Hollywood.com: Do you think that Walk the Line is a career peak, the biggest thing that's happened to you yet?
Joaquin Phoenix: “Oh, sure. I mean, one hopes that it's not a peak. But certainly it's the most work that I've ever done for a film. It's been the greatest obligation that I've had.”
HW: You hadn't really sung before this film. Where did that idea come from? Did you say, 'Let me at it?'
JP: “Not at all. Not at all. It's weird because Reese [Witherspoon] was saying, I guess, that she didn't know that she was going to sing. For me, it was one of those things that we talked and talked about, and I think that Jim Mangold had hoped for, but I didn't say, ‘Yeah. I can do it.’ So to me it was to be decided. It was like, ‘Let’s go down this road and practice and work on it, and we'll see what happens. But I can't tell you because I have no experience, and so I don't know if it's something that I can do.' I didn't want to do it just to be able to say that I sang these songs, especially if it was going to be distracting--if the only value of it was that ‘Oh, Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon are singing.’ That's not good enough. So I said, ‘Whatever works.’”
HW: At what point did you know that you could do it?
JP: “I sat down with [music supervisor] T-Bone [Burnett] the first night and we went through a few songs, and he said, 'You can do this.' And that was it. At some point I stopped thinking about it. I stopped thinking about ego and all of the exercises that I had done and releasing this part of my voice and breathing this way and thinking about the lyrics and all of that. I think that that was just really about a week before we started shooting. I had been rehearsing with the band for about two weeks in L.A., and we went to Memphis and I had this space setup where I was staying and we rehearsed. I remember that we went through the entire set one night, and we were done and I went, 'Whoa. We made it through every song and I knew all the lyrics.' I wasn't thinking about it. We were just playing with the band, and so at that point it was clear.”
HW: Was there ever discussion about dubbing Johnny’s voice over yours during the music?
JP: “I think that's probably a question more for James and T-Bone to talk about, but I know that because there were so many scenes in the script where John was writing songs the only way to really pull that off would be to use my voice. And then if you went from my voice to John's voice for the performances it wouldn't match.”
HW: Can you talk about meeting Johnny Cash?
JP: “The fun thing was that it wasn't really about the film at all. I met him probably about six months before I met Mangold. I knew that there was a movie being made about Cash. June was recording a record with Rick Ruben and Rick is friends with James Grey who is the writer and director of a movie [I did] called The Yards. So I guess that my name came up, and John was a fan of Gladiator, and so he just invited me to dinner. I thought that was awesome. James Grey said, ‘Do you want to have dinner with Johnny Cash?’ I said, 'Of course, yeah.' And so I went over there, and I thought that any time you kind of get one of those invites it's like to some big affair and there'll be 20 people at a table and there's a bunch of forks in front of you. But it was just at his house, and it was only six people, which in some ways might be more intimidating. You go into such an intimate setting, and yet immediately you're put at ease because John and June just have something so welcoming about their personalities and so unpretentious and kind. And so we talked a little bit, we sat down and we had dinner. After dinner there was this sort of natural migration into the living room and I was sitting there and John came in and picked up his guitar. And the thing is that while I was making the film, I really looked back on this time and it had such value. At the time it was just an amazing experience, but to see him with a guitar and how he held a guitar--and he was really quite shaky, his hands were just shaking--and he came in picked up the guitar. I felt like, 'Does he feel obligated to entertain?' I didn't expect that at all. I didn't expect him to play a song at all, but as it turns out that's how he felt most comfortable. That's his way of sitting around and bullsh**ting with someone. He'll pick up a guitar and play a song. That's his kind of small talk.”
HW: Later, when you got the role did you feel like it was divine coincidence?
JP: “It is pretty weird. Yeah. I don't know what to think about it.”
HW: What did you see as the essence of Johnny Cash as a young man, as he's going through his highs and lows?
JP: “He's so complex. I still have a hard time saying who Johnny is in one sentence. He seemed so contradictory in his actions, and I think that's probably what is most fascinating about him and what made him such an interesting character to study. I think that there's something that was so ordinary about him and I think that's kind of what made him extraordinary in a sense. I think that's why people identify with him, and why he endured through so much. It's pretty amazing that when you think that his contemporaries--and not to knock Elvis [Presley]--but in some sense a man takes the fame and sang about teddy bears. John didn't make that move. He really had such integrity and always kind of did what was true for him. He wasn't really swayed by what he thought the mainstream would find most appealing.”
HW: Did making this film affect your life?
JP: “It's impossible not to. If everyone in this room spent time focusing a year of your life on a character and you moved to a city that was foreign to you and you were wearing clothes everyday that were foreign to you, of course it affects your life. But every single movie that I've ever done has affected my life. I always feel more changed by a character than I affect them or change them. Always. I mean, that's just kind of the way it is.”
HW: There’s been a lot of talk about the parallels in Johnny Cash's life to yours--He lost his older brother when he was young, too.
JP: “Right. I think that I've talked about this at great length. I've been very honest about it and I think that I've made it perfectly clear: I don't look at characters that way. I never approach a character like that. When I read a script I don't think about whether I've shared experiences like that. Also, it doesn't really honor John's experience or his relationship by posing my idea of what it's like, because they're very different experiences. His experience is much more detailed than that.”
HW: Did his family and friends talk to you about the film?
JP: “Yeah. I spoke with John Jr. and he said that he really loved the film and thanks. It was amazing – we did this thing last week that was a tribute to John, and Kris Kristofferson came up and said, 'Thanks so much for doing this film and doing John proud.' That was great. I didn't sing, but I did weasel my way up onstage and sat in the dark and strummed along.
HW: Can you talk about working with Reese?
JP: “Reese was my partner. I mean, we went through all of this together, the highs and the lows and the anxiety about singing and performing and taking on these iconic characters. I was really impressed with her because I've spent a lot of time working with actors who were like, 'Jesus. Can we just go out?' But Reese was like the minute you were done she was back in her room and she's studying. I'd never had an experience quite like that, her commitment to the work and her work ethic, and I think that what's extraordinary is that she could also balance her family life. That's something that I'm incapable of doing. My personal life absolutely goes down the drain when I start working.”
HW: The work takes over?
JP: “Yeah. It's gone. I don't talk to my friends. For her to have her kids and have her husband and to maintain those relationships, and to still come to work and work as hard as she did was amazing to me and inspiring.”
HW: Do you have any Johnny Cash memorabilia, a guitar or something?
JP: “I don't have one of his guitars. I have a shirt. A big one. It's like a dress on me.”