World-famous actor Joaquin Phoenix has been active on screens both big and small since the 1980s. Yet the enigmatic star often seems to maintain a deliberate air of mystery and conjecture in public. There have, for instance, been rumors circulating about the prominent scar on Joaquin’s lip for many years – but the actor typically refused to address them seriously. Now, though, the star has broken his silence and finally revealed the story behind the facial disfigurement.
It may come as no surprise that Joaquin – pronounced WAH-keen – Phoenix experienced a far from conventional upbringing. For starters, his real name is Joaquin Rafael Bottom, and the star is the middle child of five siblings. And the fact that his older brother was named River, his older sister is called Rain and his younger sisters are Summer and Liberty might offer a small clue to his somewhat unusual childhood.
So what of Joaquin’s parents? Well, the Phoenix siblings were born to Arlyn and John Bottom. John is from California and has French Huguenot, German and English heritage, and Arlyn was born originally to Jewish parentage in New York. In 1968, however, Arlyn left her Russian and Hungarian family behind and moved to California, where she met John while hitchhiking.
Then, after the couple married in 1969, Arlyn and John joined religious movement The Children of God, which took them to South America. It seems that the pair traveled a lot throughout the 1970s, in fact, with their children in turn being born in Oregon (River), Texas (Rain), Puerto Rico (Joaquin), Venezuela (Liberty) and Florida (Summer).
But in 1978 John and Arlyn chose to leave The Children of God and return to the U.S. And seeing their move as a rebirth of sorts, the couple then changed the family name to Phoenix – in honor of the mythical creature said to symbolize new beginnings. Yet that wasn’t the only name change for Joaquin.
Around the time that the family adopted the name Phoenix, you see, Joaquin apparently decided that he wanted to be called “Leaf.” Having felt left out among his siblings with their nature-based names, the young boy was inspired by the time that he had spent in the yard with his father raking leaves. And so he became Leaf Phoenix.
Many of Joaquin’s early roles see him actually credited as “Leaf Phoenix” too. For although the star reverted back to his birth name at the age of 15, his acting career started much earlier. In fact, all five Phoenix siblings, encouraged by their parents to explore creative pursuits, have flirted with acting at one point or another.
By the time Joaquin was six, you see, the Phoenix clan had relocated to Los Angeles. Arlyn had even joined the support staff at NBC, while John had found work landscaping. As a way of earning extra cash, though, the couple would enter their kids into talent contests. John and Arlyn also had the siblings sometimes perform on L.A.’s streets instead of attending school.
Fortunately, too, the Phoenix children were eventually recruited by top Hollywood agent Iris Burton, whose specialism was securing roles for kids. At first, of course, much of the work involved TV shows and commercials. Yet it wouldn’t be long before the two Phoenix brothers in particular started to carve out a career for themselves.
In 1982, for instance, River Phoenix had a prominent role as one of the brothers in the TV series Seven Brides For Seven Brothers, which is based on the movie musical of the same name. And it was alongside his older brother in that show that eight-year-old Joaquin scored his first proper acting role too.
From there, Joaquin steadily built up his acting portfolio. And his next major role would also be alongside his big brother. The siblings actually appeared in a 1984 episode of ABC Afterschool Special – an educational series covering subjects aimed at young people. The Phoenix boys’ segment, for instance, focused on the difficulties of dyslexia.
That same year, though, Joaquin also had small parts in episodes of such award-winning and long-running shows as The Fall Guy, Hill Street Blues and Murder, She Wrote. And then, in the mid-1980s, the young actor evidently started to get offers of movie roles. His career would now begin to move up a gear.
Joaquin’s first movie, Kids Don’t Tell, was actually made for TV. Yet it wasn’t long before the star started cropping up on the big screen. In 1986, for instance, the 12-year-old actor appeared in SpaceCamp, in which a group of kids go to Florida’s Kennedy Space Center to experience life as astronauts-in-training.
