Pin It
Joanna Newsom
Joanna Newsom in "Inherent Vice"Courtesy of Warner Bros UK

Why did Joanna Newsom join Inherent Vice?

The cult singer only found out she was cast when the costume department called to ask for her measurements

Joanna Newsom fans must be furious with Paul Thomas Anderson right now. When the Boogie Nights director persuaded his musician friend to star in his latest film, Inherent Vice, he made the long wait for new material from Newsom that little bit longer.

Anderson is no stranger to cult stardom himself, of course. Cineastes and bookworms alike lost their collective shit when news broke that he was adapting a novel by Thomas Pynchon, the great eccentric genius of American letters, making this one of 2015’s most keenly anticipated releases.

It all adds up to a lot of pressure for a musician making their big-screen debut. But thankfully, Newsom is perfectly cast as Sortilège, an ethereal hippy chick who offers spiritual assistance to her friend Larry ‘Doc’ Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), a pot-addled private detective with a wildly spinning moral compass and a bad case of the fear.

We spoke to Newsom about her part in the film – which she also narrates – and how she fell into the role almost by accident. Fans of Joanna’s music can console themselves with news of her first new material in five years.

This is the first time you’ve appeared in a film. How did you get the part of Sortilège?

Joanna Newsom: Paul (Thomas Anderson) is a friend of mine. He sent me a text at some point, I guess before the movie had started shooting, and asked if I was interested in helping him experiment with an idea. He emailed me fragments of narration and had me record them on my phone, basically. He hadn’t decided that he wanted a narrator yet so he was just sort of trying it out as a concept. And then it got closer to shooting and he decided that he wanted to do it. And he asked me to come to the table reading. I backed into it a little bit, I didn’t know I was actually going to be on camera until the costume department called me and asked for measurements!

Had you read the book before accepting the role?

Joanna Newsom: I had. I had read it and loved it and discussed it with Paul maybe a year or two before I knew he was working on the movie. So he knew I loved Pynchon, and I reread it working on the movie as well.

How has the character of Sortilège evolved from the novel?

Joanna Newsom: The most striking thing was Paul making the decision to confer the narrative voice onto a fringe character. He took these little cues from the book that Sortilège seems sort of mystic and all-seeing in a kind of very unusual, unimposing way, and he just recognised that that was a very convenient place to house the narrative.

A more conventional tactic for a film noir would have been to have Joaquin Pheoenix’s character, Doc, narrate. Why do you think Paul chose Sortilège instead?

Joanna Newsom: I have my own theories about that. I don’t know if they’re the same ones that Paul would say but my theory is that if Doc were telling the story, he would frame Shasta (Fay, his ex-girlfriend) as the heroine. The story is set up as this epic battle between the dark and the light; I think at first glance it seems like the forces of dark are gonna prevail – the drugs are getting harder, everything’s in conflict… Shasta Fay is this person that Doc sees as being in need of rescue – and she certainly is in need of some assistance – but in terms of how darkness is defined in this movie, which is basically corruption, it’s taking an idealised concept and infusing it with commercialisation and mainstreaming and people taking an idea that was perfect and beautiful and using it for dark ends, in terms of those forces the true hero of this movie is Doc. He’s the only incorruptible character. So even though he may not need rescuing, he’s the one bearing the torch of light. And so I think having Sortilège narrate rather than Doc frames the story, it pulls back from Doc’s point of view so you can see him that way.

“I gave (Paul Thomas Anderson) lots of outs, lots of opportunities to fire me and not worry about it, so in the end I just had to trust that he was gonna use what I was doing to useful effect”

He’s also probably far too stoned to provide much of a narration, right?

Joanna Newsom: Right! I think my favourite line of the book is where he (Pynchon) refers to Doc’s memory as like a garbage dump.

It’s never entirely clear if your character is real or somehow a figment of Doc’s imagination – do you have any thoughts on the nature of their relationship in the film?

Joanna Newsom: Paul really beautifully allows for some ambiguity about how substantial and real she is as a character. I think that the whole movie plays with the idea of magical realism. You have these very everyday events interspersed with things that seem really improbable, just magical forces at work. I think that Sortilège is in the latter category, but she sort of moves in between those two worlds. But in the book she is an employee of Doc’s. She was a secretary, so I was basically operating under the assumption that that’s who she is (laughs). A secretary who left to pursue a higher calling.

A few of the cast members have described the shoot as quite a chaotic experience, is that a description you’d recognise?

Joanna Newsom: I can see where that description would come from, though obviously I wasn’t on set as much as the other cast members. What I would describe it more as is a great flexibility on Paul’s part. He’s really flexible around flashes of insight; he’s incredibly good at recognising, within the universe of his own creative intention, not only when something isn’t working, but also why. He’s very good at tweaking things, changing a word or where someone’s sitting or the lighting or framing – these minor to major alterations that suddenly allow a scene to work. And I felt that a lot with the narration because almost every narrative passage in the script was changed many, many times, but usually the changes were so minor I wouldn’t even realise what words had been changed, or what had been cut. It was this constant polishing to come closer and closer to the music and language of what he was trying to create. It was less chaos and more about confidence, I think.

Was it a nerve-racking experience for you personally? Paul and Thomas both have pretty zealous fanbases…

Joanna Newsom: Yeah, you’re absolutely right. I would just say that Paul is my favourite director, so while that makes it intimidating it also means that I trust him, and that’s what I kept coming back to, just trusting that there had to be some reason I couldn’t see that I was the right person for this. I gave him lots of outs, I gave him lots of opportunities to fire me and not worry about it, so in the end I just had to trust that he was gonna use what I was doing to useful effect. 

The film’s plot seems to reflect the moral uncertainties of post-Manson murders, post-Altamont California, do you think those ideas are at the core of the film?

Joanna Newsom: I certainly think it’s a force in the film, and I definitely agree that the way this film makes me feel as a viewer is very consistent with the way it would feel to be in that world at that time. It’s so specific to the period in which it’s set, but it’s also specific to the sort of mythical Pynchonian world of Gordita Beach in which things that may not have actually been consistent with the late 60s and early 70s are also happening. But I think Paul did a really incredible job of really bringing the book to life in the truest sense, in that not only do the characters and scenes have life to them, but the way the book feels somehow is made tangible in its thematic form.

As with the source text, the film is set in 1970, but Pynchon’s novel was actually published in 2009. Do you think the story has contemporary relevance?

Joanna Newsom: Yeah, I do. I think the film drums up a sense that dark forces are at work behind the scenes, and that’s a fear that many people I know struggle with, particularly in the States right now. There’s an incredible sense of – at the risk of sounding melodramatic – a conspiracy. I mean, right now, what’s happening in Ferguson and in New York is terrible; (you have these) terrible cases of cops murdering people and getting away with it. The words ‘civil rights violation’ come up a lot in this film, and I think that that applies more today than it has for decades.

Inherent Vice is out in cinemas January 30