Once known simply as the ‘kid brother’ to superstar River Phoenix, Joaquin Phoenix brings his familial work ethic to every role he takes on. Enjoying success for films like Gladiator and Walk the Line, he has strived to evolve into a qualified, dedicated, and talented actor continuing to push himself in new directions with each role he takes.
More recently he’s taken on the challenge of the role of the Joker, a tough pair of clown shoes to fill following the late Heath Ledger’s epic performance as the comic book villain, a role that hasn’t come without its own controversy.
Growing up in the spotlight, or sometimes the shadow of his own brother’s spotlight, numerous news stories have surfaced about the Phoenix family over the years, from their unconventional upbringing to unfortunate events that continue to haunt them. Here are 20 things about Joaquin Phoenix’s past that we just can’t unlearn.
20 The Truth About His Scar
While many people assumed that the mark above Joaquin Phoenix’s lip was a mild case of cleft pallet, a split in the top of the mouth caused by tissue not fusing together during in-utero development, Phoenix says that’s not the case. The star thinks of it more as a birthmark that he believes was caused when his mom was in acute pain during her pregnancy.
19 Life Growing Up On The Commune
For the first years of his life, Joaquin lived on a commune, one which the family later discovered was a dangerous cult. As a part of this group, they were religious advocates who moved from their California home into San Juan, Puerto Rico where they lived in poverty and tried to convert others to joining the dangerous commune.
18 The Tragic Night At The Viper Room
There is no doubt that Joaquin comes from a talented family. Unfortunately for Joaquin, he had a front-row seat when his brother, well into the grips of substance abuse, fell ill and lost his life at Johnny Depp’s Hollywood Bar, The Viper Room. River had taken a combination of two illegal substances and went into cardiac arrest, vomiting and having seizures in the street. Despite the best efforts of the paramedics, who some say were called too late, River was pronounced dead before he reached the hospital.
17 When He And River Were Child Street Performers
When the family lived in The Children of God commune, money was an issue. The family routinely panhandled to make ends meet and River and Joaquin would perform for cash. A biographer following the family said, “At an early age, River was busking on street corners, trying to spread the word and proselytize for the cult. But if he didn’t bring home enough loose change that day, the family wasn’t going to eat.”
16 Fighting His Own Inner Demons
After the wrapping of Walk The Line, Phoenix realized that he had a problem he needed to tackle. The star told Time Out Magazine, “I was leaning on alcohol to make me feel OK. That’s what it really was.” He checked into a rehab facility and says the decision was, “the best thing I ever did.” Speaking to bring out the drama and stigma of his time in rehab he 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."
15 His Big Car Accident
In January 2006, Joaquin Phoenix was driving his car in the Hollywood Hills area when his breaks stopped working. His car rolled off a cliff and the star emerged confused and hurt. Director Werner Herzog was driving behind him and quickly came to his aid and helped pull him from the car without any serious injuries.
14 Their Great Escape Back To The U.S.
When things turned dangerous at the commune for both women and children, Joaquin’s family knew they had to get out. Joaquin said, “ I think my parents thought they’d found a community that shared their ideals. Cults rarely advertise themselves as such. It’s usually someone saying, ‘We’re like-minded people. This is a community,’ but I think the moment my parents realized there was something more to it, they got out.” The family first moved to a home just outside the commune then they were smuggled back into America on a freighter carrying toys. They were first dropped off in Englewood, Florida when they arrived back home.
13 Multiple Name Changes
After leaving the cult the family decided to change their last name from Bottom to Phoenix. This name change was meant to represent their new start as a family, much like a Phoenix rising from the fiery ashes. Joaquin wanted to fit in more with his siblings and selected a first name inspired by nature, Leaf. When he was 15 years old the star decided to go back to his given name, Joaquin, that we know him as today.
12 A Faked Breakdown
Joaquin has been so committed to getting into character that it might have even been damaging for his career. The star staged a public breakdown, with a giant beard, and told everyone who would listen that he was leaving acting to become a rapper. It turns out this was just promotion for his documentary, I’m Still Here, and not a real emotional collapse.
