Actor Joaquin Phoenix, who went by the name
Leaf in his younger years, has been a mainstay in the entertainment industry for decades. He was discovered after he and his four siblings — Summer, Rain, Liberty, and his late brother, River (1970-1993) — were spotted singing and dancing on the streets of Westwood, California, according to Esquire . After a breakout performance in the 1989 film
Parenthood, he went on to appear in more than a few box office hits, including Walk the Line and Gladiator. With a Cannes Film Festival and Golden Globes awards underneath his belt, he’s been heralded as the
“most fascinating actor” in the movie business.
The brilliance he displays on camera is unparalleled, but his private life is far less glamorous. From spending his formative years in a cult, to watching his older brother die of a drug overdose, his life experiences sound more like the plot line for one of his award-winning films. But even the best screenwriters can’t capture the hardships and devastation the actor has lived through. This is Joaquin Phoenix’s tragic real-life story.
Phoenix was far removed from the Hollywood lifestyle when his parents joined a controversial cult, formerly known as Children of God, in the 1970s. Phoenix, his parents, and his four siblings spent most of their time traveling with the religious sect all throughout Central and South America, he told Playboy (via Us Weekly ).
After discovering the harsh truth about the cult — which allegedly encouraged children as young as 3 to explore their sexuality with their parents, other adults, and other children — Phoenix’s parents became “disillusioned” with their affiliation and decided it was time to pack up and get the heck out of dodge. “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,” he told Playboy .
The family then made the trek to California, later dropping their surname of Bottom and adopting the last name Phoenix, before pushing the actor and his siblings into the entertainment industry.
While Phoenix’s late brother, River, told
Details magazine (via LA Weekly ) that his first sexual experience within the cult happened at the age of 4, Phoenix has remained mum about any trauma he may have experienced. We can only imagine what he was subjected to and how it could’ve played a role in his life snowballing out of control once he reached adulthood.
After leaving the Children of God missionaries behind, Phoenix and his family settled into life in Los Angeles, but they weren’t living the glitzy and glam lifestyle that the city is known for. It was the late-70s, and living in the City of Angels was far from being inexpensive even way back in the good old days — and especially since there were seven mouths to feed in the Phoenix household.
His parents struggled to make ends meet, and there was a time when the entire family was homeless. “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,'” the actor told Details magazine (via People).
Leave it to Phoenix to always find the silver lining in all of his life’s most darkest moments.
A one-bedroom apartment for seven
With five children to take care of, his parents struggled for a brief period of time, and the family was forced to live in a less than ideal housing situation. They were all holed up in an apartment that Phoenix described as, “one bedroom, no kids allowed, and we were five kids. But the manager [at the time] took kindly to us and was like, ‘You can live here, but if the owner comes over, I’ll call you and you have to hide the kids’,” he recalled while speaking to Esquire magazine.
Sometimes, the owner would stop by, and he and his siblings — including sisters Rain and Summer (pictured from left to right) — would have to hide behind a laundry machine for hours on end.
“I don’t forget that,” he said while giving
Esquire more insight into his childhood. “It’s f*****g crazy to me. I’m just really, really fortunate. Luck. That’s what it is.”
He calls it luck, but we like to look at it as all of his hard work finally paying off. He now knows what it’s like to live in the lap of luxury after purchasing a $4.8 million pad in the Hollywood Hills back in 2006. He also plopped down another $1.3 million in 2013 to purchase his next door neighbor’s house. Not bad for a guy who once shared a one-bedroom apartment with his entire family, right?
An acting hiatus after a tragic death
Although each of his siblings were talented in their own right, it was his eldest brother, River, who emerged as the breakout star of the family. River was making a name for himself after appearing in the 1986 film Stand by Me and My Own Private Idaho in 1991. With a bright career ahead of him, it seemed as though River was making a seamless transition from child star into more mature roles. But before he could really take the industry by storm, he died of a drug overdose after consuming a ” speedball ” — heroin and cocaine dissolved into a drink, followed by a Valium — outside of Hollywood’s legendary Viper Room on October 31, 1993. He was just 23 years old, the Washington Post reported.
It was Phoenix who made the chilling 911 call to plead for emergency help on that fateful night, as their sister, Rain, attempted to revive River by performing mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.
A grief-stricken Phoenix immediately retreated after the devastating event and took a two-year hiatus from acting, the
Despite putting on a brave face in the press, some suspect the loss of his brother damaged him more than he would ever admit…
Rumors of an on-screen meltdown
When Phoenix was cast for the lead role of the 2005 film Walk the Line alongside Reese Witherspoon (pictured), fans anticipated it would be the most successful role of his entire career. The movie, which follows the life of country music outlaw Johnny Cash, required Phoenix to bring out his best method-acting skills to channel the troubled, legendary musician who battled drug and alcohol abuse.
