Rain Phoenix’s unusual childhood
Not many people can say they were out busking on the streets at the age of three. Or that they got their first agent at the age of five, and then played the Hollywood Bowl with Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young by the time they were six. But then not many people can say they come from a family like Rain Phoenix’s.
As the eldest daughter of the Phoenix clan, 38-year old Rain comes sandwiched between two of Hollywood’s most recognisable young stars. River Phoenix – teen icon and Hollywood heartthrob who died of a drug overdose when he was just 23 – was two years her elder, while the twice Oscar-nominated actor Joaquin, is two years younger. There are also two sisters as well – Summer and Liberty.
With names such as these it’s no surprise to hear that the Phoenix parents were both bone fide, flowers-in-their-hair hippies. Rain’s middle name is Joan of Arc. "I feel honoured they chose to give it me," she says. "At times it’s been a source of solace, just knowing that’s my name." Their mother, Arlyn, was born in the Bronx to Jewish parents who had emigrated from Russia. In the late 60s she got wind of the counter-culture movement that was spreading across America, and set off on a voyage of discovery. While she was hitchhiking in northern California, a young songwriter called John Bottom picked her up. The two were married within the year.
The couple were archetypal flower children. In 1973, just after River and Rain were born, they joined a religious sect called the Children of God for which they worked as missionaries, supporting themselves by fruit picking and other odd jobs. It was a laid back, free-spirited, hippy existence. Each of their children was born in a different American state (Rain in Texas) and much of their early life was spent on the road. "Travelling was a big part of my childhood and one that I value very much," says Rain. "In some respects I can’t help but be a bit of a gypsy as an adult. I get fidgety if I’m in one place for longer than three months."
Then in 1979, after the birth of their fifth child, things took a slightly different course. Arlyn and John ditched ordinary old Bottom as a surname and picked Phoenix – with its connotations of a magical bird rising up out of the ashes. They moved to LA where Arlyn got a job as a secretary with a casting agent at NBC, right in the heart of the slippery Hollywood talent pool, and they embarked on a course that would set about turning their children into stars.
"In her job my mum learned a lot about the good and bad aspects of Hollywood," says Rain. "There are so many beautiful things about the industry as well as really hideous things; it was almost like having an insider." All five siblings were signed up to an agent, schooling became a jumble of tutoring on film sets, home teaching and stints in traditional classrooms, and their careers began. Nothing was off limits apart from commercials for meat, milk and junk food (they were vegans).
"My parents really were very dedicated to us, and in some ways they gave up many of the things they had had in their 20s to help us find what it was we dreamed of. It was an incredibly selfless act," says Rain. "There was never any competitiveness between us. We realised there was a shared aspect of success – that at different times each individual was poised to shine, and supporting that was the most important thing. That is really how we felt; it isn’t just a statement, it was how we behaved."
The Phoenix children were obviously quite a talented and precocious force. Rain tells me the story of when they took the decision to turn vegan – how they were on a ship to Florida when they saw a group of fishermen thrashing fish against some nails sticking out of the side of the boat. That very night when they got home, River, Rain and Joaquin declared to their parents that the entire family was to turn vegan. Rain was about five. "At the time it seemed so obvious and normal, it was just how we felt," she says, "but I guess looking back you could say it was a bit strange and very mature."
It was River who hit the big time first – he received an Oscar nomination at the age of 18 for his role in Running On Empty about a family on the run from the FBI. And after years of working in TV, 15-year old Rain made her film debut, Maid to Order. "It was terrible timing," she says. "I was in the absolute throws of puberty. My hair looked like I had an Afro and I’d just gotten my period. lt was probably the one time you don’t want to be permanently captured on celluloid for the rest of your life."
Which sounds decidedly embarrassing, and for all their work pulling strings behind the scenes, Arlyn and John have often been called pushy and criticised for foisting such grand ambitions on their children at such young ages. "We were never pushed to do anything," says Rain shortly. "People will always say things, true or not. All I had was a lot of positive reinforcement. The thing is with my parents, they very much embraced having children. As soon as they had us they switched their focus entirely to providing us with the best possible home life, spiritual support and love."
Evidence suggests she’s right. Just after Rain’s debut movie and just as River was becoming a global teen superstar, Arlyn and John, worried what the excesses of 1980s Tinseltown might do to their children, upped and left. "My parents were like, you know what, maybe you shouldn’t go to high school in Hollywood," says Rain. "So we moved to Florida, and that was primarily to avoid exposing us to the teen years in Hollywood."
After years of moving around, today Rain has somehow found her way back to LA. Home for her now is a little 1920s cottage in Laurel Canyon, a leafy neighbourhood in the Hollywood Hills. In the 60s it was a big hippy hangout whose residents included Jim Morrison and Neil Young, so clearly she’s staying true to her roots. She lives just round the corner from her brother Joaquin to whom she is incredibly close and they see each other as often as they can. "I trust his opinion more than anyone else’s," she says.
