‘River on the Rise’ by Debra Blake for Vegetarian Times, March 1988 (Part I)
Film Star River Phoenix says being a vegetarian is the most important role he’ll ever play.
In Japan they adore him. The teenagers call out to him when he comes to promote one of his films: “Rio! Rio!” they chant. It is their nickname for him. They think he’s the next James Dean. And boy, does he have the looks for it. But smoldering looks and shirt-off-the-shoulder poses aren’t what River Phoenix is all about, and he gets a little embarrassed when he comes off that way. The 17-year-old’s dark clothes aren’t meant to impress. His canvas and rubber high-top boots are unexceptional. Still, it’s hard sometimes to resist just gazing at his blonde-streaked pretty head against the blue Florida sky, or wondering how he lucked into those dark eyebrows.
But he calls you back to what he’s saying, to his simple intensity. “Vegetarianism is a link to perfection and peace,” he’s saying now, and his voice is soft but strong, very sincere. “But it’s a small link. There are lots of other issues: apartheid , vivisection, political prisoners, the arms race. There’s so much going on in this world today, so much ignorance among people. That’s not to say I’m not standing amongst everybody. But the point is, what can we do now? That’s the thing about vegetarianism; it’s an individual’s decision and it’s something you have control over. How many things do we really have control over?”
River Phoenix is one of the lucky ones; he’s an actor making a successful go of it in a tough business. Years ago, he was one of the brothers in the television series Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. Later, he got his big break as a spunky but thoughtful kid in Stand by Me, and then as the elder son in The Mosquito Coast with Harrison Ford. He’s in demand now: Producers send him scripts, and this spring he’s scheduled to show up in three new movies: Jimmy Reardon, Little Nikita with Sidney poitier, and Running on Empty.
River Phoenix. He’s a big name in Hollywood.
But the River sitting here on the lawn of his parents’ rented house in Florida is only as large as life. He’s not all seriousness and theory. His eyes are warm and welcoming; he laughs easily. Right away you know he’s a regular guy. Still, he’s eager to take advantage of what he calls the “rare opportunity” to discuss issues that really matter to him: veganism, health concerns most teens don’t even know exist, fulfillment in relationships with family and friends, world peace, and change in South Africa.
Do you put much faith into what a 17- year-old says or is he just trying on some ideals for size? In short order, you decide to trust him. He’s had a life unlike most people in the world - one of met challenges, enormous changes and great ideals-and that colors your reactions. He can keep you interested in what he’s saying longer than most people twice his age. So somehow you know he’s sincere. And you see that the “Rio! Rio!” business in Japan and the perfect eyebrows are small parts of a very large picture.
Most of what has been written about River Phoenix weaves his story into the story of his family. And try as you might to see him apart from them, you can’t entirely. They’re part of the big picture. His four younger siblings - one brother, Leaf, and three sisters, Rainbow, Liberty and Summer - also act; Summer and Leaf recently were cast in Russkies, and last summer Rainbow had a role in Maid to Order with fellow vegan Ally Sheedy. Their parents, Arlyn and John Phoenix, manage their kids’ careers, having decided years ago to forgo outside work and commit themselves to the family venture. The entire family is vegan, and they all come across as gentle and kind people who work together like clockwork. River’s history is the history of the Phoenixes, and he’s grateful for and satisfied by being a part of that.
Arlyn Phoenix is also grateful for the family, and she’s unflustered by their success. “You have to understand,” she says, sipping her sorghum-sweetened herbal tea, “that this didn’t just happen to us. We planned it.” Success is part of the Phoenix family mission. It’s why their name is Phoenix. They’re on the rise.
Arlyn and John chose the name phoenix together, years ago, and they nursed their five babies on the twin ideals of love and peace. The couple became vegetarian soon after they met in the ‘60s, but dropped it after moving to Venezuela with a born-again-style Christian group. Several years-and several babies-later, in 1978, they broke from the organization. On their way back to the United States they rekindled their commitment to vegetarianism, taking the cue from their children.
River was seven then. He remembers how it began. “On the boat we saw men fishing,” he said. “It was our [the kids’] first time seeing that. And it was the first time that I really saw that meat wasn’t just a hamburger or hot dog or some disguised food on your plate, that it was an animal, it was flesh. It seemed very barbaric and kind of cruel, and me and my brother and sister were all crying and were traumatized. The reality just hit us so hard. Our parents were very sensitive to our feelings. I mean, they were obviously immune to it themselves-meat eating is so much a part of society as a whole and how people eat-but they were very interested in our sensitivity to it, so they were open to us becoming vegetarian.”
Vegetarianism came easily to the Phoenix family. Within the year, with encouragement from Arlyn’s vegan sister, the family also stopped eating eggs and dairy products. “It was hard to give up dairy for a while for a lot of people in my family,” River remembers. “My mom and dad were so used to eating cheese, and it was so convenient. But I said, 'Hey, if we’re doing this thing, let’s go all the way with it.’ The other kids were into it, so my parents said, 'OK, let’s do it.’ And we did.”
It’s been 10 years since anyone in the Phoenix family has worn leather shoes, carried a leather handbag or brought honey into their home. They embrace every possible reason for veganism. They love animals and they believe dairyless eating is better for health. They believe the move away from a meat-centered culture will better support the world’s ecology. Above all, they see veganism as one of the early steps people can take to be conscious of their relationships in the world: relationships with animals, people, and the planet itself. To the Phoenix family, veganism is an essential ingredient of a loving and peaceful world-an extension of the values that motivated John and Arlyn when the two first met.