The Days of Summer
Never mind the door-opening last name. Summer Phoenix is determined
to make it in Hollywood on her own dime with a slew of roles that
revisit her Jewish roots.
Seven minutes into Summer Phoenix's audition for "Esther Kahn" —
about an 1890s Jew who wants to become an actress — director Arnaud
Desplechin hastily left the room. "The casting directors were
like, `OK, thank you,'" recalls the exuberant, almond-eyed Phoenix,
sister to actors Joaquin and the late River. "I walked away, but then
I just started sobbing and I ran back up the stairs. I cried, `Esther
Kahn' is the role I've been waiting for. This can't be my last
* Born on December 10, 1978, Summer Joy Phoenix is the fifth and
final child of Arlyn and John Phoenix, a carpenter. Summer grew up
mainly in Southern California but spent her remaining teen years in
Central Florida, where she was born. She is an active supporter of
numorous charities, mainly concerning the environment. Summer has
also appeared in many print ads in Europe.
* Competed with sister Liberty for the part of Candi in "Russkies."
* Is a vegetarian
* Attended New York University Film School.
* Starred as the "F'%# You Girl" in the 1998 film, The Faculty. That
same year, she starred as "Stoned Girl's Friend" in Can't Hardly
Wait. But don't try to find her in that film. The scene she's in was
deleted from the final version.
* Dating her brother Joaquin's best friend, Casey Affleck (yes, that
Which is when the casting directors explained the bizarre reason for
Desplechin's hasty exit: Phoenix looked exactly like the London
Jewish immigrant he'd envisioned as his heroine. Her 19th century
photo hung in his Paris office. The director hadn't left the room
because he had been disinterested — he'd run outside to be sick.
"Arnaud is pretty intense," concedes Phoenix, who nevertheless had to
prove herself in three more grueling auditions before landing the
role in Desplechin's moody, slow-moving film. She'd all but given up
hope when the call came from France seven months later — in winter
1998 — the same day she learned Joaquin had been cast
in "Gladiator." "Will you be my Esther Kahn?" Desplechin said in his
thick French accent. A stunned Phoenix was on a plane to London that
night. Five days later, production began.
The part was worth the wait. "I'd fallen in love with Esther," says
Phoenix ("The Believer," "The Laramie Project"), now 24. "I
identified with her. At the time, I was also an actress who was
silently waiting for my chance. I just needed an opportunity to prove
it, to show it, to be it."
"… I was just so proud to bring the Jewish part of me out in that
film ..."-- Summer Phoenix on 'Esther Kahn'
During the exhausting, three-and-a-half month shoot, Phoenix drew on
her mother's Russian-Hungarian Jewish roots to play Kahn, who toils
in her immigrant family's sweatshop before entering the theater. "The
Jewish slum life of London's East End was not unlike the Lower East
Side in the 1890s," she says.
By the time Phoenix's mom, Arlyn Dunetz, was born in the Bronx in
1944, the family consisted of cultural Jews who celebrated the
holidays but did not attend synagogue. In 1968, Dunetz, weary of her
conventional secretarial job, left her Jewish neighborhood, according
to Us magazine. Hitching west, she was picked up by John Bottom, the
lapsed Catholic who would become Phoenix's father. Summer, the
youngest of their five children, was born after the family fled a
Venezuela-based Christian cult and moved in with Dunetz's parents in
During her unconventional childhood, Summer traveled the country in a
motor home and, after her family moved to Los Angeles, began
performing on the streets with her siblings. She ate strictly vegan
food, starred in TV sitcoms, was home-schooled and in her teens,
worked in her father's veggie restaurant in Costa Rica. Her maternal
grandparents were a solid presence throughout her nomadic
life: "Though my mother became Christian for a time, that never
mattered to them," she says. "While Judaism was important to my
grandparents, they were very open-minded. My grandmother died two
months before I went off to make `Esther Kahn,' and I felt like I was
really doing the movie for her. I was just so proud to bring the
Jewish part of me out in that film."
The movie was like Judaism 101 for Phoenix. During the rehearsal
period, she visited Jewish museums, studied photographs of 19th
century Jewish life and pored over English-language translations of
Yiddish plays. Her Jewish education continued when Henry Bean cast
her as a fascist who studies Torah with her conflicted Jewish neo-
Nazi lover in "The Believer."
Bean has said he wrote the role especially for Phoenix after meeting
her at a dinner party two years ago. "There was this moment when I
encountered Summer in the kitchen washing dishes with one hand and
smoking with the other," he told TV Guide. "There was just something
about that that fascinated me. I mean, here was this girl who's so
[healthy], she's never eaten any animal product in her life, and
she's standing there smoking a cigarette."
While the actress was initially hesitant to accept the controversial
role, Bean's powerful script eventually won her over. One of the best
parts of the shoot: Chanting Hebrew prayers and attending synagogue,
she says. "Just being in temple and learning the blessings for the
first time in my life was very powerful," she adds.
But Phoenix insists it wasn't paradoxical to go from playing a Jew
in "Esther Kahn" to a neo-Nazi in "The Believer" (which earned her an
Independent Spirit Award nomination). "I focused on the fact that the
characters were both girls struggling to become women," she
says. "They were both trying to find their places in the world."
The protagonists also struggle to accept themselves, sometimes with
which Phoenix can relate. "When I was a teenager, I remember
realizing I was different and not liking my differences," she
says. "I had a weird name, I didn't go to high school, I was vegan.
But as you grow older, you realize the beauty in being unique. You
realize that being different is special."