Updated: March 22, 2018
Joaquin Rafael Phoenix (October 28, 1974) was born Joaquín Rafael Bottom in Río Piedras, located in the city of San Juan, Puerto Rico, to American parents. He is the third of five children, including River (1970–1993), Rain (1972), Liberty (1976), and Summer (1978). He also has a half-sister named Jodean (1964) from his father’s first marriage. His father, John Lee Bottom, was a lapsed Catholic from Fontana, California. His mother, Arlyn (née Dunetz), was born in the Bronx, New York to Jewish parents whose families immigrated from Russia and Hungary. In 1968, Arlyn left her family and moved to California, later meeting Phoenix’s father while hitch-hiking. They married in 1969, then later joined the religious cult the Children of God. They began travelling throughout South America.
His parents eventually became disenchanted with the Children of God; they made the decision to leave the cult and returned to the U.S. in 1978. They changed their last name to “Phoenix” to symbolize a new beginning. This was also around the time Joaquin had begun calling himself “Leaf”, desiring to have a similar nature-related name like his siblings (he was inspired by spending time outdoors raking leaves with his father). This is the name he would use as a child actor; at fifteen, he changed it back to ‘Joaquin’.
In order to provide food and financial support for the family, the children performed on the streets and at various talent contests, singing and playing instruments. In Los Angeles his mother started working as a secretary for NBC, and his father worked as a landscaper. Phoenix and his siblings were eventually discovered by one of Hollywood’s leading children’s agents, Iris Burton, who got the five children acting work, mainly doing commercials and television show appearances. Joaquin went on to establish himself a child actor before deciding to withdraw from acting for a while and travel to Mexico and South America with his father.
Phoenix came back into public view under tragic circumstances: on October 31, 1993, his brother, River Phoenix, suffered a drug overdose and died, outside the famed Hollywood nightclub The Viper Room, which was co-owned by Johnny Depp at the time. Joaquin’s call to 911 to save his brother was recorded and repeatedly played over the airwaves and on television. The sudden media intrusion into his life proved to be overwhelming; once again, he retreated from the public eye. A year later, at the insistence of his friends, Phoenix reluctantly re-entered the world of acting.
Phoenix’s first acting jobs were guest appearances on two television shows with his brother River in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1982) and Backwards: The Riddle Of Dyslexia (1984). In 1985, he appeared with JoBeth Williams in the CBS television movie Kids Don’t Tell. He made his big-screen debut in Space Camp (1986), playing the role of Max, after starring in an Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode “A very happy ending” the same year. His first starring role was in Russkies (1987). He later co-starred in Ron Howard’s Parenthood (1989), in which he was credited as Leaf Phoenix.
During the comeback portion of his career, Phoenix went back to his birth-given name “Joaquin”, and was often cast in supporting roles as conflicted, insecure characters with a dark side. He has earned positive reviews for his portrayals of various individuals: a troubled teen in Gus Van Sant’s To Die For (1995) co-starring with Nicole Kidman, a small-town troublemaker in Oliver Stone’s U Turn, Inventing the Abbotts (1997), the cruel Roman emperor Commodus in Ridley Scott’s Gladiator (2000) (for which he was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor), a conflicted priest in Quills (2000), a washed-up baseball player in M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs (2002), the irresolute husband of a superstar-skater in the widely panned It’s All About Love in 2003, a lovestruck farmer in Shyamalan’s The Village (2004), a disillusioned cameraman in Terry George’s Hotel Rwanda (2004), and heroic firefighter in Ladder 49 (2004).
Upon being cast as Johnny Cash in Walk the Line after Cash himself approved, Phoenix responded by buying a guitar and learning how to play. Reese Witherspoon, who portrayed June Carter Cash in the film and won a Best Actress Oscar for her performance, stated during an interview that when they first performed in-character before a live audience, she was so impressed with his impersonation that she knew she “had to step it up a notch”. All of Cash and Carter’s vocal tracks in the movie and on the accompanying soundtrack are played and sung by Phoenix and Witherspoon. In 2006, he was nominated for the Best Actor Oscar, and won a Golden Globe in the same category.
In 2006, Phoenix was invited to join the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Music career “hoax”
Phoenix unexpectedly announced in late 2008 that he had retired from acting to pursue a rapping career, and that the forthcoming Two Lovers would be his last film. On February 11, 2009, Phoenix appeared on the Late Show with David Letterman to promote Two Lovers. He seemed incoherent and was largely unresponsive towards David Letterman’s questions about the film and his career plans. Phoenix appeared on Late Show again on September 22, 2010 and claimed that his “retirement” and eccentric behavior were for a mockumentary, I’m Still Here (2010), that he and Casey Affleck were filming.
In 2011, it was announced that Phoenix would return to acting in Paul Thomas Anderson’s drama film The Master (2012). The film premiered at the Venice Film Festival where Phoenix won the Volpi Cup for Best Actor. Phoenix received his third Academy Award nomination, his second for Best Actor, as well as nominations for the Golden Globe Award for Best Actor – Motion Picture Drama and BAFTA Award for Best Actor.
