Joaquin Phoenix Talks About "Walk the Line"

Joaquin Phoenix on Portraying Music Legend Johnny Cash

Joaquin Phoenix stars as Johnny Cash in
Joaquin Phoenix stars as Johnny Cash in "Walk the Line". © 20th Century Fox
“Walk the Line” star Joaquin Phoenix doesn’t hide the fact he’s not fond of speaking to the press. A notoriously private actor, Phoenix will actually get up and leave interviews without any notice if someone from the press strays off the topic of whatever film Phoenix is currently promoting. That said, if the buzz surrounding Phoenix's performance in "Walk the Line" continues to build, he may just have to bite the bullet and submit to another round of interviews come award season.

Phoenix’s portrayal of musical legend Johnny Cash is earning the actor some of the best reviews of his career, with critics praising his riveting portrayal of the Man in Black as worthy of an Academy Award nomination.

Phoenix poured his heart into the role, and even sings Cash’s songs (something Jamie Foxx didn’t attempt in last year’s big award winner, “Ray”) in the biopic which was written and directed by James Mangold ("Cop Land," "Girl, Interrupted").

Joaquin Phoenix Describes Meeting Johnny Cash: “I met John [but] it wasn’t related to the film. It was six months prior to even hearing about this film and meeting [writer/director James] Mangold, which was ironic and fortunate.

He was in the studio with Rick Ruben and June. James Gray, a writer/director that I worked with on a movie called ‘The Yards,’ had gone into the studio to shoot some footage of them and I guess my name came up. John was a fan of ‘Gladiator’ and asked if I wanted to go to dinner. James Gray called and said, ‘Do you want to have dinner with Johnny Cash?’ I said, ‘Yeah, okay.’ And it’s strange because I’m uncomfortable with that.

You don’t know somebody and then they just invite you to dinner and you don’t know what it’s going to be like. …Usually when you get invited to something like that, you show up and then it’s like a table of 20 people and there’s a lot of forks. You don’t know which one to use (laughing). But it wasn’t like that at all.

There were about six to eight people and it was all family. And John and June were just wonderful and unpretentious and welcoming. So we had dinner and then we went to the living room. Everyone just kind of naturally migrated into the living room and then John just picked up a guitar. That was his kind of small talk, you realized. Instead of like sitting around after dinner and talking about the weather or sports or something, he would just pick up a guitar and that seemed to be how he was most comfortable.

[He] started strumming and June came in and he asked if she’d sing a song. He’d been strumming for a while and then he leaned over and he’s like, ‘I’m waiting for June to get my nerve up.’ I was like, ‘You are waiting for June to get your nerve up? That’s so odd. I can’t believe Johnny Cash is nervous.’ And then she comes in and he said, ‘Will you sing a song with me?’ She said, ‘Yeah,’ and so they started singing a song.

They sang – I’ll probably f**k up the title – ‘On the Banks of the River Jordan,’ I think it’s called. And it was beautiful. It was an amazing experience. Something I will never, ever, ever forget. It was so powerful and I referred to that meeting. I don’t know how that happened.

How it is that I… It had such a profound impact on the way that I saw John and June and their relationship and that affected the film. Had I not met him, I wouldn’t have had that experience and it’s pretty extraordinary to me that by whether it’s chance or divinity – I don’t know what it is that I got to meet him and experience that. To see them looking into each other’s eyes while they sang the song was magical. It was just absolutely magical. I referred to that moment many times throughout shooting.

It’s hard not to be cynical about love, particularly when it comes to celebrities or iconic figures, you know? You see it all the time. Most marriages and love affairs don’t last and so it was nice to witness that first-hand and know that it wasn’t something that was just fictionalized and created by Mangold to kind of paint this perfect love story.

That it really was that perfect which I still, even having witnessed it, find it hard to believe. And I don’t know if that says something about my cynicism or what, but that was an amazing experience.

Then having experienced that and what was really, truly a profound sense of love, then moments later him quoting to me my most sadistic dialogue from ‘Gladiator’ saying it was his favorite part of the movie, kind of encapsulated Johnny Cash to me, in those kind of two separate forces that lived equally inside of him. And it really is night and day. You wouldn’t believe it unless you saw it. And he, you know, he seemed to relish that dialogue as much as he relished looking into June’s eyes and singing a song. That was extraordinary to me. I’ve never seen anything quite like it.”

