Joaquin Phoenix doesn’t like to take compliments.
In a recent phone call, filmmaker Mike Mills began explaining why he wanted to work with Phoenix in his new family drama “C’mon C’mon,” but the actor cut him off politely but firmly.
“Well, okay, thanks for sharing. Next question?” Phoenix asserted. “You guys are free to speak later without me, but I can’t be a part of it.”
Phoenix, 47, is famously uncomfortable in interviews, asking questions about method acting techniques and his eclectic career choices. But his tender, funny performance in “C’mon C’Man” is part of what makes it such a wonderful surprise, especially with his disturbing turn in the DC villain’s origin story “The Joker”, for which he won Best Actor Oscar in 2020
The new film (now in theaters) follows a public radio journalist named Johnny (Phoenix), who travels around the country interviewing children about their thoughts on the future. After reconnecting with his semi-divorced sister Viv (Gabby Hoffman), Johnny volunteers to help take care of his 9-year-old nephew, Jesse (Woody Norman), who soon joins him on the road.
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With a blend of documentary and narrative storytelling, “C’mon C’mon” explores how children are emotionally complex as adults. Like the director’s last two films – “Beginners” (starring Christopher Plummer), inspired by his father, and “20th Century Women” (with Annette Bening), Mills’s recent tour is full of family ties. One with her 9-year-old child Hopper.
Through co-parenting and Hopper’s teachers, Mills says children have “learned the importance of giving them space for all their feelings; treating them equally and equitably and with little or no admiration.”
Phoenix’s father: He welcomed his son River with fiancee Rooney Mara last year, whom he named after his late brother in Phoenix. The “Walk the Line” star was drawn to Mills’ innate curiosity when he first met, as well as the “interesting and boundless” possibilities of the story.
“Even now, there are moments or thoughts or feelings (in this film) that resonate with me,” says Phoenix, who is considered a dark horse contender for earning her fifth Oscar nomination for “C’mon C’man” this year. Competitive Best Actor Race.
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During the film, the lone and childless Johnny learns to communicate with Jesse, who struggles to express his feelings about his absentee, bipolar father (Scoot McNairy). The two bond meekly over books, pizza, wrestling matches and long walks, which occasionally lead to tantrums and deeper conversation.
In one of the film’s most heartbreaking moments, Jessie tells her uncle that she’s worried she’ll forget about the time together as she gets older. Johnny promises to be there to remind his nephew.
“Memories are one of the most valuable things to me,” Mills says. “I think a lot about what (the memories) hold and what may have passed. And it is mind-boggling for my child not to remember last year.”
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While traveling from Los Angeles to New Orleans with Jessie and her uncle, Johnny interviews children and teens about their hopes and concerns about the planet, our future leaders and their families. Thoughtful exchanges are completely unscripted, save a list of prompts Mills gives to Phoenix before the shooting.
“I always thought I was relying on that paper with questions,” Phoenix recalls. “I have a lot of appreciation for what (journalists) do. I always think it’s a lot of fun and easy. And I have the hardest part (as a subject). But it’s very hard to ask questions, at least for me.”
The actor admits he was “very concerned and nervous” about interviewing children in their homes and worked to make sure they were comfortable.
“We started every interview with, ‘I’m going to ask you a few questions. If there’s anything you don’t want to talk about, say (do),'” Phoenix says. “I thought it was more difficult to open them, but they were hungry to ask.”
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Mills says the purpose of the interviews is to introduce “a larger spectrum of life from a young perspective” after talking so much about “the extreme specificity of being with your own child.” Despite some autobiographical material, the Oscar-nominated filmmaker says Hopper is “not interested”When looking at “Bunny.”
“My child is very intelligent and understands that this is not entirely about them,” Mills says. “They know this is the way my job is going.”
Phoenix screamed again, joking that he would repeatedly watch the movie for his son: “He’s 13 months old, but as he watches it repeatedly, I teach him to say ‘Dad Great, Daddy Great.’ Seems to me to be something? “
“No, don’t worry,” Mills says with a laugh. “It’s a safe place.”
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