He’s an actor best known for his ability to embody virtually any role, be it the cunning emperor Commodus in Gladiator, Johnny Cash in Walk the Line, the lonely introvert Theodore Twombley in Her, or the title character in Joker. No role seems impossible for him, and he is widely regarded as one of the greatest actors of his generation. But is Joaquin Phoenix vegan?
Yes, Joaquin Phoenix is vegan. He has been living as a vegan since the age of three, apart from a few mistakes, like riding horses for movie roles, which he has expressed regret about. He is also a dedicated activist who has narrated the iconic animal rights documentary Earthlings and parts of Dominion.
Why Joaquin went vegan as a 3-year-old
Joaquin’s parents met in California in 1968 and started dating soon after. They could be described as hippies and they lived a nomadic life in the U.S. According to an interview titled “River on the Rise,” which was published two decades later in issue 127 of the Vegetarian Times, they both gave up meat shortly after they met.
They had a son in 1970, River, and a daughter in 1972, Rain. Around this time, they joined a cult called the Children of God, which they didn’t recognize as a cult. They started doing missionary work, which eventually took them outside the continental United States. That’s why Joaquin was born in Puerto Rico, in 1974. And, according to the aforementioned interview, they went back to eating meat. So, everyone in the family ate meat during the first years of Joaquin’s life.
In 1977, after Joaquin’s sister Liberty was born, his parents grew disillusioned with the cult and got out. They were living in Venezuela at the time and decided to return to the U.S. on a cargo ship. On that ship, Joaquin and his siblings witnessed some of the crew catching and killing fish, which horrified them.
That experience led to the whole family giving up meat for good. Joaquin has talked about it on multiple occasions, mentioning different details every time. So, we have merged this, this, this, and this account into one complete account:
“My brother and sisters and I watched these fishermen haul in hundreds of fish. They were all squirming on the deck, dying, and the guys were smacking them against the walls to kill them. We were all so disgusted, because we’d been watching them jump around in the water, like minutes before. It was our first concrete experience seeing what happens to ‘food’ before it gets on the table.
“It was so violent, it was just so intense … I just had a profound strong reaction. It felt like a real injustice. It wasn’t just me, it was my siblings, all of my siblings, except for the youngest, Summer, she wasn’t born. … I don’t know how to explain it. I think it made me distrustful, and angry, and frightened of humans, humanity. I just thought it was such a gross abuse of power in a way.
“I have a vivid memory of my mom’s face, which—I have seen that same face maybe one other time, where she was completely speechless because we yelled at her. … ‘How come you didn’t tell us that’s where meat came from?’ … We felt so betrayed. … ‘How could you not have fucking told us that?’ … I remember tears streaming down her face.… She didn’t know what to say. … And we just decided never again to eat anything that had once breathed.”
They gave up meat. And, according to the “River on the Rise” interview, Joaquin’s mother had a vegan sister who encouraged them to go further and give up all animal products and materials. But, while she played a role, it were the children who, a few months after giving up meat, convinced the parents to go all the way. River was the driving force. In the interview, he said:
“It was hard to give up dairy for a while for a lot of people in my family. … My mom and dad were so used to eating cheese, and it was so convenient. But I said, ‘Hey, if we’re doing this thing, let’s go all the way with it.’ The other kids were into it, so my parents said, ‘OK, let’s do it.’ And we did.”
Joaquin’s vegan childhood
All seven members of the family remained committed to veganism, and they wanted to influence others in a positive way as well. So, when the children got into acting, which they all did at some point, they made sure not to promote any non-vegan products or products that they considered unhealthy. Joaquin, who made his acting debut when he was eight, has described it as follows:
“Well, we’re vegans. And when you first start acting, what you mostly do are commercials. And we said to our agent: ‘We’re not going to do anything for McDonald’s or Coca-Cola. We’ll do bicycles and dolls, and that’s about it.’ And our agent was like: ‘This is lunacy. First of all, it’s already impossible to break into this business and now you’re excluding 70% of what you might be able to do.’ [laughs] I guess we were either bold or stupid.”
