His first stint at acting was in 1982 as a guest appearance in River’s breakthrough television series, ‘Seven Brides for Seven Brothers’. During this time, he used the name, ‘Leaf Phoenix’.
Following this, he was seen in a couple of television series such as ‘Backwards: The Riddle of Dyslexia’, ‘The Fall Guy’, ‘Hill Street Blues’, ‘Murder, She Wrote’, and so on.
His big break came in 1986 with the kid’s adventure flick, ‘SpaceCamp’ wherein he was cast in a supporting role as a wannabe astronaut, Max.
Later, he was cast in Alfred Hitchcock episode of ‘A Very happy Ending’ and in the primetime drama, ‘Morning/Evening Star’. In 1987, he found a role in the film, ‘Russkies’.
His breakthrough performance came in 1989 with the Ron Howard directorial venture, ‘Parenthood’. The highlight of the film was his impressive performance as the rebellious son of Dianne West.
Following the success of the film, instead of banking on the opportunity, he decided to put his career on hold and travel through Latin America. While he was on a self-declared hiatus, his brother River achieved stardom becoming one of the leading actors of his time.
Tragedy struck him in 1993 when his brother River died. The immature and sudden death brought him back to the limelight and in the public eye
He resumed to take up acting professionally, switching to using his birth name. His first film after making a comeback was Gus van Sant’s ‘To Die For’ in 1995. In the film, he played the character of a troubled teen who was seduced by a success hungry news reporter.
He followed this up by Oliver Stone’s ‘Inventing the Abbotts’, a romantic drama co-starring Liv Tyler. The actor paired up with the director yet again to come up with the film, ‘U-Turn’. However, the movie was a major failure at the box office.
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Year 1998 brought mixed results for his career graph. While the movie ‘Return to Paradise’ was majorly successful and earned him rave reviews for impressive acting skills and powerful portrayal of an American imprisoned man, the movie ‘Clay Pigeons’ was a dud and failed to make an impact at the box office.
Turn of events occurred in 2000 for this talented actor who jumped up the ladder of success with the portrayal of the character of the jealous emperor Commodus in the Roman epic, ‘Gladiator’. The film was a blockbuster success and earned him bountiful accolades including nominations at the Oscars.
He cemented his position as a top-rated actor with the film, ‘The Yards’ released the same year. In the film, he played the character of a slick performer. The movie was followed by yet another historical epic drama, ‘Quills’ released the same year.
‘Signs’, released in 2002, was his first film under the direction of M Night Shyamalan. The thriller flick gained much critical and commercial acclaim, collecting $227 million at the box office. The following year, he starred in the much criticized flick, ‘It’s All About Love’.
In 2004, he collaborated with Shyamalan yet again to come up with the tale, ‘The Village’, wherein he played the character of a lovestruck farmer. Same year, he was seen in two more films, ‘Hotel Rwanda’ wherein he portrayed the role of a disillusioned cameraman and ‘Ladder 49’ which had him playing the role of a heroic firefighter.
By then, he was popularly known amongst the audience as a character-actor. He was famous for getting into the skin of the character and portraying real emotions and passion.
In 2005, he took a leap further by starring in a biopic, ‘Walk the Line’ which filmed the life of the country’s greatest musical talent, Johnny Cash. For the film, he went under rigorous musical training, learning the minute knick-knacks of singing and playing the guitar.
The hard work and perseverance for ‘Walk the Line’ paid off resoundingly as the film cashed in majorly at the box office. Furthermore, it garnered much critical acclaim and nominations in prestigious awards of the film fraternity. It also won him his first Golden Globe.
The highs of success took its toll on this outstandingly brilliant actor who soon came to terms with his drinking habit. However, he soon got rid of the same and turned to active filming.
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In the following years, he was seen in the films, ‘We Own the Night’ in which he was an executive producer as well. Next in line was ‘Reservation Road and James Gary’s independent drama, ‘Two Lovers’.
A controversy following his bizarre appearance and behaviour in David Letterman’s Late Show created a stir amongst the audience who viewed it to be a publicity stunt. The subsequent retirement plan and the news of taking up profession of singing also was not observed seriously by the people.
He them came up with a documentary film, ‘I’m Still Here’ with Casey Affleck. The film debuted at the Venice Film Festival and the Toronto International Film Festival in 2010.
Following a self-imposed two year hiatus from acting, he returned to the big screen with Paul Thomas Anderson's film ‘The Master’ in 2012. The film was widely commended and applauded by the critics as well as the audiences. It also won him the Volpi Cup for Best Actor.
His latest film, ‘Her’, a directorial venture of Spike Jonze, had him play alongside Olivia Wilde, Amy Adams and Rooney Mara. His brilliant portrayal of the character of Theodore Twombly won him nomination at the Golden Globes.
His upcoming projects include, ‘The Immigrant’, ‘Inherent Vice’ and ‘Unity’.