Chances are that you don’t know a lot about Joaquin Phoenix and Rooney Mara outside of their screen roles. The Hollywood stars would probably prefer to keep it that way, as they’re actually pretty private people. But the couple do still make headlines from time to time. In 2020, for example, the happy news broke that the actors had welcomed their first child. And when you hear what Phoenix and Mara revealed about the newborn, you’d be forgiven for getting a little emotional.
Yes, if you haven’t already got a Kleenex to hand, we’d recommend grabbing one just in case. Mind you, at one point Phoenix and Mara’s love story could have ended before it even got going. While the two first became acquainted on the set of Spike Jonze movie Her, Phoenix believed at first that his co-star actually hated his guts.
This wasn’t quite the case, of course, and Phoenix and Mara ultimately struck up a friendship over email. But fate would soon bring the pair back together in real life. The stars reunited in 2016 when making Mary Magdalene. In the film – which eventually came out a few years later – Mara appeared in the lead role, while Phoenix portrayed Jesus.
And somewhere along the line, romance blossomed. In 2017 Phoenix and Mara appeared to make their relationship official by holding hands at that year’s Cannes Film Festival. They’ve been together ever since, in fact, and in 2019 they took the next step by getting engaged. But there was even better news to come in 2020. Yes, we’re talking about the stars’ first child together – who was welcomed into the world with a truly touching announcement.
However, to fully grasp the poignancy of the couple’s revelation, we need to delve back into the past a bit – to a time when Phoenix wasn’t as famous as he is now. That said, he was still acting. Phoenix’s big-screen debut actually came way back in 1986, when he landed the part of a wannabe astronaut in SpaceCamp. You may also remember his breakout role in Ron Howard’s 1989 film Parenthood.
But Phoenix decided to forgo building on this early career promise. Not one to play by the rules, the star instead embarked on a solo trip around Latin America at the age of just 15. He would only return to Hollywood in the mid-1990s, enjoying stints in a number of movies that had varying degrees of success. And it wasn’t until 2000 that Phoenix actually began making a name for himself again.
In that year, Ridley Scott’s Roman epic Gladiator was released, with Phoenix starring as the villainous Emperor Commodus in the blockbuster movie. And the role earned him not only critical acclaim, but also a number of award nominations – including a nod for the coveted Best Actor in a Supporting Role Oscar.
While Phoenix ultimately went home empty-handed from the 73rd Academy Awards, he would have a few more opportunities to win one of those prestigious gold statuettes. He was in contention for his performances in both Walk the Line and The Master, you see. But it wasn’t until 2019 – when Phoenix was up for an award once more for his role in Joker – that he eventually won.
Naturally, Mara was there to share in the joy of Phoenix’s first Oscar win, although the couple celebrated in remarkably low-key fashion. Following the glitzy award ceremony, the pair were photographed enjoying dinner at a Los Angeles vegan burger joint. And the pair look relaxed as they perch on the floor in their glamorous outfits – Phoenix’s award standing between them.
Mara’s actually no stranger to the Oscars herself. She began her acting career on television and in indie movies such as 2009’s Tanner Hall, finally rising to prominence after her turn as Mark Zuckerberg’s ex-girlfriend Erica in Facebook biopic The Social Network.
Mara then won further acclaim in 2011 when she starred in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. The role earned the star her first Oscar nomination in the Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role category. She would also go up for the Actress in a Supporting Role gong in 2015 following her lauded turn in Carol.
But did you know that Phoenix and Mara have more in common than just their acting credentials? That may come as a surprise, as their backgrounds are very different. While Phoenix was raised by Children of God missionaries, Mara is the scion of sporting families that founded both the New York Giants and the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Yet those in the know will recognize that Phoenix and Mara are very similar in certain ways. Both of them have famous acting siblings, for instance. Phoenix is of course the younger brother of the late River, while Mara’s older sister, Kate, may be familiar to you through the Netflix drama House of Cards.
Another thing that Phoenix and Mara have in common is their passion for animal rights. They’re both vegan and have been known to attend demonstrations and vigils. Mara also co-created the vegan and cruelty-free fashion line Hiraeth alongside her best friend Sara Schloat.
You’d think, then, that Phoenix and Mara would have hit it off right away when they first met on the set of Her. Well, no. In 2019 Phoenix told Vanity Fair that he had mistakenly believed Mara really loathed him. In actual fact, she was just shy.