River was originally the most prominent actor in the family, and he got his first serious role in 1982 in the TV series Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. According to the “River on the Rise” interview, the family even negotiated that his character would never go fishing or wear a coonskin cap. In that same interview, River also mentioned how important it was for him to use his position to talk about veganism:
“If I didn’t think I could be a part of a movement that could influence, and be a part of helping and change, if I couldn’t help that through what I’m doing, I wouldn’t do this. But I’m seeing that through this position-in this career, and where I have these magazine interviews- I can be an example, and I think that’s important. In all the interviews I do, I say something about my being vegan.”
In 1987, Life magazine published an article titled “One Big Hippy Family,” which provided a glimpse into the Phoenix family’s home life. Arlyn is Joaquin’s mother, who goes by Heart now, Joaquin called himself Leaf at the time, and Rain called herself Rainbow at the time:
“The glitzy on-camera life contrasts sharply with the scene played out in the industrial kitchen of the Phoenix home. There Arlyn, 42, pages through The Cookbook for People Who Love Animals. ‘Tofu cheesecake, please,’ squeals Liberty. ‘I get to lick the bowl,’ shouts Summer. Leaf and Rainbow imitate chef Julia Child. River juices wheat grass. The family mutts, Justice and Sundance, wait for leftovers. They and their owners are ‘vegans,’ who do not eat animal products. ‘Peace doesn’t apply just to human beings,’ explains Arlyn.”
Despite his convictions, Joaquin tried non-vegan pizza at a friend’s house once, but his body did not react well to it: “Of course, I’ve had slips. When I was about 12, I stayed with a friend in San Diego. They got pizza, and I was like, ‘I’m having some motherfucking pizza.’ I ate two slices and vomited for two days.”
Apart from those slips, Joaquin lived a vegan lifestyle and spoke up for the animals. When he was 14, and still going by the name Leaf, an interviewer described his standpoint as follows: “Leaf believes in animal rights. … And while he despises the loss of anonymity that comes with a successful acting career, he sees that people are more willing to listen to his message because of it.”
Two years later, when he was 16, he quit school because they sent him a dead frog in the mail to dissect for his biology studies. Around that time, he also took a break from acting. That break would last multiple years.
Meanwhile, River had become one of the most popular actors in Hollywood. He had already been nominated for an Oscar at the age of 18 for his role in Stand by Me, and he had played the younger version of Indiana Jones in the opening sequence of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. He also continued to speak up about animal rights.
Tragically, a few days after Joaquin’s 19th birthday, River died of a drug overdose. He was only 23. Joaquin and Rain were with him when it happened, and Joaquin was the one who called 911.
The media covered this tragedy in the most disrespectful way possible by repeatedly playing the leaked 911 call on TV and radio shows and disturbing the family’s mourning process in other ways. So, the family retreated from the public eye. After a long break, Joaquin eventually returned to acting, but his relationship with the media was damaged.
Joaquin’s animal rights ads
As Joaquin became more successful, he began starring in animal rights ads to encourage people to give up animal products. The first ad he starred in was produced by animal rights organization PETA in 1998, when Joaquin was 24. He called on people to celebrate the holidays without eating turkeys:
In 2010, he teamed up with PETA again to make a short video. In this video, he shed light on the exotic animal skins trade:
Three years later, he starred in another PETA video to raise awareness about the suffering of fish. Fish are often overlooked, even though we kill over a trillion of them every year. The video showed Joaquin drowning to illustrate how fish suffer when we take them out of the water:
A year after that, he worked with the animal rights organization Mercy for Animals to present their undercover footage of cruelty inflicted on pigs by suppliers of Walmart:
In 2015, he worked with PETA again, this time to show that Chinese dog-leather is sold to unsuspecting customers around the world and to ask people to stop buying leather in general:
The next year, he made another ad with PETA to inform people about the cruelty in the wool industry. In that ad, he also looked back on the time he wasn’t aware of the cruelty himself, and he mentioned that he used to wear suits made of wool without realizing it:
PETA actually made a billboard version of that ad as well. It was displayed at a busy Los Angeles intersection, and later also during the New York Fashion Week. But when PETA tried to run the ad in Armidale, New South Wales, Australia, a local ad company refused to run it for fear of backlash from cattle and sheep farmers.
