PREMIERE April 1988
AHEAD OF THE PACK
by Blanche McCrary Boyd
Not yet eighteen, River Phoenix is appearing in three new films. He's come a long way on vegetables and prayer.
RIVER PHOENIX AND I ARE GOING DOWNTOWN TO THE MUSIC store so he can buy a twelve-string guitar. On the dashboard of my rented Taurus he is demonstrating his ideas about living in the present. "If your mind's up here," he says, his long fingers sliding up the blue padded dashboard, "and you're really down here..."-he thumps the base of the vinyl hill-"then the guy down here isn't getting any attention."
River Phoenix is seventeen years old, and a phenomenon. In Stand By Me he p1ayed a bright working-class kid so well that people often remember the character's name, Chris Chambers. In The Mosquito Coast he upstaged an overacting Harrison Ford and an overambitious Peter Weir to become the emotional core of the film. "It's his eyes," a friend of mine says. "All the lights are on, and somebody's home."
For this extraordinarily protean young man, who was born in Oregon by natural childbirth to a round of applause and named for the river of life in Herman Hesse's Siddhartha, the natural identity crises of being a teenager are compounded by the pressures of worldly success.
Phoenix is appearing in three movies this year: A Night in the Life of Jimmy Reardon, his first leading role; Little Nikita, in which he costars with Sidney Poitier; and Running on Empty, directed by Sidney Lumet. He has come a long way from singing in the streets of Venezuela because his family needed money.
For much of Phoenix's childhood his family lived in South America, where his parents were missionaries for an organization called the Children of God. His father, John, was the church's archbishop of Venezuela and the Caribbean islands. Viewed in this context, River is rather an ordinary Phoenix. Asked if prayer is still important in his life, he says, without a trace of embarrassment, "I was reading some [of the] Bible this morning, and it was about prayer...."
"We prayed before everything," his mother, Arlyn, says. "The kids grew up going out on the street, telling people God loved them. They gave their lives to God. "
ARLYN PHOENIX IS EARTHY, dynamic, and direct-a compact woman with short, no-nonsense graying hair who exhibits none of the flakiness the family's history might suggest. On the Phoenix team, she is the center, if not the leader. John is dreamier, less grounded, and his past includes juvenile homes and a drinking problem. His eyes seem hurt and have a slight messianic glitter.
Arlyn and John met in 1968 in California. Arlyn was hitchhiking, and John picked her up. She was a Bronx Jew who'd dropped out of a marriage to a computer operator; John had been a dropout most of his life. "My dad's a seeker," River says. "He kicked ass as a missionary. "
The family currently lives in a rural part of northern Florida in a large white house surrounded by craggy live oaks draped with Spanish moss. "Drug dealers used to live here, " River says, as if attempting to explain the stripped, temporary quality of the house's furnishings. Apparently the family's sense of home is internal, something its members carry with them, because they have moved some 40 times in twenty years. Florida appealed to them because it's hot, and about as far south as one can get and still be in the country. They decided against Austin, Texas, their second choice, because of the noise from the airport in the middle of town. When I first arrive at the house, a lively discussion about drugs takes place. John and Arlyn describe the "religious awakening" they experienced twenty years ago through taking LSD. "I just instantly saw that I was living in a pit, " John says. "There were a lot of lost people, and the president wasn't necessarily the nicest guy in the world."
"Maybe you didn't need drugs to know that," River says.
"We'd heard acid was the truth serum," Arlyn replies. "It was the thing that was going to get you above the world, to a level of consciousness where you could feel the power of God. That was the only reason we took it. "
"Must it be through drugs?" River asks. I get the feeling he's had this discussion before, in a more '80s context.
"Certainly not, for your generation, " Arlyn says, and River seems mollified.
Arlyn and John gave up drugs, and everything else, when they joined the Children of God. "I never foresaw us having to go back to work for a living," John says. He'd been a carpenter and furniture refinisher, Arlyn a secretary. "I thought, Well, this is it, we just have to keep going toward God. ..."
Their leader was a man named David Berg, who contacted his followers through letters. These were wonderful letters of spiritual guidance, Arlyn says. Disillusionment came several years later and was confirmed when they saw an article on Berg in a magazine. He was wearing a black robe and rings on his fingers and was surrounded by nubile girls.
"We sort of snuck out," Arlyn says, understating a shattering decision that left the couple stranded in South America with no money and four small children. The family prayed for guidance and changed their name to Phoenix, after the mythical bird that rises from its own ashes. (They won't say what their former name was.) Then the Phoenixes set out to find a new life. In this new life, it gradually became clear, the children would be movie stars, and the parents their managers.
Four of the Phoenix children have had parts in movies. Leaf, thirteen, starred in last year's Russkies, in which Summer Joy, ten, had a smaller role. Rainbow, fifteen, had a small part in Maid to Order. Two years ago, the family incorporated, as Phoenix in Flight Productions, and although they continue to live a rather vagabond life, there are signs of budding affluence: a motor home and trampoline in the yard, a video camera in the living room.
