November 2005 By Philip Berk
Joaquin Phoenix is the man.
His performance as Johnny Cash in Walk the Line earned him that title and a Golden Globe.
The second of five talented youngsters, Joaquin once lived in the shadow of his brother River Phoenix, and it was his voice that summoned the LAPD to a Los Angeles nightclub the night River died.
But then he appeared in To Die For, and critics were blown away by the intensity of his performance.
After that he landed the lead in Inventing the Abbots where he met Liv Tyler.
For them it was love at first sight, and Liv called him “the one and only love of her life.”
But as so often happens in Hollywood, it ended.
I remember once asking him what it felt like having the world’s most desirable teenager fall in love with him?
“I’m always surprised when any female thinks I’m attractive. I’m just kidding. No, it was just totally natural. There wasn’t any thought to it whatsoever. I mean, this is how it happens; this is the great mysterious gorgeous thing that happens. You see someone, and you have great feelings for her, and it’s mutual and that’s that. I didn’t sit there and think about it. But the strange thing is I never think of her as Liv Tyler. And she doesn’t either. When I think of her I think of her as just this girl that I met. I never think of her as other people think of her from magazine covers. Am I making any sense?”
Since then he’s been decidedly unattached
At his press conference where he greets me with his customary bearhug I ask him why he is never seen in public?
“I don’t go out of my way to get photographed,” he answers, “but I don’t really do anything differently. Sometimes you end up in the papers, and sometimes you don’t. I don’t know why you haven’t seen me. Sorry to disappoint you.”
His last public appearance was at the Academy Awards five years ago when he was nominated for a Best Supporting Oscar for Gladiator.
His date that night was his mother.
Since then he’s done a number of run-of-the-mill films. Even Walk the Line would be just another Joaquin Phoenix project except his costar, playing Johnny’s Cash’s wfe June Carter, is Reese Witherspoon, who commands a $15 million salary.
How was he able to get her?
“I guess we were lucky, and she’s f—ing awesome.”
What made him want to do the film?
“I knew he (Johnny Cash) had approved the script.”
And his casting?
“I believe he did, but I’m not sure. I think he knew I was going to play him. I had met him a few months before, unrelated to the film. As it turns out he was a big fan of Gladiator.”
Then jokingly he adds, “He must have known because he was quoted as saying, ‘I wish he was a little taller.”
The parallels between their lives are striking.
Like Joaquin, Johnny Cash was traumatized by the accidental death of a brother.
Did that inform his performance? I ask him
“It’s funny,” he responds, “people assume that I would use my personal experiences, but that’s never been of help to me. I’ve never found it beneficial to rely on personal experiences. If anything, it would make it more difficult for me as an actor, make me more self conscious in a way. And quite honestly the first time I thought about the relationship between my personal life and John’s was when I wondering what questions I would be asked at this junket. When I read a script I never ask myself how does this apply to me? I spend my time forgetting about myself. I did four months of prep for this film. I went to Memphis, I got a new place, I didn’t consult anybody that I knew. Everything is about the character, and any time my personal life comes into it, frankly it f—s me up. I can’t hold both my personal life and the character in the same body at the same time. Maybe some actors do that, but I never have.”
He had met Johnny Cash when he was invited to dinner at his home. Did that leave an indelible memory?
“It was before I even heard about this movie or knew about it. But it was an amazing experience. The thing that stood out most for me when I started making the movie was the love connection between John and June (Carter.) It was quite palpable. I remember after dinner we were sitting down and John started strumming chords — it was primarily family except for James Gray (the director of The Yards) and me — and Johnny looks over to June to get up his nerve to play for us, and I thought, ‘Wow this is the guy who played in prisons, and he’s nervous.’ So he asked her, ‘Will you sing a song?, and she’s ‘Okay Johnny,’ and they start singing. They sang On the Banks of the River Jordan, and they’re looking in each other’s eyes while they’re singing — I was always cynical about lovers singing, having seen it on TV. It always seemed so corny, but there in that living room I really got the sense of what they were like at home, and it was amazing to witness that change in John once they began, his hands were shaking as he picked up the guitar, but once he held it, his body he changed. He seemed to relax, and the moment June came into the room he seemed rejuvenated. It was amazing and beautiful to see them together singing. And in looking at footage, there was a noticeable difference when he performed solo as opposed to when he performed with June. He was like a little kid when he performed with June. He’d go around her back, looking at her, he‘d be playful. But then when she wasn’t with him he’d be somber and serious. To witness that first hand was definitely something I’ll never forget.”
