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.
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?
Norman: I really liked Jesse. I's a very deep role. It's very challenging because it's a very complex character. There's a lot of layers in Jesse and it was very fun to get into that. Jesse is extremely different than me. He's this very introverted, very kind of quirky, strange kid. And I'm quite extroverted.
Q: Joaquin, what drew you into the project? On the face of it, a film about a middle-aged man who bonds with his nephew could potentially seem cloying.
Phoenix: That was a danger that Mike and I were aware of from the very beginning. Trying to ensure that something was genuine and authentic and there wasn't any artifice — in a medium that's oftentimes blanketed in artifice — that's what was exciting about it.
What I hadn't really anticipated was that I would have this great barometer of what was authentic sitting in front of me every day in Woody and how he inhabited this world and that character. This is not Woody in the film. He was hyperaware of the complexities of the character he was playing. And yet it always felt genuine.
Q: Woody, had you ever seen any of Joaquin's movies before?
Phoenix: Now remember, Woody, often journalists will make you feel you have to answer questions. You don't have to answer — particularly any question about me. You can say, "I don't remember." But don't tell them what a d— I am, OK?
Norman: [laughs] OK. I don't know if I did watch any of his movies. I might have and I just can't remember. But I definitely knew who he was and I respected him a lot.
Phoenix: That's ridiculous. You did not respect me. You told me all the time, "Listen, I have to be honest, people talk well of you but I think you're a f— fool. Keep your opinions to yourself." You did, dude! And you cursed a lot. I probably shouldn't say that to the press but you have a very dirty mouth.
Q: Well, Woody, I will tell you that Mike said you were actually the most mature person on the set.
Norman: I mean, just a minute ago I was laughing at fart jokes so I don't know if that's true.
Q: How did you guys bond outside of working? Woody, Mike said you liked to go to escape rooms in whatever city you were shooting.
Norman: Yeah, we did an escape room in New Orleans and we did another one in New York and they were both really fun. I was terrible at them and so was Joaquin. I won't let you lie — you were also really bad.
Phoenix: Yeah, I was terrible. Oftentimes when you're making a movie where you're supposed to develop a relationship the director will think it's a good idea to set up a dinner or something so you can hang out and get to know each other and it always feels false and backfires. We didn't really have that. There was nothing imposed on us.
We shot pretty much in order so we really got to go on this journey together. We started in L.A. and were getting to know each other and figuring out how to work together and then we went to New York and suddenly that's a brand-new experience and the city is speaking to you in a different way and affecting how you interact with each other. It felt really organic.
Q: Joaquin, you have nieces and nephews and at some point around the time you were making this film you found out you were going to become a father. Did any of that filter into your performance?
Phoenix: Certainly not consciously. I don't work that way because I think it always feels a little bit gross to do that. But I'm sure obviously we were affected by all of our experiences in life. But yes, I am an uncle to four boys and they're all different ages and I'm sure some of that bled through in some way.
Q: You started out as a child actor, as did Gaby Hoffmann. Did that experience help in any way in working with Woody?
Phoenix: I don't think any of my previous experience helped. I think Woody is a unique and special talent, and I was very excited that that creative spirit in him could be nurtured working with Mike in a film like this. I wonder what kind of actor I'd be if I'd had an experience like this early on.
Toward the end of the filming, Woody said without any irony that he'd been carrying me basically throughout this whole production, and me and Mills agreed with him completely. [laughs] So in no way did I feel like I was the seasoned veteran actor who was able to provide any kind of advice for the young one. Woody was very much in control of what he was doing, and I was along for the ride, learning.
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