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Walking the Line with Reese Witherspoon

Hollywood.com: This is probably the most astonishing performance you’ve given yet.
Reese Witherspoon:
“I definitely thought I was meant to do it. I don’t know why things come into your life, but they do and I felt really blessed to have this opportunity because she’s an amazing person. Sometimes you don’t get to see the woman behind the amazing, legendary man. She was an amazing woman, and maybe she’s not as famous or well known, but she was definitely the captain of that ship. She drove that relationship. She turned that boat around when it needed to be and sometimes it’s that silent, steady partner that gets sort of the shaft in the biopic or the story, and really that would be such a detriment to this story because really there was no John without June.”

HW: And June wasn’t perfect, either.
RW: “Absolutely not. Particularly in the ’50’s, she didn’t comply to the standards that most women sort of held themselves to and didn’t see the limits of social conventions. She was married and divorced twice. She had two children by two different men and she was traveling around the country with five of the most famous artistic country musicians. I think that she had moments of insecurity and self-doubt that she only revealed to this man who she felt really comfortable with artistically and I think that is sort of a small key to her relationship. She has a very tough side that was really only breakable by this one person who seemed to understand her in a way that no one else did.”

HW: Why do you think that she was able to stand by him through his troubles?
RW: “I don’t know if she had a choice. I don’t know if they were inexplicably destined to be with one another and led to be with each other in life, and supported each other in ways that seem almost like a fairy tale. I think that it’s really about weathering storms with people. I also think that the film really accomplishes portraying a realistic marriage, a realistic relationship that was full of flaws through decades of time. That’s really just about dedication and perseverance and compassion, mutual compassion.”

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HW: She seemed very conflicted about expectations–and disapproval–of country music’s Bible Belt audience. Was that why it took so long for them to get married?
RW: “Definitely. I think that they were living in a different time, in a different era where the social standards were different and particularly on woman. You’re supposed to be staying at home and supposed to be taking care of your children and driving them to school everyday. And having some career where you go out onstage and kick up your skirt and sing loud songs and have a loud personality. I don’t think that was considered the most ladylike profession. But she definitely didn’t care what people thought about her, and she tried to be the best person she could be and the most compassionate person that she could be. That’s why she was so interesting and modern.”

HW: How did you prepare to play June?
RW: “I read so much. I have so many boxes full of research material, and I was really lucky that I had some relationships with people in the South, music historians that sent me mainly old tapes of hers on different performances. There was so much there because we were in the time where people have a lot of tape on historic figures. So it was great. I got some old ‘Louisiana Hayride’ tapes, and old tapes of her and all sorts of other musicians like all the way back to Hank Williams, who she had a very close personal relationship with. I mean, these were her folks. A lot of her gestures were studied. A lot of that was studied because it was so specific and a lot of that. I grew up going to clogging classes back in Nashville, Tennessee. So I knew how to clog. It’s kind of mortifying. Not back there though. I mean, that’s a badge of honor. I’m actually really good clogger.”

HW: What about the singing?
RW: “The singing was more foreign to me. I grew up around a lot of country musicians being from Nashville, but I think that you think that you’re a much better singer than you really are. Because, I mean, I’m darn good in the car. I sound really like Lucinda Williams. I always thought that if I ever met her she would think that it’s completely uncanny! [laughs] But when you actually sit in the recording booth and sing into the microphone the sound that comes out when they play it back is astounding–astoundingly bad on my part.”

HW: Did you get to the point where you liked the sound of your voice in the studio?
“No. I felt like I could’ve practiced for about two more years. But at a certain point you just sort of have to forget everything that you’ve taught yourself and put yourself out there. The beauty of that kind of music is that there were no computers, there were no synthesizers. You just were who you were and half of that was interpretation and performance–more than half, even. I would say that 85 percent of it was personality and whether or not you sold it onstage, and whether or not you believed your own words. That was the hardest part of it. It was overcoming that confidence element that was lacking in me.”

