15 Wild Secrets Behind River And Joaquin Phoenix's Family

Phoenix family collage Joaquin Phoenix River Phoenix

Although siblings Joaquin, River, and Liberty Phoenix were acting as early as 1982 and appeared in several movies and TV shows over the next few years, the world was first properly introduced to the talented family when River starred in the iconic 1986 coming-of-age film Stand By Me. He quickly established himself as one of the hottest "next big thing" actors around, earning an Oscar nomination for 1988's Running on Empty and playing young Indy in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

At the same time, Joaquin was also slowly carving out his own acting career, appearing in Ron Howard's ensemble family comedy Parenthood. Their sisters were also slowly beefing up their resumes with appearances in hit movies and television shows. River was definitely the Phoenix family member to watch-- that is, until his untimely passing at 23 when he succumbed to his hard-partying Hollywood lifestyle.

After taking a break from acting, Joaquin eventually returned to the business with his role in Gus Van Sant's black comedy, and he hasn't really slowed down since, becoming one of Hollywood's most reliable actors over the last 20 years and counting.

But what about the Phoenix family itself? What's the deal with those unusual names? Is it true that they were once members of a religious cult? Who are the parents of this eccentric family, and what have their less-famous daughters been up to?

Here are 15 Wild Secrets About River And Joaquin Phoenix's Family.

Continue scrolling to keep reading

Click the button below to start this article in quick view

joaquin-phoenix river-phoenix family photo
Start Now

15 River and Joaquin Have Four Sisters

joaquin-phoenix river-phoenix family photo

In the introduction, we teased Joaquin and River having sisters. Perhaps you're even familiar with them, or have seen them in movies and/or TV shows and not necessarily realized who they are. The Phoenix sisters are, in order of oldest to youngest: Rain, Liberty, and Summer. In case you were wondering, yes, all of the aforementioned Phoenix family names are their actual, legal names-- in fact, wait until you hear their middle names!

Rain Joan of Arc Phoenix, which is a proud name to have even if it doesn't exactly roll off the tongue, has mostly chosen music for her career path. While Rain has done some acting, appearing in movies like Shakespeare adaptation O and the Will Smith comedy Hitch, her most enduring passion has definitely been that of a musician.

Liberty Mariposa Phoenix has had the most low-key public life of any of the Phoenix children, quitting acting by age 10 and mostly doing fashion and charity work in recent years.

Lastly, Summer Joy Phoenix is the biggest actor of the Phoenix girls, with over two dozen film and television credits to her name including two feature films currently in post-production. She was also briefly married to a Hollywood A-lister.

Additionally, according to the Joaquin Phoenix biography He's Still Here, the Phoenix's also have a half-sister name Jodean via a relationship their father was in before meeting their mother.

14 Their Original Last Name Wasn't Phoenix

River-Phoenix-Family Joaquin Phoenix

River Phoenix. Is there a more perfect name for a hot young Hollywood superstar in the late-80s and early-90s? Most people would've had to change their real name in order to have a name that cool. As it turns out, River's name was changed at a certain point-- but not his first name.

The late actor and musician actually had a rather amusing name for the first nine years of his life: River Bottom.

Fortunately, River's parents didn't try and make their subsequent children's names match that surname in a funny way-- he didn't have a sister named Apple or brother named Rock, hilarious as that would have been. In fact, in 1979, after youngest child Summer was born, parents John and Arlyn Bottom decided to change their family's last name to "Phoenix." The name was deliberately chosen for its mythical connotations of rising from the ashes, as the family was then at a point where they were looking for a rebirth of some kind after a few years of hardship.

The timing couldn't have been better, as it would only be three years before the Phoenix children began scoring professional acting gigs. Even from their earliest roles, none of them ever had acting credits using their original last names-- which means you aren't going to find any early-80s movies or TV shows with the name "River Bottom" in their cast lists.

13 River's Final Film Took 19 Years To Finish

River Phoenix in Dark Blood

Hollywood has many examples of actors who passed away during the production of a movie, leaving filmmakers to figure out creative ways to get it finished anyway. This unfortunate phenomenon was most recently seen when Paul Walker's brothers had to serve as his stand-in for some of his unfinished scenes in Furious 7 following his fatal car accident.

For as prolific of an actor River was becoming in his early-20s, it's actually somewhat surprising that he only left one unfinished movie behind when he lost his life at only 23-years-old. That film was Dark Blood, a thriller that co-starred veteran actors Judy Davis (Husbands and Wives) and Jonathan Pryce (Pirates of the Caribbean).

