New York Daily News, March 2002
The first time actress Summer Phoenix auditioned for Arnaud
Desplechin's film "Esther Kahn," the writer/director abruptly left
the room after a few minutes.
"Thank you," the casting directors told her. Phoenix walked away in
tears. Esther was the role she had been waiting for. This couldn't be
her last chance. So she turned and sped back upstairs into the
auditioning room and cried, "I want this movie so badly."
That's when the casting directors explained Desplechin's hasty exit:
In his office hung a picture of what he dreamed Esther would look
like. When Phoenix walked in, he saw Esther in the flesh. But not
until three auditions and many nerve-wracking months later was
Phoenix offered the role. On the same day her brother Joaquin learned
he'd won the role of Commodus in "Gladiator," and when she picked up
the phone, she expected him to be on the line. Instead she heard
Desplechin asking in his thick French accent: "Do you want to be my
The first English-language film by Desplechin, "Esther Kahn" is based
on an Arthur Symons short story about a young woman living with her
Jewish immigrant family in London's East End at the end of the 19th
century. Esther, the youngest of the clan, is numb and detached until
she discovers the theater and carves her identity as an actress.
Along the way, she is tutored by the actor Nathan Quellen (Ian Holm)
and falls under the spell of a theater critic (Fabrice Desplechin,
the director's brother), who teaches her heartbreak.
It was Esther's journey to womanhood that resonated with Phoenix. Now
24, she was 20 - Esther's age at the end of the story - when she made
"There were so many moments when I was living as Esther that bled
into my life and things in my life that bled into Esther's," she
says. "I was at a place where I was silently waiting for my chance.
Somebody just needed to give me [it], and Arnaud did that."
The role required Phoenix to play an actor learning the craft, but
Desplechin's emphasis on Esther's search for self, rather than on her
acting, helped Phoenix simplify that process. "I went at it as a
young girl finding her footing in the world and trying to realize her
dreams," she says.
"Esther is using the stage to try and make [life] concrete," adds
Desplechin. "She doesn't want to be a great artist, she's just
struggling for a life. That purpose was more interesting than the
To understand the slum life of Jewish immigrants in late Victorian
London, Phoenix fell back on her own family's New York City roots and
her Russian-Hungarian-Jewish background on her mother's side. The
East End "was very similar to the lower East Side in the late 19th
century," she says. "It was a Jewish community of tailors and people
of the cloth."
Phoenix was 15 when she moved to New York, and for the past two years
she's been living in Manhattan with her boyfriend, actor Casey
Affleck - Joaquin's best friend.
Born in 1978, Phoenix grew up in Los Angeles and Florida, the
youngest of five children in a tightly knit family. They moved around
the country to "wherever anybody was working." In 1993, her eldest
brother River, considered one of the most gifted film actors of his
generation, died of a drug overdose in L.A. at age 23. Acting in the
shadow of River's tragic death is something Joaquin has had to deal
with in the press and something Summer anticipates.
"I know I'm going to be asked about that, and I feel I don't owe
anybody anything," she says. "Anybody can ask me anything they want,
and either I'm going to answer if I feel comfortable, or I'm not."
The influence of Phoenix's close relationships with her siblings is
reflected in the roles she has chosen. Unlike many young actors
starting out, she has opted for such unconventional projects
as "Esther Kahn," "The Laramie Project," about the aftermath of
Matthew Shepard's murder, and "The Believer," for which her portrayal
of a Jewish neo-Nazi's girlfriend earned her an Independent Spirit
"Riv really worked on things that spoke to him, and so does Joaq,"
she says. "And that's the only way I can do what I do."
She doesn't expect her life or career to take a smooth path, she
"We convince ourselves that life is going to plateau. Nothing is the
even flow, but who would want it to be? If it was spring all the
time, we would be like, 'So what?' about the flowers. That's been my
process: trying to appreciate the wintertime that can bring life's