Joaquin Phoenix turns 47: See his greatest movie transformations

Joaquin Phoenix is one of the most acclaimed actors of his generation, having won an Academy Award and two Golden Globes and been named by The New York Times as one of the 25 greatest actors of the 21st century. He’s known for playing a wide array of dark and unconventional characters since making his screen debut in the early ’80s. Joaquin, who was born in Puerto Rico and raised in Los Angeles, is also famous for his commitment to undergoing major transformations for his work. Most recently, he shed an incredible 52 pounds to play Arthur Fleck, a madman destined to become Batman’s most notorious foil, in 2019’s “Joker.” The hard work took its toll on the star, who told reporters at the 2019 Venice Film Festival that “as it turns out, that impacts your psychology and you really start to go mad when you lose that much weight in that amount of time.” But the choice paid off as Joaquin nabbed an Oscar for his performance in the film, which grossed more than $1 billion worldwide. To celebrate his 47th birthday Oct. 28, 2021, is looking at some of Joaquin’s biggest character transformations…

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In 2012’s “The Master,” Joaquin Phoenix plays Freddie Quell, a World War II veteran struggling to adjust to a post-war society who joins a religious movement known as “The Cause.” For this role, he lost a significant amount of weight and gave the character a noticeable limp to show his brokenness and inner turmoil. The film’s director, Paul Thomas Anderson, compared Joaquin’s dedication to that of actor Daniel Day-Lewis, saying he got into character and stayed there for three months. He admitted Joaquin only ate tiny quantities of nuts to achieve his skin-and-bones look, something he believed was even more difficult given that the star “loves to eat.” He nabbed an Oscar nomination for his performance in 2013.

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Perhaps the signature role of Joaquin Phoenix’s career is rockabilly legend Johnny Cash in the 2005 biopic “Walk the Line.” He had to embody the icon for the drama, which follows Johnny’s early life, his romance with June Carter and his ascent in the country music scene. Not only did Joaquin have to nail the musician’s vocals — he also had to get his famous clean-cut look just right with the help of pompadour-styled hair and mainly all-black fitted suits. The Baltimore Sun called his transformation “transcendent.” Joaquin earned an Academy Award nomination for best actor in 2006.

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Joaquin Phoenix’s breakthrough mainstream role came in the 2000 historical epic “Gladiator,” which was one of the year’s highest grossing films and won the Academy Award for best picture. He plays the evil and incestuous Commodus, who murders his emperor father in a play for power and forces Russell Crowe’s Maximus into a life of slavery before he becomes a gladiator in a plot for revenge. Joaquin received his first Oscar nomination for the performance, which required him to wear luxurious robes, embossed metal breastplates and a crown of gold leaves. Wardrobe wasn’t the only key to becoming the Roman prince: He also learned to speak with a British accent.

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After taking part in a few films as a child actor, Joaquin Phoenix’s first role as an adult cames in the 1995 crime-comedy “To Die For” opposite Nicole Kidman. He plays Jimmy Emmett, the high school loverboy of Nicole’s camera-obsessed local news reporter who convinces him to murder her husband. At just 21, Joaquin was still able to pull off the lanky and rebellious look of his teenaged character. His shaggy haircut and punk clothes also played a major part in the transformation. The film marked the actor’s return to Hollywood after the 1993 overdose death of his brother, actor River Phoenix, and kick-started his incredible movie career.

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In 2018, Joaquin Phoenix took on one of the world’s most prolific figures — Jesus of Nazareth — for the biblical drama “Mary Magdalene.” He grew out both his hair and his beard for the film, which follows Mary’s path to becoming a faithful follower of the religious icon. The unkempt and nomadic look spoke to Jesus’s chosen path of poverty and service, as did the dusty and sweat-plagued robes and woven scarves.

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2014’s “Her” saw Joaquin Phoenix playing a man who develops a relationship with an artificially intelligent virtual assistant personified through a female voice. His turn as Theodore Twombly in the sci-fi romance required a more everyday look to reflect his life as a lonely, introverted cubicle employee. The actor’s geeky attire includes glasses, high-waisted trousers and slim-fit button-ups. He also grew a mustache to add to the character’s nerdy, outcast vibe. His performance, which earned a Golden Globe Award nomination, was praised as “sensational” and “pitch-perfect” by USA Today.