11 A Family Living In A Car
Before fame, the Phoenix family continued to live with little to no money, including a time where they were homeless. Joaquin told Details Magazine, “Even when we had no money, we still had a car to sleep in and a friend’s driveway we could park in and a dad who said, ‘I’m going to take care of you.'” Things got better when his mom got a job at NBC and was able to hire an agent to manage the Phoenix children’s careers.
10 Method Acting Moments
One of the amazing things about Joaquin is the way he throws himself into roles. When he starred in a film about fire fighting, he trained in the Baltimore Fire Academy to learn everything he could, and even graduated. He rode as a real firefighter and fought fires. The star said, “I wanted to have the experience of seeing what the kids were like in the academy because my character was seen as a rookie.” When he was performing in Walk The Line, he asked that everyone on set refer to him as “J.R” (Cash’s name) to help him stay in character.
9 Living With Anxiety
Despite acting nearly his entire life, Joaquin still gets nervous. The star admits that the day before he’s set to film, he gets nauseous. He said his anxiety comes out in embarrassing ways, like sweating. He said it’s not unusual for them to have to put, “pads in my armpits because I sweat so much that it just drips down my wardrobe. For the first three weeks of shooting, I’m just sweating.”
8 His Oscar-Worthy Performance
With the high profile of Walk The Line, critics and fans everywhere were looking to compare Joaquin with his dearly departed, and highly talented brother River. The star came through and admits he may have taken things too far in settling into life post-filming. He said, "To play Cash, I had learned a whole new way of functioning in the world, and suddenly, I couldn't rely on that anymore." Just the same the star won a Golden Globe and was nominated for an Oscar for his hard work.
7 His Famous Engagement
When Phoenix starred in Mary Magdalene in 2016, he didn’t just find work, he also found love. The star told Vanity Fair, “She’s the only girl I ever looked up on the internet. We were just friends, email friends. I’d never done that. Never looked up a girl online.” In the time since, the friendship bloomed into love. Today the pair live together and in July of 2019, the couple confirmed that they were engaged to be married.
6 His Childhood Band
Always a close-knit family as teenagers the Phoenix children formed a band together. The band, Aleka’s Attic managed to get themselves a record deal with Island in the early 1990s. Joaquin said of the hope for their musical projects to be a sort of tribute to River, “I wanted to put the record out and give the money to charities my brother felt strongly about, but I came up against some of the musicians who also played on it, wanting a lot of money for it, so I shelved it.”
5 Bad Behaviour Or Just Joker Promotion?
Joaquin was called out live on The Jimmy Kimmel Show for being rude to the Joker film’s cinematographer Lawrence Sher. After viewing the clips of his bad behaviour, he said, "This is so embarrassing. Sometimes movies get intense because you're a lot of people in a small space and you're trying to find something, so it can feel intense." Others said they thought this clip was planted to help promote the movie.
4 Coping With Childhood Trauma
Since things on the commune were not good, several tragic things happened to children who lived there. The Phoenix family lives with this and has tried to move on with their lives and stay positive. Phoenix told Playboy, “All I know is that I’ve been fortunate, and my good fortune continues. Other than that, the older I get, the more I know that I don’t know anything at all. I’m trying to get better at being open to the mystery of it all.”
3 A Vegan For Life
On their escape from the commune, there was a moment that would turn all the Phoenix children against animal products forever. Joaquin said, "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." Joaquin was just four at the time and hasn’t eaten meat since that moment.
2 A Connection Beyond Life
It must be hard and frustrating to constantly be asked about your brother, like Joaquin has been his entire career. During an award ceremony at the Toronto International Film Festival, the star shared a moment of inspiration with the crowd, that he had shared with his brother. He said, "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 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."
1 Charity Work & Activism
Phoenix has dedicated his life to acting and supporting causes he believes in. He is a member of the board for the Lunchbox Fund that works to provide healthy meals for children in need. He is a PETA spokesperson and even narrated the documentary Earthlings, which speaks to capitalism and crimes against animal.
Sources: Biography, Noteabley, Looper, People, E! Online, Time, Time Out, Vanity Fair