Joaquin Phoenix is getting a lot of praise for his role in “The Master” as a lost soul, a drunken WWII vet who mixes paint thinner — among many other things — into his cocktails, and begins to follow the leader of a new, controversial cult.
Perhaps he was able to channel his character so well because he too followed a cult at one time. The film not-so-loosely depicts the early years of Scientology. Philip Seymour Hoffman’s character is inspired by the religion’s founder L. Ron Hubbard. (His character’s name is Lancaster Dodd — but writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson recently admitted that Dodd is in fact based on Hubbard.) And Joaquin’s character Freddie Quell follows Dodd with so much zeal an epic bromance develops.
As a boy, Joaquin and his family followed a religious cult, but it differed from Scientology. Having gone by different names including “Children of God” and “Family of Love” (now known as “Family International”), Phoenix was born into the religion when his parents were traveling with his brother, the late River Phoenix, and older sister Rain through Mexico, Puerto Rico and South America as missionaries (Joaquin Phoenix was born in Puerto Rico in 1974). Living a quintessential hippie existence, River and Rain would sing spirituals on the street to raise money while the family inhabited a rat-infested beach hut.
A sort of spinoff of Christianity, followers of “Children of God” lived in communes, handed out pamphlets, and memorized Bible passages. They modeled their beliefs after early Christians and rejected the mainstream version of the religion.
But around 1978, before Joaquin’s youngest (of three) sisters was born, the Phoenixes (then bearing the last name Bottom — their original surname) became disenchanted with their cult-like religion and moved back to the U.S. To mark their new beginning they legally changed their surname to “Phoenix.” That is also the time Joaquin started going by the first name “Leaf” — but he later reverted back to his original name. In his early films including “Parenthood” (1989) and “SpaceCamp” (1986), he is credited as Leaf Phoenix.
Incidentally, during the family’s journey back to the U.S. Joaquin reportedly inspired the family’s move to veganism after he saw fish being killed on the hull of a boat.
Joaquin’s starring role in “The Master” marks his big screen comeback after he vowed in 2008 that “Two Lovers,” also starring Gwyneth Paltrow, would be his last film. He is getting Oscar buzz for the role and could pick up his second nomination for lead actor. His first nomination was for his depiction of country music legend Johnny Cash in 2005′s “Walk The Line.” Before he was even considered for that role, he serendipitously got to meet Cash — who was a fan of Joaquin’s prior work on “Gladiator” — before the singer died in 2003. Joaquin recalled the meeting as being refreshingly “unpretentious” and “had such a profound impact on the way that I saw John and June [Carter Cash] and their relationship and that affected the film.”