Joaquin Phoenix Sees One Parallel Between Napoleon and Jesus

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Joaquin PhoenixGetty Images
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Joaquin Phoenix Now: Portraying Napoleon Bonaparte in New Movie

Actor Joaquin Phoenix portrays the infamous French military commander Napoleon Bonaparte in Napoleon, directed by Ridley Scott, with whom Phoenix previously worked on Gladiator (2000). The movie released in theaters on November 22. “[Napoleon] was a man of huge contradictions—fascinating, jealous, bad-tempered—but his men loved him,” Phoenix said at the movie’s London premiere. “They loved him—he fought beside them. He’s more written about than anybody else apart from Jesus. So that kind of tells you why Ridley was attracted.”

The Academy Award winner has received praise for his performance opposite Vanessa Kirby’s Empress Josephine. “Napoleon is the type of role that Phoenix thrives in, and the match of subject and actor couldn’t be more perfect,” Collider’s senior film critic wrote. And critic Brian Truitt of USA Today observed, “he’s able to nimbly move from a puffed-up public figure to a vulnerable husband and back and nails the clumsier elements of Napoleon.”

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Who Is Joaquin Phoenix?

Joaquin Phoenix is an award-winning actor known for his acclaimed and often unconventional performances, as well as his intense preparation for and approach to his roles. After finding success at a young age with the 1989 film Parenthood, he starred in such films as Gladiator, Signs, and Walk the Line. The latter earned him as Oscar nomination for his performance as country musician Johnny Cash. Following a hiatus, Phoenix returned to the big screen with Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master and went on to acclaimed roles in Her and Inherent Vice, before winning his first Academy Award for his performance as the title supervillain in Joker.

Quick Facts

FULL NAME: Joaquin Rafael Bottom Phoenix
BORN: October 28, 1974
BIRTHPLACE: San Juan, Puerto Rico
PARTNER: Rooney Mara (2006-present)

Early Life and Siblings

the phoenix family gathered around a kitchen table, smiling directly at the camera
The Phoenix family at their Los Angeles home in 1983; from left, Summer, Arlyn, Rain, Joaquin, John Lee, Liberty, and River Phoenix.Getty Images

Joaquin Phoenix was born Joaquin Rafael Bottom was in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on October 28, 1974. As the son of the missionaries for the Children of God religious group, Phoenix moved frequently with his family during his early life. His parents, John and Arlyn Bottom, completed stints in Central and South America before becoming disillusioned with Children of God. After they left the group, the family took the new surname Phoenix, inspired by the mythical bird that rises from its own ashes, which was symbolic of their new life.

Moving to Los Angeles around the age of 4, Joaquin and his siblings—older brother River, older sister Rain, and younger sisters Liberty and Summer—soon tried to make their way in Hollywood. The Phoenix children often liked to put on shows for each other. “We all used to sing and play music, and we were all very outgoing. My parents always encouraged us to express ourselves. And so it seemed like second nature to start acting,” Phoenix told Interview magazine. Their mother worked as an executive secretary at NBC and used her connections with a high-profile child agent to help them find acting work.

Early Career

The Phoenix family followed certain morals in their quest for acting success, refusing to appear in commercials for soda or fast food. The first breakout star of the Phoenix family was River, who landed a role on the short-lived television series Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, which aired from 1982 to 1983. Through his brother, Joaquin made a guest appearance on the show when he was 8 years old, which led to other small television parts on such shows as The Fall Guy, Hill Street Blues, and Murder, She Wrote. He even appeared with River in an ABC Afterschool Special about dyslexia; the two played brothers.

At the time, Joaquin was using the name Leaf, which he had chosen for himself when he was 6 years old. He wanted a nature-inspired name like his siblings, and the name Leaf was inspired by spending time outdoors raking leaves.

