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Walk The Line - Reese Witherspoon interview

Reese Witherspoon in Walk The Line

Interview by Rob Carnevale

Q. Congratulations on your Oscar nomination. Where were you when it was announced and what did you do immediately afterwards?
A. I was in Berlin and because I was jet lagged I had fallen asleep on some couch somewhere. My publicist came in screaming and I thought it was my daughter because I’d been dreaming. But when they woke me up and told me I was very excited. I called my mother and my husband.

Q. How strong was your faith in this project given that it is a very powerful love story?
A. James Mangold, the writer and director, approached me two years before he even had a script. He said “I’m going to make a film about Johnny Cash”. I thought my eyes were going to pop out of my skull because I’m from Nashville Tennessee, which is sort of the centre of country music in America. So not only did I know everything about Mr Cash and his life, but I knew everything about June Carter Cash and the entire Carter family. I even played Mama Maybelle Carter in a fourth grade play.

Q. How difficult was learning to sing and then copying someone else’s style?
A. I started working on trying to sound like June from the very beginning. It was one of those things where I thought I was going to be fantastic. I listened to her CDs and sang in my car for about a month before I had a voice lesson or did any recording, and I thought ‘I’m so going to nail this’! Then we had an initial meeting with Joaquin, which was the first time he and I had ever meet, and he wasn’t sure whether we should start but I was like ‘get me in there coach!’
But when I heard it played back for the first time I was like “you’re kidding me! I’m much better than that. I don’t hit all those awkward notes or make mistakes like that.” I immediately hit the panic button and called my attorney four times in a row and asked him to get me out of this because I was determined not to suck in the movie. But after many arguments and discussions they finally made me go back and start working with a vocal coach. It took me five months to get to the point where I could actually hear the playback and it didn’t sound like nails on a chalk board.

Q. Has the experience of singing made you want to consider doing more?
A. After the movie came out I started to get calls from country music record labels saying “do you want to make a record?” But I have no desire to do that again, partly because the performance element was so challenging for me. I could do it in a tiny little recording studio but then when we had to go out in front of thousands of extras, that was awful and terrifying. You had to walk out on stage and do something to entertain them. That said, I’d love to do a musical, either in film or on stage.

Q. And yet your singing is so impressive that it makes me wonder whether you’ve been wanting to sing all your life?
A. Well I always wanted to be Dolly Parton when I was a little girl. I was obsessed with her. And I did really want to be a Broadway kid. But one summer I begged my mother to send me to a camp in upstate New Work where they did singing, dancing and acting. At the end of the camp they evaluate you and basically tell you whether or not you’ve got a shot at making it. I was told completely, without exception, I should never sing again. It planted a seed in me that I just was not capable of doing that and nor should I ever be asked to. If I was, then I should refuse adamantly. So when this all came up I was terrified. But with the right kind of coaching and determination you can accomplish anything and the biggest accomplishment that I feel I got from the film was overcoming that fear.

Q. Did the lives of Johnny and June provide any sort of educative quality in your own grasp of celebrity? Did you find any parallels between your life?
A. I think every experience of making a film is educational and very revealing because of the reasons you choose the film and the reasons that you choose to make certain scenes become more important. Upon reflection, they’re always very, very revealing about a time that you’re in or something that you’re going through. To play June, I had an immediate connect with her background and culture. We grew up with the same religion and shared a lot of the same values of family and spirituality. But I was really so inspired by what a modern woman she was. She was married to two different men, she had children by both of them and she was divorced twice. She was also on the road and one of the only women travelling with Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley and Roy Orbison. So she was a pretty tough cookie. She had to hold her ground and they had so much respect for her.

