A rising star

Summer's here - the feistiest of the Phoenix Clan is making her West End Stage Debut, with Matt Damon. By Garth Pearce.

At 24, Summer Phoenix is the youngest member of the oddest film family in Hollywood. Her brother River died after a drugs overdose, at the very point when he had established himself. Her other brother, Joaquin, who changed his name from Leaf, has had a string of leading roles, including the eccentric Emperor Commodus in Gladiator. Her sisters, Rain and Liberty, are still struggling. But Summer is definitely a-coming. She's currently on screen in the well-reviewed Dinner Rush, and is set to deliver a higly controversial role - considering the circumstances of her brother's death - as a heroin addict in the forthcoming Watsed. But she is also in London to make her stage debut as the female lead in This Is Our Youth, at the Garrick. Phoenix is in good company in this threehander. Matt Damon, who has an Oscar for writing Good Will Hunting and played the missing Private Ryan in Spielberg's masterpiece, is also taking the plunge for the first time. So is her real-life boyfriend, Casey Affleck, younger brother of Ben. "We will," she says, "be helping each other through the nerves." She is certainly well qualified to add some steel to the weakest of sinews. Her parents, John Bottom and Arlyn Dunetz, were flower children who married in 1969 and changed their names to Phoenix, as in Phoenix rising. They lived in communes, and they became missionaries for a cult called the Children of God - at one point, John became "Archbishop of Venezuela and the Caribbean Islands" - which took them across South and Central America. Their children were born in various locations along the journee: Oregon, Texas, Puerto Rico, Venezuela and, finally, in Florida. Her parents continued to follow the sun after her birth, this time to California. The children were turned into something akin to a poor man's Osmonds in the mid-1980s, singing on the streets of Westwood Village, Los Angeles, for anyone cared to put in their upturned hats. A passing casting director or two went a stpe further, offering the occasional audition. "That is how we all started," confirms Phoenix. "We went there as a family, with a sort of vision that we were going to 'make it' - whatever that meant. We were broke and had nowhere to stay, but the moment we started singing, we got some money together. Then the auditions River and Joaquin went to also began to pay off with jobs." This seemed to have worked well enough until River's death at  the age of 23, on October 31, 1993, from a drug overdose outside Johnny Depp's club, The Viper Room, in Los Angeles. He had already established himself, with an Oscar nomination as best supporting actor in 1989, for the film Running On Empty, and as the gay street hustler in My Own Private Idaho in 1991. The panicky emergency call on his collapse, made by Joaquin, then 19, was replayed repeatedly on television. Joaquin made a pact with his sister Rain, now 29, and River's actress girlfriend, Samantha Mathis - both were also at the club - never to talk about the tragedy. Talk or not, it had a shattering effect. The Phoenix parents, already estranged, split up, with Summer and Liberty, now 25, moving with their father to Costa Rica. Joaquin, who played Dianne Wiest's frustrated son in the 1989 hit comedy Parenthood, dropped out of acting altogether and travelled for two years. He finally returned in the film To Die For, being seduced by Nicole kidman's murderous TV weathergirl. So what was happening to Summer during these turbulent times? "I ran a small vegan restaurant in Costa Rica for a couple of years with my sister," she says. "My sister was head chef, and I was the sous-chef. I would also deal with complaints. Customers would say things like "There is a bug in my salad', and I would say, "It is Costa Rica. Deal with it.'" She has been dealing with her life since in her own sassy manner. At times, she seems like a sharp, feet-on-the-sidewalk New Yorker - it has been home since her late teens. At others, with her dark hair, intense brown eyes and husky voice, she could be from South America. In shortsleeved top, skintight jeans and pointed, highly polished boots, she has the appearance of a dancer or model. "I could be a lot of things," she agrees, "But my appearance actually limits me in Hollywood. I have angrily walked out of auditions because I've been told that I am too ethnic-looking. I am not going to be cast as a cheerleader, that's for sure." With her looks and her indie-girl attitude, she was perfect as the streetwise artist Marti, working to supplement her income at the supermarket  Manhattan diner in Dinner Rush. In Esther Kahn, yet to be released, she plays the title role, a young Jewish19th-century londoner who dreams of acting. "That is a beautiful film," she says. "I got to act alongside the British great Ian Holm." Of her latest film, Wasted, she says: "It is based on a  true story that took place in the town of Plainer, in Texas, an uppermiddle-class suburb," she says. ťA total of 17 kids died in 16 months from heroin overdoses. It was like an epidemic. it is an interesting piece, because it shows that there is no prejudice when it comes to drug addiction. It can happen to anybody. The fact that it happened to her brother is something she is willing to address. "I did not think about River when I accepted the role," she says. "I focused more on my character, Samantha - a normal high school - and what she was going through." She lets out a dismissive snort when I ask if her character survives. " Are you kidding?" she asks. "My mother would have disowned me had she died. It's all too close to reality. So, yes, she gets clean." It is clearly still a subject hard for the family. " We all suffered equally after his death," she says. "it was a crushing blow. We can talk about it among ourselves. His memory won't die." The tragedy also seems to have brought her even closer to Joaquin. "He is my big brother now, and gives me advice on everything," she says. One of her brother's great gifts to her, she insists, has been his long-term friendship with her boyfriend, Casey Affleck. "As a result, I've known Casey for eight years as a friend, too," she says. "But I discovered that he had been in love with me for most of that time - and had been trying to win me over. I did not understand the courting process. I thought he was just making fun of me, when in fact he was flirting." Affleck, now 26, finally had to spell out his feelings in capital leeters. "My brother was staying at Casey's appartment in New York when Casey was out of town, and I joined him for a few days," she says. "He was on the phone to my brother and asked to speak to me. We talked for a time and I said: 'You have a beautiful apartment' He said: 'The only thing missing is you. be there for me when I get back.' So I stayed, we started dating and we have been together for a couple of years." There is a touch of similarity in the plot of This Is Our Youth in which Affleck's character Warren, much admires Phoenix's Jessica. The play is set in 1982, at the dawn of the Reagan era, and depicts 48 hours in the lives of three bored middle-class kids from New York's Upper West Side, who have $15.000 of stolen money to blow on a hedonistic spending spree. Is she worried about her stage debut? "I am working on my way up slowly," she says. 'This is just another step, in which I have to prove myself to myself. That is the only way I can deal with it all."