Page 2: Joaquin Phoenix on Music and Being Cast as Johnny Cash

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Joaquin Phoenix on What He Believes Ultimately Saved Johnny Cash’s Life: “I don’t know if it’s one thing. I don’t think in ‘68 everything turned around for him and everything was better and his life changed forever. It was an ongoing process. All these different forces came together, and June was obviously a big part of that in helping him to achieve sobriety and to maintain it. I think through that he kind of, in some ways, fell back in love with music and with the stories that he wanted to tell.

I think he was able to reconnect to an audience. Because I think, you know, at some point it must have been very hard to maintain that connection. I think that it was so vital to John’s experience as an artist was maintaining a connection with his audience. The power of John’s music is the real sense of intimacy. You always feel like you’re right there in the room with him. Even at the height of his fame, he would still play shows in the back of a f**king pick-up truck and s**t. You know what I mean? It’s amazing and we don’t see that anymore.

I think his shows weren’t about dazzling you with lights and costume changes. It’s just a man on a stage, very unpretentious. But I think because of the touring schedule and because of his drug abuse, I think that inevitably he disconnected from what initially inspired him. So I think that, you know, through June and I think through his faith, he found that connection again.”

Joaquin Phoenix on Pursuing Music Now That He’s Finished With “Walk the Line:” “I like music. I’ve always liked music. I didn’t understand it at all and I’ve a great understanding, a great appreciation now for it. But, you know, I didn’t pick up the guitar. It was like a month ago was the first time I picked up a guitar since I finished the film.

I always just like drop something when I’m done with it.

No, I won’t be recording anything. I’ll do stuff for myself now that I have a great understanding. If I ever direct something one day, I have a greater understanding of music to work with a composer. Even though it’s very helpful to me, I won’t continue writing songs or anything.”

Joaquin Phoenix on Being Cast as Johnny Cash in “Walk the Line:” Phoenix doesn’t have a background in music and he’s not even the same size as Johnny Cash, so how did he wind up playing the musician in “Walk the Line?” Phoenix said, “I assume it’s Mangold. I don’t really know how that comes about. Thank you for pointing out the size difference (laughing). Yeah, I’m not sure. There are probably many people that were considered. Of course, I read a script and I have a list of 10 people that should do this instead of me, that are much more qualified. But I don’t know. You want to think it’s because Jim [Mangold] does research and knows how I work and knows that I would be really committed to this. But I don’t know.

Everyone in film, you just theorize and you kind of hope for the best. Everyone has these ideas but sometimes you just get f**king lucky. They kind of go like, ‘Ahhh, they have this quality.

I think they look good with this person.’ Or, ‘I imagine they’d have good chemistry.’ You kind of just don’t know. I don’t know what that first idea was, why he thought it might work.”

Joaquin Phoenix on the Oscar Buzz and His Sense of Accomplishment After Playing Johnny Cash in “Walk the Line:” “Well really, for me, like my sense of accomplishment comes when I finish something and I know that I’m completely spent, and I know that I’ve done everything that I can. I think that what’s mattered most is what I’ve heard from the family and the people that were close to John. To have Kris Kristofferson come up and say, ‘Thank you so much for doing this. You did John proud.’ That’s all that I could ask for.”

Joaquin Phoenix’s Research on Johnny Cash: Phoenix turned to whatever resources he could get his hands on to portray Cash on the screen.

But there were times his research led him to discovering interesting facts about Johnny Cash’s life that couldn’t be included in the film. Phoenix said, “Oh man, there were so many things. I mean, the toughest thing about researching someone like John is that every time you turn the page in his book you go, ‘Oh, this is amazing. Now how do we not tell this story?’ It’s really hard but at some point you really have to focus on the story that the director is trying to tell, and look for the research material that includes that.”

On Pushing Through Objections to Get What He Wants: In a crucial scene in “Walk the Line,” Johnny Cash has to convince record producer Sam Phillips that he needs to record an album immediately. Phoenix said he could relate to that scene. “Of course. Certainly as an actor you’ve had that experience all the time. Early on, even now still, there’s rejection. And you have to be really committed to what it is that you want to do. And certainly I’ve had experiences that changed my life.”