In a Playboy interview, the Inherent Vice actor also chats about facing his insecurities and the high price of fame

By Ron Kelly
November 12, 2014 09:00 AM
Credit: Courtesy Amanda Demme/Playboy

Joaquin Phoenix knows a thing about cult followings – and not just the Hollywood fandom kind.

In the December issue of Playboy, which hits newsstands Friday, the actor opens up about his family’s involvement in the Children of God religious group during the ’70s – a topic, he says, that still has the public intrigued.

“When people bring up Children of God, there’s always something vaguely accusatory about it,” Phoenix, 40, says. “It’s guilt by association. I think my parents thought they’d found a community that shared their ideals. Cults rarely advertise themselves as such But I think the moment my parents realized there was something more to it, they got out.”

Another topic that never fails to fire up chatter? His much-ballyhooed 2009 “breakdown” that culminated in an infamously loopy and dazed appearance on the Late Show with David Letterman.

Phoenix’s antics, of course, were later revealed to have been part of an elaborate performance art of sorts to coincide with his faux documentary I’m Still Here.

“David Letterman was not in on the joke,” Phoenix, who plays a private investigator in director Paul Thomas Anderson’s quirky new drama Inherent Vice, says of his controversial guest spot. “My agents, my publicist, they were all in on it, of course. But look, David Letterman is one of the smartest guys on television. There’s no way that guy doesn’t know what’s going on in some way.”

And despite a successful career that has seen him nab three Oscar nominations and one Golden Globe win (for his turn as Johnny Cash in Walk the Line), Phoenix says that being in front of the camera still keeps him on edge.

“I still find [acting] terrifying, and that’s crazy,” he explains. “It’s probably good, though, just because it means I still care and it matters so much to me. But I think it’s a motivating anxiety and fear, as opposed to a debilitating one.”

But it’s not just acting that causes the eccentric star anxiety – the spotlight that comes along with fame also brings its own challenges.

“Relationships are difficult, so adding public awareness is probably not a good thing,” Phoenix says about having to live his personal life in front of the cameras.

“Sure, a couple of times in my 20s when I was dating an actress … [the paparazzi] were curious,” he notes. “Now they mostly take pictures in the hopes that I’ll get hit by a car or trip or somebody will throw something at me.”

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