Making his film debut in 1986, Phoenix had a supporting role as a wannabe astronaut in the kids adventure movie SpaceCamp. He also tried his hand at primetime drama with Morningstar/Eveningstar, a story of homeless children who find shelter at a facility for senior citizens. Unfortunately, this meeting of the young and old only lasted a few episodes before being canceled.

One of Phoenix’s biggest breaks came when he left Hollywood. He had moved to Florida when he landed a role in the Ron Howard–directed comedy Parenthood (1989). In the movie, Phoenix gave an impressive performance as the rebellious son of Dianne Wiest. After this success, Phoenix, who was only 15 years old, decided to put his career on hold to travel on his own through Latin America. While he avoided Hollywood, his brother, River, stood in the spotlight, becoming one of Hollwwood’s leading young actors. Around this time, Phoenix returned to using his birth name Joaquin instead of Leaf.

Family Tragedy: Death of Brother River Phoenix

joaquin and river phoenix standing next to a stove cooking food and smiling for the camera
Joaquin and River Phoenix cooking at their home in Los Angeles, California in 1985.Getty Images

In 1993, Joaquin was with his famous brother, partying at the Viper Room nightclub in West Hollywood, when River collapsed outside and began having convulsions. Joaquin phoned for help, and paramedics arrived to resuscitate River. Their efforts failed, however, and River was taken to the hospital where he was pronounced dead from a drug overdose in the early hours of October 31. Later, Joaquin’s anguished 911 call was played and replayed by the media, only compounding his grief.

Movies: Gladiator, Walk the Line, and More

Returning to acting, Phoenix played an alienated, underachieving teen who is seduced by a success-hungry news reporter (played by Nicole Kidman) in Gus Van Sant’s To Die For (1995). His performance was praised by Janet Maslin of The New York Times, who wrote Phoenix approached the role with a “raw, anguished expressiveness that makes him an actor to watch for.” A wave of films soon followed. In the romantic drama Inventing the Abbotts (1997), he was paired up onscreen with Liv Tyler. That coupling evolved into an off-screen relationship. Phoenix then worked with director Oliver Stone on the neonoir thriller U-Turn (1997). Despite having a strong cast, which included Sean Penn and Claire Danes, the film was a box-office dud.

The following year, Phoenix earned raves for his performance as an American imprisoned in Malaysia on drug charges and facing the death penalty in Return to Paradise (1998). Vince Vaughn and David Conrad co-starred as friends who must decide whether to return to the country and acknowledge their roles in the crime. Another pairing with Vaughn, Clay Pigeons (1998) failed to attract much notice from critics or moviegoers. Phoenix then co-starred in 8mm (1999) by portraying an adult video store employee who helps a private investigator (Nicolas Cage) delve into the world of illegal underground pornography. The movie proved to be a surprise hit at the box office.

a publicity photo from the film gladiator, with joaquin phoenix and connie nielsen in a throne room wearing ancient rome attire
Connie Nielsen and Joaquin Phoenix, as Emperor Commodus, co-starred in Gladiator with Russell Crowe (not shown).Getty Images

In 2000, Phoenix nearly stole the Roman epic Gladiator from star Russell Crowe with his turn as the twisted, jealous emperor Commodus. His work in this summer blockbuster, directed by Ridley Scott, netted him nominations for many of the acting profession’s most prestigious awards, including the Oscars. Mike D’Angelo of The A.V. Club called his role in Gladiator a “gloriously mannered performance that raises angry sniveling to an art form.” That same year, Phoenix continued to demonstrate his range as a performer, playing a slick operator in The Yards, opposite Mark Wahlberg, and then French religious official Abbe Coulmier in Quills, about the institutionalized writer Marquis de Sade.

Working with director M. Night Shyamalan, Phoenix had a supporting role as Mel Gibson’s younger brother in the eerie thriller Signs (2002), which brought in more than $227 million at the box office. He took the lead for his next collaboration with Shyamalan, The Village (2004), playing a young man who puts his small community at risk by exploring the mysterious woods that surround his town. By this time, Phoenix had become known for his tendency to immerse himself completely in the lives of his characters. “He’s acting on a different plane. He’s almost superhuman,” co-star Bryce Dallas Howard told the Associated Press.