But despite Mara’s apparent disinterest in her co-star, Phoenix was clearly intrigued. In his interview with the magazine, the actor said of his future fiancée, “She’s the only girl I ever looked up on the internet.” At that time, though, there was nothing romantic between the pair. Phoenix went on, “We were just friends, email friends. I’d never done that. [I had] never looked up a girl online.”
Phoenix and Mara’s paths would cross again, of course. First, they starred alongside each other in Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot, then the pair appeared together in Mary Magdalene. And it seems that romance sparked between the couple this time around.
If there was any doubt that Phoenix and Mara had taken their relationship to the next level, the two put that to bed with their loved-up appearance at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival. The fledgling couple also shared an embrace when Phoenix won a best actor award for his performance in You Were Never Really Here.
Following Phoenix and Mara’s amorous display at Cannes, an apparent eyewitness told People, “They were talking to one another nonstop. Small talk between them. Then they went for their car, and he’s holding her hand like it was unconscious. Like it fits. They seem a totally natural and easy couple.”
And while Phoenix seems to prefer to keep his off-screen life under wraps, he made a rare reference to Mara in a 2017 interview with T, The New York Times’ style magazine. It emerged that the actors were living together in the Hollywood Hills with their dogs Soda and Oskar.
In the piece, we were treated to a glimpse of how the couple spent their free time. Phoenix revealed that his days away from set usually consisted of meditating, answering emails, reading scripts, karate, eating and hanging out with his pets. He also confessed that he watches Netflix and revealed that he and Mara had recently binged true crime documentary The Staircase. Celebs, they’re just like us – when it comes to viewing habits, anyway.
So, were wedding bells on the horizon for Phoenix and Mara? It seems so. Rumors that the couple were engaged started to surface in 2019, as Mara had been seen with a very conspicuous ring on her finger around Los Angeles. And this speculation was finally addressed when the news that the actors planned to marry was confirmed by Us Weekly.
The revelations just kept on coming, too, as in September 2020 it was confirmed that Phoenix and Mara had welcomed their first child together. The news was broken at the Zurich Film Festival by the Russian director Victor Kossakovsky. And, apparently, the stars had given their baby a very special name.
Following a screening of his documentary Gunda at the festival, Kossakovsky explained why Phoenix – who stars in the movie – couldn’t be there. The director told reporters, “He just got a baby, by the way, his name was… a beautiful son called River, so he cannot promote it now.”
Yes, Phoenix and Mara had named their baby in honor of Phoenix’s late brother River. We told you you’d need a tissue or two… River had sadly died at the age of just 23 following a drug overdose. And as fans will know, Phoenix had been with his older sibling at the Hollywood nightclub The Viper Room when River had fallen ill. In fact, it was he who’d dialed 911 after his brother fell unconscious.
But even though Phoenix did his best to get help, nothing could be done to save River. The promising young actor was ultimately pronounced dead at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in the early morning of October 31, 1993. A coroner’s report later revealed that River had fatal amounts of morphine and cocaine in his system and that he had died of “acute multiple drug intoxication.”
As you can imagine, the death of his older brother had a profound effect on Phoenix. But according to the star, he and his family hadn’t been able to grieve fully in the wake of the tragic news. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there was huge media interest in River’s passing, and those closest to the late actor bore the brunt of it.
For instance, the press eventually got their hands on the frantic call that Phoenix made to 911 on the night of River’s death. This harrowing recording was then released for public consumption. And Phoenix would later imply that having the moment plastered all over the media had only made his grief worse.
The actor would go on to open up about his brother’s passing and the resulting media reaction during a January 2020 interview with 60 Minutes. There, he said, “During that time in which you’re most vulnerable, there are helicopters flying over. There are people that are trying to sneak on to your land. Certainly, for me, it felt like it impeded on the mourning process.”
And, apparently, Phoenix and his family hadn’t realized just how famous River had been. The Oscar winner went on, “River was a really substantial actor and movie star, and we didn’t really know it.” According to the actor, the rest of the Phoenix clan had been “so removed from… the entertainment world.”
Prior to his death, River had indeed been making a name for himself in Hollywood. He had risen to prominence back in 1986 after his star turn in the film adaptation of the Stephen King novella Stand by Me. And River’s performance in the coming-of-age drama would not only win him substantial critical acclaim, but it would also set him firmly on the path to A-list success.
Fresh off the back of Stand by Me, River went on to portray the son of Harrison Ford’s character in The Mosquito Coast. This he followed with three films in 1988 – the most noteworthy of which was Running on Empty. River’s performance in the Sydney Lumet movie would earn him his only Oscar nomination in a short but illustrious career.
