Joaquin Phoenix doesn’t like to take a compliment.
On a recent phone call, filmmaker Mike Mills started to explain why he wanted to work with Phoenix on his new family drama “C’mon C’mon” when the actor politely but firmly cut him off.
“OK, all right, thanks for sharing. Next question?” Phoenix interjected. “You guys are free to talk later without me around, but I can’t be a part of that.”
Phoenix, 47, is famously uncomfortable with interviews, bristling at questions about Method acting techniques and his eclectic career choices. But that caginess is part of what makes his tender, funny performance in “C’mon C’mon” such a wonderful surprise, particularly coming off his disturbing turn in DC villain origin story “Joker,” for which he won the best actor Oscar in 2020.
The new film (in theaters now) follows a public radio journalist named Johnny (Phoenix) who travels the country interviewing kids on their thoughts about the future. After reconnecting with his semi-estranged sister, Viv (Gaby Hoffmann), Johnny volunteers to help care for his 9-year-old nephew, Jesse (Woody Norman), who soon joins him on the road.
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With its mix of documentary and narrative storytelling, “C’mon C’mon” explores how children are just as emotionally complex as adults. Like the director’s last two films – “Beginners” (starring Christopher Plummer), inspired by his dad, and “20th Century Women” (with Annette Bening), a tribute to his mom – Mills’ latest outing also draws from family relationships, this one with his 9-year-old child, Hopper.
Through fellow parents and Hopper’s teachers, Mills says he’s learned the importance of giving kids “space for all of their emotions; treating them equally and legitimate, and not less than or cute.”
Phoenix is a dad himself: He welcomed a son, River, with fiancée Rooney Mara last year, whom they named for Phoenix’s late brother. The “Walk the Line” star was drawn to Mills’ innate curiosity the first time they met, as well as the story’s “interesting and limitless” possibilities.
“Even now, there are moments or ideas or feelings (in this film) that resonate with me,” says Phoenix, who’s considered a dark horse contender to earn his fifth Oscar nomination for “C’mon C’mon” in this year’s wildly competitive best actor race.
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Over the course of the movie, the single and childless Johnny learns to communicate with Jesse, who struggles to express his feelings about his absent, bipolar father (Scoot McNairy). The duo sweetly bond over books, pizza, wrestling matches and long walks, which occasionally give way to temper tantrums and deeper conversation.
In one of the film’s most heartbreaking moments, Jesse tells his uncle that he’s worried he’ll forget about their time together as he gets older. Johnny reassures his nephew that he’ll be there to remind him.
“Memories are one of the more precious things to me,” Mills says. “I think a lot about what (memories) I hold onto and what might’ve slipped away. And it’s kind of mind-boggling what my kid doesn’t remember, even just about last year.”
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As Jesse travels with his uncle from Los Angeles to New York to New Orleans, Johnny interviews children and teenagers about their hopes and concerns for the planet, our future leaders and their families. The thoughtful exchanges are entirely unscripted, save for a list of prompts that Mills would give to Phoenix before shooting.
“I felt like I was always relying on that piece of paper with the questions on it,” Phoenix recalls. “I have a lot of appreciation for what (journalists) do. I always thought it was so fun and easy, and I had the hard part (as the subject). But asking the questions is very difficult, at least for me.”
The actor admits he was “very concerned and nervous” about interviewing kids in their homes, and worked to ensure they felt comfortable.
“We started every interview saying, ‘I’m going to ask you a bunch of questions. If there’s anything you don’t want to talk about, say (so),’ ” Phoenix says. “I thought it was going to be more difficult to get them to open up, but they were just hungry to be heard.”
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The purpose of the interviews is to introduce “a bigger spectrum of life from a young perspective,” after talking so much about the “intense specificity of being with your own kid,” Mills says. Despite some autobiographical elements, the Oscar-nominated filmmaker says Hopper is “not that interested”in watching “C’mon C’mon.”
“My kid’s very smart and understands this isn’t totally about them,” Mills says. “They know it’s just the way my work goes.”
Phoenix chimes back in, joking that he makes his son watch the film on repeat: “He’s 13 months old, but I’m teaching him to say, ‘Daddy’s great, Daddy’s great,’ as he’s watching it over and over. So that’s beautiful, Mills, but now I feel like I might be a bad dad or something?”
“No, don’t worry,” Mills says, laughing. “This is a safe space.”
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