That same year, Phoenix starred in the blockbuster action film Ladder 49 (2004) with John Travolta, Robert Patrick, and Balthazar Getty. Phoenix went through professional training to prepare for his role as a new firefighter, and the extra work made an impression on viewers; the film not only made more than $22 million in its opening week, it also earned complimentary reviews from critics and fans. Phoenix had a fear of heights before making the film, but his training—which involved rappelling from a six-story tower—helped him expose and overcome those fears, Phoenix said. Later in 2004, he had a small role as a cameraman in Hotel Rwanda, a movie about the Rwanadan genocide.

reese witherspoon and joaquin phoenix holding golden globe awards while standing on a red carpet and posing for photos
Joaquin Phoenix and his Walk the Line co-star Reese Witherspoon both won awards for their performances at the Golden Globes in January 2006.Getty Images

Phoenix outdid himself in his next major role, undergoing even more extensive preparation to play one of country music’s greatest stars Johnny Cash in Walk the Line (2005). Phoenix had to learn to sing and play the guitar like Cash for the role, which took nearly six months of lessons from the movie’s executive music producer, T-Bone Burnett. His co-star, Reese Witherspoon, went through her own rigorous musical training to sing like June Carter Cash, Johnny’s wife.

To stay in character, Phoenix asked everyone on set to call him J.R.—Cash’s given name. “I’m embarrassed about it now. But when I heard ‘Joaquin’ it just didn’t feel right,” Phoenix told Entertainment Weekly. Widely praised by critics, the film and its stars netted numerous nominations and awards. Phoenix received his first Academy Award nomination in the Best Actor category and his first Golden Globe Award for Best Actor in Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy. Even the film’s soundtrack, which featured vocals by Phoenix and Witherspoon, brought home the Grammy Award for Best Compilation Soundtrack Album for Motion Picture, Television or Other Visual Media.

Bringing the hard-living Cash to the big screen took its toll on the actor. After filming ended, Phoenix went into rehab for his alcohol use. “There was a lot made of my going to rehab, and it seems very dramatic, but it wasn’t like that,” Phoenix told Time magazine. “I just became aware of my drinking as a tool to relax when I don’t work. I basically went to a country club where they didn’t serve alcohol.”

In 2007, Phoenix reunited with Wahlberg for the gritty urban tale We Own the Night, in which they played brothers on opposite sides of the law. Also that year, he starred alongside Mark Ruffalo and Jennifer Connelly in Reservation Road, playing a father obsessed with finding the driver of a car that fatally struck his son in a hit-and-run accident. Two years later, Phoenix had a leading role in James Gray’s independent drama Two Lovers (2009), with Gwyneth Paltrow.

Fake Retirement with I’m Still Here Documentary

joaquin phoenix waves while sitting in an armchair on a tv set and wearing a black suit and black sunglasses, to the right sits david letterman behind a desk with his hands clasped, letterman looks at phoenix and smiles
Joaquin Phoenix made a memorable visit to The Late Show with David Letterman on February 11, 2009, shortly before announcing a fake retirement from acting. Getty Images

In February 2009, Phoenix made headlines with a strange appearance on David Letterman’s Late Show, leading fans to wonder about the actor’s mental state. The interview, full of awkward pauses and low mumbling, encouraged Letterman to make several jokes about the actor’s seeming lack of awareness. The actor briefly forgot the name of his Two Lovers co-star, Paltrow, stuck gum under Letterman’s desk, and appeared to swear at bandleader Paul Shaffer for laughing at him during the show.

