Chill, Sister Tatler April 2002
Coming from a bunch of hippies, Summer Phoenix is not fazed by fame, says Emily Sheffield
Summer Phoenix stands patiently, left breast accidentally exposed to the camera and an expression of composed resignation freezing her delicate features, while four assistants flutter frantically around her, primping, fussing and pulling. Now the publicity agent and photographer move in, like moths to the light, and the svelte 23-year-old is finally obscured from view.
Disguising young stars with a glossy veneer of perfection is an accepted process in Hollywood – one which her Oscar-nominated brothers, the late River and 27-year-old Joaquin, have already endured. In River's case, it was perhaps disastrous : the young actor had reached icon-like status by the time he died in 1993 from a drug overdose.
Happily, the youngest of the famous Phoenix five is untouched by her sudden climb in Hollywood ranks (she is currently promoting five film releases in the States). When we meet, she is upbeat and relaxed, shunning the fussy, expensive lunch menu at LA's grand Château Marmont Hotel for a $4 takeaway salad, which she whips out from a plastic bag.
'Oh my God. yesterday was so ridiculous,' she drawls, rolling her yellow-flecked chestnut eyes and pulling a black corduroy jacket around her shoulders. 'It has never been like that before. Six people at one time. I was like, "What are you all doing here?"' The fun part, she continues, was trying on all the designer clothes, including the red Burberry cords she got to keep. 'Normally, I shop for second-hand clothes. My Mom lives in Florida and there's a lot of people who die there,' she says, straight-faced. 'They give all their clothes to the Salvation Army, so you can pick up vintage Pucci or Yves Saint Laurent for a quarter of their worth.'
Like Joaquin before her, Summer has opted for gritty, complex roles, avoiding the teen movie genre that has swept America: a neo-fascist in The Believer (screened in Britain last year), then a heroin addict in MTV's Wasted. 'Joaquin's advice has always been, "Don't sell yourself short; do something because you believe in it and make sure you have an emotional connection to it," she repeats, compensating for the piety of the Phoenix family vegan diet by lighting up an (albeit organic) American Spirit cigarette.
Emotional and anguished can get repetitive, and Dinner Rush, her latest film to reach British shores, offered Summer the chance to play someone closer to her own character. The film, directed by Bob Giraldi, is set in a Mafia owned Manhattan restaurant. Summer plays Marti, a young waitress and struggling artist. 'She was just an ordinary girl with no weird hang-ups, and I loved that.'
Despite her packed résumé, Summer denies she is ambitious. 'No. I wish I was. I'm certainly not lazy at work but I'm also not a real mover and shaker. It takes me a week to write a To Do list,' she chortles throatily. 'You know, I love sleeping, eating, laying around watching movies. I'm so disorganised,' she adds. 'My friends call me the bag lady.'
Most of the lounging and eating takes place in New York, where she lives with her boyfriend of two years, 26-year-old Casey Affleck (younger brother of Ben Affleck and Joaquin's best friend). Is this her first serious relationship? 'No, it's not my first but the first that will be my last,' she smiles coyly. So he's the one? 'Oh yes, absolutely,' she groans. 'But I guess I'm old-fashioned in that I'm not going to ask him to marry me.'
Summer sweetly attributes her success to her parents, John Bottom and Arlyn Dunetz (they changed their name to Phoenix in a hippie ceremony in 1979). 'They really instilled in us that we were unique, original and beautiful, and that nothing was beyond us,' she recalls.
Money was tight during her parents' early married years. After touring South and Central America as missionaries for the religious sect Children of God, they returned to California. Arlyn worked as a secretary for a casting director at NBC in LA, while John was 'Mr Mom' and tutored the children at home. 'We used to sing on the streets for cash in Beverly Hills,' says Summer. 'We were like the von Trapp family. We would do little choreographed dances in banana-yellow outfits.'
This being Hollywood, the cute Phoenix Family act soon attracted an agent. Summer began working in television at the age of three. In 1986, River gained huge critical acclaim for his performance in Rob Reiner's award-winning Stand By Me. With success came financial security, and the family settled in Florida.
'Money bought such a freedom, it was a really beautiful thing,' she says poetically. 'We could finally buy a house we fitted into.' Although John and Arlyn separated in 1990, the close-knit family still unites several times a year. 'We just eat, listen to music, reminisce. I'm lucky as I adore both my step-parents,' she continues happily. Recently, I held my dad's hand in one and my step-dad's in the other, and I was like, "Yeah, this is really cool."'
Not all the siblings remained in film. Liberty quit acting at 20 to be a mother, and Rain, the eldest, is about to release her first LP and contributed a song to the Wasted soundtrack. 'She is a phenomenal artist,' Summer says 'with just the most beautiful voice.'
Summer was the only sister to accompany Joaquin to last year's Academy Awards, where he was nominated as Best Supporting Actor for Ridley Scott's Gladiator 'It was a spot-on performance, wasn't it'?' she grins. Has his fame had a derogatory effect on their family life? 'Yeah, but we've been dealing with fame all our lives,' she shrugs, eyes narrowing. 'I do get protective of Joaquin. I hate it when people stare.'
Summer is now roughly the same age as River was when he suffered his high-profile heroin-induced heart failure outside the Viper Room in LA. She had just returned to California after spending three years with her father in Costa Rica. You can only guess at the affect his death had on her; despite chatting openly about the rest of her siblings and familial habits during the interview she doesn't once mention River. All Summer has said in the past is that 'no dream was ever too big' for her beloved brother. Big dreams are clearly a family trait. She'd like her next film to be more mainstream, an action thriller. 'Basically, I want to kick ass.'
Summer kisses me goodbye and says finally: 'I know I can do any thing, given the chance. Anybody can do anything given the chance.' And with a big smile, she turns and bounds out into the street.