Joaquin Phoenix played his most difficult part to date in 2010’s “I’m Still Here”: himself. The mockumentary follows the real life of the star, including the announcement of his retirement from acting and his transition into a career as a hip-hop artist. He spent months filming the movie and doing promotional interviews donning unkempt long hair, a full beard, dark shades and a suit, giving many the impression that he was genuinely saying goodbye to moviemaking. He went so far as to announce his change in career plans on the “Late Show with David Letterman” in a jaw-dropping interview that left many questioning his mental health. Once the film was released, Joaquin went back to his usual appearance and garb, admitting that he’d been playing a characterized version of himself for the project.

The 2002 sci-fi thriller “Signs” features Joaquin Phoenix as Merrill Hess, a former minor league baseball player who’s living with his older brother — played by Mel Gibson — as he raises his two children after the death of his wife. The family, who reside in rural Pennsylvania, are being visited by extraterrestrial life forming a series of crop circles in their cornfield. Joaquin adopted a youthful, athletic appearance for the part, sporting an all-American look of baseball tees and jeans, as well as crew cut hair and a clean-shaven face. The golden boy aesthetic is a far cry from the unruly look of his signature roles.

Joaquin Phoenix headed back in time to Paris’s Reign of Terror for the period drama “Quills” in 2000. He stars opposite Kate Winslet and Geoffrey Rush as the Abbé du Coulmier, a real-life French Catholic priest who oversees an asylum for the insane. The role required him to go shirtless but also sport black robes typical of the time, known as cassocks, that were worn over a white surplice and matching clerical collar to convey his position and dedication to the church. He also donned a shorter hairstyle, which was atypical of the era and also helped give him his most heartthrob-like look to date in the dark, erotic film. The movie’s costumers also designed special pleather clogs to accommodate the star, who’s a dedicated vegan. 

For a leap into the ’70s, Joaquin embraced an intense pair of sideburns for his lead role in the 2014 neo-noir crime-comedy “Inherent Vice.” He plays Larry “Doc” Sportello, a well-intentioned but inept stoner, hippie and private investigator who’s embroiled in the Los Angeles criminal underworld while looking into a series of cases related to the disappearance of his ex-girlfriend and her new wealthy boyfriend. The actor retained a “California casual chic” look throughout the film, always appearing like he just rolled out of bed. The carefree fashion and long, unkempt hair joined the era-appropriate mutton chops in ensuring Doc looked cool, charismatic and always a bit unprepared. It clearly worked as The National Board of Review named the film one of the 10 best movies of the year — and Joaquin scored another Golden Globe Award nomination.

Joaquin Phoenix has a small role as a news cameraman in the Oscar-nominated 2004 biographical drama “Hotel Rwanda.” He stars opposite Don Cheadle as international journalist Jack Daglish, who’s working on the frontlines during the Rwandan genocide while a thousand refugees are seeking shelter. To capture the reality of hard-working journalists who risk their lives on a daily basis to tell the stories of those in need, the actor sported the uniform of loose T-shirts, multi-pocketed vests and cargo pants that you often see on the real people doing the job. He also grew a beard. His performance earned him a SAG Award nomination alongside his castmates for outstanding ensemble.

2004’s “Ladder 49” gave Joaquin Phoenix a chance to wear a firefighter’s uniform as he starred opposite John Travolta as a Baltimore fireman trapped inside a warehouse blaze. To truly look the part of the heroic figure, the actor beefed up his bod to match the physique of a hotshot who saves lives in a massive four-alarm fire in a 20-story concrete warehouse. It marked a rare opportunity for the methodical star to play a loveable, handsome man in uniform.

Joaquin Phoenix underwent a major transformation to play the lead character — John Callahan, a recently paralyzed alcoholic who finds a passion for drawing off-color newspaper cartoons — in the 2018 biographical comedy “Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot,” which is based on the real John’s memoir of the same name. The actor had to adjust to working in a motorized wheelchair as well as develop a look appropriate for the ’80s time period in which the film is set. His grown-out hair was given an orange-tinted hue and cut in an uneven chop, and his wardrobe consisted of oversized spectacles, corduroy pants and leather jackets popular at the time.

Joaquin Phoenix looked very much the punk rocker in the 1999 neo-noir thriller “8mm.” He plays adult video store employee Max California, who helps Nicolas Cage’s private investigator delve into the world of snuff films to uncover the truth about the murder of a young girl. Joaquin kept his body lanky for the role, which saw him playing a quirky creep involved with the sale of sexually violent movies. His hair was styled in blue spikes and his arms were covered in tattoos to fit in with New York City’s dark underbelly, complete with assorted skinny black jeans and cut-off T-shirts.

In the 1920s-set romantic drama “The Immigrant,” Joaquin Phoenix plays Bruno Weiss, a pimp preying on innocent immigrant women while masquerading as a man of means. The dangerous and manipulative predator gets caught in a violent love triangle with characters played by Marion Cotillard and Jeremy Renner. The star sported an array of thick wool suits and matching hats to look like a wealthy man from the time period.

