Walking With Demons
By Stephen Dalton
Having built a career playing sensitive monsters, from To Die For to Gladiator, Joaquin Phoenix himself is no stranger to perversity and darkness.
The devil in Joaquin Phoenix has served him well. But after years of playing demonic meatheads and would-be mobsters, debauched boy-emperors and lowlife losers, the intense young star has finally landed a role on the side of the angels — as a pious man of god in Philip Kaufman's Quills. The third high-profile film role for Phoenix in just 12 months, Quills recreates the last days of the Marquis de Sade, played here by Geoffrey Rush. The provocative literary libertine is locked up in Charenton asylum while Joaquin's spiritually tormented priest, Coulmier, attempts to cure him of his sexual obsessions. As ever, though, Phoenix exposes the devil inside us all when his saintly clergyman evolves from buttoned-down minister to lust-crazed maniac. All of which, argues Joaquin, boils down to a topical argument against emotional repression and artistic suppression.
"Listen, its not my thing to watch performance art," he says. "But I'm not going to tell anyone else not to see it! If my sister wanted to go and see a guy nail his dick to a fucking wall, fine, it's not for me to choose. I think the problem is people not accepting responsibility — and society not accepting responsibility is bullshit, too. That's what Quills is about, placing the blame of the world on certain figures without recognising it in ourselves — hypocrisy, that's the sickness. Sometimes, when people are so opposed to something, you wonder why does it threaten you so much? Do you fear you have those desires, too? Do you want to go and have a little wank watching whoever it is doing their thing?"
In London for a flying promotional visit, Phoenix looks grungy and anonymous, a slighter figure than his recent grand guignol turns in Gladiator and The Yards would suggest. You might easily walk past this dishevelled, chain-smoking 26-year-old in the street, but his hyperactive conversation and revved-up intensity hint at the qualities which have made him one of the screen's most versatile anti-heroes in recent years. James Gray, director of The Yards, calls this Joaquin's "inner Beelzebub".
In Quills, the Devil certainly seems to get the upper hand. But Phoenix insists this is merely a highly current message about censorship and self-control. "Just police yourself," he shrugs. "It's really up to the individual to decide whether they want to see a particular film, or read a book, go to a fucking sex shop — whatever they want to do, because I don't think you're ever going to stop it. "Historically, we have done drugs, we have had pornography, we have had prostitutes, all these things we have tried to push into the bad section of town, we try and close off from our little utopia, this kind of bullshit ideal. That's what Quills is about — accepting every part of human nature and accepting the perversity and darkness that we all have, and the joy and the light and the beauty as well. That is a complete human being."
Phoenix may have carved his career out of playing freaks, misfits or murderers, but his own life has been cursed with more that its fair share of tragedy and heartache. It was Joaquin who phoned the emergency services from outside Hollywood's Viper Room in October 1993 when big brother River collapsed on the pavement from a drugs overdose. Inevitably, he shuns all questions on this subject, although he recently admitted, "I've come nearer acceptance — I wouldn't say understanding, because its something I'll never understand — but just an acceptance of River's death." Following this public tragedy, the Phoenix family history was scrutinised endlessly in the media. Understandably so, since on the surface it reads like a sensational rags to riches soap opera of utopian idealism corrupted by sex, drugs and sinister spiritual gurus. This colourful saga began when Arlyn Sharon Dunetz quit her dead-end job in New York at the height of the Summer of Love and set off westward to find herself. Almost immediately she ran into her future husband, out-of-work actor John Bottom, and together they spent several years touring the hippie communes of California.
These idealistic drop-outs married in 1969 and gave birth to their first son, River Jude Bottom, in 1970. Two years later, Arlyn and John changed the family name to Phoenix after joining the Children of God, a secretive religious cult led by "Moses" David Berg, which was later investigated by the FBI over alleged child abuse — indeed, River Phoenix once claimed to have lost his virginity at the age of four. Involvement with Berg took the nomadic clan first to Puerto Rico, where Joaquin was born in 1974, then on to Venezuela. Three more children followed — Rainbow, Summer and Liberty. Joaquin, however, disputes whether his parents were ever cult members. "It might have become a cult, but when we were there it was a really religious community," he argues. "It was a time when people were questioning the nuclear family of the Fifties, people were saying they weren't satisfied with the upbringing their parents had, is there another way? My parents were just searching for an alternative way of raising their children, they didn't want to raise us in the Bronx. My mom was raised in the Bronx, and she was scared every day coming home from school."
