Who Is Joaquin Phoenix?
Joaquin Phoenix is an awarding-winning American actor who found success at a young age with the film Parenthood. On the heels of his early successes, he starred in Gladiator and Walk the Line, for which he earned a Golden Globe and an Oscar nomination. Following a hiatus, Phoenix returned to the big screen with The Master, and went on to acclaimed roles in Her, Inherent Vice and Joker.
Early Life and Siblings
Actor Joaquin Phoenix was born Joaquin Rafael Phoenix in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on October 28, 1974. As the son of the missionaries for the Children of God religious group, Phoenix moved frequently with his family during his early life. His parents, John and Arlyn Bottom, completed stints in Central and South America before becoming disillusioned with Children of God. After they left the group, the family took the new surname Phoenix, which was symbolic of their new life.
Moving to Los Angeles around the age of four, Joaquin and his siblings — older brother River, older sister Rain, and younger sisters Liberty and Summer — soon tried to make their way in Hollywood. The Phoenix children already liked to put on shows for each other before their mother found an agent to represent them. “We all used to sing and play music, and we were all very outgoing. My parents always encouraged us to express ourselves. And so it seemed like second nature to start acting,” Phoenix explained to Interview magazine.
The first breakout star of the Phoenix family was River, who landed a role on the short-lived television series Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, which aired from 1982 to 1983. Through his brother, Joaquin made a guest appearance on the show when he was eight years old, which led to other small television parts on such shows as The Fall Guy, Hill Street Blues and Murder, She Wrote. He even appeared with River in an ABC Afterschool Special about dyslexia; the two played brothers. At the time, Joaquin was using the name Leaf, which he had chosen for himself when he was six years old. He returned to using his birth name around the age of 16.
Making his film debut in 1986, Phoenix had a supporting role as a wannabe astronaut in the kids adventure movie SpaceCamp. He also tried his hand at primetime drama with Morningstar/Eveningstar, a story of homeless children who find shelter at a facility for senior citizens. Unfortunately, this meeting of the young and old only lasted a few episodes before being canceled.
Remarkably, one of his biggest breaks came when Phoenix left Hollywood. He had moved to Florida when he landed a role in the Ron Howard-directed comedy Parenthood (1989). In the film, Phoenix gave an impressive performance as the rebellious son of Dianne Wiest. After this success, Phoenix, who was only 15 years old, decided to put his career on hold to travel on his own through Latin America. While he avoided Hollywood, his brother River stood in the spotlight, becoming one of the leading young actors at the time.
Family Tragedy: Death of River Phoenix
In 1993, Phoenix was with his famous brother, River, partying at the Viper Room nightclub in West Hollywood, when River collapsed outside and began having convulsions. Joaquin phoned for help, and paramedics arrived to resuscitate River. Their efforts failed, however, and River was taken to the hospital where he was pronounced dead in the early hours of October 31. Later, Joaquin’s anguished 911 call was played and replayed by the media, only compounding his grief.
‘To Die For,’ ‘Return to Paradise’
Returning to acting, Phoenix played an alienated, underachieving teen who is seduced by a success-hungry news reporter (Nicole Kidman) in Gus Van Sant’s To Die For (1995). A wave of films soon followed. In the romantic drama Inventing the Abbotts (1997), he was paired up onscreen with Liv Tyler. That coupling evolved into an off-screen relationship. Phoenix then worked with director Oliver Stone on the neo-noir thriller U-Turn (1997). Despite having a strong cast, which included Sean Penn and Claire Danes, the film was a box office dud.
The following year, Phoenix earned raves for his performance as an American imprisoned in Malaysia on drug charges and facing the death penalty in Return to Paradise (1998). Vince Vaughn and David Conrad co-starred as friends who must decide whether to return to the country and acknowledge their roles in the crime. Another pairing with Vaughn, Clay Pigeons (1998), failed to attract much notice from critics or movie-goers.
‘Gladiator,’ ‘The Yards,’ ‘Quills’
In 2000, Phoenix nearly stole the Roman epic Gladiator from star Russell Crowe with his turn as the twisted, jealous emperor Commodus. His work in this summer blockbuster, directed by Ridley Scott, netted him nominations for many of the acting profession’s most prestigious awards, including the Oscars. That same year, Phoenix continued to demonstrate his range as a performer, playing a slick operator in The Yards (2000), opposite Mark Wahlberg, and French religious official Abbe Coulmier in Quills, about the institutionalized writer Marquis de Sade.
‘Signs,’ ‘The Village’
Working with director M. Night Shyamalan, Phoenix had a supporting role as Mel Gibson’s younger brother in the eerie thriller Signs (2002), which brought in more than $227 million at the box office. He took the lead for his next collaboration with Shyamalan, The Village (2004), playing a young man who puts his small community at risk by exploring the mysterious woods that surround his town. By this time, Phoenix had become known for his tendency to immerse himself completely in the lives of his characters. “He’s acting on a different plane. He’s almost superhuman,” co-star Bryce Dallas Howard told The Record.
