It’s hard to imagine an actor with more disdain for the interview process than Joaquin Phoenix. Over the years, Phoenix’s awkward responses to questions from interviews have practically become an extension of his uneasy screen persona. In 2019, he walked out of an interview for “Joker” when asked about whether the movie incited violence, and when another reporter asked him about preparing for the role a few months later, he said it was “old news.”
In 2014, he confessed during an Esquire profile that while he didn’t hate doing press, he certainly doesn’t like it, likening himself to “a bratty kid who doesn’t want to take a shower.” Phoenix’s discomfort with the process has become so tied to his persona that he even spoofed it himself with a prankish appearance on “Late Night With David Letterman,” in a bit that ended up being part of the mockumentary “I’m Still Here.”
Phoenix may be in on the joke, but he’s not laughing. For all the attention paid to his cringe-inducing media shenanigans, few have looked into the root cause of his discontent. And with his latest role, “C’mon C’mon,” Phoenix got the chance to explore the topic himself. The latest sensitive character study from “20th Century Women” director Mike Mills, “C’mon C’mon” stars Phoenix as radio journalist Johnny, who bonds with his nephew Jesse (Woody Norman) as they travel across the country.
In the movie’s opening passage and several other points throughout, Johnny is seen alongside his colleague Roxanne (played by real-life “Radiolab” correspondent Molly Webster) interviewing a diverse assemblage of children around the country about their aspirations for the future. Mills tasked Phoenix with conducting these unscripted interviews, forcing a man who infamously resents being the subject of such conversations to figure out how to perpetuate them instead.
The experience provided Phoenix with the opportunity to contemplate how his exposure to interviews as a child actor traumatized him early on, and led him to a greater appreciation for the challenging nature of the job. While visiting New York for the New York Film Festival premiere of “C’mon C’mon,” Phoenix and Mills sat down with IndieWire to discuss that journey. These are edited excerpts from that conversation.
Mike Mills: I feel generally like journalists in the entertainment space aren’t treated so hot. You have a few minutes for an interview. Your job isn’t fully respected by this system.
Joaquin Phoenix: I am actually surprised at how many entertainment journalists I’ve met who are dicks, because I feel like there’s such a responsibility to it. I’ve always leaned toward protection. When I was a kid — and even as an adult — some of the questions I was asked in interviews really shocked me. I don’t know how you can be in that position of power and abuse it in that way.
Mills: What we were doing was different. We were talking to these sweet kids who aren’t in the industry and trying to be conscious of that.
Phoenix: Early on, I worked with Molly Webster, and she just had such a natural, intuitive way of talking to people. That was really nice to see. I had this list of questions that Mills gave me, so I was nervous. You ask one question, then you have to ask the next one. But she just had this fucking flow. I was like, “Oh! I get it!” I never got there, but I understood that was possible. It was weird.
Mills: Shooting movies can be so oppressive and entitled. It’s toxic. But this was a gentler thing.
Phoenix: Right. When you’re a kid, you get asked all sorts of weird shit. How much money you make, do you feel like you’re missing out on your time as a kid, whatever fucking shit they say. Maybe it’s not so much the question as the agenda behind it. There’s the genuine curiosity of asking a question in conversation versus trying to elicit a response. I think maybe that’s the difference. It’s difficult for journalists. When you have, like, 20 minutes for an interview and beforehand they warn you, “He’s very uncomfortable.” And you have to deal with that shit before you even come into the room.
I suppose the art in some ways is being aware of those things and not letting that cloud your genuine curiosity about people. In this case, I went into an environment with some knowledge of it and was nervous about that. I didn’t want to make this one kid whose father was in jail uncomfortable. How do I ask about his life? I felt a little bit bad that I’m aware of something personal about him that he didn’t tell me. I knew I had to get to this genuine place. I think some people are good at that. Then you can put away all the publicists and the whole thing where they might be like, “Go to this hotel room. He’s vegan, so be careful!” I don’t fucking know.
Mills: This film came from being a dad and my relationship to my kid, and talking about crazy shit with a little person who can wallop your brain. I wanted that utter intimacy and then throw them out in the world. I kept seeing the big figure and the little figure out in the streets — and then a sea of kids around them. It’s like a psychological setting. Joaquin was a very involved uncle when I met him and a very involved human person.
Phoenix: Me and Mills met each other and just started talking. We talked about things that were very clearly related to the film and then things that didn’t seem like they were related, but we drew inspiration from them. I kept wanting to have those conversations. Sometimes we pointedly tried to find things, look over books, talk about hairstyles, clothes, wardrobe, shoes. We went everywhere, from fucking Studs Terkel to steampunk. Here’s somebody who’s a part of this world in a big way and has had this very rich life where he’s met and interacted with a whole host of people. And yet his life has become small in some ways. His contact with his family is diminished. Subconsciously, without even knowing it, we were developing this character who had this vast experience and it shaped him. He was desperately searching for this connection beyond himself. We just talked about all of these possibilities and slowly this thing started developing.
Mills: Kaari Pitkin, who produced “Radio Rookies” for NPR, helped us out. She obviously had a lot of experience from her own show on WNYC and knew where needed to go. We’d say, “We’re going to the Lower East Side — can you find a group of kids, or a school?” She found us a school in New Orleans, another in Detroit, and another one downtown New York. There’s only one kid we shot who didn’t wind up in the film. Each interview was like an hour. So I’d like to do a thing that’s just all the interviews with the kids. It was a lot.
Phoenix: I learned that there’s a very clear, obvious line in terms of what is a decent thing to do and how to get into a conversation with somebody in a considerate way while getting something out of it. I was struck by how many people I’ve interacted with who did not seem to care about that line, and perhaps even seemed to take joy in crossing it. Obviously, it was a big difference here because I was working with kids. I was worried about whether that was OK. I never wanted to push anybody. But I was surprised how desperate they were to be heard and be respected — to be asked a question not as an adult asking a child, as I had been, but in a way that was genuinely curious. I tried to live in that space.
Then I was just so moved by them. These kids would express their feelings, hopes, and dreams in the most honest way; then we would do a scene and it’d be like, “Well, there’s a very clear barometer of what’s honest and what isn’t.”
Mills: We finished shooting this movie in January 2020. When the pandemic started, this all felt very inconsequential, like the soldier who’s still in the jungle and doesn’t know the war’s over but is still just hacking away. I was editing alone through Evercast remotely for nine months. That was really trippy.
Phoenix: What’s wrong with that? Get the fuck out of here! Creativity is never fucking small.
Mills: OK, but I felt very alone during the pandemic. I was wondering what the fuck was going to happen to this movie. It was like I was on the moon on a solo mission.
Phoenix: I didn’t work much during the pandemic. I only worked this past summer. And it was the same as it’s always been.
A24 releases “C’mon C’mon” on November 20.