Around this same time, Phoenix announced his retirement from acting and revealed plans to release a rap album. A viral video of Phoenix performing in Las Vegas began circulating, but the poor quality of the clip only seemed to bolster the theory that Phoenix was perpetrating a hoax. His decision to become a hip-hop artist was later chronicled in 2010’s so-called documentary I’m Still Here, made with Casey Affleck. Soon after its release, Affleck admitted to The New York Times that the documentary was a work of fiction. Phoenix later returned to Letterman’s show and admitted he feared the entire stunt had jeopardized his career, saying, “I can see how people felt like they’d been duped.”

Return to Acting: The Master and Her

joaquin phoenix walks past a slew of photographers and smiles, he wears a black suit with a white collared shirt and gray and black patterned tie
Joaquin Phoenix attends the Venice Film Festival in September 2012 to promote his movie The Master.Getty Images

Phoenix eventually decided to step in front of the cameras again, receiving impressive results. In The Master (2012), his first movie after his self-imposed hiatus, he played a young, alcoholic war veteran named Freddie Quell, who is lured into a quasi-religious cult led by charismatic Lancester Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, the film received wide praise and garnered Phoenix another Oscar nomination. Film critic Roger Ebert said Phoenix “projects a fearsome anxiety as his eyes scan a room” in The Master, adding that the performance “in some ways seems to flow out of the bizarre persona he created during his meltdown, or whatever it was, two years ago.”

Continuing to land interesting new projects, Phoenix worked with director Spike Jonze on Her (2013), about a lonely man who develops a strong relationship with an A.I. operating system, voiced by Scarlett Johansson. Jonze had Phoenix in mind for the role, having recalled his unsuccessful audition for a role that ultimately went to actor Chris Cooper in Jonze’s earlier film Adaptation (2002). Richard Corliss of Time magazine wrote, “Phoenix must communicate his movie’s meaning and feelings virtually on his own. That he does, with subtle grace and depth.”

Phoenix also appeared in 2013’s The Immigrant, with Jeremy Renner and Marion Cotillard, before re-teaming with Anderson for the neonoir adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice (2014). Film critic Richard Roeper wrote Phoenix was “perfectly cast as the perpetually befuddled Doc, a private detective of sorts who immerses himself in pot in the Los Angeles of 1970.” The actor followed with roles in Woody Allen’s murder-mystery Irrational Man (2015), the thriller You Were Never Really Here (2017), and the biblical Mary Magdalene (2018) as Jesus Christ.

Academy Award for Joker

joaquin phoenix speaks into a microphone while standing on a stage, he wears a black suit with a black bowtie and white collared shirt, one hand holds an oscar statuette, his other hand is in his pocket
Joaquin Phoenix accepts the 2020 Oscar for Best Actor for his performance in Joker. Getty Images

In 2018, it was announced that Phoenix would star in an origin story of the Joker, Batman’s nemesis, in a film helmed by The Hangover director Todd Phillips. Phoenix said he was drawn to the idea of a gritty character study of a supervillain, as opposed to a high-budget studio comic book film. “I think, underneath the excitement of these films, and the size of them, there are these incredible characters that are dealing with real life struggles,” Phoenix said. “And sometimes that is uncovered and exposed, and sometimes it isn’t, and so I always felt, like, there were characters in comics that were really interesting and deserve the opportunity to be kind of studied.”

Phoenix lost more than 52 pounds for the role in order to appear “wolf-like and malnourished and hungry,” and he based the character’s laugh on videos of real-life people suffering from pathological laughter. Joker later generated controversy for its violent content after debuting in October 2019; Phoenix briefly walked out of an interview after a reporter asked whether he felt the movie could inspire mass shooters. Despite the controversy, Joker went on to gross more than $1 billion at the global box office.

Phoenix’s performance was widely praised, leading to a slew of wins through the awards season that culminated with his prize for Best Actor at the February 2020 Academy Awards. Peter Travers of Rolling Stone called Phoenix’s performance a “virtuoso of unleashed id,” adding, “You don’t dare look away from him.” The Verge writer Tasha Robinson described Phoenix as "“hypnotic as he spirals from fragile hope into increasingly outsized and confident acts of destruction.” Seven months before the Academy Awards ceremony in which Phoenix won his Oscar, Pete Hammond of Deadline called the actor’s performance “so dazzling risky and original you might as well start engraving his name on the Oscar right now.”

