Actress Summer Phoenix on her new film The Believer, her background, and performing in Londonís West End
photography richard mclaren
makeup sharon gault/luxe
styling deborah waknin for smashbox
red paisley silk chiffon blouse/bill blass;
gold and turquoise hoop earrings and necklace by me & ro
Youíve probably heard about her even if youĎve never seen her face before. Sheís the youngest of the famous Phoenix family acting clan and sheís always mentioned somewhere in the countless biography pieces that have been done on her older siblings, Joaquin and the late River. With such a lineage, Hollywood, understandably, has also buzzed about her arrival in the acting world for some time. But when you see the body of work sheís been quietly putting together over the last few years, itís clear that 24-year-old Summer Phoenix is intent on carving out a career uniquely her own. The easy route would have led her into the teen movie world where she could have quickly cashed in on her name recognition, but Summer has gone in the opposite direction. Just this year alone has seen her play two challenging roles: a young 19th-Century Jewish woman who longs to be a stage actress in the title role of Esther Kahn and then in The Believer she plays Carla, the daughter of a neo-Nazi. Talk about range. The latter role earned her a well-deserved "Best Supporting Actress" nomination at the recent Independent Spirit Awards.
The story of Summerís childhood growing up in the Phoenix family has already become the stuff of legend. Along with her siblings Joaquin, Rain, Liberty, and River, she was home-schooled for much of her early life by her bohemian parents, John and Arlyn, who changed their last name to Phoenix after marrying. It was a true "artist family upbringing" which saw them travel all over the United States, from Los Angeles to Florida, with many stops in-between. Summer actually had a crack at the professional acting game some years ago when she acted in television and commercials up until the age of 12. This included a guest-starring role with brother Joaquin on the new "Leave It To Beaver" series and a role in the feature film Russkies (1987), where she once again starred with Joaquin. At 14, Summer moved to Central America with her father, along with sister Liberty. It wasnít until she returned to Manhattan at the age of 18 that she decided to pursue acting again.
She made the indie film Dinner Rush, where Summer plays a young waitress working at a trendy Manhattan restaurant. The film screened at last fallís Telluride Film Festival. She was also recently seen playing a teenage heroin addict in the MTV film Wasted. Like many fine actresses, thereís a chameleon-like quality to Summer. She isnít always immediately recognizable from film-to-film because of the degree to which she submerges herself into her roles. But the recognition factor is about to change. A glance at her impressive collection of recent press clippings reveals that journalists are already running out of clever ways to spin her name into the title of their pieces on her: "Summer Time," "Summer in the City," "Days of Summer," and "Endless Summer" are amongst the ones that have been used recently. Add ours to that list.
Venice recently spoke with Summer from London where she is starring opposite Matt Damon and Casey Affleck in the Kenneth Lonergan play "This Is Our Youth" at the Garrick Theatre in the West End.
Venice: You did great work as Carla in The Believer. What was that shoot like?
Summer Phoenix: It was very, very "labor of love." It was very guerrilla-style. Often times we didnít have a permit and we would jump out and shoot and run away. It was brilliant though because we were all there and we believed in it and we were all working together really hard to make this happen. And I absolutely adore (director) Henry Bean and (co-star) Ryan Gosling.
And how did it feel to be nominated for an Independent Spirit Award?
That just came out of the blue. I was just like, "No, I wasnít (nominated)! Uh-uh!" [laughs] It was brilliant. None of us had any idea that The Believer would get any recognition. So when it started to (attract attention) it was just that much of a better surprise. It was great to be a part of the Spirit Awards and to be sitting with all the other people and filmmakers who were nominated, as opposed to just showing up at a party. I actually had a reason to be there and that was really justifying.
The Believer is the kind of film which could have been a train wreck in the wrong hands. Were you concerned about that when you signed on?
