Joaquin Phoenix portrays a vulnerable WWII veteran who falls under the spell of a charismatic cult leader in The Master, a portrayal that is gaining Phoenix some early Oscar buzz. But for Phoenix, the role isn’t too far away from his real life experiences.
The Master is said to be based loosely on the early days of Scientology, with Philip Seymour Hoffman playing a character like Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard.
When he was younger, Joaquin Phoenix and his family were involved with an organization that many have referred to as a cult, Yahoo!’s Movie Talk blog reported. Phoenix and his family were missionaries for “Children of God,” a group that later gained notoriety for promoting strange and illegal sexual practices. Both Joaquin and older brother River Phoenix were born into the religion.
Though Children of God eventually would become a cult, Joaquin Phoenix has said it wasn’t quite like that when his family was involved.
“It might have become a cult, but when we were there it was a really religious community,” he told UK Uncut Magazine in 2001. “It was a time when people were questioning the nuclear family of the 50s, people were saying they weren’t satisfied with the upbringing their parents had, is there another way? My parents were just searching for an alternative way of raising their children, they didn’t want to raise us in the Bronx. My mom was raised in the Bronx, and she was scared every day coming home from school.”
The Phoenixes left the religion in 1978 but still lived a hippie-like lifestyle when they returned from missionary work and lived in the United States. The family sang spirituals on the street to raise money and lived in a rat-infested hut.
It was actually this lifestyle that led to the big break for Joaquin Phoenix and his brother River.
The family was performing at Century City mall in 1981 when a children’s agent noticed Joaquin Phoenix, who then called himself leaf, and River, The Hollywood Reported noted. The entry into Hollywood led to new opportunities for the family — especially after River was cast in CBS’ Seven Brides for Seven Brothers in 1982 — but it also led to a wilder lifestyle that led to River dying of a drug overdose at age 23.
Joaquin Phoenix has maintained some of the outside-the-norm lifestyle. For an extended period he grew a long beard and told reporters that he was giving up acting for a career in rap, but he later said it was all a prank for a movie made by his friend Casey Affleck, I’m Not Here.