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The actor kept quiet for years about witnessing her then-boyfriend dying outside the Viper Room in 1993. But rediscovering her love for stage acting gave her the strength to move on
It took more than 25 years for Samantha Mathis to acknowledge how her life was shaped by one horrific night in 1993.
On 30 October that year, Mathis found her boyfriend convulsing on the pavement outside the Viper Room nightclub on Sunset Boulevard. Despite being told by the man he was with to leave him alone youre spoiling his high, she ran back inside to find his brother, who called 911. By the time the paramedics arrived, her boyfriend had stopped breathing. He was pronounced dead at the hospital, having overdosed on cocaine and heroin.
It would have been a traumatic event for any young person, but Mathis, who already had several movie roles, had to cope with an extra level of attention. The man she was dating was River Phoenix, who had already established himself as an alternative screen idol, thanks to roles in films such as Stand By Me, My Own Private Idaho and The Thing Called Love, a comedy-drama in which he had starred with Mathis in the same year that he died.
For decades, Mathis followed the lead of Phoenixs family in keeping the events surrounding his death private, but recently she realised the story and the pain that came with keeping it was hers, too. So, on the 25th anniversary of his death last year, she spoke to the Guardian about her relationship with him and how she witnessed his death when they were both just 23.
What came up for me last year around the anniversary was: Oh, this also happened to me, and had a profound effect on my life, more so than I still understand even with all the years of therapy, she says. I needed to talk about it for myself.
As we sit together, barefoot, on her couch in Greenwich Village, her pain is still palpable, but she says there is, finally, an awareness of what she went through. People who are in my life, but hadnt been in my life at that time and some people who were in my life then were given a chance to understand how painful a time that must have been for me, she says.
Still, shes not sorry she waited so long to speak to the press. By and large I was left alone, whereas now I would have been walking out of my apartment building with a camera in my face, she says. I cant imagine a 23-year-old going through that today.