In 2017, Joaquin presented an undercover investigation by the animal rights organization Last Chance for Animals which showed the reality of animal testing:
In 2019, he teamed up with PETA again to run a billboard ad. This ad featured him with a chicken, photographed in such a way that one of the chicken’s eyes covered Joaquin’s, with the slogan “we are all animals.” The ad was displayed at Times Square:
And a year later, he released another video with PETA. This time he presented undercover footage of an egg farm and explained that labels like “cage-free” and “free-range” don’t mean that the animals are actually treated well:
Joaquin’s animal rights documentaries
Joaquin voiced the main character in the animated movie Brother Bear, a character that starts out as a human but gets turned into a bear to see the world through their eyes. And he modeled some of the behavior of his character in The Captain on caged animals. But other than that, his work as an actor has generally not been linked to his views on animals. So, he has expressed those views through documentaries instead.
In 2005, he narrated the documentary Earthlings. It was directed by animal rights activist Shaun Monson, produced by fellow actors Maggie Q, Persia White, and Brett Harrelson (brother of Woody Harrelson), and it featured music by Moby.
Earthlings educates viewers about the standard practices in major industries that use animals. It’s split up into five parts: pets, food, clothes, entertainment, and scientific research. The whole documentary can be seen as an argument against speciesism, which Joaquin lays out at as follows at the very beginning:
“Since we all inhabit the earth, all of us are considered earthlings. There is no sexism, no racism, or speciesism in the term ‘earthling.’ It encompasses each and every one of us: warm- or cold-blooded, mammal, vertebrate or invertebrate, bird, reptile, amphibian, fish, and human alike. Humans, therefore, being not the only species on the planet, share this world with millions of other living creatures, as we all evolve here together.
“However, it is the human earthling who tends to dominate the earth, oftentimes treating other fellow earthlings and living beings as mere objects. This is what is meant by ‘speciesism.’ By analogy with racism and sexism, the term speciesism is a prejudice or attitude of bias in favor of the interests of members of one’s own species and against those of members of other species.
“If a being suffers, there can be no moral justification for refusing to take that suffering into consideration. No matter what the nature of the being, the principle of equality requires that one’s suffering can be counted equally with the like suffering of any other being.”
Earthlings was one the first mainstream animal rights documentaries, and many vegans credit this documentary for convincing them to go vegan. If you haven’t seen it, you can watch it here for free:
In 2015, Shaun Monson directed a follow-up documentary called Unity. Unity is broader in scope. It’s a documentary about life in general, and animal rights is one of the topics it covers. The documentary has 100 different narrators, of which Joaquin is one.
In 2018, animal rights activist Chris Delforce released a documentary called Dominion. Dominion is in many ways an updated version of Earthlings. It shows the day-to-day practices in the animal industries, covering each species individually, and it makes use of undercover as well as drone footage to tell the full story.
The documentary is narrated by Joaquin, Rooney Mara (Joaquin’s fiancée), Sadie Sink, Sia, Kat Von D, and Chris Delforce himself. We consider it the best documentary on animal rights to date and we strongly recommend you give it a watch. You can watch it here in full, completely free of charge:
Apart from narrating documentaries, Joaquin has also acted as a producer.
Two of the best documentaries on the environmental and health problems caused by the animal industries are Cowspiracy and What The Health, both produced and directed by Kip Andersen and Keegan Kuhn. Joaquin executive produced the latter.
And, in 2019, Joaquin produced The Animal People. This documentary tells the story of six young American activists who played a key role in a campaign against an animal testing company in the early 2000s and were charged with terrorism as a result, despite the fact that they had taken great care to stay within the confines of the law.
Joaquin has noticed that animal rights documentaries are becoming more popular and he’s very excited about that. In 2020, he expressed that he wanted to get even more involved in it:
“We’re certainly seeing that the amount of documentaries in the world of animal rights is fucking unbelievable. I can’t believe how many amazing ones there are. So there definitely seems to be a platform for that … and it’s really exciting. I’m trying to get really activated in that world and am developing a number of documentaries.”
Joaquin veganized awards ceremonies
In the first months of 2020, Joaquin received multiple awards for his role in Joker. And behind the scenes, he and others were able to convince the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, the organization that runs the Golden Globes, to make the entire menu plant-based.
