Joaquin Phoenix - Biography

Aged four, Gladiator star Joaquin Phoenix, jealous of his siblings' exotic earth-hippy monikers, decided to change his name to Leaf. However, after moving to Mexico, he had a brand new dilemma. "Leaf in Spanish is 'hoja' and then 'ajo' is garlic and 'ojo' is eye," he explains. "So I would always get them confused and introduce myself either as 'Garlic' or 'Eye', and then I would be known as 'El Stupido'."

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Mexico was just one stop for the Phoenix family, headed by one-time carpenter John Bottom and his wife Arlyn Dunetz, a hitchhiker he met when he picked her up in his Volkswagen bus. The couple later travelled all over the US and South America as missionaries for the religious cult Children of God, with their four offspring in tow.

The transient nature of the clan is reflected by the varied birthplaces of their children – Joaquin (whose original name was Joaquin Raphael Bottom – the family changed their surname in the Seventies) was born on October 28, 1974, in Puerto Rico; elder siblings River and Rainbow came into the world in Oregon and Texas, while little sister Liberty is a native of Venezuela.

"I can remember just turning three because I was on a boat coming from Venezuela," recalls Joaquin. "I remember the flying fish, the jumbo iguanas. I remember watching them and standing on the railing." 

In 1979, the family settled in Los Angeles, where River pursued an acting career. Three years later, Joaquin got his first role, a guest part on his brother's series Seven Brides For Seven Brothers, and went on to appear under the name Leaf Phoenix in his first big-screen project, SpaceCamp, in 1986.

After featuring in the 1989 movie Parenthood, he took a break from films. He moved to Mexico and changed his name back to Joaquin. Meanwhile, his brother River was becoming an A-list celebrity.

But suddenly, in 1993, River's life and flourishing career were cut short when he died from an overdose outside an LA nightclub with his brother, back from Mexico, at his side. The desperate call Joaquin made to emergency services was heard on news broadcasts all over the world.

Devastated by the death, Joaquin returned to film in 1995, getting his breakthrough role as an intense but dim-witted teen in the Nicole Kidman vehicle To Die For.

The handsome star – a scar on his upper lip only seems to add to his good looks – found mild success in Inventing The Abbots (he also found a girlfriend of three years in co-star Liv Tyler) and U-Turn.

However, it was 2000's Gladiator that cemented his Hollywood star status and brought him his first Oscar nomination. Playing Johnny Cash in Walk The Line gained Joaquin his second Best Actor nomination, and also won him a Golden Globe award. 

Joaquin, famed for his careful script selection, went on to appear in smaller films, such as Quills and The Yards, as well as the big-budget blockbuster Signs. "I don't limit myself," he says. "I'm not the Indie kid, and I'm also not the John Grisham novel hero but I am all of those things – I refuse to have an agenda."

In 2005, he had a spell in rehab to treat alcohol addiction. Joaquin revealed he had started drinking more during filming his role as Johnny Cash in the Oscar-winning film Walk The Line.

“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. I was leaning on alcohol to make me feel OK," he said.

However, concern began to mount once again for the star, whose increasingly erratic behaviour was making headlines around the world. In 2008, he failed to attend the Cannes premiere of Two Lovers, prompting co-star Gwyneth Paltrow to worry for his wellbeing.

Not long after, he announced his retirement from acting, grew a beard and became a regular fixture on the Hollywood party scene, saying he was pursuing a career as a rapper and musician. 

During a bizarre appearance on David Letterman’s US talk show in February 2009, he slurred his way through the interview and repeatedly ignored the chat show host's questions. US publications labelled his appearance a “trainwreck” and there was speculation that his new persona and rap aspirations were part of an elaborate joke.

“There's not a hoax,” he said. “Might I be ridiculous? Might my career in music be laughable? Yeah, that's possible, but that's certainly not my intention. I had a lot of dudes come up and say, ‘We really respect you for doing it, putting yourself out there, and going with it’.”

But by 2010, he had admitted it had all been a stunt for the mockumentary I'm Still Here. Joaquin shaved off his facial hair, ditched his omnipresent sunglasses and seemed back to his old self – appearance-wise, at least.

The star also went back to his day job, playing the title character in The Master, about a cult leader, and earned himself a third Oscar nomination in the process.