The on screen chemistry between the two of them (and between Reese and him) is quite palpable. Can he talk about that?
“I believe they were destined to be together. She certainly changed his life and he hers. He really made her feel special and unique and powerful as well. Prior to meeting John, she was the funny goofy sidekick of the Carter family. He had a level of respect and appreciation for her that others didn’t, and she certainly gave him a sense of strength and love. She was a strong woman, and I think John was accustomed to dominating people but he couldn’t dominate her. He couldn’t overpower her. She taught him to open his heart to love. It was a remarkable relationship, kind of like a fairy tale.”
Was it helpful to talk to the people who knew him?
“To be honest I primarily depended on John’s words. He wrote two autobiographies, and we also had unedited transcripts of his autobiography which was very useful, but it’s tough with somebody like this. Everybody has a different idea who John was, different stories. You could talk to three people who were in the same room with him at the same time. and all would have a different story. And then if you reach out to too many people it becomes confusing, so I relied mostly on the books he had written, but I did speak to the family and his producer.”
Was it his decision to use his voice and not the classic recordings?
Almost apologetically he replies, “You feel real vulnerable going out there and singing those songs, but I had a great deal of support especially knowing T-Bone was producing. There was a certain period of time where I just thought this is not going to happen. There’s no way for me to pull this off. And I had no ego about it. I said, whatever is going to work best for the film, if we’re dubbing me, whatever happens, let’s do this right. But then when it was decided that we would be doing the singing, I met with T-Bone and he went through a few songs — you just kind of open your mouth and you just try — it wasn’t great but he told me I’m confident you can do this. we’re going to work at this, and you can do it. I said, okay, I started to sing with him everyday, learned the lyrics. I remember the first time I went in to sing with Reese she was like amazing. It was very difficult for me to do a duet. I’d be concentrating so hard on my voice, I was going off in a million different directions. I’d be inconsistent. I would try to sing along with her. She’d be singing high and I’d try that and it wouldn’t work. It got to the point where I was so nervous I felt we couldn’t do it together. I couldn’t focus on my own voice when I heard hers. But then we got a voice teacher and I started working those muscles — we worked on scales; eventually I was able to record the songs in a lower key, and after a month it was amazing. But it was Reese who really made that happen. I kept questioning myself, Am I going to get there? I remember getting a call from her at 2 o’clock telling me she has arranged a voice coach to be there at 2.30. She told me what time I should be there, when I should leave, what I should wear. She really made it happen. Even though I felt she was miles ahead of me when we started, because we relied on each other. we were ultimately able to develop a dynamic between us — it was five hours a day — and in fact just recently I saw her and I was like. ‘Man, I can’t believe it was six weeks,’ and she was like, ‘Six weeks, what are you talking about? It was four months. We were there for four months You did five hours a day, two and a half hours of this.’ She knew exactly what happened. Ask her about the whole process, she’ll tell you exactly days, times, what I wore. She’s really amazing and what’s extraordinary to me is she remembers everything. I can’t even remember how many songs I had to do.
Pausing a moment he adds, “I was so amazed by her work ethic. She worked as hard as I did. She could easily have said, ‘I only work 40 out of 60 days. I only have five songs,’ but she didn’t .”
So how could he resist falling love with her?
“Reese is an extraordinary person. She’s kind of like the perfect woman in that she’s strong and caring and funny; yet she’s serious. Everything you want in a woman — and beautiful — yes she’s wonderful.”
And then remembering the question he continues, “I was talking to somebody recently about a movie I had done some years back, and he said. ‘I’m doing this movie where I have to show this passion for a woman the way you did in that movie,’ and I was was like, ‘I fucking hated that actress,’ and he said, ‘What are you talking about?’ ‘I absolutely couldn’t stand her.’ And now this is not Reese I’m talking about. So for me it’s like you always find what the character loves about the other. I don’t have to feel the same thing that the character feels. I feel it through them and their perspective. Of course I have great affection for Reese. I admire her, but I never had any feelings for her other than professional ones.”
But she must have inspired him to look for his own soul mate. Isn’t he ready to settle down, get married and raise a family?
“I don’t have any f—ing answers if that’s what you’re asking. It’s difficult when you travel as much as I do. My work always comes first. When I made this movie, I came out to L.A. for four months, then I went to Memphis for three and a half months . i just concentrate on my work when I’m working. I am not ideal boyfriend material at all. I don’t know that I’ll ever be.”
And then plaintively he adds, ‘Why do you always ask me the love question?’
November 2005 By Philip Berk