The animal industries’ negative environmental impact was key in convincing them. So, when Joaquin delivered his speech, he opened with: “First, I’d like to thank the Hollywood Foreign Press for recognizing and acknowledging the link between animal agriculture and climate change. It’s a very bold move, making tonight plant-based, and it really sends a powerful message.”
At the end of the speech, he also emphasized the importance of making changes in our personal lives. He didn’t specifically mention cutting out animal products when he said that, but that may have been because the music started playing and he had to wrap it up.
You can watch the full speech here:
During the backstage interview, one of the reporters asked him to talk more about it.
He expressed how moved he was by the organization’s decision, and he emphasized that the animal industries are a major driver of climate change and also use and pollute staggering amounts of water. He argued that, given the impact it has on everyone, consuming animal products is not a personal choice, drawing a comparison with the negative impact of secondhand smoking and the subsequent ban of smoking in public places.
You can watch his full answer here, starting at the 3 minute mark:
He also said that other awards ceremonies, such as the SAG Awards and the Critics’ Choice Awards, should switch to plant-based menus as well. And he privately enlisted the support of fellow nominees, like Leonardo DiCaprio, Kristen Bell, and Phoebe Waller-Bridge, before contacting the organizers of those awards ceremonies directly. He managed to convince them and others.
Ultimately, five events went plant-based as a result of Joaquin’s efforts, including the Oscars.
In between those awards ceremonies, he also spoke at one of Jane Fonda’s Fire Drill Fridays protests, a weekly climate change protest in Washington DC inspired by Greta Thunberg. The sole purpose of his speech was to invite people to give up animal products to combat climate change:
His most groundbreaking speech of the 2020 awards season, however, was the one he delivered at the Oscars. In that speech, he focused on the commonality between human rights and animal rights, stating: “Whether we’re talking about gender inequality, or racism, or queer rights, or indigenous rights, or animal rights, we’re talking about the fight against injustice.”
He also specifically mentioned the cruelty in the dairy industry: “We feel entitled to artificially inseminate a cow, and when she gives birth, we steal her baby, even though her cries of anguish are unmistakable. And then we take her milk, that’s intended for her calf, and we put it in our coffee and our cereal.”
This was the first time in history that animal rights were discussed so candidly during an Oscar acceptance speech. It’s well worth a watch. The speech itself starts at the 2 minute mark:
Joaquin’s on-the-ground activism
Joaquin also engages in other forms of animal rights activism, and he has done so for years. He successfully redirected the increased media attention he got in 2019 and early 2020 to this as well.
On the first Sunday of June in 2019, he participated in the annual National Animal Rights Day march, which has actually become an international event. Its purpose is to commemorate all the animals who are killed every year, educate the public about vegan alternatives, and celebrate the progress that’s being made on this front.
Joaquin and Rooney marched together. They wore shirts with the message “our planet, theirs too” and they were both holding animals who had been killed by the industries:
In September 2019, he received the Toronto International Film Festival’s Tribute Actor Award. So, the afternoon before the ceremony, he visited the Be Fair Be Vegan advocacy campaign at one of Toronto’s subway stations and took the media with him:
The following month, he paid a surprise visit to several screenings of Joker while wearing a hoodie that said “support the Animal Liberation Front”:
Another form of activism Joaquin has engaged in many times, and even brought his mother to, is pig vigils. At a pig vigil, activists go to a slaughterhouse when the trucks with the pigs arrive. They then spend a couple of minutes comforting the pigs and giving them water until they’re taken inside to be killed.
So, on the night Joaquin received his SAG award in January 2020, he skipped the after-parties and went straight to a pig vigil, while still wearing his Stella McCartney tuxedo. Media outlets ranging from The Hollywood Reporter to The Independent reported on it. And if you want to see the full interview he gave while he was there, watch this video from the 16 to the 23 minute mark:
In February, he was in the U.K. for the BAFTA Awards, and he teamed up with the animal rights organization Animal Equality to drop a banner from the iconic Tower Bridge in London. The banner read: “Factory farming is destroying our planet. Go vegan.” In the accompanying interview, he discussed both climate change and animal exploitation:
Later that month, the day after he gave his historic Oscar speech, he had the opportunity to rescue a mother cow and her newborn calf who were already at the slaughterhouse:
Joaquin has continued his activism since. And, in June 2020, he paid tribute to the late Regan Russell, a Canadian human and animal rights activist who was ran over by a slaughterhouse truck during a pig vigil in Burlington, Ontario. Joaquin said: “While her tragic death has brought upon deep sorrow in the Animal Save community, we will honor her memory by vigorously confronting the cruelties she fought so hard to prevent.”
