"You know I’ve had to really look at some things that I do (for example, you know I’ve smoked for years) and I think initially, naïvely—very naïvely—I didn’t draw a connection between animal testing and smoking. It seems fucking absurd now, it seems an obvious thing." -Joaquin
Joaquin Phoenix: OK great, so we’ll pretend like I don’t know the answers to these… You were born vegan, is that correct?
Summer Phoenix: Yes.
JP: Did you ever feel resentful, or like you were forced into a lifestyle that limited your experience? When did you become aware of being vegan and what it meant, and what were your interactions like with other kids when you were younger?
SP: That is so funny to think about, because I actually never felt deprived or all that different. It wasn’t until I was in public school in 4th grade that it was viewed as something unique and different, and I perceived that difference as cool. I did not feel less-than, or weird, or left out; honestly, whatever difference I did feel seemed like a good thing.
JP: Good for you. So, why have you maintained a vegan lifestyle since? Was it ethical reasons, health, the environment?
SP: I think—I mean, I know for certain—that for me, it was always about coming from a compassionate standpoint, so it was largely ethical (though the health aspect was a plus). But you know, it always seemed like that’s just the gift I got. The environmental benefit is a factor as well, but I think it wasn’t until many years later that people started to become conscious of the ecological state of our planet and all of the benefits of vegetarianism and veganism.
JP: Did you raise your kids vegan? Are they vegan?
SP: I did raise my kids vegan. They’re 8 and 11 now, and definitely have begun to make their own dietary choices. My little guy says, “I’m mostly vegan but I’ll eat eggs and stuff in cookies,” and the big guy feels the same way. Honestly, I wanted to give them that choice— I armed them with education, and they have their own will when it comes to their own lives. Unfortunately, I think I may have just opened the door to pizza and birthday cake, which is not the healthiest of choices as far as I’m concerned, but they are still fervent vegetarians.
JP: Did you have a discussion about your beliefs and why you were raised vegan?
SP: I absolutely did, and whether they wanted to have the conversation or not, I let them know what I believe. I think all children, given the truth, are compassionate at their core. Most children I have ever known love animals and have a warm place in their heart for them—especially when you have pets—so yes, I did have that conversation with them and they certainly made those decisions. They decided to not be completely vegan and to sort of be “normal” kids…at least as far as birthday parties are concerned.
JP: Right—so you don’t buy dairy or buy them pizza or anything like that?
SP: I have a vegan home, and I do not buy them non-vegan items even when we’re out, but when they go to their friends’ houses, for example, I’m not monitoring them and I give them a choice.
JP: You know I’ve had to really look at some things that I do (for example, you know I’ve smoked for years) and I think initially, naïvely— very naïvely—I didn’t draw a connection between animal testing and smoking. It seems fucking absurd now, it seems an obvious thing, but it wasn’t until I worked with this guy John Pierre who made me aware of it—nevertheless, I’ve really struggled to stop, and I keep trying, but it’s given me sympathy and an understanding for people who struggle with their choices.
SP: I know, it’s interesting; a friend of mine asked me the other day if I would help her out—she works for an ALS (also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease) charity, raising money for the illness that her husband passed away from two and a half years ago. She asked if I would help her out, and before she said another word, I said that of course I’d do anything she wanted, and she said, “I need you to know, because I know of your beliefs, that a lot of the research that is done [on ALS] is done on animals,” and she said in full disclosure that she didn’t want me to speak out for this if it was something that went against my beliefs. She said “I, too, love animals, but I would do anything to get my husband back,” and it really put it into perspective for me. We all struggle, and there are the evils you know— wrongs and rights you can see—but in the end, we all do what we can. I know what I’m capable of, and I know that just by being a vegan, I am making a small difference in a lot of different aspects of this spinning planet filled with negativity and positivity. And if I can make one small little footprint, in a positive way, then that is a very small sacrifice.
JP: How do you define what has life? Is the central nervous system a factor for you? That is, do you draw the line at creatures that have a central nervous system and therefore react to stimuli the way we do and experience fear the way we do?
