While they have kept the birth date of their first child top secret — and, in fact, still have yet to confirm the news — it was no surprise to anyone who knows Joaquin Phoenix, 45, that he and his 35-year-old fiancée, actress Rooney Mara, named their first son River. The baby’s namesake, of course, is Joaquin’s big brother, actor River Phoenix, who tragically died in 1993.
“River is the largest influence, to this day, on Joaquin’s life,” said one Hollywood casting director who’s worked with him over the years. “Whenever his brother’s name is mentioned, Joaquin’s face goes far-away looking. You can visibly see the pain. Still. It’s always there.”
The baby’s existence was revealed by documentary director Victor Kossakovksy at the Zurich Film Festival on September 27, when Joaquin — an executive producer on Kossakovksy’s documentary on farm animals, “Gunda” — couldn’t attend. But then, privacy has always been one of the younger Phoenix’s hallmarks.
“He’s one of the most intense and best actors of his generation,” said a screenwriter who’s known him a long time. “But Joaq hates interviews, distrusts media, has a small tight-knit group of friends, rarely goes out — he doesn’t even relish rehearsing with other actors. Many of his co-stars never even get to know him! I think he enjoys being a mystery. He’s even a mystery to himself.”
With Joaquin’s Academy Awards acceptance speech this past February, the public got a glimpse into his inner life when, after 30-plus film roles and three previous nominations — he took home his first Oscar, as Best Actor for “Joker.”
“I have been a scoundrel all my life, I’ve been selfish. I’ve been cruel at times, hard to work with, and I’m grateful that so many of you in this room have given me a second chance,” he said, choking back tears. “I think that’s when we’re at our best: when we support each other … When he was seventeen, my brother wrote this lyric: he said, ‘Run to the rescue with love, and peace will follow.’”
When he died at just 23, River Phoenix had already been a bona fide movie star for seven years, lighting up the screen in such films as “Stand By Me,” “Running on Empty,” “Mosquito Coast” and “My Own Private Idaho.” He wasn’t supposed to overdose on cocaine and morphine on a Hollywood street corner.
It was actually young Joaquin, only 19 and then still known as Leaf — a name he’d given himself — who made the infamous 911 call on Halloween 1993.
“He’s having seizures!” Joaquin can be heard crying while River convulsed in front of the Viper Room, the Sunset Strip nightclub co-owned by Johnny Depp. “Get over here please, please, cause he’s dying, please!”
By the time paramedics arrived, River was no longer breathing.
“The night River died is forever burned into Joaquin’s consciousness,” said an independent film producer who’s worked with Joaquin and known him for many years. “It has a lot to do with how intensely private he is and how he tries to keep every aspect of his personal life secret. He’s just always afraid of revealing his hurt.”
As a kid, Joaquin wasn’t all that serious about acting, despite small roles on TV shows like “Hill Street Blues” and “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. He had a scene-stealing role as the troubled Gary in 1989’s “Parenthood,” a film directed by Ron Howard, then took a prolonged break from Hollywood.
But after his brother’s death, a switch flipped.
“It was only because of River’s encouragement — and his memory — that he decided to really go for it,” the indie producer explained. “If River hadn’t passed, I’m not sure Joaq would have gone full-tilt into films. He could have been a veterinarian, a minister, a musician. [All five Phoenix siblings] played music together as kids.”
In a “60 Minutes” interview this past September, Joaquin revealed how River “awakened something in him” when he was a teen: “He told me to watch ‘Raging Bull’ — and that changed everything.’”
Talking to Extra in 2019, he admitted, “I started acting when I was very young, and as a teenager, I wasn’t interested in roles that were available at that time. So I grew disinterested. [River] gave me a lot of confidence and was insistent that this was something I was gonna do. I couldn’t deny it because he seemed so certain.”
After “Parenthood,” the indie producer said, “Joaquin was offered a bunch of teen roles but didn’t want to take them. It wasn’t till River passed that he felt the need to act again. He felt like it would be an ode to his brother to do the thing River loved.”
The Phoenix clan — including sisters Rain, Summer and Liberty — weren’t raised in anything close to a conventional family home. Their parents, John and Arlyn Bottom (Phoenix is a stage name), were serious hippies, dedicated members of a Christian cult called Children of God that believed in preaching free love, among other things. The family had a nomadic life, growing up in Venezuela, Mexico and Puerto Rico.
Their father, who passed away in 2015 from cancer, reportedly had a problem with alcohol. “Those kids never felt safe, though they were very close to their parents, who encouraged their love of music,” said the producer.
It was River, the oldest, whose job it was to go out and sing and play on the streets, busking with Joaquin to be able to afford food. In the late 1970s, John and Arlyn extricated themselves from the cult, eventually settling in LA. River began acting and singing at age eight, with his siblings following suit.
The late talent agent Iris Burton, who discovered the Phoenix kids after their mother begged her to see them, once told an interviewer that River believed Joaquin was the one with the biggest gift: “River said to me, ‘Joaquin is better than all of us.’”
The Phoenix family
JOHN: The Phoenix patriarch (3rd from right) died from cancer in 2015, 32 years after this family photo.
ARLYN: After her 1997 divorce from John, Arlyn remarried in 2001. Now 75, she founded the River Phoenix Center for Peacebuilding.
RAIN: Now 47 and single, she is in the band The Causey Way with sister Summer.
Barcroft Media via Getty Images
LIBERTY: A married mom of five, she’s 44 and works with her mom on the nonprofit center.
SUMMER: Divorced from Casey Affleck, the 41-year-old has two sons with him.
JOAQUIN: The 45-year-old Oscar winner is engaged to Rooney Mara.
RIVER: The actor tragically died from an overdose in 1993 at age 23.
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