Q. And I’m guessing that you didn’t find out anything during your research that disappointed you about her?
A. I actually didn’t know that much about her specifically and I don’t think a lot of people do. Even people that know Johnny Cash’s music really well and know that he was married don’t really know that much about June Carter. So finding out about her really helped to inform my performance and to bring her to the front in a way that she has never been before. In the Fifties, she was a huge star – she was a great comedian and this travelling woman who sang with every major male star out there. Every single one of them had a giant crush on her and she just would not give them the time of day. She was just a great character to find. Apparently, John and Elvis had a big fight over her. She had a whole thing with Elvis where he was completely infatuated with her and possibly something happened, which was sort of winked at to me by the family. John just became so jealous with rage every time his name came up.

Q. The chemistry between you and Joaquin is really strong. So what was he like to work with because he has a reputation for being very intense?
A. The rehearsal process was really helpful because we spent every day together for six months in the same little house, rehearsing, singing and practising our instruments. There were days when I was frustrated and he would support me, and there were days when he wanted to storm out the door and I’d say “don’t go, keep trying”. So we built a really strong friendship without anyone being there. It was basically just him and I and T-Bone Burnett. So by the time we got on the set we’d known each other for six months and had a really close friendship. He’s a great guy and I really respect him. He had so much passion to play that character. He’d go home every night and keep rehearsing and playing his guitar, or reading more books. He was really, really inspiring.

Q. What have you learned about love from Johnny and June?
A. It gives you a lot of hope that it’s possible to find love at any moment in your life. You can get it wrong and you can make mistakes and it might still be there for you. I think they had a really particular connection that was very destined, real and deep seated.

Q. Did you ever meet with them?
A. No I never met either one of them. I got to meet their family and got to go to their house.

Q. You and June both manage to combine motherhood with a successful career and make it look easy. Is it as easy as it looks?
A. No, it’s not easy at all. I’d be lying if I said every day I feel great about it. I have to turn down roles I really want to do because I can’t travel. But that’s okay, because you make peace with things in your mind. That said, my kids are at home right now with my husband and I’m missing something important at my daughter’s school which makes me feel sick inside. It’s a lot of balance and a lot of really hard decision making. Probably every week I have to make a decision that no one would want to make. But the benefits outweigh the bad parts and I have to tell myself I’m lucky to have these kind of problems.

Q. So does contentment at home reflect on your professional life?
A. Absolutely. I think movies are great and I have a great time making them but they’re not what keeps you warm at night, or what’s ultimately the most important thing in anyone’s life journey. I feel very blessed to have two wonderful, healthy children who keep me completely grounded, sane and throw up on my shoes just before I go to an awards show just so I know to keep it real.

Q. And does being a mother, does that influence the sort of roles you accept?
A. Well I had my kids so young that I kind of feel that I’m a kid too and am growing up with them. The things they’re interested in tend to really influence me. My daughter will talk about certain things that she really enjoys and I’ll start to think ‘that’s a good idea’, or characters she likes will inspire me to go out and try and get the rights to the book. So I basically use my children for my own personal gain! [Laughs]

Q. Are you disappointed that James Mangold has missed out on an Oscar nomination?
A. Of course I am completely disappointed about Jim because you can’t make a movie by yourself. Apparently, I directed myself and so did Joaquin, but these things happen how they happen and I know Jim is very happy that the film is getting recognised in a lot of different ways.

Q. Actors always say when they’re nominated for an award that it’s an honour in itself. But how much do you want to win – and be honest!
A. Well I think every actor there wants to win, otherwise what’s the point? But listen, I’m 29-years-old, I’m really lucky to be there and whatever happens I’ve been really blessed already. I have plenty of awards for this movie and if this was it for me I’d be really content.

Q. When do you start to plan what you’re going to wear come Oscar night?
A. [Laughs] I don’t know, I don’t know. It’s funny that it all becomes about clothes. It’s bizarre. You work your butt off and then you win an award and it’s all about your dress. You can’t get away from it.

Q. Do you enjoy that part of it, though?
A. I do. I like it. But I wish it wasn’t such a big focus of everything. It should be fun and frivolous, interesting and easy. But a lot of people seem to spend too much time worrying about it.