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Walk The Line - Joaquin Phoenix interview

Joaquin Phoenix in Walk The Line

Compiled by Jack Foley

Q. Can you talk about Johnny Cash history and music?
A. I knew some of his music. I think a lot of people from our generation knew Johnny from the Folsom Prison album. It was interesting going back and listening to a lot of the early recordings and hearing the first version of Folsom prison that he released and how different it was. To me Johnny Cash, what I first knew of Johnny Cash, it’s the Johnny Cash from the late 60s. Here I was kind of discovering Johnny Cash from the early 50s so I really didn’t know anything about him. I really didn’t know about the music or his personal life, so it was an interesting process. With any character, any time, you learn so much about them.

Q. Did anything in particular get your attention?
A. His entire life is fascinating but I think to me what I love that James Mangold brought out in the story is the love story. That was something I didn’t expect. It’s amazing. He met June – and this isn’t in the film – very early backstage at Grand Old Opera and they both were married [to other people] and he said he was going to marry her. Their love story is like a fairytale. It’s one of those things that you go: “What did Mangold do? He must have fictionalized this part of it.”
I remember thinking: “He didn’t propose to her on stage!” But he did. Mangold found all the material and it was like, “fuck me!” It was amazing to me that their love could endure for so long and through so much. I met John and June prior to even reading the script or knowing this movie was being made. I was just amazed at the kind of the love they felt for each other. We were sitting around his living room and he was strumming his guitar a little bit and then leaned over and apologetically said like, “I’m waiting for June to get my nerve up.” It was amazing that Johnny Cash, who recorded all these records and played in front of millions of people, was waiting for June to get his nerve up. They were love birds, I mean they were totally in love and I saw that first hand. June was such a source of strength for John. I think that he didn’t want to live without her.

Q. Your voice is beautiful…
A. That’s wild. A big part of this film obviously was music. It’s such a defining part of Cash, and we didn’t really know what we were going to do. I came out to start rehearsals and we hadn’t decided whether I was going to sing or whether Reese was going to sing or whether I could play at all. It was tough to go into a role. I’ve done it before with some characters. You always feel like when you go to start a new character it’s all brand new. You have to forget about those things that make you comfortable or make you who you are. You adopt these new ways of thinking, or moving, or talking but nothing was quite as extreme as this.

Q. Were you worried you couldn’t pull it off?
A. It was terrifying. The music was such a big part of their lives and while I’m a fan of music, the actual performing or the writing of music is not anything that I was familiar with at all. So there was a lot of it anxiety for me about that. It’s really important that whatever we did, we were comfortable. Leading up to the film it still wasn’t decided as to whether we’d be singing or whether we’d be playing or exactly how it would go down. There was a lot that was up in the air. When I came out to LA to start prepping for it, we still hadn’t made any decisions. We were going to work with T-Bone and see how it went and see if he felt like it was something that we could do. Even once we started, it was all of these different kind of phases so initially it’s working with T-Bone and singing a little bit, and then it’s working on guitar and then it’s the idea of working with a band and actually being a band and playing with a band, and then it’s actually performing in front of people as well as writing the material. Some of it I thought was really interesting for me.

Q. How did you feel when you decided to do your own singing?
A. I didn’t just make that decision. I probably never would have decided to do that – no matter what, singing is very vulnerable. It’s quite liberating when you actually do it. There’s kind of a great joy in it, especially with Cash’s music and telling the story. The idea of saying, “Oh I can do this,” and “I can sing this” – I just wouldn’t really have that confidence, but T-Bone had that confidence in me and that meant a lot. Then going through the experience with Reese and knowing that she was in the same boat as I was – it was really a learning experience for both of us, but nothing I’d ever experienced before.

Q. Was it easier for you working with Reese?
A. Sure, it definitely helped to know that I was going through it with someone else. We both were kind of starting at the same place and working together. Reese was everything to me on this. When we arrived, there wasn’t a whole lot of planning going on when we got into start rehearsals. Nothing was set up, because everything was up in the air, you know what I mean? So we got in and three weeks into it I was thinking, I need some fucking regimentation, I need a plan to know what I’m doing and what I’m working on. The next day it was like: “All right, two o’clock you’re meeting with the voice coach, you’re going to go sing and practice for two hours, then at four o’clock you’ll be over at the… and I thought, ‘fuck me’, and I just got a list that said, ‘show up here and then sing from one to three, then do this from two to four.” I just said, “Yes ma’am,” and went and did it. Reese kind of deserves producing credit on this film and certainly for the music because she is really, at this point, instrumental in making that happen from me.

