easily been trash," he reveals. "But thanks to [director] Peter Bogdanovich, all of the hard work and all of the blood, sweat, and tears, it turned out to be straight up. It tells a tale with very little bullshit. No bullshit from what I can tell."
The Thing Called Love turns out to have been a labor of love. "I took the project because Peter and I had an agreement as to how we were going to best hijack this ship and steer its course, with some wonderful help from [co-stars] Dermot Mulroney and Samantha Mathis. We had the whole bunch there helping us out."
The actor spent long hours working on a variety of capacities beyond playing his role - much to the chagrin of certain studio executives associated with the project. "Sometimes, you deny yourself the sleep you need and you stay up and work very hard on the script. Or you write a song, which everyone is discouraging you to do - I'm speaking of execs, people who don't want to pay an actor for song writing because they figure it's just another political move on my part since all my movies are political. They figure that's where I'm coming from, which has nothing to do with what's really going on."
And that is exactly what? The actor is on a roll.
"It has everything to do with me having the best understanding of the character and the movie. Me and the few people working on it from the creative end are the only ones that really understand what's going on. None of the other people had a clue that this film would be so fucking great."
Phoenix is apparently not worried about ruffling Hollywood feathers. This frankness extends to Nashville feathers. Of spending time down south on location for The Thing Called Love, he recalls. "We spent three weeks in Nashville. I met some wonderful, wonderful people there. Some wonderful song writers." Then, Phoenix lowers the boom. "But I guess you find, as in any town-like Los Angeles, or anywhere else - the ethnic slurring and the bad taste jokes." He looks me in the eye with the intensity of a man who is passionate about his values and who sees no need to censor himself, since he doesn't believe in censorship of any kind anyway. "There is no 'good taste' for these sort of jokes which segregate, that so loftily stomp out your neighbor's brains on the cement because you find them different from you. I'm very tired of living here," he sighs. "It makes me wonder if Paris doesn't have it more together than we do."
Phoenix believes that American provincialism prevails, and that Bill Clinton's ascendancy to the presidency is only the beginning of what needs to change. "Now we are just at a point where we can hope directionally that we will be pointing towards neutrality. To obtain neutrality, it will probably take us fifty years. I mean, just a fair point of neutrality, where we're not destroying the planet we live in. Where we're not corrupting office. Where we actually do as we represent ourselves-as modern, intelligent, and progressive humans. Our claims are just so thinly spread," he says emphatically. "I don't trust any of that. It's really bullshit."
Even the renewed optimism many currently hold following the first hundred days of the new presidency is not enough to lull Phoenix into a false sense of security. "A new administration is just an administration. To get there, you have to go down on the devil a few times along the way," he adds wryly. "I've met [President] Clinton. I like Clinton. I've met Gore. I love Gore. They are very capable. [But] they are entrenched in a lot of manure. They have to get through a lot of red tape. They will have a hard time getting even the basic bills passed. The gridlock is, as usual, very evident."
So he frets. "I hope that as individuals, they are not spiritually so oppressed and discouraged that after a while doing just a little good is enough," he observes. "Because the pain involved in getting what really needs to be done is too great for humans."
His political observations unexpectedly bring us back full circle to The Thing Called Love. "What I'm hoping for with a film like this...I think it will be very good for the South, for everybody, because of the gender thing."
The "gender thing?"
"Yes. The heroic myth very rarely embraces the female, the heroine. Especially in this sort of film. The western world is full of macho, cow-wrangling men strapped in with a bunch of leather; the phallus-the big ol' rifle-and all the stuff that comes with it. The whole shotgun mentality. This sort of film is going to hit a group of people who are very patriarchal in tradition. It's not a put-down. It's just the way things are."
A loud British couple arrive at the next table and Phoenix suggests a move down poolside. The sun is sweltering as he holds the tape recorder and speaks into it. "The truth is so individual. Unless you act on your truth, all you are doing is aiding and abetting someone else's life. You're not even lying to yourself. You're lying to everybody around you."