After being abandoned for almost two decades due to so many key scenes missing that River never got to shoot, director George Sluizer decided that the film could be salvaged and completed via some narration on his part to explain the missing plot points. Sluizer also reached out to Joaquin in the hopes that he could serve as a verbal stand-in for his brother during those narrations, but he-- along with the entire Phoenix family-- refused to participate in the film in any way.

Undeterred, Sluizer recut and completed Dark Blood, which premiered at several European film festivals in 2012. Though it never had a theatrical run -  nor has it been released on any home media in North America - as of this writing it can be seen in its entirety on YouTube.

12 Joaquin Brought Rain Along For His Big Comeback

Joaquin Phoenix and Nicole Kidman in To Die For

Joaquin might not have had any big breakout roles in the '80s that made him a superstar household name like River was by the middle of the decade, but that isn't to say he wasn't a very busy working actor. By 1990, Joaquin had appeared in four feature films and nine TV shows, including Hill Street BluesMurder, She Wrote, and Superboy.

His career well-established, Joaquin then decided to take a break from acting to do some traveling with his father-- and when you're a teenager and you have the time, money, and freedom to do so, why wouldn't you? Then, following the passing of River-- and Joaquin's anger at the media constantly replaying his 911 call for help following River's collapse-- Joaquin took another year off from public life.

After nearly six years away from acting, Joaquin came roaring back with a vengeance via his head-turning role in Gus Van Sant's black comedy opposite Nicole Kidman. It was also the movie where he met Casey Affleck, who then became a longtime family friend.

There is a blink-and-you'll-miss-it appearance in the movie by none other than Joaquin's sister, Rain, playing an uncredited tambourine player in the movie.  

It's actually one of the only times that two Phoenix siblings appeared together in a project post-child acting days.

11 Joaquin Once Changed His Name To "Leaf"

Joaquin Phoenix as Leaf Phoenix

As previously mentioned, Joaquin was quite the busy child actor. After his acting debut alongside River and Liberty in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Joaquin began to quickly rack up movie and television credits. Well, technically that isn't accurate-- it was "Leaf Phoenix" was the one accumulating those credits.

Doesn't it seem like Joaquin's name doesn't fit in with the theme of his siblings' names? They are all either named after something found in nature, or a word that represents some kind of positive ideal in the case of Liberty. Apparently, the reason for Joaquin's unique name is that he was born in Puerto Rico, and as such, his parents decided to give him a Latin-flavored name: Joaquin Rafael.

Not liking that his name was so different from that of his siblings, Joaquin took to referring to himself as Leaf around age five or six, not long after the family name change from Bottom to Phoenix (he was never "Leaf Bottom"). He chose Leaf because it had natural connotations like his siblings River, Rain, and Summer, and fit nicely with the new family surname.

In fact, Joaquin was so all-in on going by Leaf that his first handful of acting gigs saw him officially credited as "Leaf Phoenix," including his role in Parenthood. At age 15, he decided to go back to his birth name, both personally and professionally, which also served as a way to put a period at the end of his time as a child actor.

10 Their Dad Met Their Mom While She Was Hitchhiking

John Phoenix and Arlyn Phoenix

It's pretty easy to gather just from the names of their children that John and Arlyn Bottom/Phoenix were of the free-spirited, flower child mold. As such, the couple met in the post hippie-ish of ways-- via hitchhiking.

Arlyn had settled down for a bit when she first entered adulthood, taking the pretty safe path of living in New York with a husband who worked with computers. According to The Guardian, she quickly became restless with such a typical life, and did what many twentysomethings did in the 1960s-- traveled to and then hitchhiked across California, the epicenter of the flower power movement. It was during that trek to find herself that she met songwriter John Lee Bottom, who decided to pick up young Arlyn.

Even further cementing the couple's very of-the-era courtship, they were married within a year of their first meeting.

The newlyweds spent some time driving and picking fruit, becoming parents shortly after with the birth of River in 1970, followed by Rain two years later. Make no mistake: there is a lot to unpack about John and Arlyn's marriage and their lives as a family, especially in those early days, but it is way too much to get into in this entry. If you don't already know what we're alluding to, buckle up-- few families, famous or otherwise, have a story this wild.

9 The siblings were each born in a different place

River Phoenix and Joaquin Phoenix with family

The Bottoms led a very nomad existence, something that didn't slow down at all even once they started popping out kids. Few kids get to see as much of the world as the Bottoms did, especially those who aren't the children of military parents. Such was their mobility that each of John and Arlyn's five children together ended up being born not only in different U.S. states and/or territories, but in one case, a different country altogether.

