From embodying country music icon Johnny Cash
in Walk the Line down to his distinctive singing voice, to the vicious sadism of the Emperor
in Gladiator, Joaquin Phoenix has proven that his range is virtually unmatched but his rise
to fame was neither assured or straightforward. Born Joaquin Rafael Bottom on October 28,
1974 in Puerto Rico, Phoenix had nomadic early years as his parents 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, until the cult’s increasingly sinister
practices including alleged sexual abuse and incest began to disenchant Joaquin’s parents. After escaping Children of God, and returning
to the US with their five kids in tow, the Bottoms eventually settled in Los Angeles. They changed their last name from Bottom to
Phoenix, and 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, Arlyn (aka Heart), got a job as a secretary to an NBC
casting agent. Through her networking, a well-known casting
agent was won over by the family’s talent and shepherded them into the bright lights
of Hollywood. 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, immediately followed by a string of small roles on TV. 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. “Stay put for the next hour or so and nobody
gets hurt.” 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. “He didn’t think it was such a good idea. I gotta go.” 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. 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 called 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. 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. 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. “Now, I take it very serious.” After the success of To Die For, Phoenix went
on to work with Oliver Stone on U-Turn, then went on to 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
as Emperor Commodus. By the time he worked with M. Night Shyamalan
on Signs and The Village, Phoenix had become a full-fledged movie star. 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. 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, “I was really leaning on alcohol to feel okay. That’s really what it was.” 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
Verner Herzog, and nobody was badly injured. 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. “These guys have seen the worst of me, they’ve
seen the best, they’ve seen the honest me.” After this odd detour, Phoenix went on to
stun 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, to name just one standout role he’s had in his post-performance art years. 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, saying, “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.” Phoenix also credited his father John 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. “Haha.” Check out one of our newest videos right here! Plus, even more Looper videos about your favorite
actors are coming soon. Subscribe to our YouTube channel and hit the
bell so you don’t miss a single one.