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With his latest movie, Joker, in theaters, Joaquin Phoenix takes some time to reflect on his life and his current state of happiness. Channeling some of the darkest moments of his past into such a disturbing character served as a catharsis of sorts for Phoenix who faced tragedy with the loss of some great influences in his life.

Although he is reticent to discuss his brother’s death, Phoenix does credit River Phoenix with providing him both the inspiration and confidence to take up the acting mantle. Perhaps it’s because of River’s legendary status that Joaquin chooses such dichotomous roles.

Joaquin Phoenix has a storied past

Joaquin Phoenix attends the premiere of Warner Bros. Pictures "Her" at DGA Theater.
Joaquin Phoenix | Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

Born in Puerto Rico in 1974, Joaquin Phoenix’s parents had been missionaries for The Children of God cult. The family traveled throughout Central and South America until the now-infamous sect’s dogma changed to include such dangerous and unethical practices as using sex to entice new members.

It was on the family’s return to the United States aboard a cargo ship carrying Tonka toys that Joaquin, and the entire Phoenix family (then known as the Bottoms), experienced a revelatory moment. Aspects of the trip are remembered with fondness. The crew prepared Joaquin’s “first proper birthday cake” and gave him a toy dump truck to celebrate his third birthday.

It was during their voyage, however, that the entire family realized the pain and suffering animals endure to become the meat on tables. They witnessed the ship’s fishermen violently throwing their catch against a nail-spiked wall. That was the defining moment in which they became a family of vegans. Joaquin has gone to champion animal rights.

Tragically, Joaquin witnessed his brother’s death from a speedball overdose in front of the Viper Room in 1993.

Joaquin also took a huge step in taking care of himself by checking himself into rehab. After completion of his performance as the drug-addicted and alcoholic Johnny Cash, Joaquin recognized choices he’d made in his own life that no longer worked. It was the culminating event that led to seeking help through rehab.

Joaquin Phoenix’s rising career

Once in the United States, Joaquin’s parents focused on establishing their children in entertainment industry careers. The oldest child, River, had a promising career from the start: He had both the looks and talent to create a life-altering course.

Phoenix began his career in television with the help of his brother. He appeared in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers when he was eight years old. Other guest appearances followed on several other series until he won his first part in a major motion picture. Phoenix’s role as an angst-filled 15-year-old in 1989’s Parenthood sets the wheels in motion for his Hollywood career.

He won an Academy Award nomination for his depiction of Commodus, the amoral son of Marcus Aurelius in 2000’s Gladiator.

Walk the Line’s inspired performance as Johnny Cash garnered Phoenix high praise, earning him another Oscar nomination. In addition to taking home the Golden Globe for best actor, Phoenix won a Grammy for the film’s soundtrack. His performance of Cash’s music was, in fact, so convincing that Roger Ebert was certain it was The Man in Black himself until he saw the final credits.

Phoenix delves deep inside to tap into the intricacies of each of his characterizations. It was exactly his commitment to delivering such personal performances that finally led Phoenix to check himself into rehab when the movie wrapped in 2005.

What’s happening now in Joaquin Phoenix’s life?

In his personal life, Joaquin is doing great. The acclaimed actor is engaged to Rooney Mara. He met the actress on the set of 2013’s Her and they began dating in 2016. They seem to have found a quiet sort of peace together. He’s said that she was “the first woman he ever looked up on the Internet.”

Professionally, he’s doing just as well. The newly-released Joker is gaining momentum in Oscar-discussion circles. It definitely exemplifies Joaquin’s enormous ability to channel his own experiences into an intricately-drawn character. The greater accomplishment as far as the actor is concerned is his newly-found ability to separate himself from the experience.