Joaquin Phoenix and his sisters continue to remember their late brother River
Joaquin Phoenix and his siblings have always been a team, no matter what.
Joaquin and his four siblings — River, Rain, Liberty and Summer — didn’t have the most typical upbringing. Their parents, John and Arlyn “Heart” Phoenix, were constantly on the move. By the time they welcomed Joaquin in 1974, the third of their five kids, the family was living in Puerto Rico and part of a religious movement called Children of God.
John and Arlyn served as “archbishops” of Venezuela and Trinidad for several years as part of the controversial religious organization. While the children grew up around the globe, over time, their parents realized that something didn’t “seem right” about the group and on Joaquin’s third birthday, they boarded a cargo ship headed for Florida.
While starting their new lives back in the United States, Joaquin and his siblings showed an aptitude for music when they began winning local singing competitions. As a result, the entire family headed to Los Angeles, where they launched successful careers as child actors.
River was a standout among the five siblings, and as a teenager, he became a household name. Unfortunately, his life was cut short when he died at 23 following a drug overdose. River’s death left a lasting impact on the family, who collectively took a step back from the entertainment industry and moved to Costa Rica after the tragedy. But now, 30 years later, Joaquin and his siblings have built careers that pay tribute to their late brother.
“He’s always been a presence in all of our work and the path that we took individually and collectively,” Joaquin told 60 Minutes in 2020. “I think 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."
Here’s everything you need to know about Joaquin Phoenix’s siblings: River, Rain, Liberty and Summer.
Joaquin and his siblings grew up around the world
Joaquin’s parents, John and Arlyn, didn't settle in one place for too long and raised their children in different locations. Their oldest son, River, was born in 1970 in a log cabin in Oregon, but by the time they welcomed their daughter, Rain, two years later, the family had relocated to Texas.
Shortly after, Phoenix was born in 1974 in Puerto Rico, where the family lived at the time, and Liberty arrived in 1976 in Venezuela amid their travels across South America.
By 1977, the family temporarily resettled in Florida, where they welcomed their youngest daughter, Summer. The group soon picked up again, heading west to L.A., hoping to start careers in the entertainment industry.
After spending several years there, John and Arlyn grew dissatisfied with life on the West Coast and moved back to Florida, where they called Gainesville their new home. River purchased the family a ranch in Costa Rica, and Joaquin moved to Mexico for a time with his father, according to Vanity Fair.
They were members of Children of God
When Joaquin was born, the family had recently joined the religious cult Children of God, where they served as missionaries. His parents were named “archbishops” of Venezuela and Trinidad, spending years spreading the word of their religious group. Over time, John and Arlyn say they became disillusioned with the group, particularly after its founder, David Berg, began to encourage using sex as a recruitment practice.
“They got some letter, or however it came, some suggestion of that, and they were like, ‘F--- this, we’re outta here,’ ” Joaquin told Vanity Fair in 2019. “I think they were idealists, and believed that they were with a group who shared their beliefs, and their values. I think they probably were looking for safety, and family.”
The family decided to leave Children of God by the time Joaquin was turned 3 years old, and Arlyn was pregnant with Liberty. The group boarded a cargo ship in Venezuela and headed to Florida to start a new life. In the years that followed, Children of God faced accusations of sexual abuse, per The Washington Post.
They were raised as vegans
While Joaquin and his siblings did not spend their early years as vegans, they decided at a young age they no longer wanted to eat animals. Joaquin says the decision came after they had a life-changing experience while on the boat ride to Florida and witnessed fishermen killing their catch.
“It was so violent, it was just so intense," the actor told Vanity Fair. "I have a vivid memory of my mom’s face ... where she was completely speechless because we yelled at her, ‘How come you didn’t tell us that’s what fish was?’ "
"I remember tears streaming down her face … She didn’t know what to say," he added.