Another memorable role of River’s was in the 1989 blockbuster Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Here, the young actor starred alongside Ford once more, playing the young Indy. He also got to work with the esteemed director Steven Spielberg, who was at the helm of the film.
Unfortunately, though, River’s promising career was cut all too short by his untimely death in 1993. But his legacy lives on in the form of his younger brother, who has followed in his footsteps to become a Hollywood star in his own right. In fact, River may even have inspired his Academy Award-winning sibling to get into acting in the first place.
Phoenix revealed during his 60 Minutes interview that River had once shown him the film Raging Bull. And while describing the effect that the movie had on him, the actor revealed, “I think it just… awakened something in me. And I could suddenly see it through [River’s] eyes.”
Given the influence his brother had on him from an early age, Phoenix also felt that he’d carried River with him throughout his career. The star explained, “I feel like in virtually every movie that I made, there was a connection to River in some way… and I think that we’ve all felt his presence and guidance in our lives in numerous ways.”
And because Phoenix still felt connected to his brother even years after his death, it should come as no surprise that he paid tribute to River after scooping his Oscar. Accepting his award on stage, the actor said, “When he was 17, my brother wrote this lyric. He said, ‘Run to the rescue with love, and peace will follow.’”
Phoenix had previously commended his late brother at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival, where he had been handed the TIFF Tribute Actor Award. In his acceptance speech, he revealed how his sibling had convinced him to get back into acting after a six-year break from the limelight.
A People report claims that Phoenix said, “When I was 15 or 16, my brother River came home from work. He had a VHS copy of a movie called Raging Bull, and he sat me down and made me watch it. [Then], 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.’”
Recalling River’s conviction, Phoenix added, “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.” So, it’s clear that Phoenix still thinks a lot about his brother. And by naming his child after him, the star seems to have finally found the perfect tribute.
Phoenix had plenty more to say about River in that 60 Minutes interview, though. In fact, it seems as if the star wanted to get certain things off his chest after nearly three decades of silence. And if you haven’t already got a tear in your eye, then just wait…
Brothers River and Joaquin Phoenix shared a remarkable upbringing. Born into an infamous cult, they both blossomed into iconic young actors, garnering widespread fame and attention for their sharp dramatic instincts and dreamy blue eyes. But on October 31, 1993, their stories tragically diverged when River, aged just 23, died on Los Angeles’ Sunset Boulevard. And, for almost three decades since that fateful night, Joaquin remained largely silent about his brother’s death – until now.
Certainly, River was one of the most exciting actors of his generation. After his breakout role in the 1986 film Stand by Me, the teenager went on to become, just two years later, an Oscar nominee for his performance in Running on Empty. The young star was a household name by the early nineties, when the devastating news of his untimely death hit the headlines. But in the outpouring of grief that followed, Joaquin remained mostly quiet. Only now, 27 years later, has he finally opened up, offering a heartbreaking confession about his late brother.
The story of the Phoenix brothers actually starts a long way from Hollywood. River, the older of the pair, was born to parents John Lee Bottom and Arlyn Dunetz in August 1970. They lived a bohemian lifestyle and joined the Children of God religious cult two years later. Then, with John Lee and Arlyn working as missionaries for the group, the family found themselves living in the Venezuelan capital of Caracas.
During his time in Venezuela, River – along with his sister Rain – performed on the streets of Caracas for money. Ever the entertainer, River was able to sing and play the guitar from a young age. But in 1978 the prospect of a future as a street artist in Caracas disappeared for the boy. That’s when John Lee and Arlyn, disillusioned with the Children of God, moved the family back to the United States.
It was at this point that River’s family changed their surname from Bottom to Phoenix – in order to symbolize their fresh start. They settled in Florida, where River and some of his siblings – Rain, Joaquin, Liberty and Summer – took a shine to acting. The children’s talents began to attract attention, and the family subsequently moved to California so that they could pursue careers in dramatics.
River started his career starring in commercials, but his first break came after he appeared in an adaptation of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers in 1982. Three years later, he went on to star in the TV movie Surviving and also bagged his first cinematic film role – appearing in Explorers alongside Ethan Hawke.
However, it was River’s second movie that would give him his breakout role. In 1986 he starred in Stand by Me. It’s a coming-of-age film that tells the tale of four boys who go in search of the body of a missing youngster. In the movie, River plays the troubled teen Chris Chambers, who comes from a family with a reputation.