While filming, many suspected the death of Phoenix’s brother, River, came back to haunt him in a scene that depicted the death of Cash’s brother, Jack. Phoenix called the reports of a meltdown “bulls**t,” and said he was tired of the media correlating his own brother’s death to his work. “You know, the press has kind of imposed upon me the title of Mourning Brother, and because I haven’t been vocal about it, the assumption is that I’m holding onto it and all this s**t that’s just not there. I don’t need to pull from my experience for a character, and I’ve never understood why actors would, except for lack of ability, imagination or research,” he told
During another scene, in which Cash is going through drug withdrawals, Phoenix reportedly banged his head against a bedpost in an attempt to really illustrate his character’s emotional state.
It was all acting — so he said — but there seemed to be a bit of truth to the rumors that Phoenix’s life was on a downward spiral, because after the movie wrapped…
He spent some time in rehab
Playing a hardcore drug and alcohol addict in
Walk the Line began to affect his life tremendously, but it wasn’t until after the film wrapped that Phoenix realized he had a problem. “It was then that I became aware of my drinking. I wasn’t an everyday drinker but didn’t have anything else to do, anything to hold me down,” he told Time Out magazine (via Irish Examiner). “I was leaning on alcohol to make me feel OK. That’s what it really was.”
He checked into a rehabilitation facility in April 2005, and his publicist released a statement (via People magazine), which read, “He was uncomfortable with the way that he was living his life and found the courage to deal with the disease.”
Following his stint in rehab, he began attending Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, and later called the supportive network “the best thing I ever did,” in an interview with The New York Times.
Filming is ‘pure anxiety,’ but he loves it
With a career in the film and television industry that has spanned decades, you’d think Phoenix would be as cool as cucumber in front of cameras, but that’s not the case at all. He told Interview magazine that despite his vast experience in the movie-making industry, dating all the way back to his early childhood, he still gets “nauseous” the day before he films.
Queasiness aside, he also told the publication that he suffers from “incredible anxiety” that manifests itself in a somewhat embarrassing way. “They have to put f*****g 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,” he told the magazine with a laugh.
Although his nerves get the best of him from time to time, he ended things on a bright note. “It’s pure anxiety, and I love it,” he said.
One of the reasons he’ll forever be remembered as a legendary actor is because he takes his job very seriously. “I abandon my life when I work. I don’t wear the clothes or listen to the music that defines who I am,” he told the Guardian.
Transforming into various characters is more than just a lifestyle change for Phoenix, he actually discards everyone and everything from his normal, everyday life. “I don’t communicate with friends or family. It sounds intense, but it’s the process of getting there that is really hard,” he revealed.
We can’t imagine how difficult it must be for his loved ones, including his girlfriend, actress Mara Rooney , when he goes off the grid when his filming schedule kicks in. We can’t help but wonder if completely losing himself within his roles is such a good idea, especially since we’re aware of how his method-acting tends to take a negative toll on him.
He’s his worst critic
He’s starred in some pretty amazing films, including Gladiator , The Master , Two Lovers, and Clay Pigeons alongside Vince Vaughn (pictured). He even snagged a 2006 Golden Globes award for Walk the Line and a 2017 Cannes Film Festival best actor award for You Were Never Really Here. So his title as a critically-acclaimed actor is well-deserved. However, as much as we love seeing him flex his acting chops on the big screen, there’s one person who’s not a fan of his work, and that’s Phoenix himself.
“It’s funny,” he told The New York Times . “We rarely watched ourselves on TV when we were children. And I think that was good. Even now, I don’t watch myself on the monitor or in the dailies.”
Come to find out, he’s quite critical of himself, saying, “I can be really affected by things like, ‘Do I look good?’ ‘Do I look bad?’ I want it to be what I’m feeling as opposed to something outside the experience,” he explained.
Acting makes him feel lonely
Being a superstar who’s surrounded by fame, fans, and constant media attention sounds like a life to be envied, but looks can be deceiving. Phoenix will be the first one to talk about the dangers of being in the spotlight and just how isolating a career as an actor can truly be.
In an interview with The New York Times, after he finished filming Walk the Line , he told the publication, “It was really hard for me to leave the movie. I was angry and hurt and felt abandoned. I didn’t know what to do. 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 also put an interesting twist on things by equating his movie roles to growing facial hair in an interview with the Guardian. “Suddenly your beard is whacked off and you say, F**k me! I’m naked!’ You can no longer rely on the world that you have created,” he said.
This recurring feeling of putting all of his time into his work and feeling abandoned when it’s all said and done happens so frequently, the actor described the entire process as being very “lonely.”
Actor Joaquin Phoenix, who went by the name