Joaquin and his siblings started acting from an early age
While growing up in Venezuela, River and Rain sang religious songs in the streets for money, and when they moved to Florida, the brother-sister duo won several talent competitions. Upon seeing this, Arlyn packed up the family in their VW bus and headed to California.
Once in L.A., Arlyn got a job as a secretary for an executive at NBC, and she met a child actor agent named Iris Burton, who later represented all the Phoenix children, helping them land spots in commercials and on television. During their rise, the kids started learning other talents, with Joaquin becoming a skilled breakdancer and River learning to tap dance.
River’s career quickly took, becoming a series regular on Seven Brides for Seven Brothers when he was 11. He appeared in television movies, like Celebrity and Surviving: A Family in Crisis, and also starred on-screen alongside his siblings in an ABC Afterschool Special titled Backwards: The Riddle of Dyslexia with Joaquin.
After appearing in his first major motion picture, Explorers, River landed a role in the coming-of-age film Stand by Me — and became a household name. A few years later, he earned an Oscar nomination at 17 for his work in Running on Empty.
Meanwhile, his other siblings were also finding success in the world of entertainment. Rain landed roles in TV shows like Amazing Stories and Family Ties and, later, films including Maid to Order and Even Cowgirls Get the Blues.
During Liberty's short-lived acting career, she appeared in the TV movie Kate’s Secret and an episode of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. Summer, the youngest of the bunch, also appeared on-screen in shows like Murder, She Wrote, Growing Pains and ER.
River convinced Joaquin to continue acting as a teenager
While Joaquin says he found an immediate love for acting, he went through a period as a teenager when he struggled to find roles that appealed to him. Instead, he took time off and traveled to Mexico with his father.
When he returned home, River encouraged Joaquin to continue his acting career. He suggested that Joaquin, who had been using the name Leaf, return to his birth name and continue auditioning. Reflecting on the moment during the Toronto International Film Festival Tribute Gala in 2019, Joaquin says River “didn’t ask me, he told me” to keep acting.
"‘You’re going to be an actor and you’re going to be more well known than I am,’ " he recalled his older brother saying to Vanity Fair. "Me and my mom looked at each other like, ‘What the f--- is he talking about?’ ”
He continued, “I don’t know why he said that … I hadn’t been acting at all. But he also said it with a certain weight, with a knowing that seemed so absurd to me at the time, but of course now, in hindsight, you’re like, ‘How the f--- did he know?’ ”
River died from an overdose in 1993
Amid an incredibly successful acting career, River died on Halloween in 1993 from a drug overdose. That evening, the 23 year old was at the L.A. nightclub, The Viper Room, with his then-girlfriend Samantha Mathis and his siblings Joaquin and Rain. Looking back, Mathis says she initially thought she and River were just dropped his siblings off at the club — and it wasn’t until they arrived that he told her he had been invited to play with a band that night.
During his time in the club, River is thought to have ingested a combination of drugs. In the moments leading up to his death, a bouncer pushed him outside the club, where he began having multiple seizures on the sidewalk. Joaquin called 911, and River was taken to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center shortly after, where he was deemed to be in full cardiac arrest. He had no pulse and no blood pressure and was later pronounced dead.
According to the coroner’s report, River was found with deadly levels of cocaine and morphine in his system and traces of marijuana, Valium and cold medication. It was ruled that his death was caused by “acute multiple drug intoxication,” according to The New York Times.
Looking back on River’s death, friends and family agreed it was a shock given his healthy lifestyle and lack of involvement in the Hollywood party scene. In a November 1993 open letter in the LA Times, River’s mother, Arlyn, wrote that she hoped River’s death could bring awareness to others who were struggling.
“His friends, co-workers and the rest of our family know that River was not a regular drug user," she said. "He lived at home in Florida with us and was almost never a part of the ‘club scene’ in Los Angeles. ... We feel that the excitement and energy of the Halloween nightclub and party scene were way beyond his usual experience and control."
