By Scott Lyle Cohen
Interview, February 2002
If you think you're seeing Summer Phoenix everywhere, it's because you are. Over the next two months, the 24-year-old younger sister of fellow actors Joaquin, Rain and the late River Phoenix, has four films set to debut. First up is Esther Kahn, wherein Phoenix plays the title role, a young 19-century Londoner who dreams of acting. Then it's back to the present with The Believer, Grand Jury Prize-winner at 2001 Sundance, in which she plays a neo-Nazi in love with a Jewish neo-Nazi in contemporary New York. The Laramie Project, an HBO film by theater director Moises Kaufman, which tackles the events surrounding Matthew Shepard's 1998 murder in Laramie, Wyoming, follows. Finally, MTV is to air Wasted, a drama centering on a heroin epidemic plaguing a small town. If there's a thread to be found throughout Phoenix's slate of work - other than its tight scheduling - it's that the films are gritty and relevant.
Scott Lyle Cohen : Your characters in Esther Kahn and The Believer, on the surface at least, seem to be paradoxical. Esther is a young Jewish woman, and Carla, from The Believer, is a neo-Nazi.
Summer Phoenix : Well, I didn't concentrate on the fact that Esther was Jewish, and I didn't concentrate on the fact that Carla was wrapped up in her mother's politics. I focused more on the fact that they were girls becoming women, trying to figure out their place in the world.
SLC : So they have quite a bit in common?
SP : They do and they don't. Carla's much smarter than Esther, who I somewhat ignorant. Carla's quite knowing, and she definitely knows how to play games. She's got a thirst for knowledge, but Esther has a thirst, too : to become an actress and express herself.
SLC : Do you find that being the youngest in a family of actors has been a hindrance or a benefit in building your career?
SP : I think I'm asked to probe myself even more because of my last name. Anybody who comes up in the industry after one of their siblings has already excelled will tell you that you're not going to get a free ride just because your brothers or sisters are good. I've worked long and hard, and I'm not going anywhere on anybody's coattails. I'm working hard for myself, to prove myself to myself, and not to anybody else. I care more about my self-recognition and the journey of self-love as opposed to outside recognition and the love of others, because that just comes and goes.
SLC : Do you have any plans to work with you family?
SP : Actually, my sister [Rain] did a song for the Wasted soundtrack that I contributed to, that I'm really excited about. She took something old I did on the piano, sampled it and wrote this incredible song.
SLC : Do you guys have a band?
SP : No, I play mostly by myself, but my brother plays a lot of music, too, and I'll play with him and my sister sometimes. It's familial.
SLC : So you play in somebody's house versus a public gig.
SP : Exactly. And sometimes we'll record [together]. But this is the first time the public will hear my music. Which is cool.
SLC : Very cool. Now, you also must have been pretty excited to have been cast in The Laramie Project, which feels like an Altman film, it's go so many great actors, Peter Fonda, Christina Ricci, Laura Finney, Steve Buscemi, Amy Madigan, Jeremy Davies, Camryn Manheim...
SP : Totally. And Moises Kaufman write a really great script. He cared so much about the subject. What I really like about the movie is that it doesn't only focus on Matthew and his death. It concentrates on how that death affected the people in the town, who rarely get a voice. I play a friend of the killer, and those people have even less of a voice [than most of the townspeople]. This terrible thing happened involving their friend, but not matter what, they're still friends. There's an automatic defense out of loyalty.
SLC : Was it a difficult audition process?
SP : Actually, it was the first thing I ever got that I didn't audition for. The first and last thing. [laughs] Someone got Moises a tape of The Believer and from there it was completely finagled through agents and managers.
SLC : Yeah, word is they actually get some work done at all those lunch meetings. You play teens, but we're never going to see you in a typical teen movie, are we?
SP : [laughs] I had a walk-on role in The Faculty , but no, I don't think so. Not anymore. The truth is, the people making movies don't want to hire me just as much as I don't want to do those movies. Me and the teen movies, we've avoided each other, and it's been good for the both of us.