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Joanna Newsom on becoming the mysterious narrator of 'Inherent Vice'

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JOANNA NEWSOM
Kevin Winter/Getty Images

As Sortilège—a friend who slips in and out of the pot-hazy life of Inherent Vice‘s protagonist, Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix)—indie musician Joanna Newsom is a vital presence. Sortilège is not only a character in Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest; she also provides its unconventional narration, explaining, for instance, “these were perilous times, astrologically speaking, for dopers.”

Inherent Vice, based on Thomas Pynchon’s novel, follows private investigator Doc through the paranoid, druggy world of 1970 Los Angeles as he investigates intertwining cases, meeting up with a collection of bizarre, sometimes hilarious characters along the way. Sortilège’s assured voice helps tie these threads together as she doles out hippie-eloquent exposition and knowledge.

The sound of that voice came to Newsom, a newbie to acting, through the book. “The spirit of the narrator of the book, even though it was a third person narrator, sort of spoke that way in my mind. I don’t know why,” Newsom told EW. “When Paul sent me the first fragment of narration and asked me to record it, the way I recorded it was the way my voice sounds in the movie.”

EW: How did you get involved with the film?

Joanna Newsom: I knew [Paul Thomas Anderson]. He’s a friend of mine, and he had texted and asked me basically if I wanted to help him experiment with an idea. I think he hadn’t decided yet if he wanted to have a narrator in the film, so he just started sending me little fragments of narration. I would record them and email them back to him. We just did that for a while, and then I guess he decided he wanted to move forward with that idea.

So you weren’t cast as Sortilège before Anderson decided he wanted to have a narrator?

Right. We never had a conversation about being on camera in the film. He had only asked me to do the narration, and then I got a call from the costume department at Warner Bros. asking for my measurements. I was like, oh, okay.

What was it like to transition between being the narrator and playing the role? Did you think of them as one and the same, or did you think of narrator Sortilège as different from when you see her on screen?

They were the same person, obviously manifesting slightly differently. She has this all-seeing, omniscient narrator-ship character, but she doesn’t reveal everything she sees or knows in her actions with her friend Doc. She’s also just his doper pal who rides shotgun and sort of acts as a sounding board for him. But she’s the same person.

Speaking of riding shotgun: There are some awesomely obscure moments when you see Sortilège in the car with Doc, and the narration and character bleeds together. Then he’ll get to a location and she won’t be with him. Did you talk to Anderson about that?

I didn’t talk with him about that. I think it’s an amazing thing that he did. What you’re describing is this slightly magical quality that Sortilège has of being there and then being not there, and bleeding from a narrative presence to a physical presence. A number of people have mentioned that their interpretation of that is that she’s a figment. She’s just sort of Doc’s magical, not necessarily real friend. I do agree that the way that Paul put it together, he leaves room for that interpretation. I don’t know whether that’s what he wants us to believe concretely. From my performance standpoint, it wouldn’t have been very useful for me to think of myself as a figment. Sortilège is a real person in my mind.

Your voice is so much a part of the film. Did you think about how you wanted it to sound?

Paul would give directions sometimes if he felt like he wanted to adjust the tone somehow—both the musical tone, the timbre of the voice, and also the emotional tone.

There wasn’t any real premeditation as far as me thinking, oh, I want to sound like this. From a pretty early moment, I had it in my head what that character would sound like. For me it was just a distillation of how the book makes me feel, the mood of the book. The narrator in the book is a third person narrator; Sortilège doesn’t narrate the book. But since Paul made the decision to absorb all that narration into the person of Sortilège, in a way, she’s absorbed the tone and mood of the whole book—that odd combination of hysteria, paranoia, madcap noir antics, and deep sorrow and beauty and poetry.

Were you familiar with the book before Paul reached out to you?

Yeah, I was quite familiar. I had read it I think two times, and he and I had talked about it a number of times maybe a year prior to him ever asking me to be part of the project. We’d had long conversations about our love of the book before I knew that he was directing the movie, actually.

Did you reference the novel at all when you working on the role? Did that context and your personal love of the book help you?

We definitely talked about it, and I always had my book with me if I wanted to understand more what certain comments were in reference to. The character of Sortilège is interesting to me in the book. She has all of this other stuff she’s obsessed with that doesn’t get mentioned in the movie. She’s really obsessed with the sunken kingdom of Lemuria and basically lost civilizations. She’s very into LSD, which the movie doesn’t really go into.

Beyond familiarity with the book, did you do any further research into the period and that post-Manson paranoia?

It’s funny; I feel like on a superficial level contextually, I’ve done quite a bit of that research accidentally. My favorite records are all from the early to mid-’70s, and a lot of my favorite movies are from the early to mid-70s. So I’ve always felt drawn to that era aesthetically, and I have done some reading about that era and particularly California during that era. Although maybe not California beach culture so much as the Laurel Canyon culture from the early ’70s, which definitely connects to what you’re saying with Charlie Manson.

But for the film, mostly the research I did—I definitely didn’t know any of the history of Bunker Hill; I didn’t know about the indigenous, Native American population in what is now in Downtown LA. Those sorts of things that get referenced: gentrification moving to Los Angeles and wiping out populations that have long been established in certain areas. Those sorts of scenes that run through the movie and through the book are things I was not too familiar with.

There’s a confounding element to the narrative. In the context of being the narrator, what do you think of the reaction to the film?

It’s interesting because the framework of the movie is this detective, noir, gumshoe genre, and it’s a little bit of a bait and switch. I think when we watch stories that are in that genre, an expectation we have is that we are going to be presented with the elements of the mystery, and then we are going to watch the detective solve that mystery. It isn’t actually that kind of a movie. Similarly, when we hear a narrator speaking, we have an expectation that the narrator is going to tell us what’s going on in the movie, and again it’s a little bit of an interesting bait and switch because I think for the most part this narrator sort of just talks about whatever. She kind of serves as the narrative voice of the Pynchon narrator, which moves in and out between giving further explanation and exposition, and then kind of just observing and describing feelings and describing what’s going on in Doc’s head, and advising Doc, and making larger proclamations about the period of time, and the era, and the spirits at work, and the vibes at work and so forth. It certainly adds a whole other layer of meaning. But I don’t think the purpose of this particular narrator is to assist the viewer in solving the mystery. I do think the point of this story is not to present a mystery that’s meant to be solved, necessarily; it’s to watch the corona and haze of other storylines sort of form and drift and move around the outline of the mystery. I feel like our attention has been pulled in so many different directions by so many different stories that it’s almost like watching the haze and the dust settle—rather than watching it resolve.

Is there anything you take from your world as a musician and performing that you were able to bring to this new experience of acting and the narration?

I think the narration, yes. The way I would listen and work and revise and try again all at least somewhat connected back to the way it feels to be recording multiple vocal takes on a song. I was listening to similar things. There was a way of listening to the music in the voice. Obviously, I’m not the one choosing which take is working best. I felt that Paul was also sort of listening in a musical sense. He was listening to see how and when the vocal narration was linking up and sort of riding the wave of the action on camera, if it was rising to any sort of crescendo as the action was rising to some kind of a dynamic apex and, in a similar way, falling parallel to the action. Maybe he wanted to make a really fast edit or cut here or there, and wanted an abruptness to the narration. But all of these are sort of musical considerations. I’m slightly projecting; I don’t know for sure if that’s how he was thinking of it. But that’s kind of how I was thinking of it. On camera, though, there was nothing I could really lean on. It was entirely new for me. Really fun and amazing for that reason, and scary for that reason—but it was a brand new thing in my brain.

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