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Joaquin Phoenix Opens Up About His Childhood in Religious Cult Children of God

Joaquin Phoenix
Joaquin Phoenix opened up to Playboy about being raised briefly in controversial religious cult Children of God.

It's time to talk! Joaquin Phoenix got candid in the December 2014 issue of Playboy, sharing his childhood experience of being raised in the religious group Children of God and whether his encounter was nearly as traumatizing as other stars have claimed.

The actor's parents joined the controversial cult in the 1970s and took Joaquin and his siblings — the late River Phoenix, Rain, Liberty, and Summer — to travel through Central and South America with the group. Eventually, his parents ended up becoming disillusioned with Children of God (now The Family International), which has since been accused of sexual misconduct by former followers.

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"My parents had a religious experience and felt strongly about it," Phoenix, 40, said in an interview published this week. "They wanted to share that with other people who wanted to talk about their experience with religion. These friends were like, 'Oh, we believe in Jesus as well.' I think my parents thought they’d found a community that shared their ideals. Cults rarely advertise themselves as such. It’s usually someone saying, 'We’re like-minded people. This is a community,' but I think the moment my parents realized there was something more to it, they got out."

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Unlike Phoenix, another famous star, Rose McGowan, has claimed that her experience in the cult was rather traumatic when the group was reorganized in the 1980s. Though Phoenix has not spoken to McGowan, 41, about her past with Children of God, he reasoned that her story was probably much different from his.

"I think a lot of what has been exposed about the group happened in the 1980s," Phoenix told Playboy. "She was there well into the 1980s, I think. It’s kind of a typical progression of something like that, you know? It starts out one way and takes some time before it evolves into something else. When people bring up Children of God, there’s always something vaguely accusatory about it. It’s guilt by association. I think it was really innocent on my parents’ part. They really believed, but I don’t think most people see it that way. I’ve always thought that was strange and unfair."

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After his parents disaffiliated from the cult, the entire family swapped continents and moved to California and changed the family's last name from Bottom to Phoenix. At age 6, Joaquin was signed to a talent agency, where he began his nearly three-decade career in showbiz. (Around this time period, the young actor also changed his name to "Leaf," eventually changing it back to Joaquin at age 15.)

"We were always singing and playing music, and we were encouraged to express ourselves," he recalled of his childhood. "When you’re a kid, acting is an extension of playing. You have an imagination, right? If that’s encouraged and you’re in an environment where you’re given these props and opportunities to express yourself, it’s terribly exciting. I always loved it. In fact, I was thinking about it driving across the San Fernando Valley today. We used to live deep in the valley, and the station wagon would break down all the time when we’d go on auditions. But I loved those moments when you’d walk into an audition or onto a set and have an experience you didn’t know you were capable of and didn’t really even know where it came from. It was so fulfilling to have that experience."

The Her actor also spoke briefly about his famous late big brother River (who died of an overdose in 1993), recalling what it was like growing up in a family of actors. "We were a team, and whoever was working, well, that was great," he said of his siblings in general. "We’re always supportive of each other. There wasn’t competition. We just didn’t have that competitive streak in us the way we were raised."

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