Rain is the spitting image of Joaquin. With her long dark hair and exotic features, you can see the Russian ancestry clearly in both of them. River was completely different to all his siblings – blonder, cute and pixyish. Both Joaquin and Rain were there the night their brother died outside the Hollywood nightclub the Viper Room in 1993. River had taken a speedball – a mix of heroin and cocaine – and had been vomiting and passing out inside the club before being taken into the street outside. It was Joaquin who made the heart-wrenching 911 call and it was Rain who jumped on top of her brother as he lay convulsing on the pavement, in an attempt to try to get him to stop.
"Of course there is a sadness with not seeing him in the physical world but everything I do, he is a part of," says Rain. "Through my music I am for ever able to stay connected to my brother. We are always infinitely collaborating in spirit."
Rain’s first love had always been music and it was a young River who had encouraged her and taught her. "River was a bit of a guitar prodigy," she says. "He would play and I would just start singing. It was clear to my parents that I had the gift of voice and they encouraged me to pursue it. Me and my brother spent a lot of time singing round the fire at home after dinner, making little four-track demos in our room, or when we would be round at people’s houses, we’d just break out the guitar and start singing. There was definitely a connection musically."
She used to busk with River as a three-year-old to raise money for their family. And it was with River who she sang Teach the Children Well at the Hollywood Bowl in front of an audience of thousands. "Busking was a great way to rehearse," she says. "At that age we were clearly not going to be booked for shows in clubs, so for us it was the closest we got to finding an audience and getting feedback."
At first she was so shy she used to sing with her eyes closed, but then she discovered how to move around and communicate with her audience. "Having a lot of people watch made me nervous," she says, "but when I was about eight I managed to break out of that shyness and engage with my audience. But I was always connected as a performer to my brother, and that felt safe. He was the first person to support and flower my creativity as a musician."
As teenagers, Rain and River formed a band called Aleka’s Attic, which was signed to Island. They recorded an album, which was just about finished when River died. Since then Rain has spent years mixing it, finishing it off and weeding through half-completed tracks. "I wanted to put the record out and give the money to charities my brother felt strongly about, but I came up against some of the musicians who also played on it, wanting a lot of money for it, so I shelved it. It was meant to be something that was really beautiful, not about money. I was very happy with the way I finished it, and I love the music. I hope that one day I can release it."
Somehow, despite what happened to her brother, Rain remains positive. Her upbringing seems to have equipped her with a way of dealing with anything the ugly side of Hollywood can throw at her. "Being in the public eye there will always be negatives," she says. "Those dark aspects will always be there and so too those things that will try and tear you down, but I have made the choice not to engage with them. I’m not going to let them affect me or destroy me. It’s about your sense of self; if you know your true passion and what you’re going after, it can’t touch you."
She clearly draws a great strength from her family too. Her sister Summer is married to the actor Casey Affleck and runs a vintage store in New York called Some Odd Rubies and designs all the clothes for Rain’s stage shows. Liberty, meanwhile, has a shop called IndigoGreen, which sells eco-friendly homewares, and both sisters have regularly sung and played with Rain too. About 15 years ago, John and Arlyn split up. He now lives in Florida where he works as an organic farmer, and she is remarried and remains true to her original beatnik roots, working as a campaigner for a peace alliance.
"My mum will always come and see my shows if she can," says Rain, "and if she can’t she’ll text or email just before wishing me a great show and telling me how much she loves me. She still gives tonnes of positive reinforcement and love. It’s really remarkable what that does for a child and it’s really remarkable what that does for me as an adult."
She has just made a new album with her current band, papercranes, entitled Lets Make Babies In The Woods. "Someone once said that to me in a really drunken state, a kid, a very sweet guy. I thought it was absolutely adorable. I was like, ‘No to that, but do you mind if I use that line, it’s so fertile and evocative.’"
The album came out a lot darker than she ever intended. "I was surprised by some of the themes," she says. "I was pretty fresh out of a divorce so there’s a lot of stuff about moving on and loss and new direction. It’s a very cathartic record for me. I felt lighter in my life after making the record. I felt within the darkness there was great hope."
She had been with her musician husband Michael Tubbs for 13 years before the marriage broke down a few years ago. "We’re very close friends now," she says. "Ultimately the divorce ended wonderfully as far as the fact that you certainly hope that you can remain friends because you spent half your life with them." She’s got a new boyfriend now and they regularly meet up with her ex-husband and his girlfriend. "People think that’s a bit strange, but I’m very happy about it."
I ask her if she wants to have children. She says the urge right now just isn’t quite strong enough. "I sometimes feel like I want children but because it’s only sometimes I haven’t done it yet." But if she ever does she knows just what she would do. She would do to her child just exactly what her parents did to her.
LINK: The Guardian