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Rob Reiner talks about River Phoenix, Leonardo DiCaprio

The director’s newest movie, ‘Being Charlie,’ is in theaters now

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Being Charlie (in theaters now) is Rob Reiner’s latest film as a director — his 18th in a career that includes modern classics such as This Is Spinal Tap, The Princess Bride, When Harry Met Sally, and A Few Good Men.

Reiner, 69, recently sat down with EW to talk about his new movie, his past movies, his future movies: LBJ starring Woody Harrelson is aiming for the Toronto Film Festival, and Reiner is currently prepping a new drama about the weapons of mass destruction fiasco during the lead-up to the Iraq war.

But when discussing Being Charlie, Reiner remembered his most timeless masterpiece, 1986’s Stand by Me, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this summer. His memories of Stand by Me star River Phoenix, who died tragically in 1993 at age 23, triggered Reiner to remember a poignant story from the set of The Wolf of Wall Street, where he played the father of Leonardo DiCaprio’s character.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Being Charlie is about an 18-year-old (Nick Robinson) struggling with addiction and rehab. Is there overlap between that and the coming of age story you told in Stand by Me.

Rob Reiner: Well, in Stand by Me, we were dealing with a very dark thing of going to see a dead body and what that means in terms of growing up. Here, we have a father-son thing in Being Charlie and the tone is dark but then there are also a lot of laughs in it too, so it has those similarities.

And the character is a little bit older. It was also co-written by your son Nick.

Yeah. The character is 18 in Being Charlie. It’s not about coming of age, but it’s about finding yourself and being able to go out in the world and not blaming your parents for what happened to you and taking ownership of your own problems.

But as Stand by Me concludes, in the great ending, we get a such a great sense of what these kids are going to be like when they grow up.

Well, obviously you also know that Gordie [Wil Wheaton] grows up and becomes a successful writer. This was an interesting thing that Stephen King did in the novella The Body, which Stand by Me is based on. If you read it, you know that all three of his friends die except Gordie. But I just felt that was too hard, so I had just the one character die, Chris. And that one guy was played by River Phoenix and it’s just unbelievable every time I see it and I see him disappear out of the film. [Touches his hand to his heart] I mean, it’s just so sad and spooky.

Do you still remember the moment when you heard that he died?

Oh, yeah. It shocked the hell out of me. Wow. It upset me so much, but I had seen him a few years after Stand by Me, and I knew he had been taking drugs and stuff. I knew he wasn’t living in the best place.

It’s kind of amazing to just speculate about what his career would have been.

Well, yeah. He was a brilliant, brilliant young actor. I mean, even dying when he did, he left some great performances. Running on Empty, My Own Private Idaho. He was like a James Dean.

You know, as much as I like Leonardo DiCaprio, I’ve wondered how many of his roles River Phoenix would have played.

Well, here’s what’s interesting. You know, I talked to Leonardo DiCaprio about this because the first two things I saw him in were This Boy’s Life with De Niro and then What’s Eating Gilbert Grape right after. And I think he was about 18 or 19 when he did those. I saw those two performances, and I said, “It’s unbelievable, the talent that this kid has.” And then I thought about River. 

Oh really?

Yeah. I thought a lot about River and how upset I was that he was gone. I thought about how he could have go on to become one of the greatest screen actors of all time. And when I was doing The Wolf of Wall Street, I had this very conversation with DiCaprio. I said, “You know I thought about you when you were young because I thought you could go off the rails and I worried for you.” And he told me about the good relationship he had with his mother. Even though his mother and father split up, it was good, and he was always kept on the straight, and he never did drugs. So I said, “Well, thank God, because you’re doing great and you’re a great actor, but anytime I see somebody with that much talent I worry.”

A very candid thing for you to say.

Well, I mean, you know he’s a terrific guy. I mean he’s a really good guy. You know, you’re sitting around on the set and you just start talking. He likes to talk. Very generous, fun to work with, and boy, is he talented. 

As good as he is in The Revenant, I think The Wolf of Wall Street really showed the full, complete DiCaprio performance. 

Amazing. Amazing. What I was stunned by in The Wolf of Wall Street is how funny he is in it. That scene when he’s taken too many of the Quaaludes and then tries to… and when he tries to get into his car, I was howling at the way that he got down the stairs and tried to put his foot up on it. This is brilliant physical comedy, you know.

What was Martin Scorsese like to work with?

He’s great. He’s a film nerd of all film nerds. And you could improvise anything on his set. The whole thing when I come in and I’m yelling at DiCaprio about the bill, that was all improvised. He has his vision, but he’s so generous. He respects that whatever the actors are going to find might be more interesting because it’s connected to them in some real way.

But was there ever a time when you went too far with an improvisation?

[laughs] Yeah. I did one thing and I knew it wasn’t going to get in the film, but I had to do it anyway. We’re sitting there. There’s a scene between Jon Favreau and Leo and myself. Favreau lays out the whole plea deal thing, when Leo’s character is going to jail. And I said, “What do you have to think about? You’ve got the great life here. You got your beautiful wife, your daughter and all.” And Leo says, “I hear you.” And I said, “I don’t hear you hearing me,” and as I was saying that, I’m realizing that it sounds like Raging Bull. And so I yelled at him, “I don’t hear you hearing me and I sound like I’m in a Martin Scorsese movie right now!”

Oh, funny. You actually said that? Maybe it was a little bit too meta.

Yeah. Scorsese laughed but it was too much. He couldn’t put it in the film, but I just thought it was kinda funny.