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Five months prior to shooting the film, River moved to Portland, staying with Gus Van Sant and began investigating the undercover world of gay hustling. "For every character I play," said River, "I write a sort of character bio. For My Own Private Idaho I wrote the most. After the film had been finished, I burnt it all."
The character of Mike Waters was based on Mike Parker, a former Portland street hustler. River felt it was very important for them to get to know one another for this movie. The day they met for the first time was spent in a San Francisco park. "We talked the entire day. Even though he had never been in my particular situation I felt he understood me," Parker said.
River sunk himself so deeply into the role of Mike Waters it seems he was unable to find and return to his former self. "He looked like a street kid," said a member of the film's production crew. "I've never seen anybody so intent on living his role."
Talking of the movie, River said, "For sensational reasons people might say this is about gay street life, which is really great for the gay community because it's important to have something to identify with. But it doesn't represent the gay community. You don't hear about Five Easy Pieces as a film about a guy who works on an oil rig and he's heterosexual. It might take a few of these films before there's, like, a natural stride with the whole issue and then maybe one day it won't even be an issue, which is what I'm hoping." See Celluloid Icons: This Road Will Never End in our Phoenix TV section.