The incident happened days after ag-gag legislation Bill 156 passed, which was designed to make exposing animal cruelty illegal. The bill is similar to ag-gag laws in the U.S. which have been struck down as unconstitutional in several states. Joaquin said: “The Ontario government can attempt to silence us with the passage of its ag-gag bill -Bill 156 – but we will never go away and we will never back down.”
Other projects Joaquin was involved in
Apart from all the types of activism we’ve mentioned already, Joaquin has also been involved in a few other projects.
In February 2019, then-12-year-old animal rights activist Genesis Butler asked Pope Francis to go plant-based for Lent. If he accepted, a million dollars would be donated to a charity of his choosing. The campaign was backed by the non-profit Million Dollar Vegan and celebrities such as Joaquin, Moby, Woody Harrelson, and Paul McCartney.
Genesis wrote a letter, in which she said: “Farming animals causes much suffering and is a leading cause of climate change, deforestation, and species loss. When we feed animals crops that humans can eat, it is wasteful. With a growing world population, we cannot afford to be wasteful.” And she also made the following video:
In February 2020, Joaquin starred in a short film (slightly over 2 minutes) called Guardians of Life. The film raised awareness about climate change, but it was too short to address the causes:
Later that year, Joaquin wrote the foreword of a groundbreaking photo book called HIDDEN: Animals in the Anthropocene. The book, created by award-winning photographer Jo-Anne McArthur, features photos from thirty photojournalists on the front lines of animal suffering worldwide.
Joaquin said: “The photojournalists featured in HIDDEN have entered some of the darkest most unsettling places in the world. The images they have captured are a searing reminder of our unpardonable behavior towards animals and will serve as beacons of change for years to come.”
Jo-Anne presented it in the following video:
Joaquin regretted riding horses
As Joaquin has pointed out in Earthlings, veganism is not only about avoiding animal products, but also about not using animals for entertainment. When bringing this up, people usually think of zoos and circuses, but it also applies to horseback riding.
After all, domestic horses are bred purely because humans enjoy sitting on their backs and controlling their movements. By definition, that’s using animals for entertainment. Horses need to be broken in to even allow it, they’re often whipped, they can get injured, and many of them are killed before their time. But even in the best of circumstances, horseback riding violates their right to move around freely like any other animal.
Although Joaquin grew up in a vegan family, his family was unaware that horseback riding wasn’t vegan. We know that because River, who was very outspoken about veganism, rode a horse in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade when he was 18. He even said he was looking forward to it in an interview he gave before filming started.
So, when Joaquin rode a horse and a horse-drawn carriage in Gladiator, which came out in 2000, we don’t think he was intentionally deviating from veganism. It seems like he just hadn’t given the topic any thought.
In 2017, however, he rode horses again, this time for his role in a Western called The Sisters Brothers. At that point, he had been vegan for four decades and was the narrator of the best-known animal rights documentary in the world, so he could reasonably be expected to know that horseback riding wasn’t vegan.
He was interviewed by fellow actor Will Ferrell in 2018, before the movie came out, and Will actually asked him about riding horses. This is what he said:
Will: I also know that you did a film this summer with the great John C. Reilly.
Joaquin: It’s called The Sisters Brothers.
Will: Yes! Did you have to ride horses?
Joaquin: We did.
Will: Are you proficient in horse riding?
Joaquin: I am not.
Will: Do you remember the name of your horse?
Joaquin: You motherfucker. [laughs] Well, here’s the thing: how could you even verify this?
Will: You’re right, I can’t at all. I’m just curious.
Joaquin: There were, in my defense, several horses. For one, there was a running joke because I always screwed up his name. I think it was Machinero. I used to call him Monochado. And another one was Capitán.
