Joaquin Phoenix: The man who wasn’t really here? He’s still here
He plays Jesus Christ in ‘Mary Magdalene’, in an echo of his own childhood as part of a cult religion. But the eccentric actor says his unconventional family kept him grounded
Joaquin Phoenix: “The suggestion is my parents weren’t responsible. That pisses me off. My parents are the most protective people you could meet in your fucking life.” Photograph: Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images
Joaquin Phoenix isn’t in the room. Has he climbed out the window? It’s a long way down and it’s snowing. Still, he is a bit of an eccentric. After a few seconds of confusion, he shuffles out of the bathroom dangling an extinguished cigarette from two fingers. Handsomely dishevelled, a little confused, he offers the very antithesis of the polished, on-message movie star. Nobody would confuse him with Hugh Jackman. But none of this looks like a pose. Joaquin does seem like a sincere oddball.
I say hello.
“Hello, hello. Where are you from? You sound like Terry George. ”
Well spotted. That film-maker and I are both from the great city of Belfast.
“Yeah, yeah. I worked with him on Hotel Rwanda.”
He settles into a chair and ruffles his barmy hair.
Now 43, Phoenix has been in the business since the age of eight. Brother of the late River Phoenix, he first appeared on screen as – you can see a pattern emerging – Leaf Phoenix, before reinventing himself as Joaquin at the age of 15. Nobody else around can match that combination of menace and vulnerability. You can see both in his current turn as Jesus Christ in Garth Davis’s mildly revisionist Mary Magdalene. There is something of the embarrassing street lunatic about this Jesus. But there’s also a battered sensitivity.
“I think it was most important for me to find the man,” he wheezes. “Obviously we think of the icon first. And that is very dangerous as an actor.”
So, he didn’t wrestle with the challenge of playing divinity.
“We are all spirit and flesh,” he says. “It was more to do with finding that in myself and other people. I saw that in, for example, Sister Helen Prejean, who sits with death row inmates. I also thought of the Reverend James Lawson, who was very active in the Civil Rights movement.”
I am intrigued by Phoenix’s relationship with Christianity and his feelings about its origins as a benign cult. He was born in Puerto Rico when his parents were still associated with the dubious body the Children of God. Founded by David Berg at the grubby end of the 1960s, the cult became notorious for its tolerance of incest. Phoenix’s family removed themselves from the Children of God when he was just three years old. But it remains a peculiar upbringing. That must colour his attitude to religion.
“Everyone thinks that we were in this group with the founder and we all lived together,” he says. “My parents always lived apart from that. That was part of the process. You are not allowed in until you completely commit. I do have vivid memories of Venezuela and Puerto Rico, though.”
Joaquin is not shy about the subject. Indeed, I get the sense that he feels the need to shift a weight off his chest here. The association with the Children of God has coloured much writing about him and his four siblings. Irresponsible reports have suggested that they’ve spent the remaining years shaking off early trauma.
“Assumptions were made,” he says. “Sometimes very dark assumptions. It’s not true. The suggestion is my parents weren’t responsible. That pisses me off. My parents are the most protective people you could meet in your fucking life. And our wellbeing was paramount to them.”
Phoenix recalls his parents watching an exposé about the Children of God years later and saying: “We fucking knew it.” The trigger to leave came when they caught wind of the practice known as “flirty fishing” – essentially using sex to lure disciples to the cult.
“They received a letter suggesting that and they were out,” he says.
The family changed their surname from Bottom to Phoenix – in honour of the avian symbol of rebirth – and settled in for a slightly less unorthodox version of the American life. Mom went to work as a secretary for NBC. Dad became a gardener. A talent agent soon spotted the children and nudged all five towards the entertainment business. As a kid, Joaquin appeared in SpaceCamp, Russkies and, most famously, Ron Howard’s Parenthood.
If you’re looking for a story of lost youth then you must search elsewhere. Joaquin gives me a characteristically quizzical look when I suggest that he missed out on childhood.
