Movie Talk

Joaquin Phoenix shares cult past with his character in ‘The Master’

Movie Talk

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Joaquin Phoenix in 'The Master' (Photo: The Weinstein Company)

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 once followed an organization some have called a cult. 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 very young boy, Joaquin and his family were missionaries for "Children of God" -- an organization that later grew to be highly controversial for its encouragement of  strange and illegal sexual practices.  Joaquin 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 (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.

Joaquin has been quick to point out that the religion was very different -- much more innocent -- than what it grew into, long after the Phoenixes' involvment. "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 Fifties, 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."

[Related: Joaquin Phoenix studied captive animals for 'The Master' toilet-smashing scene]

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.

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'The Master' (Photo: The Weinstein Company)

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."

"The Master" is in select theaters now.

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