09/07/1998 at 01:00 AM EDT
For his role as an American facing death in a Malaysian prison in the just-released Return to Paradise, Joaquin Phoenix showed up gaunt as a ghost on the set last fall. Director Joseph Ruben—hoping to shed a few pounds himself—asked the actor for dieting advice. "Just stop eating," Phoenix replied. And when director James Gray asked Phoenix to emote explosively during a take for next year's film The Yards, Phoenix, says Gray, "went to the side of the room and banged his head into a piece of oak on the wall, and he got a huge welt."
Phoenix, it seems, will take his lumps for a role—but there are limits, as David Dobkin discovered when directing Phoenix in a fishing scene for next month's film Clay Pigeons. The actor, who like his late brother River is a strict vegetarian, told Dobkin, " 'I'll do anything except put the fish on the hook.' "
Phoenix, 23, is himself a bit like the one that got away. A former child actor, Joaquin took a break when he was about 15 to search his soul and travel through Central America. "I was young enough that I wanted to explore...to grow," he says. He returned to the screen in 1991's Walking the Dog. Two years later he was still looking for a script that moved him when River died of a drug overdose. After the tragedy, Joaquin finally found a character that interested him, resurfacing as Nicole Kidman
's teen lover turned murderer in the 1995 hit To Die For. He got good notices, and in 1997 he got something else: He won Liv Tyler
's heart in Inventing the Abbotts, and in real life, too. "Liv's a little shy, and he just sweeps her off her feet and takes care of her," says Liv's sister Mia. "I could totally see them getting married."
Screen success aside, Phoenix defies comparison with his reckless brother. At restaurants and parties, Joaquin drinks rarely and has no interest in drugs. And his dark, brooding good looks suggest "a kind of smoldering intelligence that almost goes back to Steve McQueen," says Bonnie Palef, who directed him in Walking the Dog. "When you watch him act, his pores are so wide open," says Joel Schumacher, who directed Phoenix in the upcoming 8mm. "He's just naked in front of you." Martha Plimpton, who was River's girlfriend and has known Joaquin since he was 11, says, "He was always really physical and really emotional."
The family was close-knit, if loosely tethered. Joaquin was born in Puerto Rico in 1974, the second son of John, 51, and Arlyn, 53, missionaries for the Children of God religious group. Joaquin, River and their sisters—actress Rain, 25; Liberty, 22, a full-time mother; and actress Summer, 20—traveled nomadically from Venezuela to Oregon. "I felt most at home in our motor home," Phoenix told Premiere last year. These days he prefers to cruise around Los Angeles in his banana-yellow '72 Pontiac LeMans.
In 1983, Joaquin (who called himself Leaf from 6 to about 16) landed his first TV part (with River) in the series Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and by 1989 was portraying a troubled teen in Parenthood. Joaquin's most searing real-life scene was his 911 call on Halloween five years ago as his brother lay dying outside an L.A. nightclub. "I've come nearer acceptance—I wouldn't say understanding, because it's something I'll never understand—but just an acceptance of River's death," he told Movieline in March.
Now Hollywood is learning to accept the younger brother. Director Dobkin says he recently called Phoenix about a part as a bullfighter. "Absolutely not!" the actor replied. "The only way I'll do it is if the bull wins and kills me in the end."
Natasha Stoynoff and Joseph V. Tirella in New York City and Irene Zutell and Amy Brooks in Los Angeles