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The Phoenix family lived a dual life: half hippie, half Hollywood. There was no formal schooling. Instead, the kids busked in Westwood and carpooled to auditions. River appeared on Family Ties and after-school specials about dyslexia; Joaquin had roles on Hill Street Blues, Murder, She Wrote and Alfred Hitchcock Presents. The brothers crossed paths once when Joaquin landed a cameo on River's goofy CBS musical Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.
But while River looked like an innocent heartthrob, the darker, stockier Joaquin was stereotyped into more somber sidekick roles. The very first line Steve Martin says about the character played by 15-year-old Joaquin (then going by Leaf) in the movie Parenthood is, "There's a kid with problems."
That year, in his first-ever print interview, he chirped to the L.A. Herald-Examiner, "I am different, but I don't really mind. I enjoy it." After Parenthood, he took a six-year, self-imposed break to dodge what he dismissed as "banana in a tailpipe" roles, then returned to acting at 21 for Gus Van Sant's To Die For as a dumb high school punk seduced into murdering Nicole Kidman's husband. The film is a comedy, but Phoenix and his future best friend and brother-in-law Affleck play the outcasts-turned-killers as arrestingly sincere — you could plop their characters into any serious teen drama.
"It was when I first met Casey and I remember thinking, 'We have to play this totally straight, but people are probably going to think that Gus just found kids on the street,'" Phoenix recalls. He smirks. "Maybe he kind of did."
His younger sister Summer swore to W Magazine that Joaquin was the funniest one in the family, but despite his insistence that he wanted to do a big, dumb comedy, the roles kept getting gloomier: a hippie awaiting execution in Return to Paradise; a snuff-film peddler in 8MM; and finally, his first prestige blockbuster, Gladiator, as the bloodthirsty Emperor Commodus.
Commodus could have been played as camp. He did, after all, adore wearing head-to-toe white leather (technically faux, in accordance with Phoenix's veganism). Yet Phoenix layered in Commodus's pain and insecurity. He honestly can't understand why everyone — his father, his sister, his empire — prefers the slave Maximus, sniffling to his dad, "I would butcher the whole world if you would only love me."
The butcher's unexpected depth won Phoenix his first Oscar nomination and an exhausting spin on the awards circuit. He went on Letterman and forgot his own birthday.
Joaquin Phoenix had made his reputation playing tragic characters. Yet what calcified his public image as a tortured actor happened during his teenage hiatus: his panicked phone call to 911 as he watched his beloved older brother die outside the Viper Room. The call was broadcast across TV news outlets, the worst moment of his life served up for public consumption.
When Joaquin returned to the screen, two years later, River's shadow was something he couldn't dodge and wouldn't discuss. He did few interviews and was rarely pictured in the tabloids, preferring to stay at home with his girlfriend of three years, Liv Tyler, and best friend Affleck, who eventually married Joaquin's sister Summer. Following his breakup with Tyler, Joaquin's date to premieres and award shows most often was his mother or one of his sisters. He kept his world small and his ears closed to media chatter, trying to let the work speak for itself.
But as his films got harder, so did the press tours — and the sense that Phoenix really might not enjoy being so different.
After capturing the drunk and unhinged Johnny Cash in Walk the Line, Phoenix voluntarily checked himself into rehab to clear his head and, he quipped, rally support for his second Oscar nod. (Not that he really cared if he won. "I don't think I've ever seen a movie and been, like, 'That was fucking amazing — was he nominated for that?'" he says. "Maybe we should just do the awards 20 years later and then you can actually tell if something's any good.")
He soon checked himself out and was barraged by journalists prodding him to say he drew on River's fatal overdose to reflect Cash's pain at losing his older brother in a table-saw accident. He shut them down, storming out of an interview with Rolling Stone. On the red carpet at the film's L.A. premiere, he turned the tables on an AP reporter. "Do I have a large frog in my hair?" he asked. "Something's crawling out of my scalp." When the journalist awkwardly demurred, Phoenix pressed on. "No, but I feel it. I'm not worried about the looks. I'm worried about the sensation of my brain being eaten."
Three years later, Phoenix was back on Letterman acting like his mind actually had been devoured.
The intro of I'm Still Here is a fast-forward through his life: young Phoenix leaping off a waterfall in Panama, a barely older Phoenix singing on a street corner with his siblings in matching gold jumpsuits and, finally, a grown-up Phoenix pacing in his Hollywood Hills backyard overlooking the Los Angeles nightlife wondering, "I don't know what happened to me first. Whether they said that I was emotional and intense and complicated or whether I was truly complicated and intense and then they responded to it."
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