River Phoenix: Running on a Full Set of ‘60s/'80s Ideals

Nurtured by the wide-open ideals of the 1960s and tempered by the efficiency-crazed 1980s, River Phoenix, 18-year-old moon child/man, displays both decades’ influences in his new movie, “Running on Empty,” and in the flesh.

There are, first off, the very sharp eyes of the adult Phoenix when he talks about acting and the Business. But get him onto “earth issues,” such as the environment or politics in general, and the agenda of the Age of Aquarius pops up instantly. And underlying it all is the reminder that, in spite of fame and money, 18 is a particularly vulnerable, unsure age.

“Hello there,” Phoenix said, leaning on one foot and standing by a window at the Bel Age Hotel. “Um, could we maybe do this (being photographed) on a canyon road somewhere, where there’s a lot of earth and not too many cars around?” But he quickly changed his mind, settling for the room’s balcony instead.

The thing immediately on Phoenix’s mind was a vague unease at having been type-cast for years as either a young stud (such as in 20th Century Fox’s “Night in the Life of Jimmy Reardon”) or your typical All-American adolescent (Columbia’s “Little Nikita”).


“What I’ve been concerned about, trying to fight,” he said slowly, “is getting caught up in one kind of part, labeled as one particular kind of actor. I think of the roles I’ve played lately, the one in ‘Running on Empty’ (being released Friday by Warner Bros.) shows the direction I want to head in: on the leading edge out of the teen years.”

“Running on Empty” casts Phoenix as the son of ‘60s activists (played by Christine Lahti and Judd Hirsch) who bombed a military contractor’s plant and are deciding whether to emerge from the underground. While John and Arlyn Phoenix never tossed Molotov cocktails, they are veterans of stints with religious communes, psychedelia and missionary work in South America during the ‘60s.

“There’s a connection there . . . I think that’s maybe why the ‘Running’ script (written by Naomi Foner) appealed to me from the start,” Phoenix said. “The concerns of these parents are something I could see my own parents dealing with, having dealt with.”

Phoenix paused. “My parents are also the main reason I’m still managing to have a life as a kid,” he said. “I mean, I could just have become . . . paralyzed by all this attention and what I guess is a kind of invasion into my life. The temptations to rebel, and to not produce any more, are always there; but the family makes them seem sort of ridiculous. I mean, it’s not what we were brought up with.”


Instead, there’s an unusual unity in the Phoenix family. And the children’s names--River, Rainbow, Leaf, Liberty and Summer--plus the entire family’s fervent vegetarianism bear witness to the family’s experimental, non-traditional background.

On the next balcony, 13-year-old Leaf Phoenix (who, like most of the Phoenix children, is also an actor) giggled at his brother’s seriousness. River shot him a mock-destructive scowl. “See, what we’d really like to do is have fun all the time, just mess around,” he went on. “But when your parents are also your business managers, the training to excel takes on a whole different angle.” He shook his head. “That’s the thing, see? I really want to get good as an actor. I want to grow in the profession. And that goal doesn’t leave room for fooling around much.”

After a period of uncertainty and skittishness during the shooting of “Jimmy Reardon” and just thereafter, Phoenix may be a lot closer to getting his wish. Critics and industry denizens alike are praising his performance in “Running on Empty,” in which he plays a budding young musician wanting to stay with his fugitive family but also develop his talent at Juilliard School of Music.

“Well, I’m just trying to learn,” said Phoenix of the good notices. “I’m certainly not an ego creature that eats everything in its path. I guess I’m stubborn about what I want, though. That could be it. (A large sigh.) I try not to get into that power game at all. It’s really dangerous for a kid. You wind up being so that’s all you respond to. I don’t need that kind of problem.”


The problematic young actor tag, earned or not, certainly doesn’t jibe with Phoenix’s peaches ‘n’ cream screen persona and personal air of languid impulsiveness. He seems to be a relatively relaxed teen-ager who speaks in equal measure of pantheistic belief systems and the discomfort of being adored by tens of thousands of young girls he’s never met.

“You mean there are hundreds of girls out there who really want to have a date with me?” Phoenix asked, squirming in his seat. “Wow. I mean, I’ve never really thought about that in those terms. It’s like there’s a football grandstand full of girls who think I’m the greatest without knowing anything about me personally. . . .”

He sat and took that in for a minute. “I guess that’s like being a football star or something, but it still makes me very . . . nervous, you know? It’s as if everybody’s getting all worked up over an image they don’t know anything about. And if you are that image . . . I mean, don’t they know I’m an actor?”

(For the record, Phoenix and Martha Plimpton--with whom he co-starred in both 1986’s “The Mosquito Coast” and the current “Running on Empty"--"are still best friends, and we hang out a lot . . . but it’s no big deal,” he asserted.)


Phoenix is clearly more comfortable talking about more universal concerns: the slow wasting of the environment, the death of literacy and the role of the turbulent 1960s in all of that. He’s horrified at the way the world is being managed.

“Really I think a lot of the current untruthfulness in the world was born in my parents’ days,” he said gravely, referring to the 1960s. “I don’t mean that, you know, they (those people) were liars or anything. But they were thinking one thing and, 10 or 15 years later, doing something completely different, a complete 180, you know? It’s creepy. I respect my parents for having stayed closer to those goals that they formed in the ‘60s.”

Phoenix paused and sighed. “I know a lot of people who try to keep the ideals of then, but then they usually wind up feeling like hypocrites,” he continued. “I just feel that things change and people change, and you just have to adapt to what’s happening in front of you. And what are people’s motives in legislating for change, anyway? Is it strictly rebellion, or is it just attention-getting? You gotta watch for people promising big changes.”

When asked if show business is a tough environment to grow up in, Phoenix shrugged with teen-aged sang-froid. “Don’t really know, I haven’t really grown up in it the same way, oh, I guess Jackie Cooper or those older guys did. I mean, my parents did encourage all of us to perform and stuff. But home was like a universe away from the set, or the producer’s trailer, or wherever. And home will always be a refuge from the business, like that Bob Dylan song. . . .”


And Phoenix, who seldom goes anywhere without a guitar and writes songs whenever he can, started humming Dylan’s “Shelter From the Storm.”

“That’s another gift from the past, man: great music,” he said. “If we can sort out what’s great about the past and apply it to the present, and leave the future to faith, I think . . . I think you’re pretty well taken care of.”