Cash transfusion: Joaquin Phoenix in Walk the Line
LOS ANGELES—Joaquin Phoenix appears to be encouraging plagiarism. "I think that I will not talk about it because I talked about it so much," he says during interviews for Walk the Line, in which he plays singer Johnny Cash. "You can take it from somewhere else. I have done about 40 fucking interviews and I am done talking about it."
Ouch! Phoenix's approach to obvious questions-such as "Is it true you went to AA meetings after the film was shot?" and "Could you identify with Cash since both of you lost your older brothers at a young age?"-is something that Cash, who is portrayed in the movie as being somewhat difficult, could probably relate to. In fact, it was Cash who told writer-director James Mangold that he wanted Phoenix to play him in the movie.
"John just thought he would do a good job," Mangold says. "He saw something in Joaquin's performances that made him feel he was the best person for the role." As played by Phoenix, the Cash of Walk the Line (which opens Friday [November 18]) says what he thinks and does what he wants, even if it hurts those he loves. He marries young and then falls for singer June Carter (played by Reese Witherspoon), who is also married when they meet. After years of courting her, he finally leaves his wife and moves in with June. She kicks him out of her life when he abuses alcohol and drugs, and treats her and most of the people around him with contempt.
Phoenix does agree to talk about Mangold's approach to the material and his influence on the actor's performance. "I didn't know what Jim wanted from me," he says. "You get a script like this and you are not sure how the director wants to approach it. Are we going to re-create historical moments? The first thing Jim said was that he didn't want an impersonation. He said that if people wanted to hear Johnny Cash he had made a couple of records that they could check out and there is a documentary if they want to see him. As an actor, my job is to service the director and to help him make the film he wants to make. My experience with writer-directors is they are very protective of their material, but Jim found a balance between being present and available and being able to direct us [himself and Witherspoon] and when to back off and give us the space to embody John and June and to empower us. That was really what I needed. I needed to feel a level of empowerment."
The moment that he was hired to play the role was the moment that Phoenix began his research into Cash's life and his method of speaking and performing. Because Mangold wanted him to create a character named "Johnny Cash" rather than just doing an impersonation, Phoenix had to work with voice coaches to "find" the character.
"One of the things I told James early on was he [Cash] had a rhythm and not a real southern accent and he was really deliberate about things and the way he was feeling," Phoenix says. "I tend to talk fast and jumble the words, but he had a slower way of speaking. That was what I noticed, and I would listen to him [on tape] speaking over and over and try to speak along. It was helpful working with vocal coaching on the singing because it taught me how to control my voice. I noticed that if I did that, I would start talking in a lower part of my voice. I remember during rehearsals I would do stuff and Jim would say, 'That is too much; you can back off.' Initially, you start off doing bad impersonations, but you find something else eventually."
Phoenix says he also had to find the character's voice without paying too much attention to the fact that he was finding it. "We had two weeks of rehearsal with the band leading up to filming, and I think that is when I stopped thinking about the lyrics and my singing. If you are aware of exactly when you are connecting to a character, then you are probably not there. I have had experiences on films where I have thought 'Yes, I got it,' and it has usually been some of the worst work. I think that if you are that aware of what you are doing as an actor then you probably aren't really in the character. I know that for me, working to the music was the doorway into John. Each [vocal] performance has an emotional undercurrent, and that is what we were focusing on, in a way. When we started out doing the [Cash] songs on-stage, I would feed off the band's energy. After six hours of playing the same song, no one was too excited anymore, but it felt more natural."
Phoenix's ability to leave himself behind to focus on a character doesn't seem out of the ordinary, but he says he often finds that his colleagues don't have the same self-discipline. And he says that the biggest problem with devoting himself to researching the life of Cash was that he wanted the script to reflect his own knowledge of the singer's life.
"It is strange to me that there is not a lot of demand on actors to put in a lot of time in rehearsal, because I don't know how to work any other way. I was really spoiled by the process. Most actors will say, 'Come on, let's go out. We have been working on this for hours.' I have the fear that if I don't commit 100 percent to my work, it will suffer. The toughest thing about doing research into someone like John is staying focused on the story you are telling, because every page you go, 'Fuck, we have to put that in. How can you not put that in?' He had such a rich, amazing life. I couldn't believe it when the script said that he was hanging out with Elvis [Presley] and Jerry Lee Lewis. Then I read that he really was touring with those guys. That was amazing to me. I had no idea. And his love affair with June was something that seemed fictional because it is a fairy-tale romance, but it endured for decades and that was really surprising to me."
Phoenix says that the relationship with June Carter didn't fit Cash's profile. He says that everything he read about him and watched prior to rehearsals prepared him for a different man than the one who fell in love with Carter.
"I think she was a pillar of strength and she was someone he couldn't dominate. I remember watching this documentary, and he would have this thing about controlling someone before he could love it. There was this odd thing with these horses where he was smacking this horse with a stick and he was laughing. Then once the horse was spooked, he went up and started caressing it while speaking very quietly. I kept seeing this coming up in his life, but with June that couldn't happen. He could never control her. He had to give himself over. I think he needed that trust. And, of course, she had great breasts."