Their first child was River, who was born in 1970 in Madras, Oregon. In just two years, the couple was all the way down in Crockett, Texas for the birth of second child-- and first daughter-- Rain. As we already discussed, child number three, Joaquin, calls Puerto Rico his birthplace (San Juan to be exact). Liberty, the only child born outside of the United States, entered the world by way of Caracas, Venezuela in 1976-- and actually, keeping with the reasoning behind Joaquin's name, her birth name was Libertad ("liberty" or "freedom" in Spanish), though she has gone by Liberty most of her life. Finally, bringing things back to the States, fifth and final child Summer was born in Winter Park, Florida.

For those keeping track, that is three U.S. states, one U.S. territory, and one different country altogether. That is a lot of "home cities" for a single family.

8 They Were Never Competitive With Each Other

River Phoenix and Joaquin Phoenix young

With all of the Phoenix children being relatively close in age and, for a time, all trying their hands at an acting career, it stands to reason that they were often up for similar roles. After all, there are only so many projects that have room for multiple Phoenix children. Even in the closest-knit of families, that is sure to breed a certain level of competitiveness among a group of siblings.

Not so for the Phoenix clan, who by all accounts were nothing but supportive of each other's careers and were each other's biggest cheerleaders. There was no bitterness when River's career skyrocketed, for instance-- Joaquin and his sisters couldn't have been more thrilled about their brother's success. Ditto for when Joaquin slowly began to carve out his own path into movies, with River being nothing but proud of his little bro's burgeoning career.

Much of the credit for this belongs to Arlyn and John, who clearly distilled a sense of familial love and support in their children and never fostered an environment that bred competition.

That, and the fact that all of the Phoenix kids seem to be ridiculously talented, which always helps -- we won't name names, but we all know the famous families with multiple actors that don't get along the best, and most of the time, there is one that is clearly the "star" that rises above the rest.

7 Casey Affleck Married Into The Family

Casey Affleck and Summer Phoenix

Around 2008 or so, Joaquin seemed to be in the middle of a public breakdown, or at least a bizarre Garth Brooks/Chris Gaines-type of ill-advised vanity project. He grew some very bushy facial hair-- which actually hammered home how much he favors his father, John-- and began appearing on talk shows with a strange, low-key demeanor - insisting he was quitting acting to become a rapper. It all ended up being a stunt for a faux-documentary he was creating, directed by Casey Affleck, called I'm Still Here. The movie wasn't all that well received, and the whole thing ended up feeling like one big joke that only Joaquin and Casey really ever thought was funny.

How does Casey Affleck, who is typically known for more acclaimed fare and being selective about his roles, become involved in such a bizarre project? Well, he and Joaquin are old friends-- and moreover, they were brothers-in-law at the time.

Casey and youngest Phoenix daughter Summer were married for 11 years, from 2006 to 2017, during which time they had two children together - sons Indiana August and Atticus.

Casey was a Phoenix family in-law longer than anybody had been up to that point, or since.

6 The Girls Were In A Cult-Spoofing Punk Band

The Causey Way

In 1997, a strange band with an even stranger-- but entirely fictional-- backstory was formed called The Causey Way. The gimmick of the new wave/punk band was that they were actually a religious cult whose public face was that of a band, going so far as to have t-shirts that read phrases like "The Causey Way Is Not A Cult." The band was fronted by "Causey" himself-- real name, Scott Stanton-- and consisted of members with crazy names like The Truth, The Button, Dr. St. Causey, Boy Causey, Summer Causey, and Rain Causey.

Wait a minut: some of those names sound a bit familiar, don't they? Yes, in actuality, Summer Causey and Rain Causey were just the stage names of Summer and Rain Phoenix, founding members of the odd group. The band remained active for four years, touring and releasing four albums without once dropping the charade of their supposed origin story. When the group disbanded in 2001, they announced that leader Causey had been committed, and that The Truth had joined the Church of Scientology.

While a few former Causey Way members went on to form another musical group called Pilot Scott Tracy, the Phoenix sisters sat that evolution out. Still. they, along with Liberty, weren't quite down with their musical careers just yet.

5 Rain's Band, Papercranes, Has Had Some Seriously Famous Members

Papercranes Rain Phoenix

Whereas Rain and Summer's time in The Causey Way mostly seemed like a fun way to spend a few years-- and also poke fun at their unusual childhoods-- Rain's next and current band, Papercranes, is clearly where her musical heart is. Formed in 2004 in Los Angeles, Papercranes has only released four albums but is still an active band nearly 15 years later. Not one to leave her musically gifted sisters behind, Rain occasionally enlists the help of Summer on keyboards and Liberty on backing vocals, both in the studio and during live performances.

The Phoenix sisters aren't even necessarily the most famous people that have ever played with the Papercranes.

