Admittedly, there was a feeling of, let’s say, trepidation before meeting Joaquin Phoenix for an interview on the balcony of a Midtown Manhattan hotel room. This would be my first in-person interview since March of 2020 and it was with an actor who makes it abundantly clear that he doesn’t like doing interviews. When I arrived I was told Phoenix had requested that the interview be paired with C’mon C’mon director Mike Mills. I was also supposed to interview Mills later that day and decided to not put up a fuss because I wasn’t going to tell the guy who already hates interviews that I turned down his request to make the interview more comfortable for him. (Yeah, “Hey, sorry I couldn’t agree to your request, but now let’s dig deep into who you are,” didn’t seem like it was going to go over very well.)
The thing I learned about Joaquin Phoenix is, yes, it’s true he doesn’t like interviews – and his mood changes so drastically from minute to minute I had no idea how it was going. At one point he got up and left and I had no idea why or if he was coming back or not; he did come back – but he’s never a jerk about it. (He seemed his happiest when we were talking about the Lee Majors television shows The Fall Guy and The Six Million Dollar Man and he seemed his least happiest when he was talking about himself.) The best comparison I can think of is how I react when my optometrist wants to give me the air puff test. I am miserable and very stressed out, but I am not mad at the optometrist. I know it’s part of the deal and we have to get it over with.
Joaquin Phoenix’s performance in Mike Mills’s wonderful C’mon C’mon isn’t a typical Joaquin Phoenix performance in that it, strangely, feels relatively “normal,” to the point it seems abnormal for Phoenix. This movie will not be billed as, “Joaquin Phoenix takes his darkest turn yet.” Phoenix plays Johnny, a journalist who is doing a series of interviews around the country with kids about their hope, dreams, and future. His sister, Viv (Gaby Hoffmann) is going through a rough patch and offers to take her son, Jesse (Woody Norman), along with him on his travels to give her some breathing room. Along the way, Johnny and Jesse start to bond. And, as Mills points out, the movie began as a story inspired by his own kids (following Beginners, a movie about his dad, and 20th Century Women, about his mom), but then became more about Joaquin Phoenix and Woody Norman bonding in real life, and we see that relationship unfold onscreen.
But, first, before we got into all that (and Phoenix’s sincere statement that he just realized he wants to make a The Six Million Dollar Man movie), Phoenix hits me with some advice…
Joaquin Phoenix: Life is a fucking maybe.
That should be your mantra.
Joaquin Phoenix: Yeah, it is my mantra, my unspoken mantra.
Mike, you’ve said that this is a movie about Joaquin’s relationship with Woody as actors and watching them bond over the course of filming.
Mike Mills: It definitely started with me and my kid, right? And I was writing about things I observed. And then when you start writing it, it takes its own light, just getting away from you. And then these guys come and, by the end of the movie, I felt like we weren’t just filming Jesse and Johnny, there was something going on between Joaquin and Woody that’s on screen that the camera was available for.
Joaquin Phoenix: Joaquin and Woody in this environment that they would not normally be in, right? So what is that? What is that situation? I mean, hopefully, that’s always the case? Whatever environment you created, whenever the people interact within that environment suddenly becomes just those people interacting with each other, right?
Mike Mills: There is something real happening between everyone, I feel.
Did you feel that way while filming, that you were bonding?
Joaquin Phoenix: Well, hold on, man. Because if I said no, I know Woody would say, “What a fucking joke. He said that he wanted to bond with me!”
Yeah, you would get a text.
Joaquin Phoenix: I don’t know what the right analogy is. But with this group of people, particularly this kind of film, this really small little group of people, right? There’s a bond that I think we all form together in different ways. Because it wasn’t just me and Woody alone. We’re interacting with 20 people every day. We’re reacting to new people that Mills is bringing into our little group and we’re working with new actors and some non-actors. So obviously a bond is formed. I don’t know that I thought of it that way. I didn’t consciously try to do that. But I think, inevitably, that happens. You’re spending every day together, right? So of course that came up. And he’s so impressive. He’s a truly sensitive, empathetic, thoughtful person that feels things really strongly. And there’s a certain responsibility, I think, in some of the things that we talked about in some of those moments that we had.
