Joaquin Phoenix Opens Up About Brother River Phoenix’s Tragic Death: The Devastating Way the Media Impeded His Grieving Process

Joaquin Phoenix doesn’t often talk about the tragic death of his brother River Phoenix. The Oscar nominee opened up in a Jan. 12 interview, sharing how he was impacted after River died from a drug overdose in 1993 when he was just 23 years old.

Joaquin Phoenix
Joaquin Phoenix | Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic

Phoenix talked openly about River Phoenix’s death

It’s not a topic that he discusses much but, during an interview with Anderson Cooper for 60 Minutes, Phoenix shared how much of an influence his brother River had on his personal and professional life.

Cooper shared: “River Phoenix comes back after shooting some film and sits him down and is like, ‘You’re going to be a more successful actor than I am, you’re going to be better known than I am.'”

Phoenix explained the moment when his teenage brother came home and told him to watch Martin Scorcese’s movie Raging Bull, starring Robert De Niro.

He shared: “And through my brother and his understanding and appreciation of that kind of acting, I think it just awakened something in me and I suddenly could see it through his eyes.”

During a Sept. 2019 interview at the Toronto International Film Festival Phoenix explained how River “told” him to start acting again, noting at the time: “He didn’t ask me — he told me. And I am indebted to him for that because acting has given me such an incredible life.”

During his 60 Minutes interview, Phoenix shared that though his brother is not physically in his life, his presence is felt. “I feel like in virtually every movie that I made, there was a connection to River in some way. And I think that we’ve all felt his presence and guidance in our lives in numerous ways,” he explained.

How the media impacted his ability to mourn River’s death

Joaquin was 19 when River collapsed outside The Viper Room nightclub and passed away from a drug overdose. The media’s interest in the story was overwhelming, with Phoenix sharing how it “impeded” his mourning process.

He told Cooper that his family didn’t really have a grasp of River’s level of fame until then, noting they “were so removed from kind of the entertainment world.”

Phoenix continued, “River was a really substantial actor and movie star, and we didn’t really know it. So during that time in which you’re most vulnerable, there are helicopters flying over. There are people that are trying to sneak onto your land. Certainly, for me, it felt like it impeded on the mourning process.” 

Phoenix’s mom, Heart, shared how she still grieves for the loss of her son, sharing, “The grieving process happens out of nowhere, you know? I’ll be driving and all of a sudden, I will feel it.”

Phoenix isn’t always comfortable on a movie set

Phoenix has been acting since childhood, but that doesn’t mean he’s become more comfortable with the process, as he shared with Cooper that he gets “nervous” and is often “petrified” on set.

He told Cooper: “There are so many things that I want to express when I take on a role. And I go through the script I — just full of ideas. I guess I’m just nervous that I’m not gonna be able to — to find the right kinda space to express that.” 

Of his role as Arthur Fleck in Joker, Phoenix shared his thoughts on the character, telling Cooper: “There were times where I really felt for him. And there were times where I was disappointed and repulsed by his behavior, right? And I, I liked that.” 

Phoenix won a Golden Globe award for his performance in Joker and has been nominated for an Oscar for the role as well.

Phoenix shut down a simple question

Phoenix, Cooper shared when introducing the piece, has a reputation for being difficult during interviews — and he found a bit of that when he asked a fairly simple question of the actor.

Cooper asked what he does in his time off from acting and Phoenix wasn’t so happy to answer. He attempted, sharing, “What do I do? I, um, I think I do normal things. I like to cook,” before adding, “I really don’t want to talk about what I do.” 

“OK, fine, fine,” Cooper replied.

“You know what I mean, because I just feel like I go, like, ‘I like to cook, I like to go see movies with my girlfriend,’” Phoenix explained, noting, “But I mean I – I, you know, I think I have very — basic needs.”

Cooper was more than happy to move on, noting, “Yeah, never mind, I don’t care.”

“Even better,” Phoenix responded.