River’s performance in Stand by Me earned the young actor rave reviews and set him on the path to stardom. And for his next flick, he starred alongside Harrison Ford in The Mosquito Coast. Then, in 1988, River appeared in the critically acclaimed movie Running on Empty, with his performance earning him an Oscar nomination.
Throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s, too, River appeared in a number of movies. This allowed him to showcase his skills in a diverse selection of genres spanning action, comedy and drama. Off-screen, meanwhile, the actor used his newfound fame to highlight some of the causes he was passionate about – including animal rights and environmentalism.
River, you see, had been a vegetarian since the age of eight. Later in life, the actor then became a strict vegan. And in a 1989 interview with The New York Times, he explained his rationale behind this decision. He said, “When I was old enough to realize all meat was killed, I saw it as an irrational way of using our power – to take a weaker thing and mutilate it.”
Music also formed a large part of River’s life, and the actor was in the band Aleka’s Attic with his sister Rain. He wrote for the group and recorded a few songs, but they never made an album. River combined his passions for acting and music in the 1993 film With The Thing Called Love, which saw him play an up-and-coming singer in Nashville.
So at the time of River’s death, the 23-year-old had the world at his feet. He was working on the movie Dark Blood alongside Judy Davis and Jonathan Pryce. The actor was also dating fellow film star Samantha Mathis. And on a break from filming in October 1993, the couple visited the L.A. nightclub the Viper Room alongside River’s sister Rain and, of course, young Joaquin. That night, while leaving the club, River died due to a lethal drug overdose.
And, after maintaining her silence for 25 years, Samantha finally opened up about the night River died in an interview with The Guardian in 2018. She said, “I knew something was wrong that night – something I didn’t understand. I didn’t see anyone doing drugs, but he was high in a way that made me feel uncomfortable. I was in way over my head.”
Over the course of the night, it seems that River had consumed a fatal cocktail of drugs. He later collapsed on the sidewalk outside of the Viper Room and began to convulse. Samantha witnessed the scene and went to get River’s siblings. It was Joaquin who called the emergency services – while Rain attempted mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.
After an ambulance arrived on the scene, paramedics tried to resuscitate River – but they were unable to do so. The young actor was subsequently transported to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and was declared dead at 1:51 a.m. on October 31, 1993. River’s legacy, however, continues to this day.
On the anniversary of River’s death, October 31, fans continue to pay tribute to the late star. Furthermore, many famous actors have cited River as an inspiration. These include James Franco, Jared Leto and Leonardo DiCaprio. And in the immediate aftermath of River’s death, his Indiana Jones co-star Harrison Ford also paid tribute.
River had most recently starred alongside Harrison in the 1989 film Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, in which he played the Young Indy. Paying tribute to his late co-star, Harrison told The New York Times, “He once played my son. And I came to love him like a son and was proud to watch [him] grow into a man of such talent and integrity and compassion.”
And, 20 years on from River’s death, the actor’s legacy was explored in Gavin Edwards’ book Last Night at the Viper Room: River Phoenix and the Hollywood He Left Behind. In 2013 the biographer told USA Today that River’s power was in his ability to connect with people.
Gavin said of River, “In this world of teen idols – where everyone feels polished – he was a beautiful boy and wonderful actor. But there was a degree of eccentricity and sense of being an outsider. People bonded with him; they thought he was trying to make the world a better place and not trying to book his next job.”
Another person upon whom River had a lasting impact was – perhaps unsurprisingly – his brother, Joaquin. The younger sibling would follow in his brother’s footsteps to Hollywood, becoming one of the most celebrated actors of his generation. To date, Joaquin has four Oscar nominations under his belt, including one win for his role in 2019’s Joker.
Yet while River wouldn’t live to see his younger brother’s success in the acting world, it seems he had foreseen Joaquin’s talents. In 2020, following an interview with Joaquin, journalist Anderson Cooper told 60 Minutes Overtime how River would tell his sibling, “You’re going to be a more successful actor than I am. You’re going to be better known than I am.”
This 60 Minutes interview took place in January 2020 in the run up to the Oscars – when there was already a buzz around Joaquin’s performance in Joker. And during the conversation, Joaquin revealed how he’d connected to his disturbed character, Arthur Fleck, in the film.
Admitting that he had mixed feelings towards his Joker character, Joaquin explained to Anderson, “There were times where I really felt for him… And there were times where I was disappointed and repulsed by his behavior, right?” However, it was this complexity to Arthur that attracted Joaquin to the role.
