Joaquin Phoenix's Candid Quotes on His Childhood Cult, Joker, River's Death, Rooney Mara and More

Thanks to his deft portrayal of the disturbed titular character in Joker, Joaquin Phoenix is a virtual lock for an Oscar. The only question: Exactly what he'll say when he takes the stage.

By Sarah Grossbart Feb 06, 2020 1:00 PMTags
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Joaquin Phoenix is a virtual lock to nab the Best Actor trophy Sunday. 

The four-time Academy Award nominee has already scooped up a Golden Globe, a SAG, a BAFTA and a Critic's Choice Award for his deft take on the mentally deranged titular character in Todd PhillipsJoker and prognosticators from Vanity Fair to The Atlantic to The Hollywood Reporter insist he's a slam dunk. 

So now, really, the only question is exactly what he'll say when he takes the stage at the 2020 Oscars. Because as he's swept the award circuit this season, Phoenix has proven to be as provocative and unpredictable as he is talented.  

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At the Golden Globes, he spent the bulk of his three minutes riffing on the dangers of ignoring environmental hazards, congratulating the Hollywood Foreign Press on their decision to serve a plant-based menu "recognizing and acknowledging the link between animal agriculture and climate change," while taking his colleagues to task for their casual use of private jets. (He also dissed the contest as a whole, calling it "this thing that is created to sell advertisements for the TV show," before giving a sweet shoutout to girlfriend Rooney Mara.) 

He kept things relatively tame at the Screen Actors Guild Awards two weeks later, offering praise to his fellow nominees and Heath Ledger, who delivered his own award-winning turn as the Joker a decade ago, only to pivot to the film industry's stunning lack of diversity while accepting his BAFTA. 


"I'm deeply appreciative. But I have to say that I also feel conflicted because so many of my fellow actors that are deserving, don't have that same privilege," he said at the top of his speech. "I think that we send a very clear message to people of color that you're not welcome here. I think that's the message that we're sending to people who have contributed so much to our medium and our industry and in ways that we benefit from. I don't think anybody wants a handout or preferential treatment, although that's what we give ourselves every year. I think that people just want to be acknowledged and appreciated and respected for their work. This is not a self-righteous condemnation because I'm ashamed to say that I'm part of the problem. I have not done everything in my power to ensure that the sets I work on are inclusive."

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So you have to wonder what message he might be saving up for his big speech this weekend—at a ceremony that only recognized one person of color in the four major categories. "Contrary to popular belief, I don't want to rock the boat," he said at the Globes. It's just as an actor who feels his work "should be like a documentary," as he put it to Vanity Fair last year, where you should be feeling "what you think the character is going through at the moment," it's nearly impossible for him to speak with anything but total candor. 

And though he's notoriously reticent about doing interviews, whenever he does speak up, the 45-year-old Hollywood vet has a few things to say...

On his unique childhood

"My parents were never negligent," he told November's Vanity Fair of spending his early years in Venezuela with a sect of the Children of God. In 1977, mom Heart Phoenix and the late John Lee Phoenix, patriarch to Joaquin and his four siblings, received a message from leadership detailing a new practice that would use sex to gain followers.

"They got some letter, or however it came, some suggestion of that, and they were like, 'F--k this, we're outta here,'" he detailed to the mag. "I think they were idealists, and believed that they were with a group who shared their beliefs, and their values. I think they probably were looking for safety, and family. Leaving a country that had assassinated a president and any number of civil rights leaders within a few f--king years, which is so hard for me to fathom, right?"

On his diet

Phoenix's third birthday in October 1977 found him on a cargo ship headed toward Miami. "I vividly remember this cake, and I think it was probably the first cake that I ever had, like a proper cake," he explained in Vanity Fair. "I remember the toys. I had never gotten a new toy before, and really the most jarring and intense memory was what led to our veganism."

Because as he watched fisherman haul in their catch and pound them against the nails on the ship, he thought of all the fish he had consumed: "I have a vivid memory of my mom's face, which—I have seen that same face maybe one other time, where she was completely speechless because we yelled at her. 'How come you didn't tell us that's what fish was?' I remember tears streaming down her face....She didn't know what to say."

