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The untold truth of Joaquin Phoenix

Joaquin Phoenix is one of the most versatile actors working in Hollywood, taking on romantic roles with as much style and panache as action or thrillers, crafting three-dimensional characters so seamlessly viewers often forget about the man behind them. From embodying country music icon Johnny Cash in Walk the Line down to his distinctive singing voice, to the vicious sadism of Emperor Commodus in Gladiator, Phoenix has proven again and again that his range is virtually unmatched by his peers. 

But unlike many other movie stars who fell into the industry through various privileges, Phoenix's rise to critical acclaim and financial success was neither assured or straightforward. A challenging early childhood as well as the traumatic loss of his older brother River when he was still a teenager were huge obstacles for Phoenix to overcome to get where he is today. With his future as an American cinematic legend fully secure, let's explore Joaquin Phoenix's fascinating past.

Joaquin Phoenix's tumultuous early childhood

Born Joaquin Rafael Bottom on October 28, 1974 in Puerto Rico, Phoenix had nomadic early years as his parents Arlyn (who goes by Heart) and John were members of the Children of God Christian missionary group, now classified as a cult. Because of their involvement in that organization, the Bottoms traveled all over south and central America, spending the most time in Venezuela where the cult's increasingly sinister practices began to disenchant Joaquin's parents. For example, one of Children of God's main features was encouraging sexual activity in children as young as three years old, and also promoting incest. While Joaquin has never spoken about being abused himself, his older brother River openly discussed having his first sexual contact at just four years old. 

After escaping Children of God, Heart and John returned to the USA with their five kids in tow to live with Heart's family in Florida before eventually moving to Los Angeles. They changed their last name from Bottom to Phoenix, honoring the symbol of a mythical creature rising from the ashes that would eventually define the family when they became famous. Joaquin also decided to go by the first name Leaf so he could match better with his brother River, and their sisters Summer, Rain, and Liberty. The Phoenix kids played music on the streets for rent money until their mom got a job as secretary to an NBC casting agent. Through Heart's networking, well-known casting agent Iris Burton was won over by their talent and shepherded them into the bright lights of Hollywood.

Joaquin Phoenix's introduction to acting

Joaquin Phoenix went by his chosen name Leaf for the first few years of his acting career, but it was actually his brother who snagged the first screen role in the television show Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. River quickly brought his family along; Joaquin had his first TV role on that show too, quickly followed with the ABC Afterschool Special Backwards: The Riddle of Dyslexia and Murder, She Wrote as well as the crime procedurals The Fall Guy and Hill Street Blues between 1982 and 1984. As River's star began to rise in movies with his breakout in Stand By Me, Joaquin also landed juicy lead roles in SpaceCamp in 1986 and Russkies in 1987. 

Joaquin's first truly big break wouldn't come until 1989 with the Steve Martin family dramedy Parenthood as troubled youngster Garry, a boy struggling with his father's abandonment of his family. The film was a hit, and Phoenix was nominated for a Young Artist Award for Best Leading Young Actor for this nuanced and heartbreaking performance. But just as Joaquin was set to follow in his brother's successful footsteps, another tragedy hit his family that prevented him from acting for almost two years. 

Losing his beloved older brother River

On Halloween night in 1993, Joaquin Phoenix was at Hollywood nightclub the Viper Room when his brother River overdosed on a cocktail of drugs. Joaquin was the one who made a hysterical call to 911 while their sister Rain tried to resuscitate River using CPR. River died later at the hospital, a trauma that impacted Joaquin and the Phoenix family immeasurably. Joaquin was only 19; his brother had recently turned 23. 

Joaquin Phoenix was so devastated by his brother's sudden death that he didn't act for almost two years. It certainly didn't help that the recording of his 911 call in such an intimate moment of tragedy was publicized, as well as leaked photographs of River's open casket that quickly hit tabloid shelves. By this time, Joaquin's parents had split up and his father John had moved back to South America. While Joaquin's mom and sisters retreated to their family property in Florida and the safety of their connection in privacy to mourn and heal, Joaquin went to live and travel with his father instead.

The first Joaquin-naissance

Joaquin Phoenix was hit extremely hard losing his brother River, but when he came back to acting, he did so with a vengeance. He decided to return to his given name Joaquin instead of Leaf, seen for the first time in the credits of Gus Van Sant's critically acclaimed film To Die For — which kickstarted a fierce new chapter of Phoenix's career in 1995. Based on a true story, To Die For saw Phoenix as Jimmy, a young man whose married girlfriend (played by Nicole Kidman) convinced him to kill her husband.  

After the success of To Die For, Phoenix went on to work with Oliver Stone on U-Turn, then went on the romantic drama Inventing the Abbotts and the thrillers Clay Pigeons and 8MM. But it wasn't until Ridley Scott's Gladiator that Phoenix's talents brought him his first Oscar nomination for his layered performance of Emperor Commodus. By the time he worked with M. Night Shyamalan on Signs and The Village, Phoenix had more than distinguished his career in his own right.

Method acting leading to many award nominations and a few wins

While Joaquin Phoenix's earlier roles were each marked with singular iterations of Phoenix's profound emotional depth, he took things to a new level with his method acting in Walk the Line in 2005, embodying Johnny Cash down to his singing voice — and earning a Grammy as well as a Golden Globe for his tremendous work.

Phoenix then stunned audiences and critics with his role as Freddie Quell in Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master, which earned him his third Oscar nomination. He also starred in Spike Jonze's strangely poignant tech-oriented dramedy Her, as a lonely man who falls in love with his computer operating system. In the hands of a less talented actor Her might have turned into an absurdist comedy, but true to form, Phoenix brought empathy and humanity to the role.

