From a notorious sex cult to Hollywood superstardom: A peek into Joaquin Phoenix's mysterious origins

It shouldn't come as a surprise that Joaquin Phoenix's origins were peculiar, especially for someone so steeped in mystery. Born as Joaquin Rafael Bottom in San Juan, Puerto Rico, the talented actor lived his early days as a member of the religious cult Children of God


                            From a notorious sex cult to Hollywood superstardom: A peek into Joaquin Phoenix's mysterious origins
Joaquin Phoenix (Getty Images)

If you found the Joker's childhood as rather traumatic, you would definitely want a glimpse into the early years of the Hollywood superstar who brilliantly embodied this controversial character.

It shouldn't come as a surprise that Joaquin Phoenix's origins were peculiar, especially for someone so steeped in mystery. Born as Joaquin Rafael Bottom in San Juan, Puerto Rico, the talented actor lived his early days as a member of the religious cult Children of God, led by rogue preacher David Berg.

Joaquin's parents John Lee and Arlyn had joined the cult in 1977 when the future megastar was just 3 years old. Considering the prevalent sexual atmosphere in the 1960's hippy communities, Children of God's practices included child abuse and forced women to prostitution as a way to attract males into the fold, which ultimately brought in 19,000 members to the group. 

The Bottoms and their five children — namely Joaquin, Summer, Liberty, Rain, and River — were subjected to similar harassment when the family was preaching the Word of God (or rather the "Word of Berg") to Latin American people in Caracas, Venezuela.

"I believe they were idealistic and believed that this group of people shared their values; probably they looked for their family's safety," Joaquin recently told Vanity Fair.

Joaquin Phoenix (R) and sister Rain (L) (Getty images)

While it took a while for his parents to realize that Children of God's ideals were not beatific at all, the family eventually became disenchanted with the group and returned to Miami aboard a cargo ship in 1978 — seeking a new beginning in Florida.

River, Joaquin's brother, had been 'initiated' to enlightenment at a very early age — he lost his virginity when he was just four years old.

The Bottoms had already been through a lot. The family decided to start afresh as soon as they touched U.S. soil: They would change their middle name to "Phoenix" — a symbol of resurrection from the ashes of their harrowing past.

The free-spirited family eventually moved to Los Angeles to try their luck at the booming entertainment industry. Arlyn secured a job as a secretary for NBC, while Joaquin and his siblings tried to make ends meet by performing on the streets.

The Phoenix children went on to land a series of commercials and television gigs with the help of Hollywood agent Iris Burton, who discovered their potential. Finally, Joaquin made his acting debut in a 1982 episode of Seven Brides For Seven Brothers alongside his brother River.

Two years later, Joaquin would secure his first major role in the ABC Afterschool Special episode Backwards: The Riddle of Dyslexia — where he once again appeared opposite River — and went on to star in a series of notable programs like Murder, She Wrote, and The Fall Guy.

In 1986, Joaquin made his film debut in SpaceCamp playing 12-year-old Max, who visits the Kennedy Space Center to learn about NASA and become an astronaut.

Meanwhile, his elder brother River was quickly ascending Hollywood ranks, popularly knowns as the families' first official entry into films. He gave a series of critically acclaimed performances in blockbusters such as Stand By Me (1986), Running On Empty (1988), and My Own Private Idaho (1991).

Feeling overshadowed by River as the premier child actor in the family, Joaquin decided to withdraw from acting for a while — embarking on a journey to South America with his father. 

But he would soon return to Los Angeles, where a devastating tragedy awaited him.

River Phoenix (IMDb)

On October 31, 1993, River succumbed to an overdose outside The Viper Room in West Hollywood. Despite Joaquin's best efforts to save his elder brother, River was pronounced dead just hours later. The Phoenixes subsequently became the focus of media frenzy, prompting Joaquin to retreat from paparazzi and the prying eyes of the public. 

Joaquin returned to acting almost a year later thanks to the encouragement and support by family and friends — only this time he was highly selective with the scripts he took. 

He shot to fame with a critically acclaimed performance in 1995’s 'To Die For', when he starred opposite Nicole Kidman playing a disturbed young man seduced into the act of murder. Five years later in 2000, he sent jaws dropping with an iconic performance in Gladiator where he played the ruthless Emperor Commodus. Joaquin's rendition would earn him universal praise and he even bagged a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.

After a slew of memorable performances showcasing his versatility as an actor, Joaquin abruptly left Hollywood in 2010 to pursue a career in rap music. However, it later turned out it was a publicity stunt for his mockumentary 'I’m Still Here', where the veteran once again proved his mettle with a stunning performance.

The following decade would see Joaquin cement his position as a master of his craft, with stellar performances in The Master (2012), Her (2013), and Inherent Vice (2014) — all winning nominations for a number of best actor awards.

Joaquin Phoenix in Joker (2019) (IMDb)

Ultimately, 2019 became the year Joaquin Phoenix would deliver his magnum opus — playing the mentally unstable Arthur Fleck in Todd Phillip’s 'Joker'. His surreal rendition of the comic book character is widely regarded as the best performance of his career.

It is important to note that actors, just like other artists, engage a spectrum of mind spaces in their plays and characters — and these spaces are built from their own experiences no matter how disturbing or elevating they may be. Joaquin Phoenix's brutally honest performances stem from an alchemy of talent, trauma, and defiance — a strange concoction that we just can't get enough of.

In Arthur Fleck's timeless words, “Better the blind man who pisses out the window than the joker who told him it was a urinal. Know who the joker is? It’s everybody.”

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