Twenty-plus years after the death of River Phoenix, a deep fascination still remains. His name will come up in industry meetings, and especially among casting veterans on the lookout, who are looking hard for comparability. One of the most fascinating discussions that continues to resonate: what might have happened if he were still alive? There are many theories, and some pretty interesting scenarios in which the most famous actors in the world wouldn’t have gotten their biggest roles had River not died at 23 in 1993. Here are seven films that might have starred River Phoenix.
7. The Basketball Diaries
Did you know that River Phoenix was a big fan of Jim Carroll, and he was the driving force behind The Basketball Diaries film, based on the autobiography of the same name? Things get very interesting when addressing cinematic history, and knowing the lead role eventually went to Leonardo DiCaprio. Leo was pretty close to perfection in the biopic, but the project was conceived with River Phoenix in mind. Taking it a step further, River was also the first choice for This Boy’s Life, which also went to DiCaprio, and River was also who James Cameron envisioned as Jack Dawson in Titanic. We can’t argue with ever casting Leonardo DiCaprio, but it’s crazy to think of how different Leo’s career might have played out had River Phoenix not met death at such an early age. Definitely room for both fellas in the industry, but River’s death catapulted Leo.
6. Richard Linklater’s “Before…” Trilogy
When a young Ethan Hawke was cast in the kids’ sci-fi flick Explorers, one of his fellow cast mates happened to be River Phoenix. Ethan tells a story of his incredible admiration for River, and how he was in awe of River’s character approach, even at a young age. Ethan admits he always felt inadequate around the actor whom everyone considered a definitive natural. And we have to wonder, “What if River Phoenix didn’t pass away…? Surely, he would have worked with Rick Linklater!” There are so many variables at play in this scenario, not the least of which is the rapport between Rick and Ethan. However, it is easy to imagine River Phoenix opposite Julie Delpy in Before Sunrise, then followed with Before Sunset and Before Midnight 20 years later. And we state it: Ethan became a better actor because of River.
5. Interview With a Vampire
Let’s bring Brad Pitt into this scenario, shall we? Ethan Hawke was the same age as River Phoenix, and Leonardo DiCaprio was nearly four years younger. Brad was seven years older. Still, had River lived beyond 1993, the two men would have competed for roles. After mastering the storytelling aspects of drama, River would have been tempted to put on a few muscular pounds and taken on some adventure. He was an athlete. Feel free to plug-and-play River Phoenix into any Brad Pitt role. For some reason, Interview With a Vampire really fits because the idea of River Phoenix and Tom Cruise works, but how about Seven? Meet Joe Black? Legends of The Fall? It’s reasonable to think River Phoenix might have been the first choice over Brad Pitt on more than one occasion. And of course, they would have acted together in Ocean’s Eleven, Twelve and Thirteen.
4. The Dark Knight
Now it’s time to mess with the mind. Like…really mess with the mind. River Phoenix as Batman? Eh…that might be a stretch. We could definitely see him pulling off the Bruce Wayne thing, but as the Dark Knight himself? Maybe not. Then again…maybe. Here’s a quick argument for River Phoenix as Batman. Go back and watch Stand By Me and enjoy River as Chris Chambers. You can see some young Bruce Wayne in that mix, can’t you? Young, tortured, capable of great things. But let’s take this a step further and address Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, with Christian Bale as Batman. Heath Ledger slayed the role of the Joker, but you know who else could have, and maybe would have gotten an offer, or could have pursue the role? A more mature, nonetheless youthful River Phoenix. How’d you guess?
3. The Talented Mr. Ripley
Okay. River Phoenix has taken roles from nearly everyone thus far, so let’s add another couple dudes to the mix. We hinted at it with Interview With a Vampire, suggesting River would have appeared in Ocean’s Eleven. And we imagine he could have snagged Matt Damon’s role in the process, had he wanted it or pursued it. He might have been a tad old, and could have played Casey Affleck’s older brother in place of Scott Caan. (Though posthumous, Casey is River’s brother-in-law, after marrying River’s sister Summer.) Digressing. The Talented Mr. Ripley. Pick one: Matt Damon or Jude Law. That’s the annoying thing about how great River Phoenix was in front of the camera. He could do it all. He was so easily recognizable, but also such a chameleon. When it came to range, Tom Hardy may be the most comparable if considering actors at their current career peak.
It was alluded to, but here’s the brass tacks: James Cameron wanted to build his cast around River Phoenix when he first began conceptualizing the historical fiction epic which became Titanic. Of course, production for Titanic came nearly three years after the death of River Phoenix, but Cameron loved the idea of someone so seasoned, who boasted more charm than any two hour movie could contain, necessitating three. For those who were under the impression that Leonardo DiCaprio was Cameron’s first—and only—choice, they might be surprised to know that several actors screen tested for the role, meaning they were put in costume and placed opposite leading lady, Kate Winslet, to do some scene work. Among these actors: Jeremy Sisto. Seriously. Go find it. It didn’t work on any level. Ultimately, Cameron went with the best River Phoenix replacement ever, Leonardo DiCaprio.
1. Indiana Jones V, VI or VII
And now, we look ahead to a film that is set to begin production at some point later this year, or most likely in 2017: the fifth installment of the Indiana Jones franchise. Indy fans are hyper-aware of River’s presence in the third film, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, playing young Indiana Jones. If—and this is a huge “magic if”—Steven Spielberg wanted to go back in time, as opposed to stick with Harrison Ford as an aging Indy, the only viable option would have been River Phoenix. This plays with timelines, but at its essence, River Phoenix would likely be the only other actor fans would accept as Indiana Jones. It’s not a novel series like James Bond, where movies are adapted. Harrison Ford and River Phoenix, are/were Indiana Jones. And…kinda Sean Patrick Flanery…but not really.