Block Telesales Calls NOW
Receive no more
"I just wish I could have told him, in the living years...."
Whilst most fourteen-year-old boys can only dream of excitement and adventures in outer space, for River it would become a reality in his first motion picture, Explorers. Much of the script of that movie refers to historical events and classic films/television but River's unique childhood in South America meant that he had no knowledge of this history. This, coupled with such things as the special vegan meals that were brought in for him by his parents, only emphasized the already noticeable "outsider" quality about him. "I've always felt somewhat out of place with other kids my own age," he said a few years later. "I was constantly reminded by people's reaction to our names and our diet that we seemed weird to them." Child work laws meant that the young cast members could only work a matter of a few hours a day, so Explorers took over five months to complete.
When River's agent, Iris Burton contacted the family with news of another possible movie for him, no one at the time could have been aware of the opportunity that was now presenting itself. Indeed, enthusiasm was even a little muted when it turned out that River would be just one of three hundred young actors who were due to be auditioned. Even the movie itself was experiencing difficulty finding studio support.
Director Rob Reiner knew that the success of Stand By Me would depend entirely on the correct casting of the four boys. However, even with these casting concerns in mind, Reiner had no problem awarding River the part of Chris Chambers straight away. River traveled to the state of Oregon and the town of Eugene in June 1985 accompanied by his father who was acting as the legally required chaperone. They would be joined by the rest of the Phoenix family a week or two later.
In the company of the Wil Wheaton, Corey Feldman and Jerry O'Connell, River's confidence grew in leaps and bounds. He was now quite unrecognizable from the timid, awkward young boy who was made fun of on the sets of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and Explorers.
River's technique of slowly dissolving his own personality and becoming the character he was playing, a technique already made use of on Explorers and a technique he would call upon throughout the rest of his career, would be used extensively during the making of Stand By Me. As a result, when the movie was released in the summer of 1986, his performance would receive critical acclaim. Oddly enough though, River never indicated he felt the same way. "Personally I didn't think my work was up to my own standards", he said. But he then added, "I have a tendency to be supercritical of myself."
Although much more confident and sure of himself following his experiences on Stand By Me, River was still quite unprepared for the fame and stardom which were to quickly follow. When River stayed in Japan for the launch of the movie, Iris Burton recalls, "He'd tell them, 'Come up, come up to the [hotel] room', and that room would be filled with kids from the park. He would play guitar for them and give them fruit and juice."
With potential scripts now coming in on a regular basis, River, his mother and his agent were able to be much more selective about the young star's next project. When author Paul Theroux created the character of Charlie Fox in his 1982 novel The Mosquito Coast, he could not have imagined how much his character's experiences echoed those of River's. Intrigued by the character, River expressed an interest in the forthcoming screen adaptation of the book and eventually landed the role. "In this movie, I play this really sheltered kid - all I know is what my dad tells me," described River. "He gets sick of society and we go down to the subtropics area to live."
Accompanied once again by his father, River traveled to the tiny Central-American country of Belize. A tight filming schedule and uncomfortable, difficult to work in jungle locations meant that the entire cast would all pull together and they would become good friends by the completion of filming. River bonded very strongly with Harrison Ford during the sixteen-week shoot and he also started dating his first girlfriend Martha Plimpton. This would become River's longest lasting relationship.