That same year, Phoenix starred in the blockbuster action film Ladder 49 (2004) with John Travolta, Robert Patrick, and Balthazar Getty. Phoenix went through professional training to prepare for his role as a new firefighter, and the extra work made an impression on viewers; the film not only made more than $22 million in its opening week, it earned complimentary reviews from critics and fans.
Playing Johnny Cash in ‘Walk the Line’
Phoenix outdid himself in his next major role, undergoing even more extensive preparation to play one of country music’s greatest stars, Johnny Cash, in Walk the Line (2005). Phoenix had to learn to sing and play the guitar like Cash for the role, which took nearly six months of lessons from the film’s executive music producer, T-Bone Burnett. His co-star, Reese Witherspoon, went through her own rigorous musical training to sing like June Carter Cash, Johnny’s wife.
To stay in character, Phoenix asked everyone on set to call him “J.R.” — Cash’s given name. “I’m embarrassed about it now. But when I heard “Joaquin” it just didn’t feel right” Phoenix explained to Entertainment Weekly. Widely praised by critics, the film and its stars netted numerous nominations and awards. Phoenix himself received his first Academy Award nomination in the Best Actor category and his first Golden Globe Award for Best Actor in Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy. Even the film’s soundtrack, which featured vocals by Phoenix and Witherspoon, brought home the Grammy Award for Best Compilation Soundtrack Album for Motion Picture, Television or Other Visual Media.
Bringing the hard-living Cash to the big screen took its toll on the young actor. After filming ended, Phoenix went into rehab for issues related to alcohol. “There was a lot made of my going to rehab, and it seems very dramatic, but it wasn’t like that,” Phoenix told Time magazine. “I just became aware of my drinking as a tool to relax when I don’t work. I basically went to a country club where they didn’t serve alcohol.”
‘We Own the Night’
In 2007, Phoenix reunited with Wahlberg for the gritty urban tale We Own the Night, in which they played brothers on opposite sides of the law. In that year’s Reservation Road, he starred as a father who loses his son in a hit-and-run accident. He also had a leading role in James Gray’s independent drama Two Lovers (2009), with Gwyneth Paltrow.
Fake Retirement Produces ‘I’m Still Here’ Doc
In February 2009, Phoenix made headlines with a strange appearance on David Letterman’s Late Show, leading fans to wonder about the actor’s mental state. The interview, full of awkward pauses and low mumbling, encouraged Letterman to make several jokes about the actor’s seeming lack of awareness. The actor briefly forgot the name of his Two Lovers co-star, Paltrow, stuck gum under Letterman’s desk and appeared to swear at bandleader Paul Shaffer for laughing at him during the show.
Around this same time, Phoenix announced his retirement from acting and revealed plans to release a rap album. A viral video of Phoenix performing in Las Vegas began circulating, but the poor quality of the clip only seemed to bolster the theory that Phoenix was perpetrating a hoax. His decision to become a hip-hop artist was later chronicled in 2010’s so-called documentary I’m Still Here, made with Casey Affleck. Soon after its release, Affleck admitted to The New York Times that the documentary was a work of fiction.
Phoenix eventually decided to step in front of the cameras again, receiving impressive results. In The Master (2012), his first film after his self-imposed hiatus, he played a young, alcoholic war veteran, Freddie Quell, who is lured into a quasi-religious cult led by charismatic Lancester Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, the film received wide praise and garnered Phoenix another Oscar nomination.
‘Her,’ ‘Inherent Vice’
Continuing to land interesting new projects, Phoenix worked with director Spike Jonze on Her (2013), about a lonely man who develops a strong relationship with an A.I. operating system, voiced by Scarlett Johansson. He also appeared that year in The Immigrant, with Jeremy Renner and Marion Cotillard, before re-teaming with Anderson for the neo-noir adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice (2014). He followed with roles in Woody Allen’s murder-mystery Irrational Man (2015), the thriller You Were Never Really Here (2017) and the biblical Mary Magdalene (2018), as Jesus Christ.
In 2018, it was announced that Phoenix would star in an origin story of the Joker, Batman’s nemesis, in a film helmed by The Hangover director Todd Phillips. Comic fans initially expressed misgivings, in part because no origin story of the character existed to that point, though a teaser trailer released the following spring offered a tantalizing look at Phoenix as the iconic villain. Joker later generated controversy for its violent content after debuting in theaters in October 2019, though Phoenix’s performance was generally praised, and he took home a Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Motion Picture – Drama.
Phoenix began dating his Mary Magdalene co-star Rooney Mara in 2016. In July 2019, it was confirmed that the couple had gotten engaged.
Outside of acting, Phoenix supports a number of causes. He serves on the board of the Lunchbox Fund, which provides healthy meals to children in need. A lifelong vegan, Phoenix has also served as a spokesperson for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. Additionally, he has been active in the Peace Alliance, which seeks to create “a cabinet-level U.S. Department of Peace” according to its site.