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How Gaby Hoffmann found the space to play on the ‘C’mon C’mon’ set

Actress Gaby Hoffman poses for a photo with the buildings of New York City behind her.
Gaby Hoffmann stars in “C’mon C’mon” with Joaquin Phoenix as her brother. Hoffmann jokes that most of the time on set, she and Phoenix “had this strange sibling thing” where they acted like teenagers.
(Michael Nagle / For The Times)

If you’ve had the opportunity to meet Mike Mills, it’s pretty obvious he’s the sort of filmmaker who naturally makes his sets a joyful experience for everyone involved. His latest endeavor, “C’mon C’mon,” appears to have been no exception. At least according to Gaby Hoffmann, who plays a mom trying to raise her young son Jesse (Woody Norman) in Mills’ new drama. In fact, Hoffmann jokes that most of the time she and co-star Joaquin Phoenix, who plays her character Viv’s brother, Johnny, “had this strange sibling thing” where they acted like teenagers.

“There was just a lot of lightness,” Hoffmann says. “Mike allows space for whatever. That’s the kind of director he is. He’s just like a good daddy, you know? It’s like, ‘OK, kids, all right, you want to play like that? All right. Let’s make some safe boundaries here and go at it.’”

Set over a series of weeks, “C’mon C’mon” finds the Los Angeles-based Viv asking her somewhat estranged brother to care for Jesse after it becomes apparent it’s going to take some time to convince her husband (Scoot McNairy) to enter a mental health facility in Northern California. Over the course of the film, Johnny, an audio journalist, drags his charismatic nephew to New York and New Orleans as he continues working on a long-term project.

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“The first scene that I shot with Joaquin was memorable because we had not yet met,” Hoffmann recalls. “And so, on camera, calling action, opening the door to welcome him into my house was our first encounter. And that was a really fun scene to shoot for some reason, even though it was just really quick. There was so much kind of unsaid and said, and anticipation and all this stuff. There were so many colors in that relationship that were present right then and there that we just kept exploring, which is my favorite thing to do. I was like, ‘I could just do this scene a hundred times and call it quits.’ That’s the movie for me.”

Mills and Hoffmann had a casual meeting almost a decade before filming but weren’t in the same social circles when he began writing the script (they are now, however). It was her work in the classic television series “Girls” and “Transparent” that had him writing the character with her in mind.

“She was always surprising, always scratching away at cliches and acting cliches,” Mills says. “I’m always just captivated, because I never knew what she was going to do next. Then she’s also just super funny. I find her quite hysterical. I knew all that. I knew she was a mom. Then I had the image of her and Joaquin side by side. I’m like, ‘That feels so like family to me.’ I just have a sense that these two are going to get along or these two would enjoy each other.”

Even after the success of “Beginners” and “20th Century Women,” Mills says he was pretty nervous about pitching her the project. He notes, “[The character is] this very transgressive, hyper-intelligent, super-intense person. This is sort of a supporting role and it’s supporting these men. She’s just going to see through that and be too smart for this. Then I meet her and she is amazingly intelligent in this very spiritual way, but is also very communicative, very accessible. A very dear funny person. So yeah, I was totally afraid that she was going to say no, to be honest.”

All of Mills’ films have been semi-autobiographical, but Hoffmann doesn’t believe Viv is based on any one person in particular. Instead, Viv is sort of a constellation of many women throughout his life.

“I just remember thinking that she sounded like somebody I knew,” Hoffmann recalls of her initial dinner with Mills. “Yeah, we didn’t talk a great deal about Viv that night, I don’t think. I remember just talking about life and parenthood and family and movies and music and all the people we knew in common. And we hung out for hours. And I remember him describing [the character] a little bit, but it was just like a kind of general color that he gave me.”

Hoffmann has notably starred in films with acclaimed screenplays such as Kenneth Lonergan’s “You Can Count on Me” and Todd Solondz’s “Life Before Wartime,” but says when she got the script for “C’mon C’mon” it felt like the best thing she’d ever read.

“I’m a parent and Mike and I have a lot of similar sensibilities,” Hoffmann says. “It just held so much beauty and joy and heartbreak and devastation and truth in it, for me, with such a light touch, that I felt profoundly proud of Mike, that he was able to find that in this final cut. That he really was able to hit all those notes while making what felt like a very easy kind of graceful feeling thing. You know? It’s about everything, is how it feels to me! And yet, I don’t know, it feels like a piece of music in a dream or something.”


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