Cult or not, the Phoenix family eventually grew disillusioned with the Children of God and stowed away from Venezuela to Florida in 1978.
"My parents have never been blind followers," says Joaquin. "In fact, they recognised that it was shifting and the ideas behind it wasn't what they wanted, so we left. The awful stuff I've heard about the group in the Eighties, that wasn't our experience. We were trying to figure out how to make alternative societies, and a lot of them fell to the same mistakes that our larger society has made, in which people's egos and greed took over. I think that's what happened to that community. But it wasn't the picture people paint."
After hauling the family from Florida to LA, John was barred from work by back problems, so Arlyn found a job at an NBC casting office. She also secured an agent for her photogenic brood, insisting that all five were taken on as a package. Joaquin rechristened himself Leaf, mainly because Americans had trouble pronouncing his Spanish name, and began landing small roles in the shadow of big brother River. His first TV job arrived at the age of eight.
As River's career flourished, the family relocated to a Florida ranch. John and Arlyn finally separated, and she took on the role of home tutor to her offspring. Joaquin then spent his late teens with his father in Mexico, reverting to his Spanish name. Hardly a traditional childhood, but Joaquin argues that normality is relevant.
"First, I wanna know what normal is because my parents are probably two of the best people in the entire world," he says. "They encouraged our artistic expression, it was a very liberal household, and it was also quite normal as well — I mean my mom worked at NBC for six years. For some reason there's this perception that we drove round in a VW van our whole life, and were lost, scrubby kids, but during that period we didn't have any fucking money! It's unbelievable that I can function at all considering what my parents were up against — they didn't have much support financially or anything, and yet they persevered. I think we grew up well-adjusted."
From child actor to indie misfit to brooding Hollywood anti-hero, Joaquin Phoenix is finally a mainstream star in his own right, transcending all lingering associations with his late brother. A vegan and animal rights activist, like River, he sees no ethical conflict in fronting publicity campaigns for both the anti-cruelty charity PETA and glitzy designer Prada.
"Not really," he shrugs. "First, the campaign for Prada was for clothing and for PETA it was specifically for turkey at Thanksgiving. But what the Prada campaign allowed me to do was part of providing me with the voice and profile to do the PETA commercial. It I wasn't an actor and I didn't have the level of fame I have, I wouldn't be able to talk about those issues that are important to me. You have to get the right balance."
The same sense of balance also governs Joaquin's acting career. He refuses to confine himself to one genre, arguing, "I'm not the indie kid and I'm also not the John Grisham novel hero, but I am all of those things. I do whatever excites me at the time. I'll be in some huge $80 million buddy-cop movie, I don't care, and I'll also do some wild independent movies. You can use both, and what I learn in one film, I apply in another."
After Quills, Joaquin will co-star alongside Ed Harris and Anna Paquin in Gregor Jordan's Buffalo Soldiers, a tragicomic satire set on a US army base in Germany during the Reagan era.
"It was policy in the Eighties when people committed misdemeanors that they could spend a certain amount of time in the military or in prison," Phoenix says. "This guy I play is not a soldier, he doesn't care about the Army, he doesn't think about war. He is basically trying at all costs to avoid war. So you have these young killers who are placed on this army base, and there is no war, so they war among each other."
Another study in moral ambivalence from cinema's most charming devil?
"I certainly try and create the most complex character that I can because I'm fascinated by human complexity," nods Joaquin, "by you and me, how you are right now, and by how you might be at home. I know there's a little devil in you and a little angel in you, and I believe in the yin and yang, the duality of human nature."
Light and dark, yin and yang, pain and pleasure. The devil in Joaquin Phoenix is not ready to retire just yet.