The 2017 mystery-crime drama “You Were Never Really Here” saw Joaquin Phoenix play a traumatized war veteran named Joe who’s hired by a politician to find and rescue his daughter using any violent means necessary after she’s kidnapped by a human trafficking network. He described the character to Vulture as “somebody who’s mid-life and has kind of fallen off in some ways” and conveyed that with the help of a bulging belly, long hair and a bushy beard. The less-showy look paid off as the Chicago Sun-Times called Joaquin’s performance “one of his best.” He won the best actor prize at that year’s Cannes Film Festival.

Joaquin Phoenix took on the dark part of an American tourist condemned to a life in a Malaysian prison in the 1998 drama “Return to Paradise.” His character, Lewis McBride, is arrested after drugs are discovered at the vacation home he stayed in with friends. Viewers saw him lose hope as he headed to trial with a death sentence hanging over his head. Joaquin nailed the pale, sickly look of someone suffering psychological damage from harsh imprisonment. The New York Times wrote that his emotional performance “conveys the terrible pathos in Lewis’s situation.”

The 2004 mystery-thriller “The Village” required Joaquin Phoenix to look like a 19th-century blacksmith who’s part of a village living in fear of creatures inhabiting the neighboring woods referred to as “Those We Don’t Speak Of.” His character, Lucius Hunt, ends up in a love triangle between Bryce Dallas Howard and Adrien Brody as the group figures out how to move beyond their home without facing the dangers it allegedly holds. The entire cast wears similar garb, which includes hand-sewn shirts, vests and trousers along with a mustard-colored woven cape for expeditions beyond their village.

Joaquin Phoenix headed to the Wild West in the 2018 crime-drama “The Sisters Brothers.” His role as cowboy assassin Charlie Sisters in the Western required a 19th-century look full of dirt, dust and a bit of blood. He and John C. Reilly play the titular brothers as they chase after two men who’ve banded together to search for gold. It was ones of Joaquin’s more unkempt on-screen looks, complete with unwashed hair and a short beard.

Another period drama featuring Joaquin Phoenix is 1997’s “Inventing the Abbotts.” This time, the actor found himself in the ’50s as Doug Holt, one of two brothers intent on seducing the daughters of a rival family in a small Illinois town. His working-class look required collared shirts worn over basic white tees and blue jeans or slacks belted high. To cover the varying styles throughout the decade, Joaquin’s hair underwent a few transformations in the film, from a messy bowl cut to a pompadour and a stylish elephant trunk.

Also in 1997, Joaquin Phoenix took a far more contemporary turn in the crime-thriller “U-Turn.” Sean Penn stars as a grifter who gets embroiled in a small-town murder plot when his car breaks down in the Arizona desert. Joaquin plays Toby N. “TNT” Tucker, one of the mysterious figures Sean’s character meets during his journey. He sports Western shirts tucked into fitted jeans and large leather belts to appear like an egotistical desert dweller. The star also has a standout hairstyle that included having “TNT” shaved into the back of his head. “These kids in these small towns, these fads that just roll over them,” he told Rough Cut Magazine about what inspired the look. “Like, five years pass and they still hang on to them. So I thought it was really great if he shaves his name, he thinks he’s really notorious.”

Joaquin Phoenix leads an all-star cast in the 2007 drama “Reservation Road,” which also features Mark Ruffalo, Jennifer Connelly and Mira Sorvino. He plays Ethan Learner, a father determined to seek justice for the tragic hit-and-run death of his young son. The character is a grieving college professor in a small Northeast town, which meant fairly modest style choices. He paired collared, tucked-in plaid shirts and pressed slacks with cuffed-at-the-sleeve button-downs and fitted blazers to look the part of a middle-class family man slowly unraveling as he deals with the grief of his loss. He balanced clean-cut hair with a well-groomed beard as an academic would, and it perfectly contrasts with the growing rage over his son’s fatal accident.

Joaquin Phoenix became a member of the U.S. Army in the 2001 black comedy “Buffalo Soldiers.” He plays Specialist Ray Elwood, a disillusioned soldier assigned to a duty station in Germany just before the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 who turns to criminal activity in his free time. The film’s Army base setting required a wardrobe of camouflage fatigues and a military-style haircut. While off duty, Ray is seen in leather jackets, skinny jeans and colorful T-shirts typical of the late ’80s. The uniformed transformation helped sell critics on his performance, which received an Independent Spirit Award nomination.

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