There are also signs of discomfort. On the back of a photograph taken for an article in Life-a happy photograph of Arlyn and the couple's two youngest daughters-John has listed:
whites hacked to death
These are the items in the morning paper that caught his attention.
Despite their break with the Children of God, Arlyn and John feel that the spiritual effect the organization eventually had on their lives was positive.
"Praying for dinner and then hearing coconuts fall from the trees, " John says, "I mean, these were real things."
"Whatever that connection was that kept us through that time is still keeping us through this time," Arlyn says. "Because of that, the success and the money and the fame and all of that aren't really important to us. Aren't as important as accomplishing the mission of doing it, because we felt this was what God was leading us to do. And the children have the talent and everything to go with it. I mean, River has his own drive to do what he has done, and God willing, he will come out unspoiled." Something changes in her voice, a shift from explanation to evangelism, from hope to fairy tale: " And maybe by some other miracle we can use whatever we've gained to enlighten and help the entire world, not just our family...."
River interrupts. "Mom, can I have $650 cash? I want to go down and buy a new guitar."
IT'S HARD TO BE A NORMALLY smart-assed teenager in such a permissive atmosphere, hard to rebel against parents so rebellious themselves, and River Phoenix manages only patchily. On the way to the music store, we drive along a fast-food strip, and when we pass the Golden Arches, Phoenix says, "I hate McDonald's," then adds, "but they have the very best fries. " Like many gifted actors, he can make a trivial line sound full of meaning, and in his voice the weighty sound of a spiritual Phoenix presses hard against the temptations of the world.
The Phoenixes are radical vegetarians, vegans who eschew not only meat but all products that involve the exploitation of animals: eggs, cheese, leather, honey, and even certain soaps. It's an ethical position, a spiritual code, and a way of organizing their lives. "When we left the Children of God," Arlyn says, "we thought, what next? And vegetarianism was obvious, oh, yes."
Phoenix says it's easy for him to stay vegan because he's so used to it. He wants to go over to the University of Florida in Gainesville to check out the Hare Krishnas: he's heard they serve a free vegan lunch daily in the middle of campus, and he's hungry.
As he walks around staring at the preppie students scattered across the green, Phoenix seems to be fantasizing that he's one of them. "I like to pretend," he'd said earlier, explaining why the Jimmy Reardon role was so unsettling to his life.
In Jimmy Reardon he plays a wild, hard-drinking high schooler who loses his virginity to an older woman. "I thought that it was going to make me kind of grow up to all those people out there, you know, that it was going to be a real contrast to The Mosquito Coast. And I had the actor's excuse: it was just a character, it wasn't really me. " But he fears that by playing his role too well he has somehow condoned the character's behavior. "I mean, I was a pimp in the beginning of the movie...." And he has artistic doubts. "I saw a very rough cut, and the story was a lot simpler and a lot lighter then... you didn't really need anyone to act in it. You didn't need someone asserting himself. You just needed someone to play the guy being a smart-ass. "
The real problem was how thoroughly Phoenix immersed himself in his character. On location in Chicago with only his grandfather to supervise him, he says, "I could get away with a lot, because he didn't know me, so he didn't know how I acted. So I could not be River, and there wasn't my mom around to say, 'Hey, come on, what's going on, you're losing yourself. ' " Phoenix says he became so confused about who he was and who Jimmy Reardon was that "I was probably better off the set than I was on film."
After finishing shooting in Chicago, Phoenix had to go to Los Angeles for some reshoots. He drove a motor home across New Mexico and got stopped for speeding. He was sixteen, and the motor home was his own, not his family's, and his friend Larry, who was acting as his legal guardian, was crashed out in the back.
"They pull me over, I get out of the car, and I say ossifer instead of officer. And he was like, 'Yeah, very funny, kid. ' He was kind of a hard-ass New Mexican cop, and he went to phone some other guy to do a check. They can't believe a sixteen-year-old kid in a motor home-- What the hell? Did I just steal it or something? So I get down on the floor and start to do push- ups. It was like two in the morning, and I'm doing push-ups there. The guy comes out, and I don't stop for him, and it's like, 'What do you think you are, you clown?' Anyway, they searched the whole motor home for drugs and narcotics. They went through everything. " And this is typical Jimmy Reardon too: "The ticket said you had to pay it or end up in jail, and I didn't mail it in for three months."
When Phoenix finally returned home to his family, which was then staying in Key West, "I didn't know what I was supposed to be, or what people wanted me to be, or if I should be at all. People were asking for interviews, and I thought I was just a kid from Chicago. It was weird. I don't know. It was strange." Without the help of his family and friends, Phoenix says, he would have required psychiatric help.
In the middle of the University of Florida campus, Phoenix is eyeing a wiry white boy whose hair is in dreadlocks. He might be a musician, and maybe tomorrow Phoenix will speak to him. He is looking for a bass player to jam with in his garage.