Joaquin Phoenix spent time in rehab after Walk the Line

Diving deep emotionally and physically to embody Johnny Cash and the addictions that shaped his life and career would also come with a dark side for Joaquin Phoenix: After filming for Walk the Line wrapped, he checked himself into rehab for a brief stint. Phoenix had never been more than a social drinker before Walk the Line, and had increased his alcohol consumption significantly to better understand Cash. As he told London Magazine (via the Irish Examiner), "I was really leaning on alcohol to feel okay. That's really what it was."

"To play Cash, I had learned a whole new way of functioning in the world, and suddenly, I couldn't rely on that anymore," he told the New York Times. "You go into a space of not having a routine to your day, of not knowing what you're going to say, and it's like, who are you? What are you? It's so easy to have a drink to just feel okay about being nothing." Phoenix joined Alcoholics Anonymous, telling the Times it was "the best thing" he ever did for himself. Opening up about his problems with alcohol also led Phoenix to admit to other mental health issues, like severe anxiety about performing

During this difficult time, Phoenix also had a terrifying brush with death when his brakes failed and his car crashed. Amazingly, he was rescued by documentary filmmaker Werner Herzog, and nobody was badly injured.

Joaquin Phoenix announces his retirement from acting to become a rap star

From 2009 to 2010 the public at large was worried about Joaquin Phoenix, wondering if he was on drugs — or worse — when he announced his retirement from acting to become a rapper. This period was marked with Phoenix behaving erratically in interviews and talk shows like his now-infamous David Letterman appearance — all of which would turn out to be an elaborate piece of performance art directed by Phoenix's then-brother-in-law Casey Affleck that was eventually turned into the mockumentary I'm Still Here

While the film didn't get the kind of critical reception the creators hoped, it managed to help rehabilitate the terrible image Phoenix had cultivated for almost two years. He was quickly forgiven by Hollywood, clearly — since I'm Still Here, Phoenix has landed several other roles of a lifetime, including The Master, Her, Inherent Vice, and Todd Phillips' The Joker.

Joaquin Phoenix has been a lifelong vegan and animal rights activist

In an interview with Collider, Joaquin Phoenix discussed the moment in his childhood that made him, and soon his whole family, lifelong vegans. "They were catching fish, and I guess to stun them they were throwing them against the side of the boat. I just had a profound strong reaction. It felt like a real injustice... I think it made me distrustful, and angry, and frightened of humans, humanity. I just thought it was such a gross abuse of power in a way. I think that during that moment we knew that we were not going to eat meat anymore." He was four years old at the time and hasn't eaten meat since.   

Phoenix has also used his celebrity platform to further various causes for animal rights. He is a PETA spokesperson, as well as a spokesperson for Defense of Animals. He narrated the documentary Earthlings, which focused on how capitalism fuels animal abuse. He starred in a 2013 PETA short film, and was also executive producer on the Netflix documentary What The Health in 2017, which argues that a vegan lifestyle can prevent cancer. 

Phoenix is also involved in a great deal of charity work, including working with Amnesty International, the Red Cross, the American Foundation for AIDS Research, and many more. He is also on the board of directors for the Lunchbox Fund, an organization that provides meals for underprivileged South African children in Soweto.

Joaquin Phoenix has directed a number of music videos

In many ways Joaquin Phoenix's life has been shaped by music as much as by acting. It was singing and dancing on street corners that helped him and his siblings develop their considerable talents, and it was his phenomenal performance as Johnny Cash in Walk the Line that earned Phoenix a Grammy and Golden Globe. His experiment with musical performance art for I'm Still Here also complemented his method acting skills. It's no surprise, then, that Phoenix would try his hand at directing, beginning with music videos. 

From 2005 to 2006, Phoenix directed four music videos. The first was for Ringside's "Tired of Being Sorry" starring Balthazar Getty and it has a distinct James Bond meets Raging Bull flair with a twist. His next was She Wants Revenge's "Tear You Apart," which reads like a surreal homage to foreign films and horror movies. He developed his neo-noir aesthetic further in the video for "Little Lover's So Polite" by the Silversun Pickups, while Phoenix's video for People in Planes' "If You Talk Too Much My Head Will Explode" uses long takes and emotional close-ups. It's an impressive body of work, but Phoenix told Collider that directing "wasn't for me" and he had no plans to dabble in it again.  

Joaquin Phoenix opens up about his brother in rare comments

Riding a wave of critical acclaim for his performance in the comics-inspired 2019 drama Joker, Joaquin Phoenix received the Toronto International Film Festival Tribute Actor Award alongside Meryl Streep. The award recognizes decades of cinematic excellence, and during his acceptance speech Joaquin made rare and emotional comments about his late brother River. "When I was 15 or 16, my brother River came home from work and he had a VHS copy of a movie called Raging Bull, and he sat me down and made me watch it," he recalled. "And the next day he woke me up, and he made me watch it again. And he said, 'You're going to start acting again, this is what you're going to do... He didn't ask me, he told me. And I am indebted to him for that because acting has given me such an incredible life." 

During a speech that starts out with self-deprecating humor, that raw and vulnerable turn only made this honoring of his career even more poignant. Joaquin Phoenix also credited his father John Lee for gifting him with an exceptional work ethic that helped him get to this point, but also quipped that it might not have fully been on display on the Joker set.