Joanna Newsom 'Had a Strong Sense That I Didn't Know What I Was Doing' in 'Inherent Vice'
Newsom's husband, Andy Samberg, also helped her out: "He gave me general, very functional acting pointers, along the lines of ways to not be freaked out."
Aside from an appearance on Portlandia and in an MGMT music video, avant-garde singer-songwriter Joanna Newsom never expressed interest in setting aside her harp and embracing acting. Yet she’ll be onscreen later this month alongside Academy Award regulars like Joaquin Phoenix, Reese Witherspoon, Benicio Del Toro and Josh Brolin in the big-screen adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s 2009 novel Inherent Vice, happily stumbling into the latest film project by her friend Paul Thomas Anderson (There Will Be Blood, The Master) as a stopgap between acclaimed indie-folk albums.
Newsom says that she and Anderson first discussed Inherent Vice at a dinner a few years ago, and that she had gushed about Pynchon’s writing without realizing that the director had already been planning to adapt the sprawling noir about a bumbling detective searching for his missing ex-girlfriend. Months later, Anderson asked Newsom to help him experiment with the idea of melding Sortilège, a minor character in the novel, with an omniscient narrator that would be heard as a voiceover in the film; Newsom obliged, recording vocal passages for Anderson on her phone and assuming that the director would use her idiosyncratic speaking voice to help find an actress for the role.
“We went back and forth a few times, then I didn’t hear anything from him for a few weeks and I thought maybe he had scrapped the idea,” says Newsom. “Then I got a call from someone at Warner Brothers, and they wanted my measurements for costume. I was like, ‘Uhh, all right! I guess I’m maybe going to be in a movie!’”
The majority of Newsom’s work in Inherent Vice, which opens on Dec. 12, was done offscreen: her expository voiceovers explaining the film’s enigmatic plot were recorded over months of filming and post-production. The singer-songwriter also pops up in a handful of scenes as Phoenix’s mystical friend and former employee, the product of a five-day stay on set that Newsom says included a “very challenging” first day of shooting on a beach with Phoenix.
"I had a very strong sense that I didn't know what I was doing," she recalls of her first day of filming. "Afterward, Paul came up to me and said, 'You're going to go home and start freaking out and think that you did a terrible job, and I'm just going to tell you now that you didn't, and that it will be easier the next time.' And he was right."
Newsom's husband, actor-comedian Andy Samberg, also helped ease her acting anxieties. "He gave me general, very functional acting pointers, along the lines of ways to not be freaked out," she says. "It was me venting about how hard it was for me on the first day, and [Andy] explaining that some days you just feel off, and that it was going to be better the next time."
Newsom, who has released three albums on Drag City Records beginning with her acclaimed 2004 debut The Milk-Eyed Mender, says that she has “been working for a while now on the next thing,” and that her unexpected acting gig didn’t halt progress on the follow-up to her 2010 triple-album Have One On Me. “I’m so slow anyway with music,” she sighs. “[Inherent Vice] did take up some of my creative energy and time, but it was completely worth it.”
A version of this article first appeared in the Dec. 13 issue of Billboard.