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Finding the voice, spirit of Johnny Cash

Joaquin Phoenix immerses himself in singing legend's life

By Shanon Cook


Johnny Cash
Joaquin Phoenix
Reese Witherspoon

(CNN) -- "If you've never thrown a Frisbee before and you suddenly throw one, everything about the entire movement doesn't make sense. It just feels incredibly awkward and it's very humbling."

OK, Joaquin Phoenix admits the analogy isn't perfect.

But then, for the actor, learning to sing like Johnny Cash was anything but a perfect experience.

"It was completely foreign to me," he says. "My voice would simply give out."

Phoenix spent months at rock 'n' roll boot camp to prepare for his role as Cash in the biopic "Walk The Line," an initiation that bears a striking resemblance to Cash's own musical beginnings: He started late, taught himself to play guitar and embarrassed himself more than once at the microphone. (Watch Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon on how they trained) -- 1:43)

The film charts the singer's boyhood on a cotton farm in Arkansas to a stiff audition at Sun Records in Memphis. With success comes a passionate love affair with June Carter (Reese Witherspoon) -- and a drug addiction, which takes years to overcome.

Phoenix sang every note in the film, but that was only one of his challenges.

The actor, whose past roles include a fidgety teen in "Parenthood" and the dark, brooding Commodus in "Gladiator" (the latter earned him an Oscar nomination), battled preconceived conceptions to capture the true spirit of the iconic, complex Cash.

Phoenix spoke with CNN's Shanon Cook about finding his voice.

CNN: In the film Cash [swings from] euphoric highs to depressing lows. How challenging was it to capture all of his dimensions?

JOAQUIN PHOENIX: It was an incredible challenge. Typically on a film you feel like there are three major hurdles with a character, three points you have to understand and get to. And with John it seemed endless. What was really I guess the doorway into understanding these things is I had John's personal reflections [Cash's autobiographies] about his life and his experience, whereas with a fictional character you're creating their history.

There are pros and cons with playing a real person. There are great deals of expectations, and people already have a preconceived idea of who that person is. But at the same time there's a wealth of information to draw from, and I like that process a great deal.

CNN: Obviously there are going to be diehard Cash fans that screw up their noses and say "No one can do Johnny Cash but Johnny Cash himself." How might you respond?

PHOENIX: I agree 100 percent. That's something that [director] James Mangold really freed me of in the beginning. He said, "Listen, you're not Johnny Cash. You're not going to sound exactly like Johnny Cash. Don't worry about that. If people want to hear Johnny Cash they can get his records." ... I thought that was brave of him.

CNN: Did any of your previous roles prepare you for playing Cash?

PHOENIX: I think that I've always been slowly working up to this in a way. When I was in "Signs," I started thinking of the idea of working with kids. I [played] an uncle. And that sort of prepared me to play a father in "Ladder 49." ... I think through those [two films] I was establishing a method of preparation and research that I think I really fine-tuned and utilized for Cash for "Walk The Line."

Mangold and Phoenix
Director James Mangold's direction was freeing, says Phoenix.

CNN: While working on your singing, were you surprised when you first reached that baritone sound Cash was famous for?

PHOENIX: I was surprised just to get through a song! I never sang before, but if I had tried to sing along to something it was to John Lennon and David Bowie, who both sing quite high. ...

So to suddenly go to John was so odd to me. ... It was very strange to have to use a part of my voice that I didn't know existed. ...

Of course I had doubts. But I felt a confidence in the people I was working with and in their judgment. To have someone like T-Bone Burnett guiding you through that process obviously gives you a great deal of confidence. When he said "You can do it," and "This is coming along," that meant a lot to me.

CNN: You're not going to release an album are you?

PHOENIX: (Laughs). No, no. My songs are atrocious.

CNN: You've said that you don't draw on personal experiences to tap into roles. Is that because it's too scary?

PHOENIX: No, it's not too scary. I find it incredibly confusing. It's very difficult for me to be reminded of myself. From the very beginning when I start working on a character it's to create their experience and their history. I get completely enveloped in a character. So when I'm reminded of something of my own, or if the director reminds me of something [personal], I just find it very confusing. I can't contain both things.

CNN: What about the other way around? In "Walk The Line" Cash finds himself in a downward spiral as he struggles with drug addiction. Did your experience with this role have any bearing on your own decision to seek rehabilitation for alcohol abuse? (Phoenix checked himself into rehab for a brief stint in April.)

PHOENIX: Well, not in the sense that I felt that I was worse off than when I started the film. Simply in that I felt like John's life was inspiring. I think a lot of the times when we think of musicians particularly, there's the idea that with drugs they were very artistic and creative. And yet with John it was very apparent to me that his finest work was before he ever was addicted and after, once he got sober. And once his addiction had gotten full hold of him, I think his work really suffered.
"I felt like John's life was inspiring," Phoenix says of Cash (above).

And while I never got to that place where I felt that my personal life or my work was suffering really, I didn't want to get to that place.

CNN: If Cash were alive today and you could ask him one question, what would you like to know?

PHOENIX: That's tough. I don't know that anyone could know John that well. I don't know that he could know himself that well. That was the interesting thing about John. He was impossible to categorize, and I think that he refused to be categorized. I remember reading him saying he reserved the right to change.

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