Is he aware that you acted when you were around his age? Does he know that?
Joaquin Phoenix: Yeah.
Do you tell him that?
Mike Mills: Woody’s the smartest person at the table, by far. So he knows everything and Woody’s the most developed smart person on the set.
Were you ever like, “Buddy, when I was your age I was doing episodes of The Fall Guy and you’re in a Mike Mills movie, so you’re doing pretty well…”
Joaquin Phoenix: Yeah, I was hyper-aware of that. No, man, we talked about it. [Laughs] But The Fall Guy was fucking dope! So don’t fucking knock The Fall Guy.
Oh I’m not. I watched The Fall Guy every week. Colt Seavers.
Joaquin Phoenix: Yeah, I know we talked a lot about that. We’ve talked about it a lot. Talked about it today a lot. What a cool kind of initial experience, but I don’t know what else he did. Did you see previous work of his?
Mike Mills: No.
Joaquin Phoenix: Just when you met him was the person?
Mike Mills: His audition, yeah.
Joaquin Phoenix: You met and worked with him and then I met him, right?
Mike Mills: Just like the day before.
Just because I wanted to see, I did look up that The Fall Guy scene. I was expecting it to be a touching moment between you and Lee Majors, or something like that. There’s a motorcycle gang trying to steal your kite.
Joaquin Phoenix: That’s what I’m doing? I don’t remember.
Joaquin Phoenix: That’s amazing.
Yeah, you’re being picked on. But not by kids. Literally, a motorcycle gang is just trying to steal your kite. What is this about? Who would do that?
Joaquin Phoenix: [Laughs] What is that about?
That’s the meanest motorcycle gang.
Joaquin Phoenix: It’s the most unbelievable motorcycle gang. What was happening in 1982? Was it 1983? When was that?
I think it was 1984.
Joaquin Phoenix: 1984?
Mike Mills: Was The Six Million Dollar Man with Lee Majors?
Joaquin Phoenix: Yeah, but no it’s different, right? He’s a bounty hunter…
Yeah, he was a stuntman bounty hunter…
Joaquin Phoenix: The Fall Guy was after, right?
You’d have been too young for The Six Million Dollar Man.
Joaquin Phoenix: No! I remember, The Six Million Dollar Man!
Not to see it, but I mean to be on the show.
Joaquin Phoenix: Right.
People have been trying to remake that forever.
Joaquin Phoenix: We’re actually doing it.
Wow, breaking news.
Joaquin Phoenix: We should do it!
Mike Mills: You’re directing the first one.
Joaquin Phoenix: Why not? I really think we should do it.
Mike Mills: “How did you guys start this movie?” “Well, we did this interview for Uproxx and…”
I think Mark Wahlberg is trying to make it. So you’ll have to fight him for it.
Mike Mills: He’s not that big.
Joaquin Phoenix: No, we’ve worked together. We don’t have to fight.
So did you want to give Woody advice? Or you say he’s the smartest guy in the room, so maybe he doesn’t need it.
Joaquin Phoenix: I think he gave me advice and I listened to it. I listened to it the day before and I still utilize it to this day. I don’t think I ever gave him advice, right?
Mike Mills: I think Joaquin is just super available for Woody and just in it and that’s the form of the advice. But I think Joaquin never presumed that he could school Woody. And then if you meet Woody, he didn’t feel that way either. He’s a super capable person and he’s got his own ideas.
Do you think that this movie is part of your trilogy about family, in a way?
Mike Mills: No.
Mike Mills: No, I get it. I get it. That would mean I intended to do that.
Oh, I see.
Mike Mills: So, each one I didn’t. My dad was dying and I was like, oh, that is something maybe I could say. And then so, no, my course has been completely: I’m the last one to know what the fuck I’m doing. I don’t plan. It doesn’t work that way. So, I do know that I really like working from things I’ve seen or experienced. And felt that maybe then I could report something of interest or with detail or that maybe has something real about it, right? So that’s all I know.
