I arrived home at 10.26. He had called at 10.25. His message, delivered off-hand, with an understated assurance, said: "Hello, I'm scared to pronounce your first name. This is Joaquin." He didn't sound scared. The voice continued, "I'll call you back. Maybe you'll be there." A guy called "Wah-keen" was worried about my name? And what was this, "I'll call you back. Maybe you'll be there." If he'd just added, "We should get together," in a totally non-committal, un-urgent tone, it could have been a call from some guy I was dating.
Only, Joaquin Phoenix, as everybody knows, isn't dating me. He, the 22- year-old embodiment of Heathcliffe - rough, dark and brooding, with a scar above his lip that makes him look both vulnerable and dangerous, is dating 20-year old Liv Tyler, the tongue-tyingly luscious heroine of Stealing Beauty and Heavy, who co-stars with Phoenix in the upcoming film Inventing The Abbotts. They met on the set of that film in March 1996, and several movies later they have resisted the charms of other leading women and men, apparently as devoted as the couple they play in the Abbotts.
I knew that Phoenix had just escaped from the Utah desert, where he had been filming Clay Pigeons, a story about a benighted man caught in a slipping- down life, so it was worse luck that my gluttony had made me miss his call. Miraculously, at 10.32, he called back.
"Where are you are right now?" I asked.
"I'm in a friend's house in Los Angeles."
"What are you doing now, what are you wearing?"
"I'm relaxing. Actually, I'm in a car. I'm wearing a garter belt. A chimpanzee is shaving my head as we speak... That was for you," he said, and we started to laugh; he at his joke, and I at the discovery that the actor who played monosyllabic, emotion-whipped young men so convincingly should turn out to be an ironic sort of boy. "I'm wearing green, faded corduroys and a white Hanes T-shirt," he at last revealed, still laughing. "And I'm playing backgammon. I love backgammon," he said. "I'm not the social guy, I don't do that thing at all. When I'm not working, I don't go to the clubs or the shows, I just talk to my girlfriend and read scripts and rest. And play backgammon." What a girlfriend, of course, and what scripts... and what rest.
Joaquin Raphael Phoenix is the second of five mercurial children in a free-spirited, wide-roving family. His parents were hippies, who for several years belonged to a religious cult called Children of God, and Joaquin spent his infancy in a rat-infested beach house in Venezuela, his childhood dancing on the streets for coins in South America, Florida and California, accompanied by his elder brother River and older sister Rain. Younger sisters Liberty and Summer arrived later, and when he was four, Joaquin changed his name to "Leaf". It may be the single incidence of conformity in the family history. It was as "Leaf" that he got his first film role, playing Dianne Wiest's troubled son in the gentle comedy Parenthood. Meanwhile, his brother River rocketed to fame and teen idolhood in Stand By Me, The Mosquito Coast, Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade, and My Own Private Idaho. On Halloween in 1993, when he was only 23, River Phoenix died of a fatal concoction of heroin and cocaine at LA's Viper Room. Joaquin and Rain happened to be with him that night. Joaquin's decision to shun club life is doubtless more of a deliberate choice than he lets on.
By the time the younger brother had won a part in his next film: the foolable kid who Nicole Kidman dupes in To Die For, in 1995, he had returned to his old name. "River had said he really wanted me to change my name back," Joaquin confides, but denies that is the reason he changed his name. "I don't think about it. I was in Mexico for a while, and when I would tell people my name was hoja - leaf in Spanish - they would think I was saying ojo, eye, or ajo, garlic. So, I finally started saying Joaquin and everyone called me that and it sounded right."
Less of a deniable coincidence is that Joaquin's younger sister Liberty, 20, had a baby last year whom she named Rio - Spanish for river. The family is very close; Joaquin has visited all three of his sisters in the two weeks since he wrapped Clay Pigeons, before reuniting with Liv in LA. He said he was too "impulsive" to discuss whether Liv might join the family in any solemnised sort of way.
As we discussed Liv, and the fact that, for example, she is recognised wherever she goes, whereas he is more successful at preserving an incognito, I could not help asking him about a newspaper report I had read that he had to fake chemistry with Liv during the screen test for Inventing The Abbots. "It wasn't so much faking it," he explained calmly, slowly. "I was just saying that, no matter what, I'm gonna make them believe in the connection. Chemistry - you don't know when it begins or ends. It's not like feeling love, it's just working well together. You get together with some actors and the lines just come out right. lt's effortless, it isn't about the hug or the kiss, it's about the talk. Like the two of us are talking now."
I decided right then - phone chemistry with Joaquin Phoenix was a lot more fun than my missed tiramisu at Cafe Yola.
Inventing The Abbotts opens in the UK in November.