Joaquin’s roles would become more challenging that year, too. In an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, for example, Joaquin played a manipulative child who persuades a hitman to murder his dad. Then, in 1987, the young actor had his first leading role, in Russkies. And it seems that Joaquin’s star was set to keep on rising.
In 1989, for instance, Joaquin appeared in Parenthood – a comedy-drama directed by former child actor Ron Howard. And according to the critics, the budding talent stood out among the other young actors, such as Martha Plimpton and Keanu Reeves. And Joaquin was even noted as shining brighter than established cast members, including Steve Martin and Dianne Wiest. Unsurprisingly, then, the soon-to-be star earned his first award nomination for his performance.
But then Joaquin’s life took a very different path. Apparently deciding to take a break from performing, the then-teenager instead went traveling with his dad around South America and Mexico. And the next time that the young actor was thrust into the spotlight would be under the most tragic and devastating of circumstances.
Throughout the 1980s, as we’ve seen, Joaquin had established himself in Hollywood as a bright rising star. Yet despite Joaquin’s obvious talent, the attention of many casting directors was seemingly fixed elsewhere in the Phoenix family. Yes, his older brother River’s career had also been on the rise – and River was even tipped as the hottest young talent emerging on the scene.
After the brothers’ turn in ABC Afterschool Special, you see, River had also continued acting in small-time TV roles and straight-to-TV movies. Nevertheless, his phenomenal talent was obvious, and it wasn’t long before his big breakthrough came. In 1984, in fact, the then-14-year-old was cast in the Joe Dante-directed kids’ sci-fi adventure Explorers.
And even at 15 years old, River clearly had exceptional talent. The roles and acclaim kept coming, too, including a stand-out part in Rob Reiner’s Stand By Me in 1986. Then River starred in 1988’s Running On Empty, for which his performance earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. This was then quickly followed by a role in the Steven Spielberg blockbuster Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade in 1989.
Yet it was during the filming of perhaps River’s most critically acclaimed work, in My Own Private Idaho, that his life would take a dark turn. In the early 1990s, you see, the talented actor evidently dabbled in drugs. What’s more, this recreation would ultimately be his downfall and, in turn, unceremoniously thrust Joaquin back into the spotlight.
It was October 30, 1993, and the brothers had gone to a club named The Viper Room. Located in West Hollywood, the venue was co-owned by fellow actor Johnny Depp. Anyway, with the pair was their sister Rain and River’s girlfriend, Samantha Mathis. Mathis actually expected the couple to only stop at the club briefly before heading home. But River seemingly had other plans.
River had in fact intended to perform on stage with a band playing at the club that night. To Mathis, though, something seemed amiss. She knew that her boyfriend was high, of course, but she had no idea of the scale of the alleged drug use that River had gotten into. Then, within an hour of their arrival, Joaquin made a phone call that would later haunt him.
That was the night, you see, that River overdosed and began having seizures outside the club. And although the 23-year-old actor was rushed to the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, he was later pronounced dead. It was Joaquin, though, who had made the emergency call. The message that Joaquin gave, at just 19 years old, would in fact echo throughout the media for days afterwards.
In a time before smartphones, River was spared the intrusion of amateur videos on social media and the prying eyes of the paparazzi ever present in some celebrities’ lives today. Nevertheless, Joaquin’s desperate emergency call was still leaked to the media almost instantly. And the teenager’s cries then played on the news on a seemingly endless loop.
So with Joaquin’s urgent pleas for help for his brother echoing on TV and radio stations, the teenager once again retreated from the public eye. In fact, despite both brothers’ successes, it seemed that neither wanted to live their personal lives in the spotlight. It apparently took more persuasion from friends and colleagues before Joaquin even considered taking scripts again.
Joaquin, then, had no desire to take advantage of the attention that arose from his family’s devastating loss. The young actor instead took his time finding a script that was right for him. In fact, it would be a further two years before his next movie received a cinematic release.
