In Profile: Joaquin Phoenix

There's a great joy in singing, especially with Cash's music - telling the story.

Feature by Paul Gallagher | 15 Feb 2006
  • Joaquin Phoenix

After getting noticed with big roles in 'Gladiator', 'Signs' and 'The Village', Joaquin Phoenix has stepped up to leading man (and Golden Globe-winning) status with his stunning turn as Johnny Cash in 'Walk The Line'. He told us about filling the big man's shoes, working with Reese Witherspoon and why awards are meaningless.

Q: Was this a hard role to play?
A: Certainly playing someone like Cash is more difficult than playing the love interest in a romantic comedy. But it's far more interesting and I think that's what's kind of captivating about Cash; he encapsulated the duality of human experience. I think we all have those kinds of dark and light sides and John's really unique in that he was in full recognition of both those aspects of himself and he didn't deny one or the other. You see so many people in his position that kind of try to perpetuate an image that they think would be most appealing to the public. John didn't seem to really care. He was like: for better for worse this is who I am. I think John was concerned with speaking of things that he saw and his observations in life as opposed to what would be most appealing.

Q: Were you worried you wouldn't do him justice?
A: It was terrifying. The music was such a big part of their lives and while I'm a fan of music, the actual performing or the writing of music is not anything that I was familiar with at all. So I listened to a lot of John's early recordings and there's always these changes being made. Lyrics would change, the placement of certain verses would be swapped, [and] it was really interesting to think, if we're writing a song, how can we write this song? It's a classic song that everybody knows and to find a way to make it organic as if he's really kind of discovering for the first time. That was something that was really important to me; to not sit down and do Folsom Prison Blues and have it down as the version that we all know.

Q: How did you feel when you decided to do your own singing?
A: I didn't just make that decision. I probably never would have decided to do that. The idea of saying, "Oh I can do this," and "I can sing this" - I just wouldn't really have that confidence, but T-Bone [Burnett, legendary country music producer] had that confidence in me and that meant a lot. No matter what, singing is very vulnerable. It's quite liberating when you actually do it. There's kind of a great joy in it, especially with Cash's music; telling the story.

Q: Was it easier for you working with Reese?
A: Sure, it definitely helped to know that I was going through it with someone else. We both were starting at the same place and working together. Reese kind of deserves producing credit on this film, and certainly for the music, because she was really instrumental in making that happen from me. When we arrived, there wasn't a whole lot of planning going on when we got into start rehearsals. Nothing was set up, because everything was up in the air, you know what I mean? So three weeks into it I was thinking, I need some fucking regimentation, I need a plan to know what I'm doing and what I'm working on. The next day it was like, "All right two o'clock you're meeting with the voice coach, you're going to go sing and practice for two hours, then at four o'clock you'll be over at the -" and I thought, fuck me! I just said, "Yes ma'am," and I went and did it.

Q: Do you think about Oscars when you make a movie like this?
A: No. I think there's an obsession with the Oscars and stuff for actors. I think it is a big mistake 'cause mostly what I see out of that is people performing, and not just playing their fucking role, and you see in their eyes that they're like, "Am I going to get an Oscar?" I didn't think of that at all. I don't look at kind of the final outcome for a film. I don't look at it as, is this going to be successful or are critics going to like this or am I going to do well? That's not the way that I approach something because if I do that, it's like I'm dead. The only thing that I can control is my work ethic and beyond that there are too many variables that come into play as to how successful a film is or whether critically it's well received. I don't understand that stuff and so I don't think about it.

Q: So are awards something you don't care about?
A: It's not. I don't. The only time I think about it is when I do interviews and you guys ask me about it. It's not why I'm an actor. To me I already got an award and my reward was an opportunity to play Cash and to experience his life and to be him. The day that we started rolling, the day that I learned to play guitar, the day I learned to sing, that was my award and I can't really fathom anything else. It is strange, the idea of selecting one out of five people. I suppose it's somewhat like politics, and how much money is behind it seems like a deciding factor. Because there's obviously amazing performances in films that are never even considered. It's this other aspect of our industry which I just can't think about because it doesn't make a whole lot of sense to me. It's not a concern, it's not what I do and it's not what's important to me.

Walk The Line is released on Friday Feb 3