In 2013, Phoenix starred in romantic science fiction comedy-drama film Her directed by Spike Jonze. Phoenix received his fourth nomination for the Golden Globe Award. The film was nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Also in 2013, Phoenix collaborated with director James Gray for the fourth time in the drama film The Immigrant.
In 2014, Phoenix reunited with director Paul Thomas Anderson for the crime comedy-drama film Inherent Vice, the first adaptation of a Thomas Pynchon book. Phoenix was nominated for his fifth Golden Globe Award for his performance.
Phoenix starred in the 2015 mystery comedy-drama Irrational Man, directed by Woody Allen.
In 2017, Phoenix starred as Joe, a former FBI agent and Gulf War veteran suffering from PTSD in the Amazon Studios thriller You Were Never Really Here (2017), written and directed by Lynne Ramsay. The film had its world premiere in competition at the Cannes Film Festival. It received wide critical acclaim and Phoenix won the Cannes Film Festival Award for Best Actor for his performance.
Upcoming films (2018)
Phoenix will star as Jesus in the biographical film Mary Magdalene, written by Helen Edmundson and directed by Garth Davis. He will co-star in Jacques Audiard’s English language debut in the adaptation of Patrick deWitt’s historical novel, The Sisters Brothers. Phoenix will portray cartoonist John Callahan in the biopic Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot, which will reunite him with director Gus Van Sant. He is attached to reunite with Casey Affleck in the upcoming Western film Far Bright Star.
He has directed music videos for the following bands: Ringside, She Wants Revenge, People in Planes, Arckid, Albert Hammond Jr., and Silversun Pickups.
Phoenix served as one of the executive producers of a television show called 4Real, a half-hour series which showcase celebrity guests on global adventures “in order to connect with young leaders who are creating social and economic change.” He is also listed as a producer on the movie We Own the Night.
Phoenix has long been a social activist, lending his support to a number of charities and humanitarian organizations, notably Amnesty International, The Art of Elysium, HEART, The Peace Alliance (an organization which campaigns for a United States Department of Peace). Phoenix is also on the board of directors for The Lunchbox Fund, a non-profit organization which provides daily meals to students of township schools in Soweto of South Africa.
He is a member of P.E.T.A. and the organization In Defense of Animals, and has actively campaigned on their behalf. He narrated the film Earthlings for Nation Earth, a video about the investigation of animal abuse in factory farms, pet mills, in industry and research. In 2005, he was awarded the “Humanitarian Award” at the San Diego Film Festival for his work and contribution to Earthlings.
In 2005, he participated in the documentary I’m Still Here: Real Diaries of Young People Who Lived During the Holocaust.
Phoenix checked into rehab to be treated for alcoholism in early April 2005. On January 26, 2006, while driving down a winding canyon road in Hollywood, Phoenix ran off the road and rolled his car. The crash reportedly was caused by brake failure. Shaken and confused, Phoenix heard a tapping on his window and a voice say, “Just relax.” Unable to see the man, Phoenix replied, “I’m fine. I am relaxed.” The man replied, “No, you’re not,” and stopped Phoenix from lighting a cigarette while gas was leaking into the car cabin. Phoenix then realized that the man was famed German film director Werner Herzog. While Herzog helped Phoenix out of the wreckage by breaking the back window of the car, bystanders phoned in an ambulance. Phoenix approached Herzog to express gratitude, but Herzog downplayed his heroism and returned to his home nearby.
Phoenix dated his Inventing the Abbotts co-star Liv Tyler from 1995 to 1998, and South-African model Topaz Page-Green from 2001 to 2005. He was in a relationship with DJ Allie Teilz from late 2013 to early 2015. Since late 2016, he has been dating actress Rooney Mara.
Animal rights activism
Phoenix is widely known for his animal rights advocacy. He is vegan. Throughout the years, he has collaborated with animal rights organizations to spread awareness about animal abuse and to promote veganism. Phoenix is a member of In Defense of Animals and PETA and has campaigned for both. He does not wear any clothes made out of animal skin. In his films, he requests that the leather costumes be made from synthetic materials.
For Nation Earth he narrated Earthlings (2005), a documentary about the investigation of animal abuse in factory farms, pet mills and for scientific research. He was awarded the Humanitarian Award at the San Diego Film Festival in 2005, for his work and contribution to Earthlings. He narrated his second documentary for Nation Earth called Unity (2015), along with other famous celebrity vegans such as actress Jessica Chastain and comedian Ellen DeGeneres.
He has helped spread awareness about retail corporation Walmart and their alleged support of pig cruelty and China’s brutal dog-leather industry.
In 2013, he starred in a PETA short film that promoted veganism, showing Phoenix “drowning” as he narrates, “In water, humans drown just as fish suffocate on land. Put yourself in their place. Try to relate.” ABC refused to air the film during the Academy Awards broadcast, citing the ad’s controversial nature. In 2016, Phoenix starred in a campaign shoot, taking a stand against wool for PETA. In 2017, he executive-produced the documentary What the Health, which premiered on 16 June 2017 on Netflix. The film claims to “expose the collusion and corruption in government and big business that is costing us trillions of healthcare dollars, and keeping us sick”.