'Joker' 's Joaquin Phoenix: From Suffering a Family Tragedy to Finding Happiness with Rooney Mara

Joker is in theaters everywhere

Joaquin Phoenix is on the rise once again with his visceral portrayal in Joker.

In the comic book origin story, the actor, 44, plays Arthur Fleck who is destined to become the titular villain and foil to Batman.

On top of Oscar buzz, Phoenix has already been awarded the TIFF Tribute Actor Award at the Toronto International Film Festival in September where he reflected on his career and personal life.

Not one to speak candidly about some of his past tragedies, such as the death of his older brother and actor River, Phoenix has overcome loss and addiction to become one of Hollywood’s most respected actors.

1. Overcoming loss and managing grief

Phoenix witnessed River’s death in 1993 while the two were outside the popular nightclub, The Viper Room, with their sister Rain.

River died from a drug overdose outside of the club. He was 23 years old and poised to become one of the best actors of his generation. Now, it’s his younger brother who has seemingly taken up the mantle with unforgettable roles in Gladiator, Walk the Line, The Master and Her — as well as three Oscar nominations.

Still, Phoenix doesn’t like to dwell on his brother’s death, or how he was personally and professionally affected by the loss.

“I try not to f—ing think about that,” Phoenix told Vanity Fair after he was asked about River.

River Phoenix, Joaquin Phoenix and mother
(left to right) Joaquin Phoenix, his mother Heart Phoenix and brother River Phoenix. John Roca/NY Daily News via Getty

2. Phoenix’s break from acting and how River convinced him to return

Like River, Phoenix began acting when he was a child and still went by Leaf before changing his name to Joaquin. He famously appeared in films such as Parenthood (1989) and Anything for Love (1985).

He took a break, however, and traveled to Mexico and South America with his father for a time before making his comeback in the 1995 Nicole Kidman film To Die For.

Phoenix credited River with convincing him to try his hand at acting again while speaking at TIFF last month.

“When I was 15 or 16, my brother River came home from work and he had a VHS copy of a movie called Raging Bull and he sat me down and made me watch it,” Phoenix said at the festival. “And the next day he woke me up and he made me watch it again. And he said, ‘You’re going to start acting again, this is what you’re going to do.'”

He continued, “[River] didn’t ask me, he told me. And I am indebted to him for that because acting has given me such an incredible life.”

Joaquin Phoenix
Richard Hartog/AP/Shutterstock

3. Checking into rehab

The actor checked into rehab for alcoholism in 2005.

“He was uncomfortable with the way that he was living his life and found the courage to deal with the disease,” his publicist said in a statement at the time.

I really just thought of myself as a hedonist,” Phoenix told The New York Times in 2017. “I was an actor in L.A. I wanted to have a good time. But I wasn’t engaging with the world or myself in the way I wanted to.”

He continued, “I was being an idiot, running around, drinking, trying to screw people, going to stupid clubs.”

4. He’s found love and happiness with Rooney Mara

Phoenix is currently engaged to his Her costar, Rooney Mara. While both have kept their relationship low profile, Phoenix did admit he did some research on Mara, 34, after they met.

In a recent interview with Vanity Fair, he admitted he initially believed Mara disliked him while making Her only to later discover that she liked him but was just shy.

She’s the only girl I ever looked up on the internet,” Phoenix said. “We were just friends, email friends.”

Still, even as “just friends,” Phoenix couldn’t help but want to know more about the actress.

Rooney Mara, Joaquin Phoenix
Rooney Mara and Joaquin Phoenix. Todd Williamson/January Images/Shutterstock

“I’d never done that. Never looked up a girl online,” he said.

Last month, Phoenix sweetly thanked Mara for her support while at TIFF.

“One last thing — somewhere here, I don’t know where, is a filthy dragon, and I want to rip its wings off and fasten a blanket and sleep with it forever,” he said. “I love you. Thank you.”

5. Oscar buzz for Joker

Phoenix is earning praise for his performance in Todd Philipps’ Joker, playing the mentally unstable Arthur Fleck, an aspiring comedian who decides to hit back against the people who rejected him.

The actor lost 52 lbs. for the role, telling the Associated Press earlier this month “everything changes” when it comes to the relationship between mind and body.

“Like, so much of what’s difficult is waking up every day and being obsessed over like 0.3 pounds. Right?” he said. “And you really develop like a disorder. I mean, it’s wild.”

The film won the Golden Lion prize at the Venice International Film Festival in September and was met with praise by critics. And while Phoenix was applauded for his “impressive” performance, the film received some backlash for its depictions of violence.

Collider’s Perri Nemiroff wrote, “#Joker is one of the most unnerving movies I’ve seen in years. Joaquin Phoenix is astounding – the physicality of his work is especially impressive. It’s very well made across the board but I also found it very upsetting & right now I can’t shake that. Need to sit with this more.”

“I saw #Joker — and it is unlike anything before it,” Brandon Davis of ComicBook.com tweeted. “The movie is dark, thrilling, and chilling. An insane masterpiece. The movie absolutely transcends being a comic book film and acts as a character study which, at times, will make audiences uncomfortable in wild ways.”

Joker is in theaters now.

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