Yeah, absolutely. I was very concerned. But what I liked is that Henry Bean was concerned as well. He wasnít totally sure but he was like, "Trust me and letís do this together. Letís try to pull this off, all of us. And itís going to take all of us to pull it off." So that experience of being such a big part of the collaboration was so rare. And doesnít really often happen. It was the best sort of actor-director relationship that Iíve ever had because he was just so incredibly open to more "chefs."
Speaking of chefs, tell us how it was making Dinner Rush, set in the restaurant world of Manhattan.
Dinner Rush was fun. It happened in my part of town in New York. I had just come off of playing Carla in The Believer and Esther in Esther Kahn, which were two sort of more demanding and darker roles. And I was looking forward to playing somebody that was just ordinary. You know, just a waitress in a restaurant. So it was exactly what I needed and wanted.
Had you ever worked in a Manhattan restaurant before? I know you worked at one as a teenager in Latin America.
No, but there was a time when I considered it. I was hoping that Arturoís would like let me play piano and hostess at one point. [laughs] But then something else came up, fortunately.
There was a period in your teen years when you stopped pursuing acting professionally for a while. Was it always your intention to pursue it again later?
I think for a while I just didnít think about it. I lived a life.
You were busy being a kid.
Yeah, totally a kid. [laughs]
I read a quote from you where you said growing up in your family was a little like being in the von Trapp family.
Itís amazing these quotes! [laughs] I donít even know who the von Trapp family is! Is that The Sound of Music?
Thatís The Sound of Music.
Oh, okay. [laughs] I guess that thatís an okay comparison at times in that we sang and we danced [laughs] and we were all together constantly.
Coming from a famous acting family, do you feel like you have to prove yourself even more in Hollywood? Iím sure that some people probably think your name gives you an easy "in," but that may not be the case.
Right, itís definitely not the case. Iíve definitely pulled my own weight very slowly. But I donít know, sometimes it may just be projection and my own insecurity, something that Iíve just put on other peopleólike, "You just think Iím here because of my last name." Maybe theyíre not thinking that at all. But I do think that Iíve pulled my own weight and Iím proud of that, you know what I mean? Yes, I come from the same ilk and the same thread and the same blood as others. But Iím definitely an individual and I think thatís pretty obvious, you know?
What was it like growing up in a bohemian/actor/artist-type family?
[laughs] It was normal. I didnít know anything else. I didnít know that other people ate meat (her family were vegans). Or that everybody didnít love their brothers and sisters, you know what I mean? That was my life. It all seemed very normal to me. Itís very hard to make comparisons when youíre a kid because you donít know anything else. Thatís how you were brought up, you know?
Youíre performing in Londonís West End in "This Is Our Youth." How is that going?
Iím really, really enjoying myself. Thereís an added plus for me because I was here a few years ago shooting Esther Kahn, which is a story about a young girl who slowly charts her way to the West End against all odds. So itís sort of brilliant that Iím here now.
Itís all come full circle! What is the role that youíre playing?
I play Jessica Goldman, who is this sort of nervous teenage girl who comes over to this boyís house and sheís scared that sheís being set up with this boy who she actually likes, but she doesnít want to be set up with him. And sheís just very opinionated and very analytical, as you are when youíre 19 years old and having realizations every day about "Oh, this is what life is about!" [laughs]
Is the Garrick the biggest theater that youíve worked in?
Oh, yeah. The only theater. [I havenít been on stage] since elementary school in auditoriums when I was in ďCats.Ē [laughs] So itís brilliant to debut in such an old, great theater.
Was it a little bit scary the first time on-stage there?
Umm, it was. It was slightly at first because we only had 3 1/2 weeks of rehearsal, which is rare. It was very quick. But that first time is over. Itís interesting that whole new element of how you can work something over and over again, but until you have your audience thereó youíre supposed to be alone in the room with one person, and then all of a sudden youíre alone in the room with 700 people. And to keep that freshness and newness of being alone with one person takes a lot of work, so itís been interesting. I canít talk it up enough how much Iím enjoying it, because I truly am. ē
Summer Phoenix can be seen in The Believer, which premiered on Showtime in March and is being released theatrically this month.