SP: Sure, that makes sense—if you’re comparing it to a plant, which is what I survive on, I mean a carrot would rot in the ground; an apple will fall from a tree and rot. And I don’t think that it’s torture, what I strive for is not to cause pain in this world. And yes, if there’s measurement of pain or anxiety or feeling and I can empathize with that cause, I’m a human being and I have those feelings so I honestly do my best to not do that to anything else.
JP: But do you think that it’s realistic to hope for everybody to become vegan? I think you could argue that there are people who can only live off of the fish that they catch.
SP: I couldn’t agree more—I think there is survival and there is luxury, and I think that they are two ends of a spectrum and that we as human beings on this planet have always sort of swung on the pendulum between those two things. For the people who kill animals for their survival, there’s an entirely different karmic value placed on that, and they recognize that as well. I think it’s not just diet for me; it goes across all sorts of lines of just waste, you know? We as a human race go above and beyond what is needed consistently to provide for ourselves, and at a certain point it’s not survival and it’s not just provisional, it is luxury. I think that that level of waste is what makes it inhumane or unethical. I get just as sad when I walk into one department store in one mall in one small city and see hundreds of the same shirt—it makes me so sad that somewhere people are cold and there’s tons of these jackets on sale and the sort of mass production that leads to a level of waste that the planet can’t sustain. Did that answer your question?
JP: I think so, I don’t know… I wasn’t listening [laughs]. That leads to the next question, which is, does veganism just apply to what you eat? Or do you not use any animal products at all?
SP: That’s a great question, and one that I struggle with. I had a recycled women’s clothing store for over 10 years and what we did was take vintage clothing and update it—contemporize, modernize it—and there was an aspect of me that felt like I was making a difference by not creating new things and reworking old things and making them new, and that felt really good on one level of sustainability. At the same time, I was aware that I was incorporating and using leather. At that time, I began to buy vintage shoes leather shoes, vintage leather purses—which I still carry to this day—and you know, I do think about it and struggle with it, but I still have not thrown those things out and I still carry them… There is a piece of me that feels like it is better to use what has already been and lasts than it is to create new PVC new plastic bullshit that won’t decompose.
JP: OK, what do you suggest for someone that wants to become vegan; is there a process? Is there any website you suggest, or cookbook, something like that?
SP: Well I think I’m going to start a website… hmmm, let’s see… I think the number-one thing is to start by eliminating meat. There are so many resources and so many alternatives in this day and age—you can’t really get away from it—that I feel especially with Google or Whole Foods, in every single town and even most supermarkets these days, there are plenty of alternatives to help get you started… I think starting with whole foods in general (not the supermarket chain, but any food in its original form) can set you on the right path.
JP: So you don’t use any new wool products? Because for years I had suits provided when I’d go to premieres or something like that—and you know, Prada, Armani, would give you a suit—and I always thought that wool was only like, big wool sweaters (again, real naïveté), and then I knew that it was wool and I did what so many people do and I rationalized, and I said “well, they’re shearing it,” and I didn’t really understand what went into it. I don’t think a lot of people do, and I was just exposed to the wool trade and the shearing process because of PETA and an ad I’m going to do with them about that process, and it was—it is—horrifying. I feel a lot of shame and regret about that, about not doing more thorough research, and I feel really embarrassed by wearing those suits. I stopped—it was a few years ago I went to the globes and suddenly realized, “oh, fuck, I don’t have anything to wear,” and so I just wore a sweater that I had, you know, that wasn’t wool. But it was a process getting there.
SP: I understand—I honestly don’t buy anything new, so if I only shop for myself at second-hand stores, that means that when I am, you know, wearing wool or leather, it is used. And yes, I think that’s something that I still struggle with. It’s like balancing out your evils, or your karmic footprint. And so I really don’t buy new stuff, but I do wear wool and leather as long as it is used.
JP: You do? Oh, I gotta stop smoking just so I can get self righteous and tell you that you can’t do that anymore…