Interview: Reese Witherspoon Talks About 'Walk the Line'

Reese Witherspoon and Joaquin Phoenix attend the gala premiere of 'Walk The Line.'

Evan Agostini/Getty Images

The love story of country music icons Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash was chronicled in the 2005 movie Walk the Line. While writer/director James Mangold does spend time on Cash's first wife, his family life, and substance abuse problems, it's really the love between Johnny and June that's the focus of the biopic Walk the Line.

Walk the Line stars Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash and Reese Witherspoon as the love of his life, June Carter Cash. Besides taking on the task of portraying two well-known musical stars, both actors had the added pressure of doing their own singing, a task Witherspoon admitted was definitely unnerved about when she spoke to us in 2008 about the Oscar-winning role:

Singing and Working With Joaquin Phoenix

“At first it kind of felt like [I was ] lost and set adrift. First of all, I didn’t know I was singing. I signed up to do the acting bit. That would have been in a completely different contract. [Joaquin] and I went into that with a lot of trepidation, particularly him. He was playing an icon that had such a recognizable voice. And me, I am just a perfectionist and totally afraid of stinking (laughing). So we went into it and I was just determined to get the right coaches and the right people.
The singing part was easier for me than the autoharp part. Playing the instrument was really difficult for me. I had never played an instrument. I don’t know how that even happens to people. Also, recording the album… You think you are a good singer when you are in the car…you can sing along. But then when you go in and you actually sing into a microphone for 4 hours straight…”

Witherspoon said that while she loves to sing along to CDs in her car, her passengers aren’t usually all that thrilled about it. “My kids tell me to turn it off all the time. The other day they sent me a CD of songs [from the movie] to check something out and Deacon put his fingers in his ears and said, ‘I hate this song! Turn it off!’ It was me singing! But all the practice and rehearsal really helps boost your confidence.”

Her Future as a Singer

Witherspoon shows she can sing in Walk the Line, and, in fact, some critics have even suggested if she ever tires of acting, she could have a career in country music. Reese says she owes it all to T Bone Burnett. “You know, if T Bone Burnett produced the album, I'd be great. T Bone's responsible for every song that came out of me.”

Witherspoon joked that she had to sing one particular honky tonk song 467 times before it came out right. She also admits singing in front of an audience, even for a seasoned performer such as herself, is intimidating.

“The person who really inspired me in that way was Joaquin [Phoenix] because he did it before me. The first day we had to have a performance was the day in Texarkana where I run into the guitar. I had to sing that day and so did he. And I just kept going, ‘Not me. I'm not going first. You go first. There's 600 extras out there,'” recalls Witherspoon.

Stage fright struck the accomplished actress as she tackled her first song in Walk the Line. “They literally had to push me to get me up there on the stage and say, ‘You have to do this. It is time. We are all waiting for you.’ I thought I was going to throw up the whole first day. It was awful,” laughed Witherspoon.

Overcoming Stage Fright

“Really, it helped watching Joaquin. For all the ducking and bowing that we did during the rehearsal process, the moment that he had to step on stage and be in the clothes and be Johnny Cash, he just had this incredible confidence. And he didn’t break. He wasn’t nervous or insecure. Maybe he was on the inside, but from what I saw, he really inspired me.”

Turning to Catherine O’Hara’s Autoharp Teacher

“We found an autoharp teacher through Catherine O'Hara who had done it in A Mighty Wind. [O’Hara] basically puts all other actresses who try to play the autoharp to shame, and I told her such. It's embarrassing [that] I have to play autoharp after her because she's very proficient. But we found her coach and he ended up coaching Joaquin on guitar, too. His name is Kit Alderson. He's a great guy.”

Her Responsibility to Get June Carter Cash Right

"I grew up with music history in Nashville so I knew more about the Carter family than I knew about Johnny Cash, really. We were taught to study the history of it and the history of Appalachian Folk Music, and it was just a big part of where I grew up. Bluegrass is a big thing in Tennessee. And their influence just on musicians is incredibly impactful. She invented her own style of playing the guitar, Mama Maybelle [June Carter’s mother] did. But yeah, I was definitely intimidated. I mean, growing up in Nashville, I'm terrified of the country music community seeing the film because I know they're going to say, ‘Fraud.’”

Reese Witherspoon Analyzes Walk the Line

“I think there are a lot of different stories going on. Johnny Cash’s story of struggle and overcoming his impoverished background and different challenges [like] his drug challenges and addiction. I think that is really remarkable.
I think everyone really likes a story where you see a guy go from nothing – or a girl – and accomplish things we don’t feel capable of doing ourselves. But also the love story thing… I really like in this film that it is realistic and portrays sort of a real marriage, a real relationship where there are forbidden thoughts and fallibility. And it is about compassion in the long haul, not just the short easy solutions to problems.”

On Capturing June Carter Cash’s Spirit

“Well, the thing I really like about this film is I think she's a multi-faceted woman. I don't think that she is just sort of the supportive wife. I think she goes through a lot of indecision through the process of ultimately committing to him, and I think that's more realistic for a woman."

Witherspoon feels June Carter Cash was a woman ahead of her time.

“I think the really remarkable thing about her character is that she did all of these things that we sort of see as normal things in the 1950s when it wasn’t really acceptable for a woman to be married and divorced twice and have two different children by two different husbands and travel around in a car full of very famous musicians all by herself. She didn’t try to comply to social convention, so I think that makes her a very modern woman. Really, a woman who set a pace for someone like myself and created opportunities for someone like myself to be a working mother and be an artist. I can’t even imagine what it must have been like to be her.”

On Getting Input From June’s Children

“I was informed upon meeting one of them that my boobs weren’t big enough, so I ran immediately to the costume designer and was like, ‘I don’t think my boobs are big enough!’ He said, ‘I think we’ll be okay.’ But as far as accuracy, I think we are a little off there.
They just talked a lot about her personality and how she could just as easily have dinner with the man who pumped gas at the gas station as she could with the Queen. She was an amazing sort of person to be so open-minded about humanity.”

Her Favorite June Carter Cash Song

“One of the songs that is not in the movie that I like is ‘Long-Legged Guitar Pickin’ Man.’ I think they have a great relationship on that song. It used to be at the end of the movie. I don’t know if it is anymore.”

Reflecting on Her Career

“I just feel lucky to work. I feel like I am in such a rare position that I have gotten to get this far in this business as a woman and that I still am presented with challenging roles with great writers and great directors and great co-stars. These roles come along so infrequently. My husband and I talk about it all the time. Maybe every five years you get to see a role that really you are never going to read anything like it again ever in your life. So you just have to keep looking for that and hoping it comes your way. You’ve got one role and 25 actresses that want it, you know?”

Staying Grounded

“Basically I know my grandmother would be mortified if I did anything less. I grew up with a lot of emphasis on how to carry yourself. I don’t know. You just kind of are who you are in life, don’t you think?”

Edited by Christopher McKittrick