Will: The few times I’ve done horse work, they’re always like, “Joaquin, you’ll be on Thunderbolt. Will, we’re going to give you Cinnamon here. Cinnamon’s a good old gal. She won’t give you much trouble.”
Joaquin: There was another one, the stunt horse, that I couldn’t even look at because she was just so ferocious, her muscles constantly flexing.
Will: Twitching, ready to go, full gallop.
Joaquin: And I couldn’t do that. I mean, I didn’t like riding horses. I actually regretted having to ride. I’m a little clueless, because I don’t think that I really thought about it that much until I was there and realized, “Oh, it’s a Western and we’re on horses a lot.” I hadn’t really considered that. I felt bad about riding them. I had the feeling that they were like, “I don’t really want you on my back.”
Will: But they tell you that the horses love it.
Joaquin: Yeah, but the horses tell you something different. I’m really bumming out this interview, man. [laughs] I’m sorry.
So, while it’s strange that Joaquin didn’t realize that his character would be riding horses, and that he still did it after realizing his mistake, he did express regret about it.
Given that most scripts don’t involve horses and that CGI can be used for the ones that do, there’s no reason for Joaquin to ever ride horses again. So, hopefully, he won’t.
He’s currently working on a movie with the director of Gladiator again. The movie is called Kitbag, and he will play the role of Napoleon Bonaparte. Napoleon obviously rode horses a lot, but no details have been released about whether this will be portrayed in the movie, and, if so, whether CGI will be used or not.
Joaquin has eaten the Impossible Burger
For the sake of completeness, we should also mention that Joaquin has eaten the Impossible Burger on at least one occasion, the night of the Oscars in 2020:
The description and the wrapper in his hand say Monty’s Good Burger, which is the name of the fast food chain, but the patty is the Impossible Burger.
The Impossible Burger is 100 percent plant-based, but the company that produces it, Impossible Foods, has tested one of the ingredients, soy leghemoglobin, on animals. The animals they used were rats, 188 in total, and all of them were intentionally killed as part of the experiments. Impossible Foods has also left the door open for more animal testing in the future.
Given Joaquin’s track record of speaking out against animal testing, it’s unlikely that he suddenly changed his mind on that, though. He may have been unaware that the burger he was eating was the Impossible Burger, or he may have been unaware of Impossible Foods’ animal testing altogether.
Joaquin’s relationship, dogs, and child
Joaquin met his fiancée Rooney Mara in 2012 on the set of the movie Her, in which she played his ex-wife. But they didn’t start dating until 2016, shortly after they worked on the movie Mary Magdalene together. They got engaged in 2019.
Rooney is also vegan and is just as passionate about it as Joaquin. She founded the clothing and accessories brand HIRAETH, which is completely free of animal products, for “a new generation of conscious women who value quality and design but do not want to compromise on their ethical beliefs.” As shown earlier in this article, Rooney also engages in animal rights activism.
Both Joaquin and Rooney brought a dog into the relationship. Joaquin has said that it was “a long process” to get them to co-exist, “but now they’re best friends.” Their names are Soda and Oskar, Joaquin rescued soda from euthanasia in 2006, and they’re both on plant-based diets.
In September 2020, it was announced that Rooney had given birth to their first child. They named him River, after Joaquin’s late brother. In an interview Joaquin gave shortly before River was born, he said the following about raising children vegan:
“I have friends that feel like we have to be very careful about exposing kids to the truth about what happens to animals, animals whom we use for food. And I have friends that say, ‘I don’t want to indoctrinate,’ and I’m like, ‘What are you talking about? Every fucking milk carton is indoctrination.’ When you see ‘happy cows’ on a farm on a carton of milk, you’re sending a clear message that you’re cool with what’s happening. But that’s not representative or indicative of what their lives are actually like.
“So I’m not sure what the balance is. That personal decision is between a parent and their child, but I do think that we have to get honest and fight the misinformation that exists out there on a product that we use for food and beverage.
“Children are so often already sensitive to it, and would probably make that choice [to go vegan] on their own if they weren’t encouraged to do otherwise—if they were really exposed to the truth. You don’t have to brainwash or try to convince them of your beliefs. If you just showed them the truth, most children would say, ‘I don’t want to be a part of that.’”
So, we have every expectation that River will become as passionate about veganism as his parents.
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