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That chemistry Joaquin Phoenix and Woody Norman have in 'C'mon C'mon' is completely authentic

Josh Rottenberg, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

Joaquin Phoenix was deeply skeptical director Mike Mills would ever find a child actor talented enough to anchor his film "C'mon C'mon."

The tender-hearted story of a radio journalist named Johnny who forges an unexpected emotional bond with his precocious nephew, Jesse, during a cross-country trip, "C'mon C'mon" called for a level of emotional intelligence, subtlety and authenticity that, as a former child actor himself, Phoenix knew was difficult to find in a young kid. In the wrong hands, the intimate, black-and-white film — which is now playing in limited theatrical release, with a gradual theatrical rollout planned on a tide of enthusiastic reviews — was the type of project that could all too easily tip into cliche.

"Joaquin said, 'You're not going to find a kid that can do all this,'" says Mills, who drew inspiration for the screenplay from his relationship with his own child, Hopper. "He said, 'I'll believe it when I see it.'"

When the young British actor Woody Norman came to Los Angeles to read for the role, Phoenix immediately saw it.

"There was this moment where we were doing a scene together and Woody ad-libbed something in character with the American accent, maintaining this dynamic and bringing something new to it," Phoenix says. "I turned and looked at Mills and we both just knew that something really magical had happened."

From that moment onward, the 47-year-old Phoenix and the 11-year-old Norman — who has previously appeared in small roles on the Amazon comedy series "Catastrophe" and the 2017 period drama "The Current War" — clicked on a level that Mills never anticipated.

 

"In the beginning it's my script but then you give it to the actors and they transform it and electricity between them starts happening," says Mills, who has explored fraught family relationships in his previous films "Beginners" and "20th Century Women." "By the end, it was like a documentary not of Johnny and Jesse but of Joaquin and Woody kind of falling in love."

With the A24 film, which co-stars Gaby Hoffmann, looking to secure a perch in this crowded awards season following its well-received premiere at the Telluride Film Festival in September, the Los Angeles Times spoke with Phoenix and Norman about how they created one of the most moving onscreen depictions of an adult-child bond in recent memory.

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Q: Woody, you've been acting since you were 5 but this is the biggest part you've had. What appealed to you about playing Jesse?

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