HW: Was it hard to capture her specific sense of humor? Because she and John were both really funny, although they’re not known for that today.
“Oh, well, she was known for her sense of humor and sassy Southern attitude. What was really hard and I kept saying to Jim was, ‘These jokes aren’t really funny.’ [laughs] What was funny back in ’50 ain’t so funny now, because it’s been told for 50 years. It’s been 55 years of telling the same jokes. But he found a way to make them cute and endearing. Mainly it was distraction between acts–that’s what she was. She was kind of filler. She was the kind of TV commercial at that moment, and that’s how she sort herself: She was the comic relief between songs.”

HW: Was June’s music attuned to your own tastes, or did you have to get accustomed to it?
RW: “No. I mean, I grew up listening to Blue Grass and country music and honky-tonk, and we used to go every full moon that happened on a Friday, we’d go out to someone’s farm and listen to Blue Grass music. My father played the banjo, and that’s just sort of normal there.”
[PAGEBREAK]HW: You and Joaquin met after you’d both been cast. Were you worried about what could happen if your chemistry wasn’t there?
RW: “Oh, man. I think that we both knew that we were doing the movie for about a year and a half. I don’t know if he was committed, but I was definitely committed to do the film and then we didn’t meet until, I guess, one of our first rehearsals. We met over at Jim’s house. He was like, ‘Okay, guys. Come over and meet.’ And we’re not similar people at all. He’s a very contemplative and quiet guy. I’m sort of loud and in your face. It’s kind of like [John and June]. That process of rehearsing together for six months which was basically just he and I and sound techs and vocal coaches – six months. I’ve never done that. Four hours of recording where you just sing the same song over and over and over again for weeks. When you’re trying to do something and you’re not a singer and they have to make you sound good. It’s almost like T-Bone [Burnett] had to coach us. He was like the director of the musical performances. So he’d say to me one day, ‘Sing this like you’re singing to your son who’s about to go to bed at night.’ And it would be totally different than what you did before. So you learned to sing it soft and soulfully. But that has to be taught. I think that Joaquin is naturally more of a musician than I am, and particularly with guitar. I really liked the singing. To me the singing was my strong suit. I was not as good playing the instrument. I didn’t grow up playing an instrument, and so I see Joaquin still with it. It really ignited in him that part of himself. He’s writing and writing songs, and he’s directing music videos now and I think that it was great because I think that was a natural part of his personality.”

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HW: Did you sing at home, and what did your kids think of it?
RW: “Oh yeah, and then after you’d practice all day they’d say, ‘You really need to practice two hours a night.’ Everyone who came over to dinner at my house I would go, ‘Sit down. Okay. Now here we go.’ I sang a lot for my friends. They had to listen to all this twangy autoharp.”

HW: After a while, were people making excuses not to come over for dinner?
RW: “Well, I heard this: ‘Do you have anything new?’ I was like, ‘No. I only know seven songs.’

HW: Does Ryan [Phillippe] know all of them now, too?
RW: “Oh yeah, he knows all of them. And I still only know seven songs.”

HW: Are you prepared for this Oscar buzz that’s building for your performance, and what the next few months will be like if it does?
RW: “You know what? I’m really proud of the movie and I really want people to see the movie, and that’s mainly why you make movies: so that people love them and take them to heart. I’ve made a lot of movies that people loved that didn’t win any Oscars, and I’m just as proud of those movies. But it’s lovely to be acknowledged, and more than anything I really want Joaquin and Jim to be acknowledged because I think that their dedication really shows in this film, and shines. And really I have to do a fraction of Joaquin had to do. He had to take on 26 songs and sing them himself. Step into a legend’s shoes and not feel intimidated. Go out there with your head held high, like, ‘I’m just going to do this. I don’t care if people are going to laugh.’ That’s really remarkable for a man to do that.’”

HW: How has the Cash family responded to your performance?
RW: “They’ve been so lovely, so welcoming. John Carter Cash has just been overly kind about things and generous, and I can imagine that that would be very scary, putting your parents’ legacy into someone’s hands. I think that’s why it’s beautiful, and I think that they were really interesting people and they raised their children in an interesting way because they are very soulful and spiritual and they believe that people are very flawed, and that’s just okay. We’re all just people trying to make a life for ourselves. That’s what matters.”

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