This came in 1995 when Joaquin starred opposite Nicole Kidman in the Gus Van Sant-directed To Die For. And immediately viewers were reminded of the young star’s talent. As Janet Maslin wrote for The New York Times, “Pity poor Jimmy, rivetingly played by Mr. Phoenix with a raw, anguished expressiveness that makes him an actor to watch [out] for.”
Yet although Joaquin’s films kept coming, with 1997’s U-Turn and Inventing The Abbotts, 1998’s Clay Pigeons and 1999’s 8mm, critical acclaim and box-office success were more elusive. But stardom was seemingly never on Joaquin’s agenda anyway. The young actor instead apparently continued to select whichever roles appealed to him in the moment.
Around the turn of the millennium, though, the major awards institutes finally recognized Joaquin’s talent. Following his portrayal of Roman Emperor Commodus in Ridley Scott’s 2000 epic Gladiator, in fact, the star received nominations from the Academy Awards, BAFTAs and Golden Globes for his supporting role. The film was also one of the highest grossing flicks of that year.
Perhaps Joaquin’s most famous role, though, is his portrayal of country music legend Johnny Cash. This was for James Mangold’s 2005 biopic, Walk The Line. Selected for the part with the blessing of Cash himself, the actor all but became the singer in an uncanny depiction of The Man in Black. Indeed, many noted that his representation was eerily authentic.
For Walk The Line, Joaquin again received multiple awards nominations, including BAFTA and Oscar nods for Best Actor. The phenomenal performance also saw him walk away with a Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Motion Picture Musical or Comedy. He even unexpectedly won a Grammy for Best Compilation Soundtrack for Visual Media for his reinterpretation of Cash’s music for the movie.
And yet despite Joaquin’s achievements and recognitions, as well as him being lauded as one of the best actors of his generation, he has successfully retained an air of mystery. And it’s this ambiguity, perhaps, that can encourage critics and commentators to fill in the blanks of the actor’s personal life themselves.
One such mystery is front and center in many of the actor’s performances. Throughout his life, you see, Joaquin has carried a prominent scar on his face. For many years, then, there were questions and conjecture as to how the mark came to be there. And eventually the actor broke his silence on it.
Yes, Joaquin has carried a scar running from his top lip to his nose since birth. Some believed it was therefore a mild form of cleft lip – a deformity that develops in the fetus, usually within the first two months of pregnancy. It’s thought, however, that the actor’s may have occurred later in his development, resulting in a milder defect.
A cleft palate, or cleft lip, appears as a gap in the top lip, sometimes continuing back into the roof of the mouth. It actually occurs due to a developmental issue during pregnancy when parts of the fetus’ facial structure don’t fuse together properly. Surgery can, however, fix the problem by joining the split pieces.
Joaquin, though, has claimed in interviews that the scar actually has a far less dramatic origin story. He says it’s merely a birth mark rather than the result of a surgical procedure, in fact. The actor also claims that his mom felt an acute pain when pregnant with her second son and that the scar was there from birth.
The actor has a tendency to be deliberately opaque with the press, though, so that story may or may not be true. In the years following that revelation, you see, Joaquin appeared in numerous films of varying success. But there was always one constant: his performances were invariably considered impressive. And yet in the late noughties Joaquin’s relationship with the media seemingly took a turn for the weird.
This reached its zenith when in 2009 Joaquin appeared on David Letterman’s late-night talk show. The actor in fact appeared incoherent, possibly drunk and unsteady as he walked on. And during the interview, Joaquin confessed that he would be retiring from acting. He then revealed that his plan was to launch a career as a hip-hop artist.
The interview, however, was staged for the mockumentary I’m Still Here, which Joaquin was filming at the time and was released in 2010. So the star essentially played an imagined version of himself while he went about his business and carried out his public duties.
Joaquin, like his brother before him, takes awards and critical acclaim with humility, though. As he told The New York Times in September 2005, “Look, I believe there’s always room for improvement [in acting]… There is no finish line with this. I don’t think I’ll ever know if I succeed. But that’s okay. It makes you work harder.”