“Beau Is Afraid” Star Joaquin Phoenix Grew Up in a Cult – Learn More About His Life Story

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Joaquin Phoenix has lived through a lot. Perhaps that’s part of what makes him so adept at embodying characters in bizarre situations and in moments of crisis – and few onscreen characters have ever suffered through so many crises, so quickly, as Joaquin’s character in Ari Aster’s “Beau Is Afraid,” which premieres on April 21.

In the film, Joaquin plays the title character, Beau, a middle-aged man seemingly trapped in a perpetual adolescence. We immediately learn he has a complex relationship with his mother and that he lives in a horrifically derelict apartment building. But after he misses a flight to see his mother because someone stole his keys and suitcase, the world as he knows it begins to collapse. First his building is overtaken by criminals, and then he learns his mother’s head was crushed by a lamp – and the horror only escalates from there.

Joaquin’s performance ties the whole madcap trip together, and he plays the broken, hypersensitive, and traumatized Beau expertly. Beau is far from his first impressive performance, of course; he’s been nominated for four Oscars, and took home best actor for his role in Joker (2019). But “Beau Is Afraid” may be one of his most rigorous and impressive performances yet. In many ways, while far from a typical film, “Beau Is Afraid” may be a typical Joaquin Phoenix project – something that, with its nonlinearity and underlying sense of random chaos, seems just about as absurd as real life can sometimes be.

Joaquin’s journey from childhood to Hollywood superstar has certainly been a labyrinthine one. Joaquin was born on Oct. 28, 1974, and spent his earliest years in a cult called Children of God, per Britannica. He spent his childhood traveling around South America with his parents, spreading the cult’s disturbing gospel, which included a heavy emphasis on sex, even for children, per LA Weekly. He and his brothers, River and Rain, also spent some of their childhoods begging for cash and food on the streets.

In 2014, the star explained that despite the trauma he endured, he doesn’t blame his parents for what happened. “I think my parents thought they’d found a community that shared their ideals,” he told Playboy Interview, per Entertainment Tonight. “Cults rarely advertise themselves as such. It’s usually someone saying, ‘We’re like-minded people. This is a community,’ but I think the moment my parents realized there was something more to it, they got out.”

In 1977, the family left the cult and moved to Southern California, changing their last names from Bottom to Phoenix – a name that they adopted to symbolize their rebirth, per Digital Spy. To support the family, River and Joaquin – who had adopted the name Leaf at the time – began acting. They both netted some roles, and River’s career soon took off with performances in “Stand by Me,” “My Own Private Idaho,” and others.

Related: Joaquin Phoenix Plays a Character at 4 Different Ages in the Surreal “Beau Is Afraid” Trailer

But on Oct. 31, 1993, 23-year-old River died at the Viper Room in Los Angeles when a friend handed him a drink containing a dissolved speedball, which is a drug containing a stimulant like cocaine and a depressant like heroin. Joaquin, then 19, was with River at the time, but by the time he called 911 it was too late, according to Vanity Fair.

The grieving process was made more difficult by intense media scrutiny, Joaquin later revealed. “We were so removed from kind of the entertainment world. We didn’t watch entertainment shows. We didn’t have the entertainment magazines in our house,” Joaquin told Anderson Cooper in 2020. “River was a really substantial actor and movie star, and we didn’t really know it. And 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, right?”

Joaquin continued to act after his brother’s death, and broke through with Roman emperor Commodus in “Gladiator” (2000). His star continued to rise with roles as Johnny Cash in “Walk the Line” (2005) and “We Own the Night” (2007). In 2008, though, Joaquin announced he was retiring from acting to pursue a hip-hop career. He later was the subject of Casey Affleck‘s documentary “I’m Still Here” (2010), which he later revealed was a scripted mockumentary, not an actual documentation of his life.

Joaquin soon formally returned to acting with a performance in “The Master” (2012), playing an alcoholic character loosely based on Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, and went on to star in “Her” (2013) and a number of other major titles. In 2019, he took on the role of the Joker, winning best actor for his performance, and he’s set to reprise the role in “Joker 2: Folie à Deux” alongside Lady Gaga. He and fiancée Rooney Mara also welcomed a child, named River Lee Phoenix, in 2020.

Ahead, see more photos of the star over the years.

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