Though not a part of the band's core lineup, some noteworthy talent has been rotated in and out of the band's lineup over the years, including Red Hot Chili Peppers' bassist Flea and original drummer Jack Irons; River's A Thing Called Love co-star Dermot Mulroney; and auxiliary R.E.M. member Scott McCaughey. The band has also had a politician in its ranks, current Stockton, California mayor Michael Tubbs.

It should probably come as no surprise that a band formed by a Phoenix would count among its members rock music legends, famous Hollywood actors, and small-town mayors.

4 They Had To Busk As Very Young Children

River Phoenix young

Driving up and down the California coast picking fruit doesn't exactly pay a living wage-- or any wage, really. It seems pretty obvious given everything we've learned about John and Arlyn Bottom that traditional careers weren't really their bag. Still, they had to make money somehow in order to feed their kids and take them all over North and Central America-- and what better way to do that than to utilize the kids' talented pipes and natural charm?

Rain claims that her and her siblings-- even the ones who were only toddlers at the time-- performed songs and skits out on the street in order to help generate income for the family. Known as busking, that hustle ended up serving the Phoenix family pretty well, not only in bringing in cash but in helping to get them noticed by the people who would later help them break into show business.

While it might seem like an unfair thing to do to children, especially at that young of an age, the Phoenix children don't seem to harbor any resentment towards their busking days and look back fondly on that part of their lives. Although other things that were happening concurrently to that weren't quite so sunny.

3 Several bands have paid tribute to River

Red Hot Chili Peppers and REM

River touched a lot of people-- not only his millions of fans but the many people who counted him as a personal friend. A musician as much as an actor, he befriending many people in the music industry. A lot of those artists and bands who got to know him, either directly or indirectly, were so inspired by his life and/or devastated by his passing that they were inspired to write songs about him.

There are at least ten different songs that are either overtly about River, or were implicitly inspired by him in some way.

It isn't all just obscure little indie singer/songwriter type stuff, either-- though there is some of that-- some huge pop hits claim at least some connection to River, including Counting Crows' "A Long December", The Wallflowers' "One Headlight", and Red Hot Chili Peppers' "Give It Away". That last song is perhaps the most explicit, calling out the actor by name in the lines, "There's a River born to be a giver/Keep you warm, won't let you shiver." The band also recorded a second song about their late friend, "Transcending".

Another group with multiple songs about River is R.E.M. Lead singer Michael Stipe was so close to River, and so devastated by his passing, that he was unable to write or record for nearly five months-- after which he and his band wrote and recorded the album Monster, dedicated to River and containing the song "Bang and Blame" about him.

2 Arlyn and Liberty Were Both Involved In Midwifery

Liberty Phoenix and Heart Phoenix

While not all of the Phoenix siblings have had careers as prolific as Joaquin's, for the most part, they've still pretty consistently worked in the public eye in some way. The main exception to that has been Liberty, who quickly gave up acting after only two roles as a child and has mostly only had a supporting role in Rain's music career.

So what has the middle Phoenix sister been doing as a "day job?" Currently, most of her time is devoted to being the office manager for the charity organization her mother founded: the River Phoenix Center for Peacebuilding. In the mid-00s, Liberty also dabbled in retail, not only designing clothes for Manhattan fashion boutique Some Odd Rubies- co-founded by sister Summer-- but also opening the eco-friendly Indigo Green Store in her native Florida.

Are those career choices not "quirky" enough for a Phoenix child? Well, we saved the most interesting one for last: Liberty also spent some time as an instructor at the Florida School of Traditional Midwifery, one of only ten schools in the United States that is officially accredited in the teaching of midwifery. In fact, Arlyn spent five years as that school's Executive Director, making it yet another project that Liberty and her mom worked closely together on.

1 They Were Part of a religious cult

Children of God bus photo

Unfortunately, John and Arlyn Bottom also did some of the less-savory things that flower children did during the late-60s and early-70s-- most infamously, when they joined the religious cult known as Children of God.

While it may seem easy to judge the Bottoms for joining a cult, especially with children in tow, Joaquin defended them in a 2014 interview, saying, "Cults rarely advertise themselves as such. I think my parents found a community that shared their ideals." He also went on to say that his parents didn't stick around for very long once the darker aspects of Children of God become apparent to them, saying, "...the moment my parents realized there was something more to it, they got out."

Fortunately, none of the Phoenix family have reported having suffered any physical or emotional abuse or longtime trauma as a result of their time in Children of God, so perhaps John and Arlyn really did get out before any damage was done.

It's definitely a situation that could've had a much, much worse outcome than it ended up having for the Phoenix family.

For proof of this, look no further than actress Rose McGowan, who grew up in the Italian sect of the same cult and has had far less positive things to say about her experience in the group.


Do you have any other trivia to share about the Phoenix family? Leave it in the comments!

More in Lists