Out on the balcony, he bounces around at times, listens intently at others, reacts with his face when something seizes his ear, bites his nails when he’s bored, asks Mills genuine questions of his own about how he directs, and jumps up from time to time to get some potatoes from one of those silver hotel platters that’s come for him in the suite. He’s wearing tinted glasses, a black “Support the Animal Liberation Front” sweatshirt. He’s carrying around some extra weight (and the horned-owl haircut) from Ari Aster’s next film, Disappointment Blvd., which had just wrapped shooting in Montreal. He’s really just acting a little impish the whole time. The only thing he seems to relish more than the sounds of the midtown jackhammers are the sirens.
I ask Phoenix if it is different to play a character who was not based on someone or something that people already know—a character, like Johnny, so blandly everyday that there’s a lot you can do as an actor to swing things one way or the other without people saying: ‘Hey, that’s not how Johnny Cash would’ve said it.’ When the character was evolving into something that you’re going to have to embody, how does that happen?
Is it mysterious?
Is there a way in which when you’re playing somebody that’s—maybe there’s a novel ahead of time, or a real person—?
“It’s all stupid.”
Mills starts cracking up.
“It’s all just so stupid. Really! It is, isn’t it?” Mills is laughing harder—and Phoenix is at least smiling now. “It’s so wonderful, and it’s beautiful, and it’s fantastic. You’re just sitting around, you go, Oh I enjoy being in this person’s company for whatever reason, we just start talking, maybe we talk about things that aren’t related at all, and then we discover: Wow, actually that’s steering us directly towards the heart of this moment, we didn’t even fucking realize it. You give yourself over to the creative process, like whatever that thing is that’s, like, beyond my understanding or control. And I don’t want to fucking control it. And that’s what it is for me. So to say… I couldn’t really tell you. I’d be making shit up to try.”
I suggest that this is probably more honest than those who say they deliberately and relentlessly craft a character for months ahead of time.
“But I think that’s true also!” Phoenix says. “I think all these things exist simultaneously. It’s whatever inspires you or inspires thought. Sometimes it’s sitting down and reading something. Sometimes it’s some of the NPR shows that we listened to….It’s hard to say where the inspiration comes from. I try to consume as much as possible, and not control it, like not dictate what is going to inspire me. But I think mostly it was sitting around and talking, right?”
Every film is different, Mills says, because it’s comprised of the relationships between the people who make it, a collective relationship that forms a one-off shape, unique to that film. Mills says he tries to convene a film set like it’s “a dinner party—a nice one. With, like, my friends.” That’s what he tells his assistant directors: “We’re the hosts and they’re the guests.” The vibe of a Mike Mills set / party, is one, he says, where he doesn’t quite know the destination, and so relies on each of the guests to take it there. Mills describes how he, Phoenix, and Gaby Hoffmann (who plays Phoenix’s sister) all seem to thrive with “that thing about not knowing how it’s going to work out, or where is the thing that’s going to help you going forward. Like, I love that. And so I think we all kind of vibe that way.” That’s how it worked with all the actors, Mills says, even Woody Norman, who played 9-year-old Jesse. Everyone, he says, helped steer the ship.