“I don’t know where that comes from,” he says. “I don’t know who says that – maybe people who are not just acting, but also part of the machine. They attend the parties. They are pushing to be seen. Maybe that’s the thing. We never did. We always lived far away. Even when we lived in LA we lived up in the mountains. So I never experienced that part of it.”
The Phoenix family played very much by their own rules. Then living in Florida, they remained stubbornly radical and stubbornly unmovable. Joaquin remembers breaking it to an agent that, as vegans, they would not do any commercials that involved animal products.
The first time I took a break I was 15 years old. The scripts I got were just awful. How did a 15-year-old know that? I had a strong feeling for the things I wanted to experience
“She was like: ‘Do you know how hard it is to break into this business? And you’re wiping out 70 per cent of the commercials you can do?’ I grew up putting my diet over working. I didn’t just want to be in any movie. I wanted to be in a movie I wanted to be in.”
The Phoenix saga hinges around the death of River in 1993. When he collapsed outside the Viper Room on the Sunset Strip, the young actor was poised for world domination. (Somewhat surprisingly, Joaquin and River are the only brothers to have received Oscar nominations for acting.) It was Joaquin who made the 911 call.
We didn’t see much of him on screen in the years before and after that tragedy. In 1995, he had a standout turn in Gus Van Sant’s To Die For. It wasn’t until the millennium when, following an Oscar nomination for Gladiator, he really began to carve out a niche. Joaquin claims that the slack period was simply to do with a dearth of scripts.
“There was nothing good I wanted to do,” he says. “The first time I took a break I was 15 years old. The scripts I got were just awful. How did a 15-year-old know that? I had a strong feeling for the things I wanted to experience.”
Phoenix has succeeded despite a conspicuous suspicion of the publicity machine. I once sat in a round table interview with him that – while journalists pleaded as if speaking to a man on a ledge – he seemed permanently on the point of fleeing. He was nice throughout. He constantly said it wasn’t our fault. But he just didn’t like playing the game. In 2010, he faked his own public breakdown for a weird pseudo-documentary called I’m Still Here.
“Oh, I am so fucking sick about talking about that,” he says. “No other film I’ve been in I have been asked so much about.” The film attacked the pressures of an endless celebrity news cycle.
Film-makers still found things to do with him. He was transcendent opposite Philip Seymour Hoffman in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master (about a cult, interestingly). This week, with Lynne Ramsay’s superb You Were Never Really Here, audiences will get to see the astonishing, anguished performance that won him best actor at last year’s Cannes Film Festival. We’re betting he’ll be at this year’s Cannes with Jacques Audiard’s adaptation of Patrick Dewitt’s The Sister Brothers.
He probably doesn’t need to play by the rules. The best directors will fight to work with him. Still, he can’t help but notice the wretchedness all around. He recalls an incident from the making of I’m Still Here when he was urged to taunt a Miami audience with the words: “F**k you. I have a million dollars in my bank account. What do you have?” He resisted. He thought he’d be lynched. Eventually he gave in.
“I did it and the crowd just cheered,” he says. “It was heartbreaking. I thought: Oh my God, what is this world?”
He shakes a big, sad head at his unlit cigarette.
Meet the Phoenixes
Made an immediate impression as one of the kids in Stand By Me. Oscar-nominated for Running on Empty in 1988. His tragic, early death robbed the industry of a star.
Rain (born 1972)
Born as Rain Joan of Arc Bottom in 1972, she sang on the REM album Monster and did back-up duties for the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Occasional actor. Formed the band Papercranes in 2004.
Joaquin (born 1974)
First spotted in Parenthood, he can now stake a claim for the ever-competitive title of “best actor of his generation”. Oscar-nominated for Gladiator, Walk the Line and The Master. Currently dating Mary Magdalene co-star Rooney Mara.
Liberty (born 1976)
Acted as a child alongside her siblings. Has dabbled in music. Liberty has, however, lived a largely quiet life. Has taught midwifery and helps run the River Phoenix Center for Peacebuilding.
Summer (born 1978)
Like all her siblings, the youngest Phoenix was a busy child actor. She went on to become a model and to run a vintage clothing boutique. Married to Casey Affleck from 2006 until 2017.