Joaquin's siblings have had various musical projects
Growing up, River was a songwriter, talented singer and self-taught guitarist. After meeting the founder of Island Records, he obtained a development deal with the label and formed the band Aleka’s Attic with Rain.
Following his death, she spent time mastering their recorded songs, calling it a "healing" process but decided against releasing them at the time. She has since shared several recordings.
"Now I feel a sense of joy to share my brother with others. But it’s taken a long time to get here,” Rain told The Guardian in 2019.
Rain is still a performing musician today. She contributed backing vocals to the R.E.M. song “Bang and Blame” as part of an album dedicated to River and later joined the Red Hot Chili Peppers as a backup singer on tour.
Through the years, Rain has also been a part of multiple bands, including The Causey Way, which featured Liberty and Summer. The group released three albums and one EP before disbanding. Rain then formed Papercranes, which guest starred her sisters, and in 2013, she began the duo Venus and the Moon. She has since released solo music and recently formed the rock band Escape Artist Lovers. Summer has also debuted her solo work.
They are involved in philanthropy and environmentalism
Before his death, River was an activist for animal rights and environmental causes, often attending rallies to save marine mammals and preserve the forest. He was a spokesperson for PETA and performed at events hosted by the organization. In 2015, PETA presented the River Phoenix Humanitarian Award in his memory.
In 2012, Arlyn and her husband Jeffrey Weisberg, whom she married after divorcing John, founded the River Phoenix Center for Peacebuilding. The organization was built out of River’s nonprofit, Eco-Rica Preservation, according to a 2013 open letter Arlyn wrote for The Gainesville Sun.
While River’s foundation was initially formed to purchase land threatened with deforestation, Arlyn and Jeffrey updated the organization's mission to “enrich the lives of individuals, families, and communities by providing and promoting the best practices and principles of peacebuilding and global sustainability.”
Their mission is “guided by the life and activism” of River and honors his philanthropic efforts. Rain currently serves on the organization’s board, while Joaquin and Summer were, at one point, directors, and Liberty acted as the office manager.
In addition to the River Phoenix Center for Peacebuilding, Rain and Joaquin are board members of The Lunchbox Fund, which provides “a nutritious daily school meal to children who would otherwise go hungry.” Rain also founded the non-profit Gift Horse Project, which aims to connect musicians with philanthropic causes.
Meanwhile, Liberty followed in River’s environmental footsteps and opened an eco-friendly company called Indigo Green Store that sells non-toxic building materials.
Rain and Summer have a podcast together
In 2019, Rain and Summer debuted their LaunchLeft podcast. It's an extension of their company LaunchLeft that works to “grow and nurture” emerging artists’ projects from production through distribution. It includes a live production arm, a record label and a web3 gallery.
On the podcast, the siblings speak with well-known musicians who use the opportunity to help launch the careers of up-and-coming performers. The sisters have said they like to highlight artists that are outside-of-the-box thinkers and would not typically “make it to a normal commercial public domain.”
Summer was previously married to Casey Affleck
In 1995, Summer met Casey Affleck when Joaquin worked with him on the set of To Die For. The pair were friends for a handful of years until Joaquin encouraged Casey to ask Summer on a date.
“She was going out with someone else and I said, ‘Man, she’s cute,’ and [Joaquin] said, ‘You should see if she’ll go out with you,’ " Affleck told The Daily Beast in 2013.
"So he was leaving town one day and said, ‘My sister’s in my apartment and she’s all by herself — would you mind checking in on her?’ So, I checked in on her, and it stuck," he continued.
Amid their blossoming relationship, the couple costarred in the play This Is Our Youth alongside Matt Damon. Then, in 2003, Affleck popped the question over the Christmas holidays, and the couple welcomed their first child, son Indiana, the following year.
The actors later tied the knot on June 3, 2006, and two years after their wedding, they welcomed their second child, a boy named Atticus. In March 2016, the couple announced they were amicably separating after nearly 10 years of marriage and 16 years together.
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