But while Joaquin had emerged as one of the most revered actors of his time, he admitted that he was often “petrified” on set. He revealed, “There are so many things that I want to express when I take on a role. And [when] I go through the script – [I’m] just full of ideas. I guess I’m just nervous that I’m not gonna be able to find the right kinda space to express that.”
Before getting the actor to open up, though, Anderson had warned viewers in a voiceover that Joaquin “has a reputation for being difficult during interviews.” Yet while Joaquin’s career provided plenty of talking points during his 60 Minutes appearance, the star also gave a rare insight into his personal life. In fact, Joaquin appeared mostly happy to talk.
The only stumbling block Anderson ran into was when he tried to quiz Joaquin about what he got up to in his spare time. The actor replied, “What do I do? I, um, I think I do normal things. I like to cook… I really don’t want to talk about what I do.” However, the interview remained an incredibly personal affair for Joaquin.
In fact, the actor was joined by his sisters, Rain, Liberty and Summer, his mother, Heart (previously known as Arlyn), and his stepfather, Jeffrey. And while Joaquin has been reluctant to talk about River in the past, he finally opened up about his late sibling’s death and legacy.
Explaining the influence that River had on him, Joaquin revealed how his brother had shown him Martin Scorsese’s 1980 film Raging Bull. And it was seeing Robert De Niro’s Oscar-winning performance in the movie that really ignited a passion for acting within Joaquin. He told 60 Minutes Overtime, “I think it just… awakened something in me.”
Joaquin said of River, “I could suddenly see it through his eyes.” He added, “There’s a part in Raging Bull where De Niro meets a girl in between a chain-link fence. And he, you know, shakes her pinky, and it’s like this just beautiful little detail. It’s this wonderful moment. And I think that in some ways [that] is what I’m always looking for.”
During his appearance on 60 Minutes, Joaquin also opened up about River’s fame and how that impacted on their family. However, while River was one of the biggest stars on the planet prior to his untimely death, it seems that the rest of the Phoenix clan were unaware of just how much attention he was receiving.
Joaquin said of his family, “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. You know… River was a really substantial actor and movie star, and we didn’t really know it.”
Following River’s untimely death, though, Joaquin and the rest of the Phoenix family became all too aware of how much public interest there was in him. In fact, the late actor received such extensive media attention, Joaquin revealed, that it had hindered the family’s grieving process.
Recalling the aftermath of River’s death, Joaquin explained, “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?”
Joaquin’s interviewer, Anderson, is no stranger to tragedy himself – having lost his brother Carter Vanderbilt to suicide in 1988. And while talking to the Phoenix family on 60 Minutes, Anderson revealed how he’d struggled with grief following the death of his brother as well. It seemed that this was something that Joaquin could relate to.
Addressing Anderson, Joaquin said, “You had said that, you know, for years you’d find it difficult to say your brother’s name, or to just talk about him. I really identify…” This emotional confession may go some way to explaining why Joaquin had been reluctant to discuss River publicly for much of his career.
But while Joaquin had preferred to keep his thoughts and feelings around River and his death private, he chose to honor his brother in other ways. Revealing how he felt his brother’s presence in his work, Joaquin revealed, “I think in virtually every movie that I made there was a connection to River in some way.”
Joaquin then took the opportunity to pay tribute to River when accepting his Best Actor Oscar at the 92nd Academy Awards in February 2020. After delivering an impassioned speech on animal rights and equality, the actor turned his attention to his late sibling. He simply said, “When he was 17, my brother [River] wrote this lyric. He said, ‘Run to the rescue with love and peace will follow.’”
And while it seems that River has never been far from Joaquin’s mind in all those years after his passing, the Joker star also credits his mom and sisters with keeping his brother’s memory alive. His family established The River Phoenix Center for Peacebuilding – which aims to continue the late actor’s activism and commitment to making the world a better place.
But while Heart had been able to channel River’s legacy into something positive, the mom admitted that she still mourned her son. She told 60 Minutes, “The grieving process happens out of nowhere, you know? I’ll be driving and all of a sudden I will feel it and I’ll just welcome it.”
So it would seem that River continues to live on not only through his lasting legacy, but through the bonds that he shared with his family. Joaquin explained, “There’s always been a presence in all the work and the path that we took individually and collectively… I think that we’ve all felt his presence and guidance in our lives in numerous ways.”