Interview by Jenn Pelly
At the heart of director Mike Mills’s latest film C’mon C’mon is the delightful ballad of Jesse and Johnny.
The bold and highly perceptive 12-year-old Woody Norman plays opposite Joaquin Phoenix, and their dynamic is immediately a blast—like when the precocious Jesse wakes up Johnny by blasting opera in the living room and proclaiming, “I get to be loud on Saturdays!”
Turns out, the real-life Norman is a music head, too, making his collaboration with ever-sonically-attuned Mills all the more fitting. (Norman’s favorite rapper, Tyler, the Creator, even has a song that references Mills’ 20th Century Women.) We spoke on the phone in November about Norman’s musical taste for all things loud, brash, and “different.”
What would a loud Saturday be like for you personally?
Blasting Death Grips out my speakers.
Sick, how’d you get into Death Grips?
I liked the song “Get Got” for a while, and then I decided to listen to all of The Money Store. I loved it. Then I listened to the rest of their stuff and I just listened to Exmilitary, their first mixtape. That was an experience. They’re just a band that doesn’t miss. They’ve never had a mid album. My favorite album by them is probably Bottomless Pit. It’s like The Money Store with much more harsh beats. When that first heavy bass comes in, you know it’s about to go down.
How else does their music make you feel?
Paranoid. I stay ‘noided.
I heard that you also really like metal. What sparked your interest?
The first metal song I ever heard was “Chop Suey” by System of a Down. I listened to their discography, then moved onto people like Deftones. I’ve always been into the heavier side of everything. I adore Tyler, the Creator. I think Cherry Bomb is such an underrated piece of art.
Do you feel like there’s a reason you gravitate towards the heavier side of things?
It’s a place for me to really listen. I love everything heavy, I love everything alternative, I love everything out of the mainstream. Not all mainstream music sounds the same, but… it gets boring after a while.
Were there any particular artists you listened to while making C’mon C’mon to get into character?
Was there any music that Mike Mills turned you onto?
He played a lot of Frank Ocean on set. Before that, I knew the song “Chanel,” but that was it. The song he played the most was “White Ferrari,” which is a great song. I really appreciate Frank Ocean as an artist. By the end of listening to Blonde, I always feel like the cover: in the shower, with your face in your hand… that’s exactly what the album feels like to me.
I heard that you’re really into vinyl. How did you get into collecting records?
It all started when my grandpa Sally died. We got his vinyl, and he had loads of cool records, like Stevie Wonder. Then I wanted to collect more, so I started to. But I don’t collect vinyl because it sounds better. I collect them because it’s music that spins and I like watching it.
What’s your favorite record you’ve bought recently?
I just bought two at home: Ye by Kanye West and Selected Ambient Works by Aphex Twin. Those are two completely different albums that both hold a special place in my heart.
Have you started going to concerts?
No, sadly. I really wanted to go to a PinkPantheress concert in London, but I missed it.
Who do you want to see live most when you can?
I have three: Tyler, the Creator. Kanye West. Death Grips. But I don’t know if Death Grips will ever play again.
Is it true that, after C’mon C’mon wrapped, Joaquin gave you a guitar?
Yeah, he gave me a bass signed by Flea. That was amazing. Flea might be one of the most versatile bassists in the world, along with people like Victor Wooten.
Have you played music before?
I play three instruments: guitar, ukelele, and bass—that’s my main instrument. I’m trying to learn piano. I first took guitar lessons when I was 7, but I stopped when I was 10 and started teaching myself. I’d encourage anyone to take music lessons, but I can’t do it. I hate learning all the diminished fifths and stuff like that. I just want to play my music.
What songs have you taught yourself so far?
My favorite songs to play on bass are “Long View” by Green Day and “Take the Power Back” by Rage Against the Machine. My two favorites on guitar are “Breed” by Nirvana, and I’m learning “Sunflower” by Rex Orange Country. It’s really hard. On ukulele, I like to play “Polly” by Nirvana.
What attracts you to Nirvana’s music?
I listen to Bleach and just agree.
I heard you like to skate, too.
I do skate. I prefer cruising to doing tricks, which I am absolutely terrible at. I’ve been skating for almost a year and I can’t ollie. Skating is the biggest community of people near me in North London. When I go to the skate park, I probably know most of the people there.
Is there an actor that inspired you to want to become an actor?
I have to say my Auntie. She was a television actress in England. I think that’s who inspired me the most. Her husband is quite a big script editor. A lot of my family are in the business. My mom was in a music group for a while — a girl pop band called Madasun — and she was quite big in England. But where she was biggest was Australia. I just worked with someone who knew who she was.
In the movie, Johnny is a journalist interviewing young people. One of his interviewees says that kids can think freely, but adults more so tend to think in boxes. Do you agree with that?
I think as you get older, your creativity is kind of drowned out with responsibilities… I would encourage any adult to stop worrying, and start being different. Some adults filter themselves way too much. They always cater to people’s feelings. If you think something, you should talk about it, and not be afraid that people will think it’s stupid. Some adults just want to think what everyone else thinks. I think people should start loving different things.
At one point, Joaquin’s character asks a young person, When you think about the future, what do you imagine? What do you imagine?
I think we’ll fix global warming as soon as all the old people in charge are out. I think people will get off their bums and actually start to do something about it. For all the people in charge: do what’s important and stop the world from dying.
At the end of the movie, Jesse mentions how he wants to remember the time he spent with his uncle. Thinking about where you’re at right now, what’s the most important thing you want to hold onto?
I just want to remember that I always want to remain childlike — all of my life.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. Listen to Woody's full playlist here: