Old News: My Own Private Idaho

Published September 28, 2011

Interview is feeling old. Tomorrow marks the 20th anniversary of Gus Van Sant’s third, and perhaps most Portland film, My Own Private Idaho. Before Baz Luhrmann brought Romeo and Juliet to Verona Beach, and teen idols Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger fell in love in Brokeback Mountain, Idaho explored Henry IV through a group of Portland street kids, and teen idol River Phoenix divulged his love for Keanu Reeves’ character in a heartbreaking fireside chat. Van Sant has chosen to honor this anniversary with a 12-hour compilation of Phoenix’s scenes and outtakes, My Own Private River, edited by the ubiquitous James Franco. We have chosen to revisit Gini Sikes and Paige Powell’s interview with Reeves and Phoenix featured in our November 1991 issue. Special Interview points to Gus Van Sant for casting an Andy Warhol favorite, Udo Kier, as one of Phoenix and Reeves’ clients.

In My Own Private Idaho, River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves portray a pair of teenage prostitutes, each more victim than vulture. Phoenix is a narcoleptic, Mike, who dozes off at dangerously inopportune moments as he searches endlessly for his long-lost mother; Reeves is a blue-blooded runaway, Scott, who turns tricks as rebellion against his father. “Idaho is the story of a rich boy who falls of the hill and a kid on the street,” says writer-director, Gus Van Sant. “I saw a bit of the hill in Keanu’s personality and a bit of the street in River’s. They played out those extensions of themselves.”

Reeves is the first to arrive for dinner at Suite 55 in the Chateau Marmont on Sunset Boulevard. He looks a bit dazed from a run-in with the paparazzi at a Hollywood screening. “I just stopped on my bike to ask the guard, like, what movie was playing,” he says. “And suddenly all of the guys around me are yelling ‘Keanu, look up!'” Did he? “No way, man. I beat it out of there. It was weird.” He grins, and then offers to grate some Parmesan cheese for the pasta, first asking what side of the grater to use. Soon Phoenix shows up. Immediately, he’s at Reeves’s side in the kitchen, peeling garlic. Within minutes, though, the two escape to the balcony. Phoenix lights up a Camel. He cocks an eyebrow: “Doesn’t figure, huh?” Then he exhales. “I know. I should quit.”

Suddenly he and Reeves are off, excitedly exploring the possibility of doing Shakespeare together. They stand nose to nose—Phoenix newly bleached blond as part of his bid to play the young Andy Warhol in a future Van Sant biopic, Reeves dark-haired and tanned—like positive and negative images of each other. They sustain their banter throughout the meal, as one interrupts the other, but only to complete his thought.

GINI SIKES: Keanu, you’ve said you accepted a part in Idaho first, hoping River would do the film too.

KEANU REEVES: No. We were always together.

RIVER PHOENIX: He was lying. We were doing I Love You to Death, and we both got the Idaho script. We were driving in a car on Santa Monica Boulevard, probably on the way to a club, and were talking really fast about the whole idea. We were excited. It could have been like a bad dream—a dream that never follows through because no one commits, but we just forced ourselves into it. We said “OK, I’ll do it if you do it. I won’t do it if you don’t.” We shook hands. That was it.

READ THE FULL INTERVIEW.