Archive for Thursday, October 22, 1998


October 22, 1998


— Some audience members have walked out of "Clay Pigeons" because of the way the movie plays murder and suicide for uneasy laughs.

It's 10:30 a.m. on a brisk September morning in Toronto, and a long day's worth of interviews is under way for Joaquin Phoenix, star of the new comic thriller "Clay Pigeons."

But even at this relatively early hour, the actor is already tired of one particular question. The moment he hears the words "dark comedy" and "trend" in the same sentence, Phoenix rolls his eyes and launches a pre-emptive strike.

"I don't know why there are so many movies being made where people die and we laugh about it," Phoenix says, a trace of irritation in his voice. "I don't know what this dark humor is about or where it's coming from.

"But don't these trends always seem to happen automatically?" he adds. "Isn't there always a bunch of movies that come out at the same time that are similar in one way or another?"

Well, maybe. Dark humor is nothing new, especially in low-budget films made outside the high-priced Hollywood studio system. But "Clay Pigeons" ups the ante in the how-cynical-can-we-get department. The movie, in which Phoenix plays a gas station attendant who befriends a cowboy (Vince Vaughn) who may or may not be a serial killer, contains at least one scene so disturbing it caused walkouts during a press screening at the Toronto International Film Festival earlier this month.

It's not that "Clay Pigeons" is particularly violent or graphic; it's the way the movie plays murder and suicide for uneasy laughs that makes it so discomforting. Phoenix seems intrigued -- and not entirely displeased -- when he hears about the strong reaction to the film.

But he admits that when he first read the script, it didn't strike him as a laugh riot.

"It didn't really become clear to me until I met with the director (David Dobkin) and got a sense of his sensibilities and what he wanted to do with the film," Phoenix says. "What's funny about my character is just his situation, how he gets caught up in this mess. I wanted to play him very seriously and let the humor happen around him."

Clay, the character Phoenix plays in "Clay Pigeons," is an easygoing, low-key guy whose quiet demeanor and trusting nature make him an easy target. Before the movie is five minutes old, Clay has already been framed for murder, something that becomes a running gag throughout the course of the film.

The character's gentle nature has a lot in common with Phoenix's other roles: The lovestruck high school student manipulated into murder in "To Die For," the shy teen whose girlfriend is stolen by his own brother in "Inventing the Abbotts," the American sentenced to die in a Malaysian prison for a crime his friends helped commit in "Return to Paradise."

All were memorable, critically praised performances in movies that barely caused a ripple at the box office.

Phoenix knows that in today's Hollywood, the ability to generate ticket sales is just as important as talent. But he has no plans to star in "Armageddon II" just yet.

"What I search for in my work is an honesty in storytelling, with characters that evolve in a realistic fashion," he says. "Oftentimes, that's not the most commercial premise for films. Yes, it's important to have a balance; I have read a few of those action-adventure-type scripts.

"But truthfully, that's some of the toughest acting in the world, because there's not a lot of time put into character development. ... I find it really difficult to utter a line unless I have a complete commitment to the character and the dialogue I'm speaking."

Despite the lack of a box office smash, Phoenix has still been the subject of much media attention, beginning with the drug-related death of his brother River in 1993 (Joaquin was the one who made the 911 call). After the release of "To Die For" in 1995, Phoenix openly expressed his contempt for the press.

Today, that surliness is gone. Phoenix, who turns 24 next month, is eloquent and friendly -- but still cautious.

"Everything that I had experienced in the press with the loss of my brother was very difficult, and it was hard for me to separate those feelings when I was doing publicity for `To Die For,'" he says. "It's been a healing process for me. I'm glad to have a chance to rectify that image."

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