Joaquin Phoenix 'Soldiers' on in controversial role

By Joe Neumaier
New York Daily News

Joaquin Phoenix is no stranger to drug controversy.

Almost 10 years ago, before he was well-known for his acting, the world knew his voice from the wrenching 911 call he made as his brother, actor River Phoenix, lay dying of a drug overdose outside an L.A. club. The tape was played over and over on news reports.

Now, with a new leading role, the 28-year-old actor is in the headlines again. His new film, "Buffalo Soldiers," opening tomorrow, has been criticized for its depiction of soldiers engaging in of all things drug use.

In the film, Phoenix plays a reluctant clerk at an East German military base in 1989. As the Cold War thaws, he dabbles in illegal arms sales and cooks up heroin to make a profit behind the back of his superior (Scott Glenn), who's also the father of his sexy girlfriend (Anna Paquin).

Phoenix refuses to answer questions about River all he says now is that he's proud of River and doesn't want to be compared with him.

Still, when he talks about "Buffalo Soldiers," it's easy to see the drug subplot caused him deep thought.

"Making a movie is a combination of honesty and fiction, mixing what's real and what's fabricated," he says. "I wanted to know that the events in 'Buffalo Soldiers' were based in reality."

After that, he says, what's difficult is "maintaining a consistent emotion as you film over several months, when your personal life may (change)."

Almost since it was completed in summer 2001, "Buffalo Soldiers" has been affected by world events. The movie was bought by Miramax at the Toronto Film Festival the night of Sept. 10, 2001. A day later, after the terrorist attacks, its sly, "M*A*S*H"-like tone seemed inappropriate.

Miramax held the film as U.S. forces invaded Afghanistan. And as war with Iraq neared, the movie's tone again became an issue. As its release date neared, critics said the film was disrespectful.

"My character had no element (of sympathy) in the screenplay," Phoenix says, "and I thought that was brave and scary too, because you run the risk of people hating you. I liked the challenge."

Phoenix was born in Puerto Rico to ex-missionary parents who fled with their five children from a commune in South America after discovering it was a cult. Growing up, the Phoenix children sang in the street for money until their mother got them a Hollywood agent. Joaquin quit school to follow River into show business, getting TV and movie roles under the name Leaf Phoenix.

He gave a haunting performance as a high-school burnout in 1995's "To Die For," and followed it with "Inventing the Abbotts." His turn as the emperor Commodus in 2000's "Gladiator" earned him an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor.

Despite its plot, "Buffalo Soldiers" required less intensity.

" 'Gladiator' and 'Quills' (in which he played a sanatorium priest who befriends the Marquis de Sade) required a lot of research," Phoenix says. "Here, I needed to stay loose."