This, of course, is coming from a man who readily admits that he likes to lie through his teeth during interviews, particularly when discussing his personal life. Asking him about his penchant for fibbing could set him off, but instead leaves him nonplused. "Yes, I feel kind of guilty about that," he concedes. "It depends on who I talk to. I give people what I want to give them, and that depends on the person. I figure that everything I say, [the media] lies and changes anyway. So, maybe if I give them bullshit, maybe for some reason, it will come out truthful. Everyone lies anyway. I'd rather be honest and say: 'I've lied a lot."' He looks me dead in the eye,
then smiles. "I probably should have lied more in this interview."
And yet this self-described liar remains remarkably frank - brutally so. To that end, don't hold your breath for the young actor's endorsement of a major product or corporation. One of his pet peeves is the way the media reports a problem and then promptly forgets about it. "We just swallow the pill, don't ask why, and forget about it," he complains.
Indeed, for a young, rich, and in-demand actor, the problems of the world seem to carry unusual weight. "It's not just our country," he continues. "The world is ruled by a tri-lateral, massive, multi-national corporate link up which is the true government above us all. It defies borders and effects us so greatly."
Then there is America, the shark-like buyer of everything extraneous. "We are taught to
consume. And that's what we do. But if we realized that there really is no reason to consume-that it's just a mind set, that it's just an addiction, then we wouldn't be out there stepping on people's hands climbing the corporate ladder of success. Why else would anyone want to be filthy rich?"
Never mind that this particular actor happens to be filthy rich himself. "I have my reasons why I want to be filthy rich," he reveals. "It's so I can buy the last first growth forest and turn it into a permanent national park." Apparently, he is well on his way to achieving this decidedly non-Hollywood goal. "I just bought 800 acres [of forest] on the border of Panama and Costa Rica."
Unorthodox choices are a Phoenix hallmark, whether he's saving a wilderness or playing the gay hustler in My Own Private Idaho. When the controversial film began production, the word around Hollywood was that Phoenix convinced the recalcitrant Keanu Reeves to take the risk of also playing gay in the film. Phoenix disagrees. "Convinced him? No. He was gung-ho from the very beginning," he remembers. "Keanu supported me and I supported him. But we did have a sort of thing where if one didn't do it, the other couldn't, since we had decided impulsively at the same time to do it. So the only way we could follow up on such an impulsive notion was if we both did it.
Being heterosexual, but playing a gay character, has presumably added some insight into such topical issues as the congressional hearings on gays in the military. "It's more symbolic than anything else," he says. "There have always been gays in the military. I think that there is no excuse for violence against anyone for their beliefs. Period. Do [gay men and women] want to walk in the door and say, 'Hello. We're here.' I don't give a fuck about that. There are more serious priorities to me. It shouldn't be a long-standing issue. It's a waste of time. Bottom line. Case closed."
But the real non-issue to the young actor is his own sex appeal. Admittedly, he is not a teenybopper heartthrob a la Jason Priestly, but he does have a huge following amongst women and men of all ages. But don't expect those lipstick-sealed love letters to be answered any time soon. When informed that thousands have the unadulterated hots for him, he becomes visibly bored, giving a look that one usually reserves for tax deadlines. "I don't ever think about it until people like you bring it up," he replies. "It just doesn't ever enter my mind. I keep it away."
Nor does Phoenix make any attempt to hide his outward disdain for the bubble-headed actors who enjoy such shallow adulation. "They are fueled by how their ego feels. How good they feel that day depends on how they feel about themselves. It's the character that you have to invest in, not yourself. I invest fully in the characters that I play. That's the only thing that gives me security. Not myself. Myself is a bum! Myself is nothing! I am a peon. I'm an idiot. I'm totally removed. I'm in the closet. I'm out of sight. You can't touch me. My character that I'm living takes me over for a while. I want to be able to believe these characters that I create."
The interview is coming to a close, but not before the young actor drives his observations home one last time. "I woke up from a nap the other night," he confides. "Everyone is cranky when they wake up. I thought to myself: 'I have no right to be cranky. I'm so lucky.' [Later] on my way to go to a restaurant, I get out of the car and I see this person on crutches. His sign says that he has AIDS and that his immune system is low. You know, he's broke, and his family won't talk to him because they can't eat because of the hospital bills. He didn't do this. The system did it - so that when someone has a chronic disease, it sucks him dry. He could have been in that same restaurant two years ago, eating and tipping big."
River sits briefly in silence thinking pensively of the stranger. "I felt blessed that I could drop a fifty on him."
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