So, it’s not planned, but I have a feeling you expected people like me to probably bring that up.
Mike Mills: Well, it was probably in my head. It’s like, okay, so everyone’s going to go think that. I’m not going to let that stop me. I’m just going to keep going and just because this feels right.
I’m always fascinated the directors Joaquin works with because you’ve done, I counted, roughly 40 movies now. And there’s only four directors you’ve ever worked with more than once. Is it you want to work with as many people as possible? Or is it not a planned thing and things happen just like it happens.
Joaquin Phoenix: That has nothing to do with anything that happens in my career. I don’t really make any fucking choices ever.
Well, eventually you have to sign a contract I assume.
Joaquin Phoenix: Things happen. I’m guided by something else. I have no idea what’s happening. So that’s, really, I wouldn’t know how to answer that question, honestly. That’s not me being evasive…
No, no, I don’t think that.
Joaquin Phoenix: It’s me being as honest as possible. I come up with reasons. I try to come up with reasons with these interviews even! But honestly, the older I get in my work, I realize that I have very little say in this creative flow, how it’s diverted, and where it goes. And I’m pretty much along for the ride and just strive to be the conduit as much as possible. But I really don’t deserve any credit for any choices being made.
So I have this iced coffee I’m drinking right now. If you’re asking me, “is that your flavor?” I don’t know. I walked by the store and that sounded good at that moment. Is that a dumb analogy? That’s probably a dumb analogy.
Joaquin Phoenix: No, that’s fine. Whatever analogy helps you to understand it, because I don’t know that I fully understand it either. So whatever helps you. But yeah, I don’t know. It’s something that is – I’m hoping to be a part of whatever that creative spirit or flow that has existed for all time. I want to be a part of that, and that’s all. And sometimes, hopefully, I get to ride along on that stream that has guided others. I know it’s not a satisfying answer for you.
I don’t feel that way.
Joaquin Phoenix: But I’m tired of trying to come up with this fucked up reason, this interview “reason to do things.”
Mike Mills: Having been around him and working together, that was a very real answer. That’s really what goes on all the time.
Well, do you ever then, no matter how you got there, do you ever look back and go “Hey, pretty good? I got to work with all these people. However it happened happened, but I still got to do it.”
Joaquin Phoenix: No, of course, it’s true I’m constantly in gratitude. Yeah, it’s very cool.
I guess what I’m saying is, you’ve never been in a sequel. And you work with all these amazing people. I know how much you love Raging Bull and your career is a lot like the career of someone successful from that era, only you’re doing it in 2021. If you were an actor in the 1970s I’m convinced you’d have also done very well.
Joaquin Phoenix: But having been around long enough to have gone through several phases of hearing they don’t make those movies anymore only to find that creative thing, whatever the fuck it is, is powerful. And it’s bigger and more powerful than all of their fucking research and understanding of what works and what sells and what doesn’t. It’s bigger than that. It finds its fucking way no matter what, because it’s always been up against the thing that it is popular and what works and what should work, right? And it fucking finds its way through. And, so, it’s important. And, thankfully, there are people who come along… There are those that are on the other side of things, the money side of things, that recognize, every once in a while, they recognize a unique vision like Mike Mills to go, “We need to fucking support that. We need to get behind that.” It’s incredible that they’re there, right? It’s incredible that A24 is around right now and goes like, “Look, we get you. We love you. We want to support you.”
Mike Mills: A24, they never gave me a note. I had to beg them to give me criticisms.
Wait, how does that work? You went to them and you were like, “Hey, if you see anything you don’t like…”
Mike Mills: Well, in editing, I’m like, come on! What do you really think? Because you need to hear and they’re just, “Well, we just believe in you.” It’s like, what? It’s, whatever they’re doing is, you can’t get much better. Because it’s like, go do your thing. There’s no holds barred. No trick. No manipulation.
By the way, I agree with you when people say, “Oh, they don’t make them like that anymore.” But you find them, that’s the thing. You always find them.
Joaquin Phoenix: I don’t find them, they…
They find you.
Joaquin Phoenix: Of course.
You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.