By one of the pathways two Hare Krishnas are serving lunch from large vats set up on a folding table. Either Phoenix and I are early, or not many students crave vegan food served by a man and woman in orange robes who have white clay smeared on their faces. The man's head is shaved.
Phoenix is gracious as we take the food. He asks intelligent questions about Hare Krishna beliefs but seems most interested in how often they serve their meals. Upon being asked his name, he merely says, "River."
"River Phoenix?" the man with the shaved head asks.
They talk vegan for a while, and then the man presses for Phoenix's address. Phoenix is too canny to divulge it. "God bless, " they say to each other when we walk away.
"I've lived next door to so many kinds of people", Phoenix says. He says he respects what the Hare Krishnas are doing but feels that their beliefs are only a small part of the truth. He likes to use an analogy to stock cars and custom jobs to explain his spiritual eclecticism: "Some people might see a Ford and say, 'This is it for me.' But I want the fenders from Ford, the cams from Chevy...."
After Jimmy Reardon-"Let's not even think about that anymore, all right?"-came Little Nikita, in which Phoenix plays the son of Russian spies and Poitier plays a government agent. Initially, Phoenix thought the story was farfetched, that the son would of course know about his parents, but he thought it would be a great thing to fall into, after the risks of Reardon, to play a wholesome all-American boy whom he describes as "a very generic child. "
Richard Benjamin directed Little Nikita. "Richard Benjamin is a nice man, " Phoenix says carefully. "He's very calm on the set and in control, and he had a great sense of humor. He really is a good director. But he wouldn't let me see the rushes, the dailies." Not seeing the dailies, "I felt so out of place with my acting. I just felt off. And maybe it's good, because the guy's supposed to be insecure and confused." Phoenix uses the term "method directing" to describe how he felt Benjamin manipulated him into the character's state of mind. "I feel like I gave a television performance, a combination of Leave It to Beaver and Kirk Cameron and Michael J. Fox. "
If Richard Benjamin treated him like a child, Sidney Lumet was a happy contrast. Phoenix is full of praise for Lumet, who rehearsed Running on Empty as if it were a play, usually required only one take, and brought in the film a week ahead of schedule. Phoenix feels that Lumet helped him technically, teaching him to think of the camera as a character in the story. "The camera has its own style in the way it moves, in the way it watches. So you have to not be self-conscious, but you have to understand the way something is shooting. You have to see the look of the film.
"Sidney is just very secure in everything. He knows exactly what he wants. He said, 'Don't worry, I'll be able to tell the first day after dailies if you can handle them or not.' And he let all the actors see dailies, and it went well on that movie."
In Running on Empty, Phoenix plays the son of fugitives who bombed a napalm factory in the '60s and have been living underground for years. Of his forthcoming films, this is the one he feels best about, the one in which, he says, the experiences he went through with Jimmy Reardon came to fruition. "It gave me a certain edge that I definitely needed. It's... it's just a shade. I mean, it's like looking through a lens and dropping different filters on it. Every time you have a major experience, it's like you drop another filter down to get another effect. "
The impact of Phoenix's family situation on his ability to perform is difficult to overestimate. The Phoenixes are a team, a tribe, and a set of beliefs. River can lose himself in a role because his family provides him with a physical, emotional, and spiritual center. Somebody's home in his eyes because somebody's home at home, too.
All three of Phoenix's new movies are about coming of age, about growing past one's parents, and about loyalty and betrayal. It's tempting to draw parallels to his personal situation. "I've been so much more exposed than my folks think, " he says, the pain in his voice unmistakable. He mentions the plentiful supply of cocaine and alcohol on the set of The Mosquito Coast.
We are still sitting in the car waiting to go into the music store. It's toasty in the car, that delicious phase before sweat. Phoenix thinks maybe he doesn't deserve this new guitar until he's mastered the one he's already got. Anyway, it makes him nervous to spend so much money on a nonessential. Arlyn has given him a blank check.
LATER, AFTER PHOENIX BUYS the guitar, we go back to the house and hole up in the garage, and he plays some songs he's written. The best song draws on his relationship with Martha Plimpton, his love interest in both The Mosquito Coast and Running on Empty. His worst song, but perhaps his most touching, is one in which he openly merges "Mother Earth" with his real mother: "Don't bite the hand that heals your wounds and keeps you fed / Mother dear was always there to tuck us into bed / ...Still betraying Mother Earth
It's hard not to be touched by this beautiful boy struggling with grave moral issues who can speak with sophistication about acting yet who unself-consciously peppers his conversation with such sentences as "The Devil is so pretty and tempting" and guilelessly uses such words as "Antichrist."
"I am confused, " Phoenix says. "I go back and forth about success and wealth." When he thinks about the future, he dreams of founding a home for "abused kids, the homeless, the psychotics. " He wants to "take the Devil's bribe and use it for God." But mostly, he says, he'll try to stay in the present. Maybe he'll form a garage band. Maybe he'll never make another movie.
It's hot in the car, and sweat is glazing the skin above his lip.
"Sometimes I wish I wasn't as conscious as I am. It would be so much easier."
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