What is the significance of River’s face?
I fixated on it because he was beautiful but it was never about his face, for me. It was never fully about his face. I focused on a period when he had bleached white hair. People keep asking whether I am trying to depict him as he would look now. But River Pheonix would not have white-grey hair at age 41.
Don’t they mean that he looks angelic?
Angelic, up in the heavens. Sure.
But that wasn’t your goal?
No, I wanted to depict him under the Hollywood sun. I want it blasting on him. Part of his face is bleached out. He is squinting and reacting to the sun. It’s a metaphor for the attention forced on him. We’re the sun looking at him, dissecting what he’s doing and waiting for him to move. He is almost scared but holding his own. He was a powerful, serene figure. He was very Buddha-like. He was very centered.
Obviously not really, since he OD-ed.
Does all the information we know now about Children of God, his family’s cult, influence how you interpret him and his image?
His family got out from the cult when they realized the founder and leader was living like a pimp in California. He had mansions and cars while they were literally starving to death. When they left Venezuela, they stowed away on a ship illegally. A Mom, Dad and their children stowed away on a ship because they could not afford a trip home to the United States.
There are all these books talking about the exploitation of children in Children of God. How does this relate to his myth?
They were in a cult and there is a cult of personality around River. He seemed so cool and he is still so respected. Major people within Hollywood and fans respect the brutal honesty of his acting. He did it so carelessly. Its like athletes who can make impossible fetes seem effortless. He could act without evident effort. It was engraved in him. But, for me, none of that was relevant. For me, River is completely personal.
I was looking at my own life, my own situation. I was looking at where the fuck I was and how I got there. When looking at my life, he was the first thing to come to mind. I remember becoming conscious at the time when he was in the world, when he was in my world. I wanted to represent the genesis of when my life started. Up until that point, I was an immigrant child. I had parents dealing entirely with their own circumstances and context. But my interactions with him made me realize where my life was going and what I wanted from it. I decided to not lead the life my family was asking and go a totally different route. I wanted to trace that decision and see how I got here.
Were you open to others or were you skeptical?
I decided to trust. I wanted to trust. Up to that point, I was mistrusting. I was raised to pretend. But I discovered that I can be what I want to be and pick my identity. For some reason, when I thought of life, River stuck with me. I did think he was an angel. I thought he was larger than life. But, at the same time, he was one of us.
Because of his fallibility? Was it like that Josephine Hart quote, “damaged people are dangerous because they know they can survive?”
I’ve always compared myself to a cockroach. I keep surviving.
Interview by Ana Finel Honigman
Images by Kelly Morris