On his early work

Tackling a particularly deep role on a 1984 episode of Hill Street Blues, "I felt like my entire body was buzzing," he recalled to Andersoon Cooper on a January edition of 60 Minutes. "There was a certain kind of power...I was in a room full of adults, and I felt that I had, like, affected them. Like, I had changed how they were feeling."

On older brother River’s influence

"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," he shared while accepting an award at last year's Toronto International Film 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 didn't ask me, he told me. And I am indebted to him for that because acting has given me such an incredible life."

On his film choices

"From a very young age, I had an allergy to—what's the word?—to just frivolous, meaningless kids' stuff," he noted in Vanity Fair. "From an extremely young age. And I don't know why. I'm sure you want some Freudian explanation, perhaps there is."

On River's Eerie Prescience

"He suggested I change my name," he shared of River telling him to ditch his temporary identity as Leaf, "and then, I don't know, six months later, whatever it was, we were in Florida, we were in the kitchen, and he said, 'You're going to be an actor and you're going to be more well known than I am.' Me and my mom looked at each other like, 'What the f--k is he talking about?' I don't know why he said that or what he knew of me at the time. I hadn't been acting at all. But he also said it with a certain weight, with a knowing that seemed so absurd to me at the time, but of course now, in hindsight, you're like, 'How the f--k did he know?'"

On River's Shocking Death

"I don't think it was typical," he told Vanity Fair of the actor's overdose outside of L.A.'s Viper Room. "To be honest, I don't think it was really—I don't think it's what he would have wanted to have done with his night. He'd, just before that, spent time just playing me new songs that he'd written."

On dealing with his grief

"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," he noted to Cooper. "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?"

On why he still hates to talk about it

"Because I came out publicly as an actor at that time, I suddenly was confronted with having to talk about something that already was very public, in the public sphere," he explained to Vanity Fair, "where you're in a five-minute interview, every five minutes and everything, at a f--king junket. It felt like, 'Well, I'm not sure this is the right place and it feels insincere to be talking about this and I can hear in your voice that you're trying to sound like somebody who really cares and is interested, but let's be f--king frank about what's happening here.' It was just much easier to go, 'F--k you,' which is an easier thing for me for whatever reason, than to explain it."

On his method for getting into character

"I abandon my life when I work. I don't wear the clothes or listen to the music that defines who I am," he said in a 2006 interview with The Guardian. "I don't communicate with friends or family. It sounds intense, but it's the process of getting there that is really hard."

On entering rehab after filming Walk the Line

"I really just thought of myself as a hedonist. 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. I was being an idiot, running around, drinking, trying to screw people, going to stupid clubs," he told T, The New York Times Style Magazine in 2017. So without intervention, he checked himself in: "I thought rehab was a place where you sat in a Jacuzzi and ate fruit salad. But when I got there they started talking about the 12 steps and I went: 'Wait a minute, I'm still gonna smoke weed.'"

On his 2010 mockumentary I’m Still Here

Portraying a highly fictionalized version of Joaquin Phoenix, an actor leaving his craft behind for a hip-hip career was "an amazing experience: not finding your light, not hitting the mark, not memorizing lines," he raved to T. "It allowed me to be bold in my decisions instead of being safe."

On his courtship with Rooney Mara

"She's the only girl I ever looked up on the internet," he admitted to Vanity Fair of his Her costar and now girlfriend. "We were just friends, email friends. I'd never done that. Never looked up a girl online."

On losing 52 pounds to play The Joker

"Once you reach the target weight, everything changes," he explained to The Associated Press last fall. "Like so much of what's difficult is waking up every day and being obsessed over like 0.3 pounds. Right? And you really develop like a disorder. But I think the interesting thing for me is what I had expected and anticipated with the weight loss was these feelings of dissatisfaction, hunger, a certain kind of vulnerability and a weakness."

On criticism of Joker

"I didn't imagine it would be smooth sailing," he said of press complaints that his depiction of a violent, mentally unstable loner could be seen as irresponsible. "It's a difficult film. In some ways, it's good that people are having a strong reaction to it. There's so many ways of looking at it. You can either say here's somebody who, like everybody, needed to be heard and understood and to have a voice. Or you can say this is somebody that disproportionately needs a large quantity of people to be fixated on him. His satisfaction comes as he stands in amongst the madness."