The Viper Room is an iconic, infamous nightclub on the Sunset Strip—not only because Johnny Depp owned it until 2004 but also because it’s where, on Halloween night of 1993, River Phoenix overdosed on the sidewalk outside. What happened that night combined enough tragedy, heartbreak and Hollywood names to be forever embedded in our cultural consciousness: Joaquin Phoenix wailing on the phone to 911, the presence of Depp, Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Christina Applegate, but mostly the fact that drugs could take out an unquestionably gifted actor in the prime of his life. In these pre-TMZ times, most people had no idea that Phoenix did drugs, let alone that he’d ingest a liquid speedball for “fun.”
In Last Night at the Viper Room (released this week from Harper’s It Books to coincide with the 20th anniversary of Phoenix’s death), journalist Gavin Edwards analyzes the legacy of River Phoenix and paints a captivating picture of not only the Viper Room but also of what the Hollywood scene was like at the time when there was still a stigma attached to addiction and words like rehab, let alone sober companion and sponsor, weren’t commonplace the way they are today. Here, Edwards discusses the role he thinks Hollywood played in Phoenix’s addiction, the legacy of the Viper Room and where he believes Phoenix would be today if he were still alive.
What attracted you to the topic? Were you always a fan of River Phoenix?
Gavin Edwards: I’d seen My Own Private Idaho extremely late at night and I just remember it being like some sort of waking dream I had. It was a strange, hallucinatory movie. I didn’t know that much about River at that point but it just served as a big motivator. I wanted to know more about him. When I found out how many people were at the Viper Room the night he died, I was just flabbergasted.
Did you talk to his family for the book?
I reached out to Arlyn [River’s mother] and other members of the family when I started doing this and I got a polite “no” back. Joaquin never ever talks about River in public. He just doesn’t. And I understand that’s the family’s basic policy. All the quotes [in the book from Arlyn]are from an interview I did several years back for an article in Details about mothers. We just had a long conversation about motherhood, which ended up being very interesting and apropos.
What role do you think his family played in his addiction?
There was addiction in his family but I don’t think they were really enabling him. They weren’t fully aware of how bad his problem was. He was 23 years old and his issues had gotten much worse in the past couple of years of his life. It took a while for the family to realize that there actually was a problem.
What role do you think celebrity played in his addiction?
He was this big Hollywood star always surrounded by people. He had money to get what he wanted. There were always people around him, catering to him. He had this lifestyle, where he just jumps from one movie set to the next. He’s here. He’s there. He’s not holding down a 9-5 job, where people sort of know his routines. So if he wanted to check out for a day or three and just do cocaine in a hotel room all day, he could. He called Hollywood “the bad bad town.” It was easier for him to stay clean when he was outside of Los Angeles.
Do you think River knew the true extent of his addiction?
I don’t think he did. He had a good story going on with himself. He just thought it was recreational.
Do you think his political beliefs—such as being a vegan or wanting to saving the rain forest—helped him delude himself into thinking he didn’t have a drug problem?
I quote this in the book when he says, “I couldn’t be doing that [drugs], I don’t even eat meat.” Of course, using drugs and your diet is not the same thing. In terms of consumption, he had the line, “I’m incredibly thoughtful about everything I put into my body.”
River succumbed to his addiction, but a lot of people you mention in the book were using drugs and didn’t die. Why do you think that is?
Honestly, that’s just how it works. He never thought he was going to die. That night, he had too much and it messed with his heart. Drugs can be recreational for some people. It can be incredibly unhealthy for other people. The problem is that you don’t know.
Do you think the Viper Room will always be known as the place of River’s death?
That is what it is most famous for. If you walk by it, you’ll often hear somebody say, “This is spot where River died.”
What was the most interesting information about River that you learned through your book research?
[Director] William Richert told me that River would come over to his house but he wouldn’t know he was coming until he started getting phone calls from people asking, “Is River there?” There would be half an hour of calls announcing it before River would finally show up. It was an interesting way to move to the world—to want people to start tracking where he was.
What do you think is the most important thing we can take away from River’s death?
It’s many things. Heroin and cocaine are serious drugs that can kill you. Most people think about River as that guy who died outside the Viper Room. But that’s about his death; it’s not so much about his life. These scenes from these great movies: My Own Private Idaho, Stand by Me, Dogfight, Running on Empty—he nailed them. How he carried himself, his ability to try and make the world a better place. He took what he had and really thought about how to try and improve the planet. I hope and believe that he’s still an inspiration.
Do you think River’s death impacted Hollywood’s attitude about drugs?
I have spoken to people—not famous people but people who thought, when that happened, “Oh my God, he’s young and he’s wasn’t bulletproof, I better stop and get my act together and stop using the way I do.”
Had he lived, where do you think River would be today?
I think he’d be one of our leading actors. He’d only be 43 years old. I think he had so much talent that even if he had some missteps along the way, he would have ended up being able to win Academy awards. I think he would be an interesting, eccentric actor at the prime of his powers.