Q. You and Reese had to practice together?
A. Yeah, we did that. That was actually quite difficult because first we kind of rehearsed separately and after a few weeks we sang a song together and we sang Jackson. Duets are really difficult because, for me, I had just come to a place of feeling comfortable with my voice and then I hear her singing and my ear immediately goes to her. I then alternate my key and I try singing where she is. It’s very hard to stay in my voice when I’m supposed to sing and let her do her part. I would just automatically sing throughout the song and T-Bone would go ‘wait, wait, wait, Joaquin you’re trying to sing what Reese is singing and that’s not your part. You’re singing down here’.

Q. Was it easy to say yes to this project?
A. I didn’t really think about that honestly. I didn’t think about the fans. John approved this film, it was important, it was worth working with Mangold and that’s all I needed to know, that I’ll be a part of it. So it was very easy to say yes. Mangold is a really talented writer and director. John obviously has a fascinating life, and before he even got into the research and I knew who John was, I knew that it’s something I wanted to experience. It felt like I’ve been working towards doing a film like this for a while.

Q. Do you think about Oscar before the movie?
A. No. I think there’s an obsession with the Oscars for actors. I think it is a big mistake. I didn’t think of that at all. That’s kind of the end result. I’m process-oriented, you know what I mean? I don’t look at kind of the final outcome for a film. I don’t look at it as, ‘is this going to be successful or are critics going to like this or am I going to do well’? That’s not the way that I approach something because if I do that, it’s like I’m dead. The only thing that works for me is to just kind of go day by day, step by step, do the work that I can do as well as I can, and what happens afterwards I have no control over. The only thing that I can control is my work ethic and beyond that there are too many variables that come into play as to how successful a film is or whether critically it’s well received. I don’t understand that stuff and so I don’t think about it.

Q. Was this role interesting or hard to play?
A. Certainly playing someone like Cash is more difficult than playing the love interest in a romantic comedy. But it’s far more interesting and I think that’s what’s kind of captivating about Cash is in some ways, he encapsulated the duality of human experience. I think we all have those kinds of dark and light sides and John’s really unique in that he was in full recognition of both those aspects of himself and he didn’t deny one or the other and he wasn’t ashamed really of one or the other.
You see so many people in his position that kind of try to perpetuate and imagine that they think would be most appealing to the public. John didn’t seem to really care. He was like: for better for worse, this is who I am. That’s an inspiration and should be to so many people that are in the public to be honest. John went out on a limb a number of times and his comments were not welcomed by the media and the record labels and the people in position of power but John didn’t care. He took out ads in magazines when they said things about Dylan that said: “Shut up and let him play.” He really spoke from the heart and had a level of truth and honesty that he conveyed that I don’t think you really find in a lot of popular artists.
It’s amazing to me when his contemporaries like Elvis went on and sang songs about teddy bears and John always told stories about humanity and what he saw around him.

Q. Did you ever meet Johnny Cash?
A. I did, completely unrelated to the film, before I even knew about the movie. I met with John and June; I had dinner with them at a friends’ place. They invited me over. It was pretty amazing. They were totally unpretentious, down to earth and after dinner we sat in the living room. John was actually quite shaky. His hands were shaking and he picked up the guitar. He felt obligated to play and yet he couldn’t play anymore but he was going to try to. The moment he touched the guitar, the shaking stopped. I couldn’t believe it. I had never seen anything like that and he just started strumming a little bit.

Q. Why did they end the movie so early in his life?
A. I had nothing to do with that decision. The thing about John’s life is that it was such a full, amazing life that you really wouldn’t want to make a ten hour movie out of it. James Mangold deserves a lot of credit for being able to shape this into a story because there was so much information. I think, ultimately, it’s a love story. John was trying to marry June Carter for like 15 years.

Q. What is your favourite Johnny Cash song?
A. It’s so difficult. I Still Miss Someone. I like Home of the Blues, but I Still Miss Someone – I think that’s written about June and in some ways it really kind of encapsulates the isolation that John felt for so much of his life. He says: “I go out on a party to look for a little fun but I find a darkened corner because I still miss someone.” It’s amazing that I could just see John surrounded by the celebrity and the excitement of everything, and being this famous guy and having to attend these events and stuff. Yet he just goes into this private corner because he’s thinking about June and he just wants to be with her. That’s a really powerful, beautiful song.