Happy Days of Summer

You, 25 November 2001 UK magazine

The youngest of the talented Phoenix clan, Summer has followed her siblings - River, Rain, Joaquin and Liberty - into acting. Here she tells Bridget Freer that despite her parents' divorce and the death of River, the family remains united.

Summer is sitting on a plush opera chair, looking the picture of New York sophistication: her glossy dark blond hair drawn back in a severe chignon, her almond eyes fixed on the middle distance with a coal, calm intensity, a pretty pink dress floating over her svelte form. When the camera stops flashing for an instant, she looks up with a friendly smile and greets me warmly. Then the photographer indicates she's ready to roll again, the smile vanishes, the chilly poise returns and Summer is back at work.

It is an astonishingly rapid chameleon act - from ice maiden to nice girl and back again. But Summer Phoenix, a member of one of Hollywood's most talented acting dynasties, is that rare thing: a consummate but detached professional. Insiders have eagerly awaited her ascent into the 'family business'. At 22, she's the youngest of the Phoenix clan, which has also supplied Hollywood with the Oscar-nominated Joaquin, 27, the late River, and the equally imaginatively named Rain, 28, and Liberty, 25.

Following a family trait, Summer has thus far opted for challenging and complex roles. Her latest film, that will soon bring her to British screens (and a more mainstream audience), is no exception: she stars as a neo-fascist in love with a Jewish neo-Nazi in The Believer (which won the grand jury prize at this year's Sundance Festival).

'People always say, "Wow! Your whole family!"' says Summer, and she seems bemused as to why it should be that such a display of the hereditary nature of acting ability might prove so fascinating. 'It's hilarious. There are so many [acting families] in this business; you've got the Baldwins, the Sheens... I think it is kind of bizarre to single us out. Although it's true, at the beginning we sort of had this idea that we were going to change the world and get our points of view out there by gaining recognition. It's not about that now. We just want to act.

'But then we do all have weird names, we are all vegan, we have a different philosophy of life and we're very tight-knit, so I don't know...' she concedes. 'Maybe I can see the curiosity.'

Later, the shoot finished, Summer is back in her customary jeans and T-shirt, eating samosas and salad with gusto. She is still in full make-up, but the freshness of her complexion is evident. I wonder if this has anything to do with the vegan diet the Phoenix family was reared on. 'It's a gift that my parents raised me this way. I am as healthy as an ox, and, I think, a good poster child for that way of life. Meal times are still a huge ritual for us. There are certain dishes -tofu salad and tabbouleh -that we associate with our childhood, so it's nice to get together and make them.'

Inevitably, Summer's values (and those of her siblings) were shaped by her bohemian parents, John Bottom and Arlyn Dunetz, who married in a hippie ceremony in 1969 and changed their name to Phoenix. 'It was about changing who they were and starting new lives and a family together,' explains Summer. 'And the idea of Phoenix is exactly that: they wanted to rise from their respective ashes.'

In their early married life, John and Arlyn lived in communes and then became missionaries for a cult called Children of God, which took them across South and Central America (John, a carpenter, was the sect's 'Archbishop of Venezuela'). By the time Summer was born, the family had left the church, but they still couldn't manage to stay stationary for long. 'We just always travelled a lot. River was born in Oregon, Rain in Texas, Joaquin in Puerto Rico, Liberty in Venezuela, and me in Florida. It was a nomadic, gypsy sort of life. I loved it; it's in my blood still. I travel all the time - not always for work.'

At the age of three, Summer was already acting in TV commercials. At the time, the family was living in Los Angeles and her mother worked as a secretary for a casting director at NBC. Ever since their missionary days, River and Rain had taken to singing and playing guitar in public. In LA, all five kids were in a band - the Phoenix Family - and their dad took them out to sing on the streets, in jails and in orphanages. Their mother's boss was so intrigued that he made a documentary about them. As a result, all five of them signed up with the same agent, who encouraged them to go into acting.

'I acted in commercials and sitcoms up until I was 12,' says Summer. Then her parents split up; her mother moving to Florida and her father to Costa Rica. Liberty and Summer went with their father, while River, Rain and Joaquin stayed in the States and carried on working in TV and films.

'I scaled waterfalls, rode horses, worked in a restaurant and just was a kid,' says Summer. 'By the time I was 15, I was tired of that. Costa Rica is a beatiful country but I wasn't gaining anything. I just felt like, oh man, nothing seemed to change and I wanted to change.'

