25 years since the actor passed away, his then-girlfriend has revealed that she “knew something was wrong” that evening.
River Phoenix’s star was ascendant in 1993 when, one Halloween night, he went to Johnny Depp’s Los Angeles nightclub the Viper Room with his girlfriend Samantha Mathis.
The acting couple were two of Hollywood’s best and brightest, having met on the set of the broody romance The Thing Called Love. Mathis was a television talent making waves in the movie industry, and was about to star in Little Women. Phoenix had transitioned from child star in Stand By Me to celebrated adult actor in his own right, earning an Oscar nomination for his role in Running on Empty and raves in the drama My Own Private Idaho.
But on October 31, 1993, outside the Viper Room on West Hollywood’s Sunset Strip, Phoenix would be pronounced dead of a drug overdose. He was just 23.
Speaking to the Guardian on the eve of the 25th anniversary of Phoenix’s tragic and untimely death, Mathis has revealed for the first time that she “knew something was wrong that night”.
The 48-year-old actress said that the original plan was to accompany Phoenix as he dropped of his brother Leaf (now known as Joaquin Phoenix) and sister Rain to the club. “But when we arrived he said to me, ‘Oh, there are some people playing music tonight in the club who want me to play with them — that’s Okay, right?’”
“I knew something was wrong that night, something I didn’t understand. I didn’t see anyone doing drugs but he was high in a way that made me feel uncomfortable — I was in way over my head.”
“45 minutes later, he was dead,” she said, having collapsed outside the Viper Room with heroin in his system.
“I knew he was high that night, but the heroin that killed him didn’t happen until he was in the Viper Room. I have my suspicions about what was going on, but I didn’t see anything,” Mathis said.
Prodigiously talented and only at the start of what promised to be a long and venerated career, Phoenix’s death shocked the film industry and fans alike.
Many remembered him as the bright, caring, empathetic actor who was devoted to his family. For Mathis, he was “sensitive and obsessive… River said to me in that last year: ‘I just have to make one more movie to put away enough money so my youngest sister can go to college,’” Mathis told the Guardian. “I don’t know if that was true, but I remember him saying that.”
This is the first time the actress has spoken about her then-boyfriend and his death — “Except to my therapist,” she said in the interview — because of how traumatising the experience was for her. Mathis was also just 23 when Phoenix died and the pair had only recently begun dating.
Though they had met when Mathis was 19 at a nightclub when Phoenix “bummed a cigarette off me”, they reconnected on the set of their 1993 movie The Thing Called Love about an aspiring country singer who falls in with a creative crowd in the blues scene in Nashville.
“This sounds incredibly cheesy but I knew I would be with him one day,” Mathis said. “It just felt fated between us, and there was such chemistry.”
“I’m looking at a photo of him now, oh wow …” Mathis added to the Guardian. “I think if River was still here, I think he’d be acting, directing, saving the environment, just living and hanging out. Oh gosh, wouldn’t that be nice?”