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A rising Phoenix

| Sunday, July 25, 2004

NEW YORK -- Joaquin Phoenix won't read this article.

He can't stand reading about himself, and he can't stand the fact that other actors do it. So he won't know of the sober, heartfelt praise his co-stars in "The Village" have for him.

From Sigourney Weaver, who plays his mother: "He's a very caring person with a lot of integrity, very sensitive. ... He reminds me a little bit of Bill Hurt in a way because Bill cares very much about things."

From William Hurt himself, who plays the village's leader: "That's a real compliment -- to me. ... He goes way deep."

From Bryce Dallas Howard, who plays the woman who loves him: "He's acting on a different plane. He's almost superhuman."

And from M. Night Shyamalan, who directed Phoenix in "The Village" and "Signs": "I think he's going to have a Sean Penn-like career."

Phoenix won't see any of that in himself, though -- and he probably won't see "The Village," (opening Friday) in which he plays a quiet young man who wants to venture into the woods where frightening forces lurk in late-19th century Pennsylvania. Something else he can't stand is watching himself on screen, despite having amassed an impressive filmography and an Academy Award nomination.

"It's not a satisfying feeling for me. I just always see things that I missed," the actor said in an interview with The Associated Press. "But I think also, I just think that it breeds a self-consciousness that's not going to serve me in my work. There are so many actors that start out as really great actors and through the course of their career -- eight years, six years -- something starts changing, and I think it's just that they start watching themselves.

"They start reading their interviews and looking at their pictures and they start thinking, 'Oh, I'm good at doing this' or 'I'm good at doing that' or 'I look good when I make that face.' ... Maybe I'll watch stuff when I'm done with acting but right now I don't want to think of myself that way."

Phoenix, 29, dismisses as "pure luck" the fact that he's crafted a career filled with serious, meaty roles. He has worked with respected directors who are visual stylists but also have something to say, including Gus Van Sant in "To Die For" (1995), Oliver Stone in "U-Turn" (1997), Philip Kaufman in "Quills" (2000) and Ridley Scott in "Gladiator," which earned him a supporting-actor Oscar nomination for playing the jealous, scheming Commodus. The film won five Oscars in 2001, including best picture.

"For me, honestly -- and sorry to sound cliche -- but it's just following your heart. I find that at the end of a film, I rarely know what I'm going to do next. I'm not one of those actors that has four movies lined up," Phoenix said. "I just suddenly have a feeling, something that I would like to try. I basically just go through the script until I find something that is closest to that feeling that I want to explore, and I've just been really fortunate in the scripts that have come my way when they have."

Phoenix was shooting "Gladiator" when "Quills" came to him, for example. Shyamalan saw him in that film, in which he played a priest battling his own lustful urges, and cast him in "Signs" as a former minor league baseball player who's living with his widower brother (Mel Gibson) when mysterious crop circles appear.

"'Signs' was kind of my attempt to bring him into that leading-man, good-guy role, make him the hero," Shyamalan said. "Because he's kind of intense and dark, people tend to cast him in mean roles or in the villain roles, and I really saw kind of the hero in him."

Adrien Brody, a "Village" co-star who also has carved out a career of quality films, said: "There are very few great roles out there that you would be right for and you have to be fortunate enough to get those roles, and then you have to be good in the auditions for those when they come up.

"I think Joaq has a similar approach, and also I appreciate his sensitivity as a young man," said Brody, an Oscar winner for 2002's "The Pianist." "I think it's difficult for young men to be sensitive in this world and I think you need to be as an actor."

In person, Phoenix is soft-spoken yet articulate, though he clearly doesn't enjoy talking about himself. (Weaver had suggested as much beforehand: "I'm actually surprised that he's doing an interview because he's not the most gregarious person in the world.")

He fidgets his way through the interview, smoking a succession of American Spirit cigarettes and stamping them out in a jammed ashtray (though he's gentlemanly enough to ask whether you mind if he smokes). Sitting on the edge of a couch in a hotel suite, he rolls and unrolls the sleeves of his black button-down shirt, runs his fingers through his dark, wavy hair and looks away for long stretches while answering questions.

When he does make eye contact, though, he reveals light blue eyes that could bore right through you. He shows unexpected flashes of humor with a quick, biting wit. And as a lifelong vegan, he gets passionate about subjects like body image in Hollywood.

"I'm so sick and (expletive) tired of every single actor with their six-pack and how it's just a standard. You just don't see people in movies without sculpted bodies with their shirts off unless they're meant to be some heavyweight redneck, and then they go the other extreme. It's bothersome because I just don't think it really reflects real people," he said.

"I actually had an agent at one point -- who I'm no longer with -- sit me down and say, 'You should go to the gym, your body is part of your work."'

He wasn't always so passionate about his work, though. He took some time off after his older brother, River Phoenix, died of a drug overdose in 1993 outside The Viper Room in Los Angeles. The star of "Stand by Me" and "My Own Private Idaho" was 23.

"Once I'd taken a break from acting for a few years, I really felt that there was something missing there, and I started again and I did this movie 'To Die For,'" in which he plays a misfit teen who's manipulated by an ambitious anchorwoman, played by Nicole Kidman. "I just realized, that's what was missing."

All five children in the family have been involved in performing in some way. Besides River, Joaquin's sisters -- Rain, Liberty and Summer -- have all acted, played in bands or both.

"We were always really encouraged to be expressive. We were never told that there was anything we couldn't do," he said. "Success was never defined for us by our parents. We were never told that you have to go to college and do this or that."

The Phoenix family moved around quite a bit, but Joaquin spent much of his childhood in Southern California's San Fernando Valley. These days, no place is really home -- sometimes he stays in New York, but he's currently filming "Walk the Line," in which he stars as Johnny Cash, in Memphis.

"I can't sing but I am singing," he said. "The idea is to not make a movie about the icon but to make it about a man. ... I have to think about him as just a man or else it would be overwhelming. It would be too much pressure."

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