As it turned out, her life did change that year - with the death of her eldest brother, River. He was only 23, but had achieved almost iconic status as one of the most promising young actors of his generation. His first major film was Rob Reiner's award-winning Stand by Me, he was nominated for a best supporting actor Oscar for Running on Empty and received huge critical acclaim in My Own Private Idaho. Then, in October 1993, after a night out with Rain and Joaquin in Johnny Depp's LA club the Viper Room, he died of a drugs overdose. Joaquin, whose emergency call that night was widely broadcast, has briefly alluded to the acute pain the family felt at having their whole world 'raided and raided' by the media. Otherwise, the family's agreed coping mechanism has been not to talk about it.

This presents something of a dilemma for Summer, who brings to all other subjects a natural openness and candour. 'It can make giving an interview a bit of an ordeal,' she agrees. 'You go into it very tentatively because of all the nightmares that have occurred in the past. Reporters seem to want you to give them something sensationalistic, and I think, "What is that?" It's like the rubbernecking that happens after an accident - our culture is bizarre on that level.'

Not that I have mentioned River's death to Summer. But it has hung heavy in the air and it is a relief now that she has unblocked the impasse. Instead, we talk about her life in New York, where she has lived since leaving Costa Rica. For the past two years, she has shared 'a tiny apartment on the cusp of TriBeCa' with her actor boyfriend Casey Affleck (brother of Ben Affleck) with whom she seems very much settled. 'I love him so much,'she says. 'Even if he didn't love me, I would have kept on loving him and that would have been that. But I am lucky that I got his love.'

By that, Summer means she spent years nursing a serious crush on Casey, who is Joaquin's best friend - they met when they both worked on To Die For. 'Joaquin predicted that Casey was going to fall in love with me,' says Summer. But when they finally met months later she had a boyfriend, so they were just friends. Over the years they'd have the occasional 'episode', but it never really got off the ground. They even made a film together, ironically entitled Committed, and were still, she says, 'just friends, even though I was in love with him'.

Eventually, when Summer was in Florida visiting their mother, Joaquin brought Casey along. 'We were kind of flirting, but then he had to leave and asked if I'd take him to rent a car. So I did, and he said, "I'm driving home to New York but I might stop in Savannah. Do you want to come with me?" We've pretty much been together ever since. He just gave me a set of house keys and said, "Put all of your stuff in the drawers," and that was it. It was completely open and beautiful. He is the utmost rarity.'

He is also, it seems, the perfect on-set boyfriend. 'Because he's an actor too, he respects the process and the inevitable relationships that form,' she says. 'It becomes very familial and he understands that - he just fits right in.'

Summer's next production, The Believer, is out in the UK on 7 December, but its release in the States has been delayed until next spring because the last scene is of a terrorist explosion. 'Part of me thinks, "Maybe more people will see it if it comes out later," and I kind of feel disgusted that I can think that way,' she confides.

'I live on Canal Street looking south and our prized view used to be the river - and the World Trade Center. So on 11 September I saw the whole thing out of my window.' Asked if the catastrophe had brought her family closer together, she says, 'No. It couldn't. My family is always together. I speak to them every day. Growing up, we had no money, so there was no possibility of spoiling us, but we were all spoiled equally with love, and that is a brilliant thing. I will still crawl up in my mom's lap and nuzzle my face in her neck and make her hold me.'

Joaquin, too, has spoken of the family's closeness, referring to them as 'Team Phoenix', and admitting he called on them to come for 'relief visits' while filming Quills in London. 'It was the best,' recalls Summer. 'My mom and Rain and Liberty and I were pretty much there with him throughout.'

Better still was the time she signed the contract to work on Esther Kahn in London, only to discover that the very same day Joaquin had signed for Gladiator, also to be filmed in London. 'He saved my life,' she says. 'I had my own flat, but the minute he got there I was just living in his hotel room. It can be lonely on a film set, and England is so far away. It was really nice having somebody to go home to and eat with and hang out with.'

When Joaquin was nominated for an Oscar as Best Supporting Actor in Gladiator, he took his mother to the ceremony and invited Summer and Casey to the party afterwards. 'We ended up dancing salsa all night long, beaming with pride,' Summer recalls. 'You don't see many other sisters and moms at the Oscars,' she laughs.

The Believer is released on 7 December