Later Roles: Beau Is Afraid

Phoenix followed Joker with the black-and-white independent film C’mon C’mon (2021), playing a middle-aged radio journalist who goes on a cross-country road trip with his young nephew. Two years later, he appeared in Ari Aster’s surrealist black tragicomedy Beau is Afraid, portraying an extremely paranoid man who fleas from bizarre horrors in his quest to return home to his mother. Peter Travers called it Phoenix’s “most challenging role yet,” writing that he “shows again why he’s one of the finest and most fearless actors of his generations as he steers us past the film’s lapses in clarity and coherence and into the hallucinatory hellzapoppin of Beau’s shell of a life.”

New Movies: Napoleon and Joker Sequel with Lady Gaga

Most recently, Phoenix portrays the infamous French military commander Napoleon Bonaparte in Napoleon, which partnered Phoenix with director Ridley Scott for the first time since Gladiator. Scott said the script was entirely rewritten after Phoenix was cast to “help him focus on who Bonaparte was.” Nevertheless, according to the director, Phoenix admitted two weeks before filming began that “I don’t know what to do,” leading to Scott and Phoenix spending 10 days talking out the entire film scene-by-scene.

All the preparation apparently helped. In an unscripted move in one scene, a finally in character Phoenix slaps co-star Vanessa Kirby, who plays Napoleon’s wife Joséphine de Beauharnais. “She said, ‘Look, whatever you feel, you can do.’ I said, ‘Same thing with you,’” Phoenix explained to Empire. “So we had this agreement that we were going to surprise each other and try and create moments that weren’t there, because both of us wanted to avoid the cliche of the period drama. And by that I mean moments that are well-orchestrated and designed.” Napoleon released in theaters November 22, 2023.

lady gaga and joaquin phoenix star at the camera while in character for the joker sequel, she wears a gray peacoat with a black and white diamond patterned shirt, he wears a brown suit, both have face paint on and a fake police officer stands behind them
Lady Gaga and Joaquin Phoenix film a scene for Joker: Folie à Deux in April 2023. Getty Images

Phoenix will also appear in a sequel to Joker called Joker: Folie à Deux, which will be largely set in Arkham Asylum and will include musical elements. Lady Gaga co-stars as psychiatrist-turned-supervillain Harley Quinn, Joker’s love interest and partner-in-crime. The movie is scheduled for release in October 2024.

Relationship with Rooney Mara and Personal Life

joaquin phoenix, wearing a black suit and tie, and rooney mara, wearing a black dress, smile and look off camera
Joaquin Phoenix and Rooney Mara at the premiere of Joker in September 2019.Getty Images

Phoenix began dating his Mary Magdalene co-star Rooney Mara in 2016. In July 2019, it was confirmed that the couple had gotten engaged. In September 2020, the actors welcomed their son River, named after Phoenix’s late brother.

Outside of acting, Phoenix supports a number of causes. He serves on the board of the Lunchbox Fund, which provides healthy meals to children in need. Phoenix has also served as a spokesperson for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. He has been a vegan since age 3, when he witnessed fishermen treating fish violently after catching them. Additionally, he has been active in the Peace Alliance, which seeks to create “a cabinet-level U.S. Department of Peace” according to its site.


  • My parents always encouraged us to express ourselves. And so it seemed like second nature to start acting.

  • I guess I’m the acting equivalent of somebody that jumps off buildings and parachutes.

  • This form of expression [in movies] has given me the most extraordinary life. I don’t know where I’d be without it. But I think the greatest gift that it’s given me, and many people in [this industry], is the opportunity to use our voice for the voiceless.

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