A cult, the death of a brother, and "incredible anxiety". The complicated life of Joaquin Phoenix. 


“It’s my brother!” a 19-year-old Joaquin Phoenix shouted down the phone to a 911 operator.

“You must get here, please, you must get here, please,” he repeated from a payphone outside the Viper Room in Hollywood.

The phone call went for four minutes. Joaquin knew his 23-year-old brother was dying.

Towards the end of the call, he asked the operator: “He just looks like he’s sleeping. Is that OK?”

River Phoenix, one of the most prolific actors at the time, stopped breathing in the early hours of October 31, 1993. He had died of a drug overdose after consuming ‘speedball’, heroin and cocaine mixed in a drink, followed by a dose of Valium.

River Phoenix. Image via Getty.
River Phoenix. Image via Getty.

As he convulsed on the pavement outside Viper Room, Johnny Depp, who partly owned the nightclub, and his band were performing on stage.

Whispers of what had happened began spreading throughout the club, until eventually the band themselves heard the news: "River's dead".

The following day, the nightclub became a makeshift shrine, with fans leaving flowers and notes to the man affectionately referred to as the "vegan James Dean".

Until Johnny Depp sold his share in 2004, he ensured the club was shut down every year on October 31.

A gross violation of privacy

The death of his brother, and the way in which the media subsequently violated their family's privacy, profoundly affected Joaquin Phoenix.

In the days following River's death, media broke into a funeral home in Miami and took a photograph of his body in a casket. The picture was sold to the tabloids.

As the family mourned, Joaquin's phone call was also broadcast on radio and television.

He disappeared from the spotlight for more than 12 months following the loss of River. It wasn't until the 1995 film To Die For, starring Nicole Kidman and Casey Affleck, that Joaquin would return to the screen.

"They're disgusting". Childhood in a cult

The third of five children, Joaquin was born into the cult the Children of God in 1974.


The group is retrospectively known for the sexual abuse of young children, acceptance of incest and child marriage.

Joaquin told Playboy in 2014 that for their family, he doesn't think it "ever got to that point... frankly, as it got closer, I think my parents went, 'Wait a minute. This is more than a religious community. There's something else going on here, and this doesn't seem right.' And so they left very early on."

River, however, told Details magazine that his first sexual experience within the cult happened at age four. His mother, Arlyn Phoenix, later quoted River as saying the group were "disgusting... they're ruining people's lives".

Joaquin Phoenix as a child. Image via Getty.
Joaquin Phoenix as a child. Image via Getty.

A family of child stars

The five Phoenix siblings were discovered after their parents left the Children of God, and moved to Los Angeles.

The family were homeless for a period, sleeping in the family car in a friend's driveway.

But when Arlyn Phoenix began working as a secretary for NBC, one of Hollywood's most prominent agents noticed the five children. They were offered acting work on television shows and in commercials.

Watch the trailer for Joker, starring Joaquin Phoenix. Post continues below. 

Video by Warner Bros

Vegan from the age of three, Joaquin and his siblings refused any commercials with fast food giants. He remains one of the most prolific animal rights activists in Hollywood.

Joaquin was eight when he made his acting debut alongside River in the television show Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. After his performance, the work for Joaquin just kept coming.

River famously starred in the classic coming-of-age film Stand By Me in 1986 at the age of just 10, spring boarding him to international fame. It remains the film he is best known for.


The return and rise of Joaquin Phoenix

Since the 1995 release of To Die For, Joaquin has become known as perhaps the "most fascinating actor" in Hollywood.

From Gladiator, to Quills, to Signs, Joaquin was met with commercial and critical success, earning him a a number of award nominations.

For his role as Roman Emperor Commodus in Gladiator, Joaquin was nominated for Best Supporting Actor at the Academy Awards, making him and his late brother River, the first brothers to be nominated for acting Academy Awards (River's nomination was for Best Supporting Actor for his performance in Running on Empty in 1989.)

Starring in The Village, Hotel Rwanda, and in 2005, Walk the Line, Joaquin became one of the biggest names in the industry.

The vocal track in Walk the Line, was played and sung by Joaquin himself who played Johnny Cash, ultimately earning him the Golden Globe Award for Best Actor.

In the same year, he won the Humanitarian Award at the San Diego Film Festival for his work in Earthlings, a documentary about widespread animal abuse.

More recently, Joaquin's role in Her alongside Scarlett Johansson attracted the praises of critics all over the world, many of whom agreed no one else could have played the character of Theodore Twombly. Film critics Manohla Dargis and David Edelstein said: "'Her' is even harder to imagine without Mr. Phoenix, an actor who excels at exquisite isolation".

In October of this year, Joaquin will play the Joker in the much anticipated film, Joker

"Incredible anxiety". Joaquin Phoenix's complicated relationship with acting

In an interview with The Guardian in 2018, Joaquin said he recalls the "instantaneous joy" he felt the first time he stood in front a camera.


"I remember the first scene on the TV set so vividly. And I knew that I loved it – the physical sensation; how powerful it was. That’s the feeling I’ve been chasing ever since," he said.

With that said, however, Joaquin gets "nauseous" before filming, and suffers from "incredible anxiety" on set.

"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 Interview Magazine

He added that he feels like every movie is his first, which manifests in "uncontrollable shaking".

"Every time feels fucking terrifying," he said.

Joaquin has described his method as extremely "lonely".

That time he was unresponsive on the Late Show with David Letterman

After an unusual interview with David Letterman in early 2009, Joaquin made headlines all over the world.

With sunglasses on and an overgrown beard, Joaquin mumbled his way through the awkward television appearance, speaking very little sense.

Letterman famously wrapped up the interview by saying: "Joaquin, I'm sorry you couldn't be here tonight."

Twelve months later, Joaquin returned to the show to explain that it had been an act for an upcoming mockumentary he was making with Casey Affleck, called I'm Still Here, about a successful actor who wants to transition into a hip hop artist.


His relationship with actress Rooney Mara

Rooney Mara, best known for her roles in Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Her and Side Effects and Joaquin have reportedly been living together since 2016.

Joaquin Phoenix and Rooney Mara. Image via Getty.
Joaquin Phoenix and Rooney Mara. Image via Getty.

Mara, now 33, had her breakthrough starring in The Social Network, as the girlfriend that dumped Mark Zuckerberg.

She starred alongside Joaquin in Her (2013) and also Mary Magdalene (2018). The couple reportedly have no interest in marriage.