Stumbling into Greatness

Posted: Nov 16, 2005 12:05 AM

As most people know by now, the biopic of Johnny Cash, Walk the Line, is set to hit theaters on November 18 and is then set to reap a range of Oscar nominations. And as most people also know, it is a film about a rebel and legend, about a Man in Black who nearly kills himself before turning to the light. But while a movie about a musician battling addictions and the demons of his past is not unusual, a movie about a musician sharing a faithful, lasting love for 35 years is.

Before their deaths in 2003, Johnny and June Cash helped frame the script that was to become the film about their lives. But talking to the actors and director leaves the distinct impression that the Cashes shaped Walk the Line not so much by what they said or recalled, but by who they were - anomalies of authenticity in an industry of frauds.

Meeting The Cast

As he enters our interview room at the W Hotel in Los Angeles, Joaquin Phoenix appears to bear heavily the responsibility of portraying one of our nation’s greatest musical legends. He looks like a road-weary refugee of Folsom Prison himself, albeit in an oversized hooded sweatshirt and ripped jeans instead of stripes. He also looks about as out-of-place in this fashionable setting as Johnny Cash might have, and its obvious why Cash personally chose Phoenix to be his cinematic doppelganger. 

Phoenix paces the room and even leaves several times before we can begin the interview. It's clear he's tired of talking to the press - of making publicity rounds and re-answering the same questions that are part and parcel of film promotion. Yet when asked about Cash, Phoenix is more than forthcoming, and I don't have to prod him with a single follow-up to keep him talking. His recollections of Johnny and June flow as one uninterrupted monologue. It is one thing to watch tapes of the Man in Black, Phoenix reveals. It is quite another to have a meal with him:

"John was a fan of Gladiator and asked a mutual friend if I wanted to go to dinner. Usually, when you get invited to something like that, you show up and it's like a table of twenty people and there's a lot of forks and you don't know which one to use.

"But when I showed up [at the Cash's] there were only like six people there, and they were all family. [Then] after dinner we all kind of naturally migrated into the living room, and John picked up his guitar. I think that was his kind of small talk. Instead of sitting around talking about the weather or sports or something he just started playing and that seemed to be how he was most comfortable.

"So he started strumming, but he didn't sing anything. Then after a few minutes, he leaned over and whispered, I'm waiting for June to get my nerve up. And I thought, 'He's waiting for June to get his nerve up?!' That's so odd. I can't believe Johnny Cash gets nervous! And then June came in, and he asked her if she would sing a song with him. So they started singing 'On the Banks of the River Jordan.' There was such ease and honesty between them, and you really got this sense that this is what they were like at home. It was an amazing experience - something I will never forget. It had such a profound impact on the way I saw John and June and their relationship, and that definitely affected the film. I referred to that moment many times throughout shooting."

But Phoenix goes on to recall that it was the juxtaposition of what happened next that most clearly defined Cash for him:

"After experiencing that profound sense of love, moments later Johnny went on to quote to me the most sadistic lines from my movie [Gladiator]. I mean, he relished them! And that kind of encapsulated Johnny Cash to me - those two separate forces that lived inside of him. The light and the darkness.”

Reminiscent of the Johnny and June portrayed on screen, as she enters the room, Reese Witherspoon looks like the light and frothy yin to Phoenix’s dark and grungy yang. She is perfectly pressed and accessorized in a very Carter-esque sashed dress and cardigan, her hair and makeup expertly set. Like Carter, Witherspoon’s perfect prettiness belies certain insecurities. She’s afraid of letting her people down.

“Growing up in Nashville, in the South, I’ve been terrified of the country music world seeing this film and thinking, ‘Fraud!’ because they will know the difference.”  Yet, as Witherspoon goes on about the country background she and Carter share, her enthusiasm increases, as does my sense that she knows no one else could have played this role: 

"[The South] really is a different culture; it’s a different way of being raised, of appreciating family and spirituality and your community, and that’s something you can’t ask most actors to do…And I think that accessibility is what we were constantly striving for, to be like these country musicians.  I mean, country musicians still go to a place called Fan Fair and they sit down and whoever the heck wants to go up and shake their hand and sit next to them is allowed to!  Now, in what world would there be a movie star convention where actors did that?”

In his interview, Witherspoon’s director James Mangold shares her enthusiasm for the music scene that produced Johnny and June. And he has strong reprimands for urbanites that reduce country musicians to ignorant hicks:

"This is some of the greatest music of the century—one of the greatest cultural contributions this country’s made to the world and somehow, in places where they don’t understand it, like here [L.A.] and New York, the name has come to almost imply 'dim' music.  And I really was out to indirectly make it clear that there’s nothing dim about this music. To his death, John [Cash] could just as easily chat with me about Elvis Costello’s last album or which Bruce Springsteen album he liked best as much as he could talk about Jimmy Rogers.”

When asked to offer his insights into Johnny Cash the man versus Johnny Cash the legend, Mangold becomes even more impassioned:

"John was someone who stumbled into greatness and part of what made John so appealing was that he didn’t seem like he was from another planet.  There was something deeply human and humble about him, yet at the same time something so magical…

"Everyone thinks he was born the Man in Black, but in a way, the identity that developed of this ‘man in black’ - as much as it was something highly marketable and a clever turn of phrase and a great wardrobe - it was also a way for him to take control of the dark memories inside him and make them something he was in charge of rather than something that was running him…"

According to Mangold, Cash listened to a recording of the entire script before he passed away to make sure that it never shrunk from the painful, yet defining, moments of his youth. And perhaps the most painful and most defining was the death of his older brother, “the good one,” who studied scripture and lived its tenets.  The one destined to become a preacher whose life was tragically cut short before the good boy could become a good man. As Mangold learned from Cash that the brother who walked so closely with the Lord should be taken so early preyed on Cash’s soul most of his life. For many years, he wondered whether God had not mistakenly taken the wrong brother.

Of course, that’s not the way Mangold or the Cash fans that span generations see it.  As Mangold points out, the best testifier to the light is often the one who knows what it's like to reside in darkness:

"John knew what sin was, and he knew what mistakes felt like, and he knew what it was to forgive. And while you wouldn’t necessarily recommend his path, in a way, through his songs, John was a preacher. In the end, he not only fulfilled his own destiny, but also the destiny of his brother.”