Joaquin Phoenix Interview

An Oscar-worthy performance from the actor of 'The Man in Black'

Johnny Cash's life is arguably one of the most amazing stories in the history of the music industry. That journey is chronicled in the new film Walk the Line, starring Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon.

From his early childhood to traveling the road with Elvis Presley to meeting June Carter - it's all brilliantly shown on screen!

Not only is he acting, but Joaquin sang every note for the role. Joaquin sat down to talk about his performance in the film. This is what he had to say:

Do you think that this is a career peak, the biggest thing that's happened to you movie wise?

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.

I was surprised to hear that you hadn't really sung before this film; where did that come from?

Joaquin Phoenix: It's weird because Reese was saying that she didn't know that she was going to sing. For me, it was one of those things that we talked and talk 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 'Lets 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.'

At what point did you know that you could do it?

Joaquin Phoenix: I sat down with T-Bone the first night and we went through a few songs and he said 'You can do this,' and that was it. I don't know; 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 sort of clear.

Was there ever discussion about dubbing Johnny's voice over yours during the music?

Joaquin Phoenix: I don't know; 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, so I know that was one thing.

Can you talk about meeting Johnny Cash?

Joaquin Phoenix: I mean, 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 and in the studio with June. June was recording a record with Rick Ruben and Rick is friends with James Grey who is a writer and director of a movie 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 to some big affair and there'll be twenty 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.

What did you have?

Joaquin Phoenix: I don't remember, but I know that they had biscuits there that were flown in from Tennessee. It was a friend of theirs that had come in from Tennessee and had brought a basket of biscuits.

What did he like about 'Gladiator?'

Joaquin Phoenix: He talked a bit about it; 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. The thing is, 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*tting with someone - he'll pick up a guitar and play a song; that's his kind of small talk.

When you got the role did you feel like it was divine coincidence?

Joaquin Phoenix: It is pretty weird; yeah, I don't know what to think about it.

What did you see as the essence of Johnny Cash as a young man as he's going through the highs and lows?

Joaquin Phoenix: I don't know; 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 sort of 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 – but in some sense, a man takes the fame and sang about teddy bears; John didn't make that movie. 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.

Do you find that you have that in common with him?

Joaquin Phoenix: No, I don't know.

Do you identify with every character that you play?

Joaquin Phoenix: I don't know that you have to; It's a strange thing because when you're in a character it's so hard to come back and think about the separation because there is something that happens when you work enough on a character and you spend some time in it – it was like a year of just listening to John and reading about John and really focusing on that, so I don't know where it started. I say that I identified, but I experienced that, and I don't know if I identify because of that experience or whether I identified prior to it if I wasn't involved on the film and I didn't work on the character, had I not read about John and all of that. So I don't know if I identified with him. But I think that he's someone that I think so many people can identify with.

Did making this affect your life?

Joaquin Phoenix: I mean, 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.

Is it hard to let the character go when you're done?

Joaquin Phoenix: There's always that; on either side of that it's difficult. Getting into the character is difficult and letting go of your life and the things that kind of define you, whatever it is in life that's your daily routine because you sort of find yourself in this other life and that's difficult and the other end is difficult. Sometimes it's just difficult because you're just accustomed to waking up at eight in the morning and going and doing these lines all day and suddenly it's over and you're back to your life and there's no rigid schedule.

Do you like a rigid schedule?

Joaquin Phoenix: I think that you just get into a groove; I think that you grow accustomed to it, it's not so simple. I always think about going to school, and how you dreaded going to school in the beginning, but then after a few weeks it's just what you do. Then towards the end you look forward to summer vacation and you can't wait, and then summer vacation comes and you're like 'Yes!' Then after three days you go 'What the f*ck do I do?' So I was accustomed to getting up and going there at eight, and sitting in this classroom and learn about this or that and then I'm just on my own, so I think it's always like that.

Did he see the film before he died?

Joaquin Phoenix: No.

Did his family talk to you about the film, have they seen it?

Joaquin Phoenix: 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.

Did you get up and sing?

Joaquin Phoenix: I didn't, but I did weasel my way up onstage and sat in the dark and strummed along.

What about the Oscar race and everyone is talking about this film for you and Reese? Do you feel like you're in the mix here?

Joaquin Phoenix: I don't know about the mix; I don't pay any attention to it really. Again, it's so many things that I become aware of when I do press. Other than that I don't know, so I don't really know what to say about that.

Can you talk about working with Reese?

Joaquin Phoenix: I should probably say something really cool; 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 or calling. 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.

The work takes over?

Joaquin Phoenix: 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.

Was the prison sequence shot in a prison?

Joaquin Phoenix: No.

Wow, so those were all extras?

Joaquin Phoenix: (laughing)Yeah.

Do you have any Johnny Cash memorabilia, a guitar or something?

Joaquin Phoenix: I don't have one of his guitars; I have a shirt.

What kind of shirt?

Joaquin Phoenix: A big one; It's like a dress on me.

Walk the Line is a can't miss, must see film! It opens in theaters November 18th; it's rated PG-13.