The interview, full of awkward pauses and low mumbling, encouraged Letterman to make several jokes about the actor’s seeming lack of awareness. The actor briefly forgot the name of his Two Lovers co-star, Gwyneth Paltrow, stuck gum under Letterman’s desk, and appeared to swear at bandleader Paul Shaffer for laughing at him during the show.
Some have suggested this latest incident was a calculated stunt on Phoenix’s part, but the actor says his behavior isn’t a joke. “I have better things to do than just, like, (mess) around with people,” he said. “This is my life and this is my work.”
Biography: Actor. Born on October 28, 1974, in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Already an Academy Award-nominated supporting actor, Joaquin Phoenix scored one of his greatest commercial and critical successes as the lead in Walk the Line (2005), playing country music legend Johnny Cash. He had an interesting upbringing as the son of the missionaries for the Children of God religious group.
His parents, John and Arlyn Bottom, moved the family frequently, including stints in Central and South America before becoming disillusioned with the cult. After they left the group, the family took the new surname Phoenix, which was symbolic of their new life.
Moving to Los Angeles around the age of four, Joaquin and his siblings—older brother River, older sister Rain, and younger sisters Liberty and Summer—soon tried to make their way in Hollywood. The Phoenix children already liked to put on shows on their own before their mother found an agent to represent them. “We all used to sing and play music, and we were all very outgoing. My parents always encouraged us to express ourselves. And so it seemed like second nature to start acting,” Phoenix explained to Interview magazine.
The first breakout star was River who landed a role on the short-lived television series Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, which aired from 1982 to 1983. Through his brother, Joaquin made a guest appearance on the show when he was eight years old, which led to other small television parts on such shows as The Fall Guy, Hill Street Blues, and Murder, She Wrote. He even appeared with River in an ABC Afterschool Special about dyslexia; the two played brothers. At the time, Joaquin was using the name Leaf, which he had chosen for himself when he was six years old. He returned to using his birth name around the age of 16.
Making his film debut in 1986, Phoenix had a supporting role as a wannabe astronaut in the kids adventure movie SpaceCamp. He also tried his hand at primetime drama with Morningstar/Eveningstar, which involved children left homeless after their orphanage is destroyed and they find shelter at a facility for senior citizens. Unfortunately, this meeting of the young and old only lasted a few episodes before being cancelled.
Remarkably, one of his biggest breaks came when Phoenix left Hollywood. He had moved to Florida when he landed a role in the Ron Howard-directed comedy Parenthood (1989). In the film, Phoenix gave an impressive performance as the rebellious son of Dianne Wiest. After this success, Phoenix decided to put his career on hold to travel through Latin America on his own at the age of 15. While he avoided Hollywood, his brother River stood in the spotlight, becoming one of the leading young actors at the time.
In 1993, tragedy forced Phoenix back into the public eye. He was with his famous brother when he was partying at the Viper Room nightclub. Outside the club, River collapsed and began having convulsions. Joaquin phoned for help. Paramedics arrived and tried to resuscitate River, but their efforts failed. He was taken to the hospital where he was pronounced dead in the early hours of October 31, Halloween. Later Joaquin’s anguished 911 call was played and replayed by the media, only compounding his grief.
Returning to acting, Phoenix played an alienated underachieving teen who is seduced by a success-hungry news reporter (Nicole Kidman) in Gus Van Sant’s To Die For (1995). A wave of films soon followed. In the romantic drama Inventing the Abbotts (1997), he was paired up on screen with Liv Tyler. That coupling evolved into an off-screen relationship. Phoenix worked with director Oliver Stone on the neo-noir thriller U-Turn (1997). Despite having a strong cast, which included Sean Penn and Claire Danes, the film was a box office dud.
The following year, Phoenix earned raves for his performance as an American imprisoned in Malaysia on drug charges and facing the death penalty in Return to Paradise (1998). Vince Vaughn and David Conrad co-star as his two friends who must decide whether to return there and help remedy the situation by acknowledging their roles in the crime. Another pairing with Vaughn, Clay Pigeons (1998), failed to attract much notice from critics or movie-goers.
In 2000, Phoenix nearly stole in the Roman epic Gladiator from its star Russell Crowe with his turn as the twisted, jealous emperor Commodus. His work in this summer blockbuster directed by Ridley Scott netted him nominations for many of the acting profession’s most prestigious awards, including his first Academy Award nod. That same year, Phoenix continued to demonstrate his range as a performer, playing a slick operator in The Yards (2000) opposite Mark Wahlberg. He tackled another historical tale, this one set in eighteenth century France. In Quills, Phoenix portrayed Abbe Coulmier, a French religious official who oversaw the madhouse where the perverse writer Marquis de Sade was imprisoned in Quills.
Working with director M. Night Shyamalan for the first time, Phoenix had a supporting role as Mel Gibson’s younger brother in the eerie thriller Signs (2002), which brought in more than $227 million at the box office. He took the lead for his next collaboration with Shyamalan, The Village (2004), playing a young man puts his small community at risk to explore the mysterious woods that surround his town. “He’s acting on a different plane. He’s almost superhuman,” co-star Bryce Dallas Howard told The Record.
That same year, Phoenix starred in Ladder 49 (2004) with John Travolta, Robert Patrick, and Balthazar Getty. He went through professional training to prepare for his role as a new firefighter. For his next major role, however, Phoenix went through even more extensive preparation to play one of country music’s greatest stars, Johnny Cash, in Walk the Line (2005). He had to learn to sing and play the guitar like Cash, which took six months of lessons from the film’s executive music producer T-Bone Burnett. His co-star Reese Witherspoon went through her own rigorous musical training to sing like June Carter Cash, Johnny’s wife.
To stay in character, Phoenix asked everyone on set to call him “JR,” which was Cash’s nickname. “I’m embarrassed about it now. But when I heard ‘Joaquin,’ it just didn’t feel right,” Phoenix explained to Entertainment Weekly. All of the hard work paid off. Widely praised by critics, the film and its stars netted numerous nominations and awards. Phoenix himself received his first Academy Award in the Best Actor category and his first Golden Globe Award for Best Actor in Motion Picture (Musical or Comedy). Even the film’s soundtrack, which featured vocals by Phoenix and Witherspoon, brought home the Grammy Award for Best Compilation Soundtrack Album for Motion Picture, Television or Other Visual Media.
Bringing the hard-living Cash to the big screen took its toll on the young actor. After filming ended, Phoenix went into rehab for issues related to alcohol. “There was a lot made of my going to rehab, and it seems very dramatic, but it wasn’t like that,” Phoenix told Time magazine. “I just became aware of my drinking as a tool to relax when I don’t work. I basically went to a country club where they didn’t serve alcohol.”
Most recently, Phoenix appeared in a pair of dramas in 2007. He reunited with Mark Wahlberg for the gritty urban tale We Own the Night, in which they played brothers on opposite sides of the law. In Reservation Road, Phoenix starred as a father who loses his son in a hit-and-run accident. He also has a leading role in James Gray’s independent drama Two Lovers with Gwyneth Paltrow, which is expected to be released in 2009.
Outside of acting, Phoenix supports a number of causes. He serves on the board of the Lunchbox Fund, which provides healthy meals to children in need. As a lifelong vegan, Phoenix has served as a spokesperson for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) over the years. He has also been active in the Peace Alliance, which seeks to create “a cabinet-level U.S. Department of Peace,” according to its Website.